If you ever find yourself doubting the Holy Spirit’s power to change the heart of someone you are praying for, remember the story of the thief crucified next to Jesus. Ponder the radical nature of his change of heart.
From all that we can piece together from the Gospel accounts, it seems likely this unnamed man was a Zealot being executed for his involvement in a violent insurrection attempt. I draw this conclusion from the fact that he was scheduled to be crucified with Barabbas, who clearly seems to fit that description. If this is the case, this man would have been one who deeply resented the rule of Rome over Israel and so eagerly expected the reestablishment of the kingdom of Israel that he was willing to engage in violence to promote that end. Moreover, at least at the beginning of his time hanging on the cross next to Jesus, it appears he had no respect for the apparently weak man dying at his side as he joined with the crowds in ridiculing him (Mark 15:32).
But if we compare Luke’s account to that of Mark/Matthew, we must conclude that, as the hours wore on, his heart changed, even leading him to rebuke his fellow criminal (Luke 23:39-41). And then he uttered the most important words of his life: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). It seems doubtful, given his first-century Jewish (even Zealot) perspective, that he meant, “Jesus, remember me in your invisible spiritual kingdom up in the sky.” Those categories of thought probably were not even present in his mind. For him to affirm a future kingdom where the dying man next to him would rule could only make sense if he assumed Jesus would be raised from the dead to inherit the kingdom he proclaimed.
Think of how radical his heart had to change to lead him to that affirmation. For a self-proclaimed Jewish Messiah to die at the hands of the Romans in the most humiliating way imaginable, and to do so specifically under the curse of God (Deut. 21:23) is the exact opposite of what a Zealot would be expecting. The thief next to Jesus had every reason, humanly speaking, to write him off as a failed pretender to the throne of David. And yet, something prompted him in his dying moments to have a complete change of mind. What was it? Did Jesus speak to him as they hung there together? Did he see something in the way Jesus faced death that revealed to him the truth of Jesus’ claims for himself? We don’t know, for none of the Gospels tell us. But we do know theologically that the Holy Spirit was at work in a powerful way, opening eyes that were previously blind to the glory of Christ so that he could behold the wonder of God the Son giving his life for the salvation of the world. And somehow, in the miracle of divine grace, he came to see that the blood-soaked man gasping for air next to him would indeed emerge again from death to rule over the kingdom the prophets had foretold.
Do you ever pray for God to open someone’s eyes to the gospel, but then doubt that he will do so? Remember the thief on the cross next to Jesus. God’s power is never limited, and so long as a person draws breath, it is never too late.