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The Thief on the Cross


Dr David Brown was a Presbyterian minister born in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1803. At the Disruption in 1843, after several years of preaching in a Church of Scotland parish near Banff, he became a minister of the Free Church of Scotland. The outstanding skill and spirituality with which he expounded Scripture was appreciated by many, including other famous ministers. He is best known for his part in the Jamieson, Fausset and Brown commentary on the Bible, of which the following excerpt is a part. He died in 1897, at the age 94.

[David Brown's commentary on Luke 23:42, 43]

Turning now to the Lord Himself, how wonderful is his address!

42. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom [en th basileia sou] – rather, 'in thy kingdom;' that is, in the glory of it (Matt. xxv. 31; Luke ix. 26). Let us analyze and study this marvellous petition. First, the "Kingdom" he meant could be no earthly one, but one beyond the grave; for it is inconceivable that he should have expected Him to come down from the cross to erect any temporal kingdom. Next, he calls this Christ's own kingdom – "thy Kingdom." Then, he sees in Christ the absolute right to dispose of that Kingdom to whom He pleased. But further, he does not presume to ask a place in that kingdom – though no doubt that is what he means – but with humility quite affecting, just says, "Lord, remember me when," &c. Yet was there mighty faith in that word. If Christ will but "think upon him" (Neh. v. 19), at that august moment when He "cometh in His kingdom," it will do. 'Only assure me that then Thou wilt not forget such a wretch as I, that once hung by Thy side, and I am content.' Now contrast with this bright act of faith the darkness even of the apostles' minds, who could hardly be got to believe that their Master would die at all, who now were almost despairing of Him, and who when dead had almost buried their hopes in His grave. Consider, too, the man's previous disadvantages and bad life. And then mark how his faith comes out – not in protestations, 'Lord, I cannot doubt – I am firmly persuaded that Thou art Lord of a kingdom – that death cannot disannul Thy title nor impede the assumption of it in due time,' and so on – but as having no shadow of doubt, and rising above it as a question altogether, he just says, "Lord, remember me when thou comest," &c. – Was ever faith like this exhibited upon earth? It looks as if the brightest crown had been reserved for the Saviour's head at His darkest moment!

43. And Jesus said unto him. To the taunt of the other criminal He answered nothing; but a response to this was resistless. The dying Redeemer had not seen so great faith, no not in His nearest and dearest apostles. It was to Him a "song in the night." It ministered cheer to His spirit in the thick midnight gloom that now enrapt it.

Verily I say unto thee. 'Since thou speakest as to the King, with kingly authority speak I to thee.'

To-day shalt thou be with me in paradise. 'Thou art prepared for a long delay ere I come in My Kingdom, but not a day's delay shall there be for thee; thou shalt not be parted from Me even for a moment, but together we shall go, and with Me, ere this day expire, shalt thou be in paradise.' On the meaning of this word "paradise" – employed by the LXX. for the Garden of Eden (Gen. ii. 8, &c.) – it is only necessary to observe that it was employed by the Jews to express the state of future bliss, both in its lower and higher stages; that, in keeping with this general idea, it is used by the apostle to express "the third heaven" (2 Cor. xii. 2, 4); and that our Lord Himself, in His apocalyptic epistle to the church of Ephesus, manifestly uses it to express the final glory and bliss of the redeemed, under the figure of Paradise Restored: "To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God" (Rev. ii. 7). In our passage, of course, the immediate reference is to such bliss as the disembodied spirit is capable of, and experiences, immediately after death; for it was to be on that very day that the penitent thief was to be with his dying Lord in paradise. But this is viewed as a thing understood, and so the promise amounts to this, that they were never more to be parted; that he would go with Him into heavenly bliss immediately on his departure; and though the One was to reassume His body in a few days, while the dust of the other would sleep till the resurrection, that their fellowship would never be interrupted!

Remarks. –

1. Of all the possible conceptions of a writer of imaginary history, this incident is about the last that would enter the mind even of the most ingenious. While its presence in the Gospel History is to every unsophisticated reader its own evidence of actual occurrence, the glory with which it invests the Cross of Christ is beyond the power of language to express. Verily "He disappointeth the devices of the crafty, so that their hands cannot perform their enterprise: He taketh the wise in their own craftiness, and the counsel of the froward is carried headlong: with Him is strength and wisdom; the deceived and the deceiver are His. He leadeth counsellors away spoiled, and maketh the judges fools" (Job v. 12, 13; xii. 16, 17).

2. How true is that saying of Christ, "One shall be taken and another left!" (ch. xvii. 34-36). It is possible, indeed, that the religious opportunities of the penitent criminal may have been superior to his fellow's. But we have too much evidence, even in this Gospel History, that far better opportunities than he could possibly have enjoyed left the heart all unsoftened. Nor is it the reach of this man's knowledge which contrasts so remarkably with the demeanour of the impenitent criminal. It is his ingenuous self-condemnation; his mingled astonishment and horror at the very different temper of his fellow's mind; his anxiety to bring him to a better state of mind, while yet there was hope; and the pain with which he listened to the scoffs of his companion in crime at suffering innocence. Such deep and tender feeling, in contrast with the other's heartlessness on the brink of eternity, is but superficially apprehended until we trace it up to that distinguishing grace which, while it "left" one hardened criminal to go to his own place, "took" the other as a brand from the fire, lighted up into a blaze of light the few scattered rays of information about Jesus which beamed into his mind, and made him a bright jewel in that crown of glory that encircled the dying Redeemer!

3. How easily can divine grace elevate the rudest and the worst above the best instructed and most devoted servants of Christ! We are such slaves of average experience in morals and religion, that we are apt to treat whatever greatly transcends it, however well attested, with a measure of scepticism. But however exceptional such cases may seem, the laws of the divine administration in spiritual things – of which our knowledge is but very partial – will be found comprehensive enough to embrace them all. Think how limited must have been the means of knowledge which the Centurion possessed; and yet, in regard to the power and glory of Christ, what a reach of perception and deep humility did he display, with a faith at which Jesus Himself marvelled! (Luke vii. 6-9). And did not the faith of the Syrophenician woman – heathen though her upbringing had been – draw forth the Redeemer's admiration? (Matt. xv. 28). And what an unwonted spectacle was the woman that washed the Saviour's feet with her tears! (Luke vii. 36, &c.) And who, even of the Twelve, got such a grasp of the Redeemer's power over the subtlest exercises of the human spirit as the man that, without any such opportunities as they enjoyed, exclaimed, "Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief"? And what but a very unusual display of converting grace was that in the case of Zaccheus? (Luke xix). And yet, in some of these cases at least, it is not difficult to see what principles were at work, and how they wrought. As trials are fitted to open the heart, to direct it to the true source of relief, and to make it accessible to divine compassion and grace, so a deep sense of sin and a consciousness of hell-deserving draw the spiritual eye with a quick instinct to Him who came to seek and to save the lost, and rivet it upon Him with reviving and transforming efficacy. While others fasten on features of divine truth of lesser moment, and miss, through prejudice, the right view even of these, such deep-taught souls, with a kind of unerring scent, discover the direction in which relief for them is alone to be found. What to the penitent woman whose tears watered His blessed feet, and what to this poor criminal, who felt himself ready to drop into hell, were all the Messianic honours and dignities about which the Twelve kept dreaming and disputing till within an hour or two of their Lord's apprehension? To them one gracious look from that eye of His was more than all such things:

                'Poor fragments all of this low earth;

                Such as in sleep would hardly soothe

        A soul that once had tasted of immortal truth.' – KEBLE.

And thus it was that, divinely taught in the school of conscious unworthiness and soul-distress, they shot far ahead of the best instructed but less schooled disciples. And so it still is. Schools of theological and critical training in the knowledge of Scripture are excellent things. But he who trusts in them as his sole key to divine truth and guide to heaven will find them blind guides, while many a one, ignorant of all but his own tongue, and little versed in the literature even of that, has made religious attainments that might put divines and scholars to shame.

4. Presumption and despair, it has been long ago and well remarked, are equally discountenanced here; the one in the impenitent thief, the other in his penitent fellow. He who flatters himself in his sins, hoping that, as one man was saved in the agonies of death, another may – and why not he? – should turn to the man who, in the same circumstances and at the same moment, died unsaved. But, on the other hand, he who, conscious that he has worse than wasted his life, is sceptical as to both the reality and the value of what are called death-bed repentances, and so is ready to sink into despair, should study the case of this penitent thief. If real, the value of such death-bed changes is beyond dispute; since Jesus took this man, dying for his crimes, straight with Him to paradise. What, in fact, is wanting to any one's entering into the kingdom of God? Only that he be born again. How instantaneous that change may be, and in fact in every case essentially is, we have already had occasion to observe. See on ch. xix. 1-10, Remark 2 at the close of that Section. And what though there be no time left in one's life to develop the change and make it manifest to the world? If it be real – and the Searcher of hearts, the Judge of quick and dead, at least knows that – it is enough. And just as we nothing doubt that infants dying ere they attain to the sense of responsibility are capable of heaven, so the undeveloped infancy of the new life in dying penitents has in it a germ which will surely expand in the paradise of God. On the one hand, then, "Be not high-minded, but fear," O sinner, sleeping on a pillow of baseless hope that, after a reckless life, one dying glance at the Saviour will set thee all right. But, on the other hand, fear not, poor despairing sinner, to behold even at the last the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world. For His word is not, "Him that cometh unto me" early, or up to a certain period of life and measure of guilt; but, "Him that cometh" – if only he do come, and come "UNTO ME, I will in no wise cast out." No limitation at all, either of time or measure of guilt. It is the 'coming unto Jesus' that secures the sinner against being cast out.

5. How false as well as cheerless, in the light of our Lord's words to this penitent, is the notion of the soul's sleep, or total unconsciousness, during the intermediate state between death and the resurrection! "To-day shalt thou be with Me in paradise." Who can take that to mean the mere transference of the soul to some place or state of safety, without the consciousness of it, or to the mere certainty of bliss at the resurrection? Nor is it that notion only which is rebuked here, but along with it the speculations of not a few who would so cripple the capacities of the disembodied spirit as to admit little beyond that 'sleep of the soul' before its re-union with the body. The more our Lord's words here are considered – in the light of such passages as 2 Cor. v. 6-8 – the more will it be seen, that the spirits of the just, on their being disengaged from this earthly tabernacle, are immediately ushered into paradise in the bud, and find themselves tasting the bliss of heaven in substance; and thus it is that the language which describes the one merges naturally in that which properly describes only the other. So let us labour that whether present or absent, we may be accepted of Him!


“THE FOUR GOSPELS,” A Commentary, Critical, Experimental and Practical, by David Brown. Published by The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976. pp 338-339.