Many would be surprised if they took an in-depth look at what really saved the thief on the cross. Why? Because, ostensibly, there is so little to look at. His salvation would seem, upon inspection, almost tenuous. If it were not for the directness of the declaration of Christ that this thief would enter into the Kingdom of God, none of us would believe it. Indeed, some have heard it and yet do not believe. If Jesus had said anything more obscure than “today thou shalt be with Me in paradise,” not one of us would seek to justify the thief.
What did the thief possess? I don’t mean what did he possess in a worldly way, but, instead, what was his towards God? What really belonged to him in his experience with God? Was he rich toward God as Christ asked all those who follow Him to be? So many things could be considered important to the relationship of a man with God, but so few of those things actually belonged to the thief on the cross. We know that the thief made a desperate plea to Christ Jesus at the very precipice of death’s precipitous end. We know the thief got the “Who” of God right in this prayer–that He prayed to Jesus the Son of God (Mk 1:1, Jn 1:34). What’s the key? The key is that prayer to Jesus saved the thief.
“…Prayer to Jesus saved the thief”
Yet even his prayer seems too short to save him! Look at the simple words he managed to utter to Jesus in the pangs of death: “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom” (Lk 23:42). We think this is too short because in our attempts to make ourselves righteous by our works, we pray long prayers and consider those who do so to be holier than those that don’t (Mt 6:7). We can be sure from the brevity of the thief’s prayer that he was not heard by God because of much speaking (Mt 6:7). But he was heard.
So are we to conclude that this short prayer alone was sufficient to make the thief on the cross “rich toward God” (Lk 12:21)? Yes. Rich, indeed. No one can enter the Kingdom of God unless their righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the pharisees (Mt 5:20). He was, indeed, righteous. He did, indeed, store up great riches for himself in a place where moth nor rust can corrupt and where thieves cannot break in to steal (Mt 6:20). It’s likely that at other times in his life, when he had stolen something, that he worried over where to deposit his goods, attempting to keep them out of the reach of other thieves. At last, the thief’s treasures were safe. The thief on the cross died a rich man because he prayed to Jesus.