The Robbers and the Cross

Some very good questions have been and will be asked concerning the consistency of Scripture as it relates to the Easter account.  Although there are certainly head-scratching texts throughout the Bible, it seems that the four Evangelists pen some different perspectives on passion week that create difficulty in maintaining the non-contradictory nature of Holy Scripture.  One of these was raised by a 13 year student of mine this past Saturday.

We were examining the four accounts of Jesus’ words on the cross.  I wanted to demonstrate to my students that Matthew and Mark paint a much darker picture of the cross than do Luke and John – that is incredibly important.  Luke provides us with the powerful story of the robber’s salvation experience.  The “thief on the cross” has been used countless times to defend that great truth of “it’s never too late.” (of course, the conversion of the thief is pointless if you are a Universalist, but let’s not go there). 

I could see a puzzled look on my student’s’ face.  He raised his hand.  “Pastor Philip, how does that make sense when we read Matthew 27:44?”  Since I do not yet have the entire Bible memorized, I flipped over to Matthew 27:44 and read these words:  “And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.”  My student wanted to know something very simple; which was it?  Was one of the robber’s saved or were they both reviling Jesus?

I did what all pastors do – I answered as best as I could and then went scurrying after class to consult every commentary I could find to see what they think.  Interestingly, not many address verse 44.  Most commentaries spend a good deal of time on the insults of the Elders, but not the robbers.  My old set of Broadman Bible Commentaries did not address it nor did my newer ESV study Bible, nor any other commentary in my library.  I then turned to my online library and found an interesting response in John Calvin’s commentary.  He says, “. . .Christ was despised by all, even down to the very robbers; for they do not speak of particular individuals, but of the class itself.”  Calvin reads Matthew as speaking in generalities and essentially saying that everyone hated Jesus, even criminals who were themselves dying.  I don’t have any problem with that, but I think there is more to it, and I addressed it as such to my student.  Albeit, Calvin did have the entire NT memorized in Greek, but if I may dare to add to his commentary, I will do so.

When we take Matthew’s account with Luke, what we see is a beautiful glimpse of how filthiness is made clean.  Every Sunday morning there are dirty, sin stained, Christless persons who sit down in a chair or pew of a worship service.  They come reviling the name of Christ.  In some churches, and I wish it were more, these same darkened people are enlightened to the truthfulness of Christ Jesus and are radically changed in heart.  They confess their sin to Christ and are promised life with him in paradise. 

I have no doubt that upon first being nailed to the cross, both robbers scorned the name of Jesus.  How could they do otherwise?  All of us who resist and refuse the truthfulness of Christ Jesus revile him.  However, throughout the course of the crucifixion, one particular thief became enlightened.  Through God’s act of revelation and the awareness of the thief that something was markedly different about Jesus that confirmed his assertion that he was the Christ, the thief came to faith.  Luke records this for us. 

Although the thief on the cross should certainly be used to comfort those who think it is “too late,” it is also a beautiful example of how every single one of us have come to faith.  We went from reviling the Savior to embracing him.  We have moved from darkness to light.  We are counted as children of God.

And that is grace.


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3 Replies to “The Robbers and the Cross”

  1. I wonder if the answer is much more mundane. I don’t believe Matthew himself was present at the cross (or was he? I don’t recall) but either Matthew himself or whoever was at the cross that related the events to Matthew perhaps was not as close as the guy that told the story to Luke. Perhaps he was able to hear the first thief deriding Jesus, saw a further conversation with the second thief, and assumed they both were giving him a hard time. And wrote down as such.

    I think some of the contradictions in the Passion story (and maybe other stories throughout the Gospels as well) can be explained away as as discrepancy in vantage points and eyewitness accounts.

    Not that these details really matter – God wanted us to know about the second thief, so he made sure Luke heard the account and recorded it. It was also important for us to know that, in general, all thieves reviled Jesus so he made sure Matthew heard that version and recorded it. Difference in perspective, explained by logistics, while still presenting logical occurances and theological necessities.

    There are probably other slight inconsistencies that can be explained, or at least enlightened this way. They were human and had the same eyes and ears we do.

    1. Barry,

      Thanks for reading and for your comment. A couple of quick things:

      1. Although the biblical authors certainly wrote from experience as eyewitness (2 Peter 1:6), we must also keep in balance that they wrote under inspiration of the Holy Spirit. That an author was not present at or privy to a conversation cannot, for me, lessen the authority, accuracy, and truthfulness of any portion of Scripture. Thus, we can wrestle with varying interpretations, but I would not be willing to suggest that Matthew “made a mistake” by assuming the second thief was reviling Jesus.

      2. Having said that, I agree with the rest of your comment as there is no doubt the so-called “contradictions” in Scripture, and especially the Easter account, come to us from different perspectives with different emphases – all of which are truthful and accurate. When we stumble with Scripture, it is not the text that is faulty, it is us.

      3. Your third paragraph sounds like Calvin’s argument, which as I mentioned, is certainly true. Still yet, there can be no mistake that when nailed to the cross, both thieves were lost and anti-Jesus. By the end, one was saved.

      Thanks again for your good words.

  2. Philip,
    Thank you for posting this piece. I have always struggled with one, especially how everyone seemed to just write it off as no big deal. I have tried to research it myself but I only found questionable explanations including one guy who said there were five thieves. The lack of clear explanations really bothered me, and I definitely did not believe there were five thieves. Your explanation makes a lot of sense to me and gives me some peace concerning something that has always troubled me. God bless you. –Jason

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