Dismas: The Penitent Thief (Luke 23:32-43)
While Jesus hangs on the cross, those who love Him cry, others mock, but no one there remains neutral. The seven utterances Jesus makes from the cross reveal His divine character. What the Son of God says on Calvary is the only time Jesus ever speaks under extreme duress and while in intense physical pain. It is often heard that the last miracle of Jesus is the restoration of the ear of Malchus which Peter cuts off in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mt. 26:51; Mk. 14:47; Lk. 22:51 & Jn. 18:10). However, his final miracle is saving the soul of the man we know as “The Penitent Thief”.
Two prisoners are crucified with Jesus – one on His right and the other on His left. Although unnamed in the Gospels, historical tradition has labeled the one with whom Jesus converses “Dismas”. When three men are crucified together, the Romans place the worst offender in the middle. It is not certain the two others are actually thieves, for Luke calls them “malefactors” (kakopoieo). This Greek word means “a man of the criminal order” (Lk. 23:32-33). Whatever their crimes, they are grave enough to warrant the most severe form of execution. Both men play a role in the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy – that the Messiah will “make His grave with the wicked” (Isa. 53:12).
Both these individuals revile and curse Jesus initially. Both attempt to motivate Jesus to free Himself – and themselves as well. Both see Jesus refuse the drugs offered to Him. Both hear everything Jesus says on the cross. Both hear Him pray to His Father to forgive those who are murdering Him. Both listen as the Lord asks John to care for His mother. Both are in need of His grace. Both have the same opportunity. Both represent the only two types of individuals in the world: those who respond to Jesus Christ and those who will not.
The crisis Dismas faces on Golgotha is very real. But he realizes he “justly receives what he deserves” (Lk. 23:41). The attitude of Dismas changes abruptly. Initially, he speaks against Jesus, then for Jesus, and then to Jesus. At first, he is cursing Jesus along with his cellmate. He later asks the other prisoner why he has no fear of God. He then declares Jesus innocent of any wrongdoing. Finally, he addresses Christ as “Lord”. Perhaps he is struck with the magnificence of Jesus’ character as He faces the same death. In his brief statement is found the basic tenants of God’s plan of salvation. An individual must admit they have sinned, that they are worthy of death, and then trust in Christ. Allegorically, every person carries a cross up Calvary’s hill. Some will curse God and die while others will find the Son of God is there beside them.
The plea of Dismas to Jesus bespeaks humility. He says, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. How can Dismas know Jesus has a kingdom? It is possible he reads the sign posted over His head, “This is Jesus: the King of the Jews” (Mt. 27:37). He may have heard the jeering chief priests challenge the King of Israel to come down from His cross (vv. 41-42). Although he asks only to be remembered, Jesus knows his real need is to reach heaven. Their brief conversation is timeless and universally relevant.
We should remember this is Jesus’ darkest hour. He is experiencing unimaginable physical pain. His emotional state must have been unbelievably stressful when we consider the taunts of the Pharisees, the betrayal by Judas, the denial of Peter, and the abandonment by nearly everyone He has ministered to. The hundreds He healed and the thousands He fed are conspicuously absent. The torment of His soul is beyond comprehension, for He has taken the sins of the world upon His back. Yet even in this condition, He reaches out to a criminal and promises him “more than he can ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). Jesus responds to those who put faith in Him, even those nailed to a cross.
Jesus might have responded otherwise – or not at all. He could have indicated His sacrifice was much more important than the needs of one person. But the reason for His crucifixion is to save every repentant soul. He might have pointed out that Dismas was cursing Him just minutes before. He does not tell him that he must suffer a bit longer. These is no suggestion ‘it is too late now’ – or that Dismas ‘should have admitted his guilt earlier’. But the Lord says none of these things. Instead, He positively affirms this man’s future. Although the plea of Dismas is vague, the response of Jesus is crystal clear.
Dismas is informed that this very day they will both reach a prearranged destination. Jesus schedules their arrival date: it will be later today. He is also told what awaits when they enter His kingdom – eternal pleasure instead of temporal pain. Dismas is promised the exact opposite of what Roman law is currently inflicting upon him. In effect, the King of Heaven decrees that he will soon be delivered from this hellish torture and enjoy fellowship with Him forever in an environment of perfect contentment. This is only made possible because of what is happening to God’s Son that very moment on the cross. No amount of suffering can atone for the sins of Dismas. Jesus pays for them all. He remains the only One who can open paradise to sinners.
Jesus does not judge Dismas regarding his crimes, circumstances, ethnicity, age, gender, or social status. This criminal knows he is totally unable to help himself and deserves nothing. He does, however, hope Jesus will extend mercy to him. We hear no plea from Dismas for forgiveness, however Jesus knows the heart of every person – and that His mandate is to believe on the Lord in order to be saved (Acts 16:31).
When the soldiers come to break the leg bones of the prisoners to hasten their deaths, they do not touch Jesus. He is already dead (Jn. 19:33). Dismas sees Christ die and then braces himself against the excruciating pain as the soldiers break his legs. He draws his last breath….but opens his eyes to behold the face of Jesus in heaven. The King of Kings arrives a bit earlier to greet His most recent subject.
The Penitent Thief had to go to Calvary to meet the Lord Jesus Christ – and so must you and I.