Amidst the circumstances of our Lord’s crucifixion, the account of the two dying robbers* stands conspicuous.  We will give it in the Evangelist’s own words:-


[*They are commonly called “the two thieves but this gives a mistaken idea of their crime.  It was open armed robbery; and the translators have, in some instances, rendered it robber.  “Now Barabbas was a robber So John 10: 1, 8.  (Thus our Lord was actually executed with armed bandits, or what we now call gunmen, or gangsters. - D. M. Panton.)]


“And one of the malefactors which were hanged, railed on him, saying, If thou be the Christ, save thyself and us.  But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not even thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?  And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.  And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest in* thy kingdom.  And Jesus said unto him, Verily, I say unto thee, to-day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23: 39-43)


[* (See the Greek.) Not “into” but “in thy kingdom,” as it is rightly translated in Matthew 16: 28.]


The impenitent robber is first presented to our notice.  He taunts the crucified Jesus with his weakness.  “If thou be the Messiah, save thyself and us  With the rest of his, countrymen, he expects that the Messiah should at once display himself in his royal majesty and power.  He argues, that he, therefore, is no Messiah, who could submit to such treatment.  “How can you be the long-expected King, and tamely submit to your foes?  Have not the prophets foretold Messiah as the Mighty One treading the winepress in his, fury, and stained with the blood of his enemies?  Who then can believe that thou art aught but an impostor, if thou so weakly submit thyself to death


The man of unbelief knows no higher salvation than rescue from the death of the world.  His eye is upon this life only, and could he escape from the grasp of punishment now fixed upon him, he would be content.  Unchanged of heart, he would be off to his den and his ambush, his oaths and dice, his quarrels and debauchery, and midnight carousals again.  Death is before him, and heavy guilt upon him, but neither awes him Pain and anguish are eating into his soul, but he will jest in despite of them, and his jest shall be at the expense of a fellow-sufferer.


He was brought into a situation the most thrilling and subduing that could be devised.  Death was assailing him, on the one hand, and the Messiah, the Lord of Life, was on the other - the one frowning him into terror, the Other inviting him with the meekness of mercy.  In what more startling, challenging position could the soul of man be placed?  He stands like a mariner on a narrow rock, the breakers dashing over him their spray, ready with lion-leap to drag him down to the deeps of ocean; but reined in a moment to spare him on his slippery foot-hold, to see if he will step on board the gallant vessel alongside, that has breasted the storm to save him.  He spurns it away with his foot, and sinks into the billows!


Trust not, sinner, to a death-bed hour!  Pain has no power to change a man, nor death to convert.  As the robber lived, he died.  Jesus is close to him, God’s well-beloved Son.  But he demands of him a proof never to be given, before he will believe in him.  “If thou be the Christ  He avows his unbelief, and perishes.  “He that believeth not, shall be damned


But turn we joyfully to the penitent, or rather the believing robber.  Let us listen to his reproof of his comrade.  “If the multitude around us, who are better men than we are, and in no danger of death, can afford to reproach Jesus the Nazarite, yet ought not you nor I.  A sense of the nearness of judgment and of death should at least restrain your tongue.  Experience of the agonies which you are suffering, should teach you compassion toward one in like case.  Fear you not the wrath of God too much to utter reproach?  When Death knocks at the door, is it a time to jeer at another?  Doth he not say ‘Look to yourself’”  Such is the tenor of his speech.  In it we may observe,


First - The fear of God; “Dost not even thou fear God


Secondly - Confession of guilt.  He was a sinner, and he knew it: he was a great sinner, and he confesses it.  “We are receiving the due reward of what we have done  Here is no excuse for his sins, no attempt to diminish his guilt: he had deserved death, and he acknowledges it.


Thirdly - There is also an assertion of the innocence of Jesus.  “This man hath done nothing amiss  All around were reviling the Lord of glory, but the robber defends his character.  Pilate had condemned him on the charge of sedition, Caiaphas on the charge of blasphemy, but the believing robber affirms his purity.  It was needful.  Only a spotless sacrifice can atone for crimson crimes.  Only a High Priest untainted with sins of his own, can enter the presence of the Majesty on high, to be accepted for us.


But the best part of his words has yet to be noticed.  He had rebuked his fellow, and maintained to him the character of Jesus.  But many can set others right, who go wrong themselves: many know the way of life, who perseveringly walk the broad road of destruction.  But the believing robber turns to Jesus: turns to him in prayer.  “Lord, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom!”  Thus does he acknowledge Jesus to be Messiah, the King of Israel [and “King of kings].  His nation had rejected him in both characters, and were slaying him.  The soldiers had mocked his pretensions to be a king, with lordly purple, and sceptre of reed: the high priests, with wagging heads, were jesting at his sufferings, promising to believe him King of Israel if he would come down from the cross.  Jesus is numbered with the transgressors, bathed in his own blood, within an hour of his death, faint and bloodless, without any to stretch forth a hand to save, in the midst of mockery, his foes triumphantly, jealously waiting for his parting breath, his followers terrified and scattered, his relatives standing afar off.  Who then is this, that talks of a kingdom as belonging to the passive sufferer on the cross?  The believing robber!  Spite of all contrary appearances, he believes that Jesus is Messiah, the son of David, to whom belongs the throne of David; the Son of man whom Daniel foresaw coming with the clouds of heaven, to take the kingdom over all.  Here is faith realizing the resurrection.  He gives up those thoughts of present deliverance from death on which the unbelieving robber rests, he looks for Jesus to come in resurrection-power, and glory, and prays that when that kingdom shall so have come, he may be thought on for good.


But what answer did this appeal draw from the Lord Jesus?


Caiaphas and his witnesses had accused, and Jesus was silent.  Pilate had questioned, and Jesus held his peace.  He had jestingly inquired - What is truth? but no answer was given.  The unbelieving robber scoffs, and Jesus is mute.  But faith speaks, and Jesus cannot forbear.  Faith prays, and the reply comes instantly.  Do you pray, reader.  Have you ever prayed?  You may have said your prayers, but have you ever prayed to the sufferer on the cross of Calvary?


“And Jesus said unto him, To-day shalt thou he with me in paradise.”*


[* The ‘Paradise’ here, cannot possibly be in Heaven, for Jesus did not ascend to His Father in Heaven until after His resurrection, (John 20: 17): and neither can we! ]


“You have asked me for a distant blessing, you have requested mercy when my kingdom comes, and I shall shine forth in the clouds with my saints.  An unknown time must elapse before that.  But I promise you a place with my saints and with myself this very day.  To-day your soul will have left the body: the executioner’s hammer will hasten your death before the usual term of the decease of the crucified  Thus is the robber’s petition more than answered: paradise [in Hades] his portion at death, and eternal life when resurrection unites the soul and body.


Behold in this picture the mercy of God: willingness to save to the uttermost.  That none might doubt the power of Jesus to pardon sin, this dying robber was forgiven.  He was one trebly condemned: condemned first by the law of Rome, as seditious and a murderer; condemned next by the law given to Noah – “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed;” condemned, thirdly, by the law of Moses, and now under its very curse, for “Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree  Here is one too bad for human society.  Though earth be full of evil, here is one too bad for earth.  Sinner, let the dying robber speak to you a burning, thrilling word on God’s readiness to forgive the worst that comes to him through Christ Jesus!  The gore-dyed bandit is saved at the last hour.  In the morning a murderer, by noon a reviler of the Saviour,* before eve an accepted saint, at midnight in paradise.


[* Matthew 27: 44; Mark 15: 32.]


The Saviour’s forgiveness is instant his promises are immediate – “To-day shalt thou be with me in paradise  He does not, with the Romanist, bid him faintly hope, that by the fire of purgatory, his sins might perhaps, after some hundreds or thousands of years, be purged away.  No “perhapsno “if,” no conditions dim the glory of the pardon.  He believes, he is forgiven!  No more is needed for forgiveness.  JESUS ATONES.  God’s justice is satisfied in him.  To him that believes mercy is free, frank, instantaneous.  “And when he saw their faith, he said unto the sick of the palsy, Man, thy sins are forgiven thee!”


This mercy is not such as man would have proclaimed.  Had the moralist been in Jesus’ place, his reply would have been far different.  Would he not have said, “Forgive you, vile ruffian, with the purple stain of murder upon your breast?  You, grim outlaw, that have mocked at justice, till it has overtaken you with its richly merited arrest of death?  Mercy were outraged by such a grant!”  Or if we suppose one of milder mood, a preacher who thinks that man is to be accepted before God by his deeds, could he, on his principles, have given such an one any hope?  Here was no time for reformation, no opening for recovering the bandit to virtuous habits, and the slowly won respect and confidence of his fellows, by an amended life.  Here was no opportunity for reparation; no good works, as a set-off in his favour, were here.  Slow justice has at length fixed on him her stern death-grip.  Blood for blood!  Who shall wrench him from her iron hand? from the grasp of a death-warrant signed and sealed both by God and man?


Many a one that bears the name of Christian, had he been consulted, would have besought the Lord to leave him to his fate – “Nay, Lord, save not such a ruffian!  Keep thy mercy the respectable of society, for the kind and gentle, the generous, the warm-hearted.  This sinner, Lord, is too great!  Forgive him not, lest thy mercy be presumed upon, and transgressors are emboldened thereby to sin  But Jesus halts not.  The mercy of God is not man’s narrowed thought.  It is high above ours, as the heaven above the earth.


With such an example before you, sinner, say not – “My sins are too great.  I am all unworthiness  True, you are so, but you could not be saved, if you were not unworthy.  Christ “came not to call the righteous  Is not worthiness out of the question, when a gibbeted felon at his last hour is saved?


Yes, mighty were thy sins, thou man of blood and rapine!  But was not thy Saviour mightier?  Foul the stains of thy inky breast, but the Lamb of God - didst thou not find him able to purge them away?  Innocent blood cried out against thee for death; what could silence the accusing voice? what but the blood that speaketh better things than Abel’s?


But do you ask, How was he saved?  This scene informs us well, both how he was not saved, and how he was.


1. It is evident that he was not saved by works.  Up to his last hour he was stained with guilt.  Till his hands were nailed, his feet knit to the cursed cross-beams, he had used his members only for evil.  If God judges men, as many fancy, according to their works, putting the good deeds in one scale, the evil in another, the bandit before us could not be saved.  He received eternal life then, not from his merits.  His deserts were far different.  “The wages of sin is death, but the [free]* gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord


[* Rom. 6: 23, R.V.]


2. Again, some will tell you, that salvation lies in the mysterious virtue of the sacraments.  At baptism, they say, the new life is imparted; and the Lord’s Supper, duly received, fans the sacred flame.  Before baptism, no one is regenerate and born anew; after it, when administered in due form and order, all are.  How, then, was the unbaptized robber rescued from eternal death? How did he take his place among the saints, who had never tasted the sacrament of Christ’s body?


3. Others, again, think, that by repentance we are saved: meaning, thereby, great anguish and sorrow for sin.  They suppose that it makes up a part of the reason why God forgives, and that, till it is paid, the sinner is not fit to come.  Where do you find it here?  None can be saved without repentance, in the Scripture sense, of a changed heart and mind,* but here, and in the Philippian jailor, behold one saved by faith, without any recorded anguish for sin; and, therefore, I prefer calling him the believing robber, to the title usually given him – “the penitent thief


But while we have seen how he was not saved, we can behold, in this mirror of God, how he was saved:‑. He was saved by faith, manifesting itself in prayer – “For, whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved  And he called upon the name of the Lord, and found the Holy One true.


2. He is saved by faith in Jesus as the Messiah – “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God1 John 5: 1.  He was saved by faith in the resurrection of Jesus, and confession of him - the terms mentioned by Paul – “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shall be saved:” (Rom. 10: 9).


Mark, I beseech you, that Jesus is the turning point of salvation: to receive him (in whatever weakness) is life, to reject him is eternal death.  The Saviour was presented to both alike, but one only was saved.  One only looked to the brazen serpent, and was healed.  Before both the ark of mercy stood open, but, though the floods of death were out, and the curse begun, but one entered in.  But one waked the joy of angels.


How, then, do you stand?  Do you most resemble the believing robber or the unbelieving one?  How do you regard Jesus?  This is the core of the matter.  Is he your hope - your mediator with the Father - your door of entrance the Most High?  “I am the door, through me if any man enter in, he shall be saved  Have you ever, like the saved bandit, turned to him in prayer? Having neglected to do it hitherto, ARE YOU WILLING TO GO NOW?  A prayer, as short and simple as the robber’s, will suffice – “Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out


Who is this that thus forgives crimes uncounted; that while himself numbered with the transgressors, and under the heavy pall and darkness of the curse, dispenses pardon? It is the Son of Man, “made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death, that he, by the grace of God, should taste death for every man  It is the Son of God, that opens and none shuts, that has the key of hell and of death, that even on earth hath power to forgive sins.  Did Jesus save while on the cross, when the dark shadow of sin’s eclipse was covering the orb of the Sun of Righteousness?  At the lowest point of his humiliation, does he dispense pardon to the most guilty?  Then how much more, now that fully acquitted of the Father, he is seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high!  Here is a Saviour able to deliver, though justice had pierced with her nails the forfeit body of the culprit-robber, and clenched with indignant hammer his guilty members to her stern weapon of death.  Here is one that saves, not only without merit, but against it, that plucks from the very grasp of the strong and holy law.  Here is one that saves, not after years of sorrow, and amended life, but at the first lispings of the returning prodigal.  Sinner, will you venture?  Will you try his mercy?  Is not this the Saviour that you need?  “The Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost


Good news, sinner!  Will you trust it? The plank is nigh thee, drowning mariner!  Wilt thou cast thyself upon it, ere the flood engulf thee? The avenger is behind thee!  Lo, the gates of the city of refuge!  Is not safety within its walls?  Enter and rejoice!