At that time two robbers were crucified with Him, one on the right and one on the left. And those passing by were hurling abuse at Him, wagging their heads, and saying, "You who [are going to] destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross." In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking [Him,] and saying, "He saved others; He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross, and we shall believe in Him. "He trusts in God; let Him deliver [Him] now, if He takes pleasure in Him; for He said, 'I am the Son of God.'" And the robbers also who had been crucified with Him were casting the same insult at Him.
Notice that the lēstai "insurrectionists" were also those casting the same insult at him. Matthew and Mark present everyone as insulting Christ; but Luke tells us of another detail in order to present us with a picture of all who encounter the crucified Christ. We are told in Luke's Gospel that one of these insurrectionists has a change of heart.
And when they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. But Jesus was saying, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves. And the people stood by, looking on. And even the rulers were sneering at Him, saying, "He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One." And the soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, and saying, "If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!" Now there was also an inscription above Him, "THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS." And one of the criminals who were hanged [there] was hurling abuse at Him, saying, "Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!" But the other answered, and rebuking him said, "Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? "And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." And he was saying, "Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!" And He said to him, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise."
Now, Luke presents us with a tale of two rebels. The one continues to mock Christ, even in his last hours. He keeps those few moments left to him all for himself, never acknowledging the Lord and believing in Him. Instead, if he has any religious faith, it is in the false messiah that all of the Jews at that time were looking for, the one who externally saves from outward oppressors, but not the one who saves from the Great Oppressor, i.e., the Self, from the inside out. He thus only insults the real Christ as insufficient and a joke, because He did not deliver to Him or the crowd, what they wanted out of Him (i.e., a mighty display of power to convince all men and take over all things). Instead, He was there to fulfill Isaiah 53, to suffer and die in order to secure a freedom that was greater than the imaginations of myopically focused insurrectionists. This first rebel represents all those who reject the true Christ as insufficient to deliver to them what they want out of their messiahs. To him, this Christ isn't the real one because He doesn't deliver life the way the rebel expects of Him.
But then comes the rebuke of the other rebel. He has finally recognized who Christ really is and why He has come. He acknowledges that Jesus has done nothing wrong, but that they are fully deserving of this horrible death. He calls Him, "Lord" (I believe the the Majority Text reading to be correct here, but both texts indicate that he considers Jesus to be the Lord of Heaven), acknowledging that the heaven He is about to enter belongs to Him. He, in repentance, asks the Lord to remember him there, and the Lord, based upon his repentance and faith, grants him his request. This man represents those who have come to know the true Christ, and now desire the type of kingdom He came to establish in us. This man was a rebel against God, but now turns into a rebel for God and against the mockers that surround Christ. He stands up for the Lord and opens himself up to the same shame as Christ, as if dying such a shameful death was not horrible enough. But seeing who the Lord Jesus truly was causes him to no longer care about the insults of others. It causes him to speak out against those who would not acknowledge the Lord in reverence, who would act as though they have nothing to fear when in fact they, in their sin against and mockery of God, have everything to fear. And most importantly, it causes him to seek Christ and to want to be where Christ is going to be.
This is the tale of two rebels. One that chose to stay the course in thinking he had nothing to fear, that he was good as he was, that he only needed physical deliverance from his oppressors, that he could continue to live for himself, even in those final moments, without consequence and mock anyone, even the Lord Himself, who might convict him to do otherwise. But the other rebel was filled with repentance. He saw who Christ was. He saw his own sin and the rightfulness of his own punishment for it. He feared God, and he desired Christ. And so that is what he received rather than judgment.
One man perished, and the other went to paradise that day. And that is the message of Luke's presentation of this episode. He wants us to ask ourselves, Among these two rebels, which one am I? How will I respond to the crucified Lord? Will I consider His crucifixion as nothing, and look more to His displays of power in miracles or His social redemption of those who are outcasts in society (both things that He indeed did do, but those only meant to represent what He came to do inside of us). Will I receive this Jesus rather than seek another more accommodating to my own views of what a hero should be, or will I reject Him because He didn't give to me what I wanted, and therefore, must not be the true Messiah after all?
Both men are rebels. Both men deserve condemnation. Both men have no clout before God. But one was saved that day. One entered paradise to fellowship with the Lord, His Creator, because, you see, we're all on crosses beside Him, and it doesn't matter which roads of rebellion we took to get there. What matters now is what road we're going to take now that we're there beholding Him and His work on that cross, now that the gospel has been presented to us, now that Christ and Him crucified is before us. Because we're all rebels who deserve to be dying as the condemned people that we are, but there is one kind of rebel who remains damned and one who can still be saved. Which one are you?