Maybe he doesn’t think about it at the beginning of his final earthly destination that he shared with the Son of God. He can’t anticipate what will baffle and amaze Jesus’ closest followers in a few days – that even such a brutal death can’t keep Him in the grave. So there must be something along the way that turns this thief, that changes his mind about the Savior.
I wonder if it was Jesus’ plea on behalf of his executioners. Despite the brutal beating, whipping and beard pulling – in the face of all of the mocking and slandering – Jesus asked God to forgive them. The thief has surely seen an execution before. But he’s never seen anything like this.
Also, why were the religious leaders being so cruel to him? Aren’t they the ones who are supposed to show mercy? It doesn’t make sense that they are getting the crowd stirred up and confused about such a peaceful man – especially because everyone knows better. Still, Jesus endures the beating they are giving him for their sake.
He sees that there’s something different about this Jesus guy.
Finally, our observant thief speaks up in response to the mocking of Jesus from the third man destined to succumb to the cross that day. Jesus doesn’t respond, but he does. He has seen enough and has the humility to figure out that Jesus is far from a weak Messiah wanna-be. Only profound strength derived from superhuman love could motivate a man like this. Somehow along this path to death he realizes the path to life – and he takes it. Somebody will die for his sins, it will be Jesus or it will be him. And so His earthly despair is eclipsed by his heavenly hope, because he choses Jesus:
“But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
I wonder what he is expecting to happen. Is he expecting Jesus to forgive him and just make his afterlife bearable? After all, he’s been a pretty bad dude. He’s like the lost son in the parable who would have been overjoyed by just being a servant in his father’s house. But, that’s not what happens.
Jesus slowly raises His head, fighting off the pain that the smallest movement brings, just enough to see past the crown of thorns that conjure the blood that makes His words real, and says: I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.
What? Jesus doesn’t say that the thief will be in heaven with all the other people who haven’t really measured up. There is no ‘hood in heaven. Not only will this guy find God’s favor and avoid hell, he will be hanging out with Jesus himself for eternity.
Maybe it had something to do with walking alongside Jesus and experiencing the same torture in his final hours that prompted it. Whatever it was about the Via Dolorosa, that man, when it seemed like all was lost, found eternal life.
What I find cool is that he’s the only guy in history who can say, not only in a vicarious way but also literally, for the remaining hours of his life and for eternity, what the Apostle Paul would write years later: I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20, NIV)