The central figure of the Easter story is quite obviously Jesus Christ, as his sacrificial and redemptive act at the cross has forever transformed human history.
But as we reflect on Christ’s death and resurrection, there’s yet another person mentioned in the gospels who can also teach us a truly transformational lesson.
That man, known as the “thief on the cross” — an unnamed “rebel” who is briefly mentioned in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — was crucified alongside Jesus. And it’s the astounding proclamations he made just before his death that leave us with a deeply moving narrative.
Without a doubt, we learn the most about this so-called thief in the Gospel of Luke, with the text offering up a brief dialogue between him, a fellow criminal and Jesus, as all three men faced the unimaginable horrors of Roman crucifixion.
Luke tells us that the three men were brought to a place “called the Skull,” with the two criminals nailed to crosses to the right and left of Jesus.
And as the gospel story unfolds, there’s an insanely moving moment recounted in chapter 23, verse 34, where we see Jesus — who was very literally in the process of being murdered as people both jeered and mocked him — appealing to God with some pretty stirring words.
With hate and diabolical horrors being thrown Christ’s way, he proclaimed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” The stunning exhibition of grace and forgiveness has resounded for two thousand years, but it’s what happens in the subsequent verses that also teaches us a very different, but related lesson: the human heart can change.
Just consider what’s observed in verse 39, as the two criminals offer starkly different reactions to Jesus.
"One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at (Jesus): ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’” scripture tells us. But while that man was intent on harassing Jesus, Luke tells us that the other criminal pushed-back against him.
“Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve,” the rebel said. “But this man has done nothing wrong.”
The sympathetic criminal then asked Jesus to remember him when Christ reached heaven, with Jesus responding, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
It’s such a brief and simple conversation, but one that leaves us with much to ponder. The text makes it obvious that the thief on the cross committed a crime and felt he deserved the punishment he had received.
But, despite his past infractions, he demonstrates a willingness to change, expressing his compassion for Christ and his belief that — despite his past sins — he wanted to be with Christ in paradise. It’s abundantly clear that something about Jesus resonated with the criminal, deeply changing his heart.
It’s probably important to note that Matthew 27 and Mark 15 state that both criminals “heaped insults” at Jesus as they hung on the cross. It’s a detail that differs from the narrative in Luke, which presents only one of the men mocking Christ.
There are some intriguing potential explanations surrounding what, at first glance, seems to be an inconsistency between the biblical texts. One of those theories? That both criminals initially mocked Jesus, but after seeing Christ’s character and astounding forgiveness for those harming him (i.e. Jesus’ prayer that God forgive them for “they do not know what they are doing”) one of the rebels was moved, had a change of heart and embraced Jesus.
While we can’t definitively know the intricate details, one fact is for certain: the thief on the cross serves as a powerful reminder that people can change.
And sure, that lesson matters most Christians, as we believe Jesus can profoundly transform even the most lost, evil and depraved human heart, though the thief’s story holds important sway even for those who don’t necessarily embrace or believe in the Bible.
On the broadest level, the story beautifully illustrates the ability of people to experience a real-life heart change, regardless of their past actions, perspectives or evils — and it gives us hope for ourselves and for others in our own lives who might face paramount struggles.
Change, as the thief shows us, is more than possible.
Billy Hallowell is the senior editor of Faithwire and the author of “Fault Line: How a Seismic Shift in Culture Is Threatening Free Speech and Shaping the Next Generation.”