This episode is part of the Lukan Crucifixion narrative and it is not parallel in the other gospels. The story of the criminals is used by Luke to illustrate the salvific aspect of Jesus’ Crucifixion and death.
According to gospels of Mark and Matthew (Mk 15: 32; Mt 27: 44), those who were crucified with Jesus also join the mocking of Jesus. But only in Luke one of the criminals rail at Jesus and asks him to save himself and them if he was the Christ (Lk 23: 39). But the second criminal rebukes his companion for his lack of fear of God and for his failure to view things properly. He says: “…we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Lk 23: 40-41). Thus in the Lukan narrative the second criminal becomes yet another witness to Jesus’ innocence. This criminal not only proclaims Jesus’ innocence but also admits his own guilt. He acknowledges Jesus’ kingship and asks for remembrance in the Kingdom (Lk 23: 42). He knows that he has no hope of being saved from death but he believes that there is life after death and hopes for salvation after death through Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23: 42). The form of address on the lips of the repentant criminal is not ‘Lord’ but “Jesus,” a name which has salvific connotations, and perhaps implies what he is hoping for.
In reply Jesus promises the ‘good thief’ (a popular designation which is not found in the gospels) not just what he asked for, not remembrance alone, but salvation and the certainty of being with him in paradise that very day. “Truly, I say to you today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23: 43). Jesus is revealed as Saviour at his death even as he was proclaimed as Saviour at his birth (cf. Lk 2: 11). If Jesus “came to call sinners to repentance” (Lk 5: 32) and if he welcomed sinners and outcasts of society and had table fellowship with them (cf. Lk 5: 27-31), his Crucifixion will not be without its saving effect on such people. Jesus offers salvation to the repentant criminal. Just as he said to Zachaeus, the penitent tax collector: “Today salvation has come to this house” (Lk 19: 9), Jesus tells the crucified criminal: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
The penitent criminal, the ‘good thief’ thus becomes the first beneficiary of Jesus’ “blood shed for the remission of sins.” Thus the Lukan Crucifixion narrative (Lk 23: 33-43) does not end in mockery and defeat for Jesus but on a note of victory and triumph for Jesus and for the repentant criminal who shares in that victory.