There are some surprising conversion accounts in the Bible, and several of them are described by Luke. Obviously, all the accounts in the Book of Acts were written by him, and among them is the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. Luke also has surprising stories in his Gospel, such as the conversion of Zacchaeus. But none of them are as surprising as the conversion experienced by the individual known as the thief on the cross.
This man may well have indulged in acts of thievery, but he was much more than a common thief. The reason why he was crucified was because he had participated in an attempted revolt against the Roman authorities, a revolt in which people had been killed. This means that he was probably a nationalistic Jew with a deep desire for the liberation of his countrymen, and was prepared to fight for his convictions. He may even have been religious.
It was the custom for the civil authorities to place above the condemned person’s head the reason for his execution. So everyone who passed by Calvary would know what the Roman authorities thought about him. He was suffering because he had rebelled against their authority.
Many people have written and spoken about him since then, but not because of the reasons that would have been mentioned above his head. Spurgeon, in a sermon, reminds us that the criminal was the last companion of Jesus on earth and his first companion to follow him into heaven. He then pictures the criminal reaching heaven and mentions that this privilege of entering soon after Jesus was not given to an apostle or to a martyr. Instead, it was given to a lowly sinner, and Spurgeon describes Jesus as saying to the heavenly host, ‘I bring a sinner with me; he is a sample of the rest.’
John Calvin mentioned four things about the condemned man: ‘In this wicked man a striking mirror of the unexpected and incredible grace of God is held out to us, (1) not only in his being suddenly changed into a new man, when he was near death, (2) and drawn from hell itself to heaven, (3) but likewise in having obtained in a moment the forgiveness of all the sins in which he had been plunged through his whole life, and (4) in having been thus admitted to heaven before the apostles and first-fruits of the new Church.’
Here are six details that we can deduce from the conversion of the criminal: (1) He is a reminder that a person can be saved at the end of life. (2) He is a reminder that a person can be converted within a very short period of time. (3) He is a reminder that divine grace reaches down to the very bottom and lifts sinners very high. (4) He is a reminder that uncongenial circumstances are not a barrier to conversion. (5) He reminds us that close friends and colleagues can go through the same circumstances and experience very different outcomes. (6) He reminds that grace can give new insights very quickly.