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March 28, 2023

The Story of the Thief on the Cross—and What It Means for Us

How do you start reading the Bible?

If you want a short and powerful story that teaches the gospel of grace, you can’t beat the story of the thief crucified next to Jesus (Luke 23:39–43; Matthew 27:38–44). 

In actuality, two thieves were crucified next to Jesus. One trusted Him and received salvation, and the other did not. In this article, we will walk through the story of the first thief, the repentant one (sometimes called the penitent thief), in four parts.

1) Both thieves mocked Jesus

Crucifixion, by design, drains the life and energy out of a body. Matthew tells us in his account that the two thieves used the little breath they had to mock Jesus (Matthew 27:44). In doing so, they adopted the same behavior as the religious leaders and other onlookers who witnessed His death (see Matthew 27:39–43).

Jesus was not surprised to hear the mockery or to be crucified between two thieves (see Isaiah 53:12). Jesus quoted and fulfilled Psalm 22 when He prayed “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). The same psalm also says: “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’” (Psalm 22:7–8).

2) The repentant thief recognized his sinfulness

While one thief hurled insults at Jesus, saying “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”, the repentant thief chided him: “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:39–41).

What a stunning transformation. The thief no longer mocked Jesus, now he defended Him. What changed? We don’t know when the repentant thief began to fear God, but we find clues when we look at the Scriptures and think what the thief experienced alongside Jesus.

John narrates that Jesus died before the robbers (John 19:32–34). This means that the repentant thief was able to observe everything that happened when Jesus was on the cross, including His cry: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). We do not know what the thief thought when he heard these words, but it’s not difficult to imagine that something like the following went through his head: “If He was ready to forgive the man who drove the spikes into His hands and feet, maybe He was ready to forgive me.”[1]

3) The repentant thief believed in the Lord Jesus Christ

After an internal transformation, the thief said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). The thief believed that Jesus was a king with a real kingdom. Normal kings don’t die on crosses, and certainly have no kingdoms after death. So, the thief believed that this king was more than an earthly king, He was a Savior King able to take him to His heavenly kingdom.

4) The repentant thief was saved by Jesus

Jesus answered the repentant thief with the most hopeful words possible: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). A thief who woke up in the morning on his way to hell had his eternal destiny changed with a simple plea to the Savior. “Jesus, remember me.”

What Does This Story Mean for Us?

This story reminds us, first of all, that salvation is a gift from God. The repentant thief had no time for good deeds. He could not repay those he had stolen from, help the poor, or be baptized. He also did not have a sophisticated faith. He probably would have failed a Bible knowledge test. All he could do was look to the Savior with faith and ask for mercy. And that’s all he needed.

The experience of the repentant thief is a perfect illustration of the biblical truth that salvation is a gift of God’s grace that we receive through faith and not by works (see Ephesians 2:8–9; Titus 3:5).

Second, the story of the repentant thief shows us that no sin is too bad to be forgiven. The repentant thief had already received a death sentence for his wrongdoing. All we know about his sin is that the Scriptures call him a thief and a criminal. This sin, according to the world, deserved death. However, according to Jesus, it was forgivable. The death of Jesus is enough to pay the debt of all our sins (Romans 6:23). What the sinner has to do is acknowledge and confess his or her sinfulness and ask Jesus for forgiveness.

Ultimately, this story means there is hope for you, too. The repentant thief believed in Jesus Christ in his last minutes. This is proof that God will show grace and forgive the sins of all those who believe in Him, even in their dying breaths.

This is a glorious truth! But you might know this truth and think, “I’ll live the way I want now and trust in Jesus when I’m older,” or “I’ll trust Jesus on my deathbed.” Two questions expose the recklessness of thinking this way:

1) How do you know you will have the opportunity later? Your heart could stop beating in a second and you’d go to hell.
2) How do you know you will want to trust Jesus in the future if you don’t want to now?

The truth is, we are like the thief. We have sinned against a holy God and deserve His wrath. One day every human being must appear for judgment (Hebrews 9:27). However, as we saw in the story of the thief, there is hope for everyone who humbles themselves before God in faith and repentance. If you do this, Jesus will say to you with joy: “Truly I say to you: you will be with me in paradise.”

[1] Colin Smith suggested these words in the book Heaven, How I Got Here: The Story of the Thief on the Cross.

This article was published originally in Spanish at Coalición por el Evangelio.


Go deeper into the thief’s story in the book Heaven, How I Got Here: The Story of the Thief on the Cross by Pastor Colin Smith.

Read a related article: The Seven Last Words of Jesus from the Cross Explained.


Kevin Halloran

Product Manager

Kevin serves as Product Manager for Open the Bible and leads the Spanish-language outreach of the ministry. Kevin loves spending time with his wife, Jazlynn, and two young daughters. In his free time, you can find him reading, writing (in English at Anchored in Christ and Spanish at Anclado en Cristo), and serving at his church. Kevin is the author of When Prayer is a Struggle: A Practical Guide for Overcoming Obstacles in Prayer (P&R) and the free video course Pray the Bible. Connect with Kevin by subscribing to his newsletter that shares new articles and free resources to build your faith.
Kevin serves as Product Manager for Open the Bible and leads the Spanish-language outreach of the ministry. Kevin loves spending time with his wife, Jazlynn, and two young daughters. In his free time, you can find him reading, writing (in English at Anchored in Christ and Spanish at Anclado en Cristo), and serving at his church. Kevin is the author of When Prayer is a Struggle: A Practical Guide for Overcoming Obstacles in Prayer (P&R) and the free video course Pray the Bible. Connect with Kevin by subscribing to his newsletter that shares new articles and free resources to build your faith.