Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).
Casey sent me an actual handwritten letter. He asked a series of super questions about this exchange:
Did the thief on the cross believe in eternal security when he asked the Lord to remember him? He did believe eternal life was possible or he wouldn’t have asked. He did believe Jesus was innocent and probably believed a lot more about Him. He obviously believed Jesus was capable of saving him. He was humble and admitted his sin. He called on Jesus to save him.
I want to camp on Casey’s suggestion that the thief on the cross “probably believed a lot more about Him.”
Let’s analyze the thief’s request and the Lord’s answer.
The man said, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”
He clearly believed the following:
- Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (cf. John 20:31).
- Jesus will rise from the dead and come again.
- Jesus will rule and reign forever.
- He himself will rise from the dead.
- He will be in Jesus’ kingdom.
- Jesus may give him some rewards in the coming kingdom.
Yes, the man believed in eternal security when he asked for the Lord to remember him when He comes into His kingdom. The thief on the cross had already believed in Jesus for everlasting life. He already knew that he would never hunger, never thirst, never perish, never be cast out, and never die spiritually.
We are not told how he came to believe Jesus’ promise of everlasting life. It is possible that he had previously heard Jesus share the promise of everlasting life. He might have heard people in the crowd who were mocking Him saying, “He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him” (Matt 27:42). Of course, Pilate had put a sign above His head saying, “King of the Jews.” By watching how Jesus handled Himself on the cross, he came to believe that Jesus really was the Messiah and that He guaranteed eternal life to all who believe in Him.
He was not calling on Jesus to save him. He knew that Jesus had already saved him, and his request demonstrated that.
Remember General MacArthur? He promised to return to the Philippines when he was forced out by enemy forces. Let’s say there were a young Filipino man who had just met him and who was helping him escape. Let’s say he said, “General, remember me when you return.” He would have been asking the general to reward him for his service when he returned. True, the young man did not do a lot. He just helped MacArthur for a few hours. But he knows the general will return, and he wonders if there might be some reward for him when he does.
The Lord’s answer is revealing as well. The man asked the Lord to remember him in the future when He comes into His kingdom. However, the Lord did not talk about the future and the kingdom. He talked about that very day: “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” I think the emphasis there is on the words with Me. The man would be close to Jesus in Paradise that very day, Friday before sunset.
At that time, Paradise was not the third heaven. It was the part of Sheol/Hades that was for the saved, where Abraham was (Luke 16:19-31) and where the Lord Jesus and this man would soon be as well.
The fact that he would be close to Jesus immediately implied that he would also be close to Jesus when He comes into His kingdom. That is, the Lord was probably saying that this former thief would be one of Jesus’ co-rulers in the kingdom!
Remember that Jesus had said that whoever confessed Him before men, He would confess before His Father (Matt 10:32). Paul interpreted that to mean that whoever endures in his confession of Christ will rule with Him in the life to come (2 Tim 2:12). The thief on the cross confessed Christ until he died. He was the only one at the cross, other than the centurion, who did so. Even though he only confessed that Jesus is the Christ for a few hours, he did endure.
The lesson of the thief on the cross is not that we are regenerated by faith alone, apart from works. That is true, of course (John 3:16; Eph 2:8-9; Rev 22:17). But the thief on the cross did do a good work–a very good work. He boldly confessed Christ and accepted the ridicule of the other thief and likely many in the crowd as well. The lesson of the thief on the cross is that the Lord Jesus remembers what we have done for Him and will reward us for those things when He returns.