One of the many indignities of Jesus’ execution on the cross was that it wasn’t unique or special that day. He was nailed to a cross right beside two other men who the Bible tells us were criminals. The fact that Jesus was killed in such a mundane manner, like he was just another common criminal, has always bothered me. But I’ve always been shocked by just how much love Jesus managed to display while being brutally murdered, and his interaction with one of these criminals ended up being one of the most beautiful examples of salvation in the entire Bible.
The first criminal that Jesus is addressed by has something in common with Herod that we talked about yesterday. Check this out.
Luke 23:39 One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us, too, while you’re at it!”
Remember what we looked at yesterday when Herod was hoping to see Jesus perform a miracle? Herod took Jesus lightly and demanded a show of his power and got nothing but silence in return. And what did this criminal do? He took Jesus lightly, even scoffing at him as he called into question his power and identity. And just like Herod, this man was met with silence from Jesus.
But someone did respond to the first criminal. It was actually the second criminal.
Luke 23:40-42 But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? 41 We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”
The second criminal speaks a total of 35 words in this translation and they may be the 35 wisest and most important words in all of the Bible. I’ve seen pastors do some pretty wordy and complex salvation prayers in my time but nobody shows the true simplicity and beauty of it better than a criminal who was dying next to Jesus over 2000 years ago.
When you really dig into these 35 words he spoke, you see that the criminal did some beautiful things. Starting in verse 41, the criminal shows great self-awareness. So few people are able to identify themselves for what they truly are, sinners in need of a savior. But in verse 41, this man whose life of sin and crime had brought him to a sinner’s death was done pretending to be something he wasn’t. He saw himself clearly in that moment and he confessed with his mouth who he was. “I deserve to die for my crimes.” He acknowledged that he was in fact, guilty, just like all of us are guilty of sin. It’s a true danger for any of us to put too little of an emphasis on this. One of our greatest skills as humans is self-deception. We can be choking to death on sin and believe that we are in fact at the healthiest point of our lives. Just like the other criminal, we can be nailed to a cross mid-execution and still show no acknowledgment of what put us there, our pride and attitude still raging within us even as we are in the process of dying. Being able to see ourselves for what we truly are, lost and sinful people in need of a savior, is a rare gift. Many people glimpse it for a time, then lose sight of it and once again return to the self-deceptive ways they were once lost in. So don’t overlook the beautiful clarity with which this criminal spoke of who he was. He knew, and he confessed.
The second part of the beauty of verse 41 is what the criminal did next. Having honestly and correctly identified himself as a sinner deserving of death, he then correctly identifies who Jesus is. “This man has done nothing wrong.” He didn’t see Jesus as a get out of jail free card, as a party magician there to entertain and amaze, he saw him as the sinless, innocent man that he was.
And then the criminal takes it one step further.
Luke 23:42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”
He acknowledged with these words that Jesus was more than just a man. He was hanging next to the son of God, and he asked him for salvation. And Jesus responded. This request was genuine, was real, was not made lightly, and so Jesus didn’t stay silent.
Luke 23:43 And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Sometimes we can be so guilty of getting lost in the complexities and mysteries of the faith that we forget just how beautifully complete and simple the love of Jesus is for us. We can forget just how free the gift of salvation really is, how little effort it takes to scoop up the most precious gift ever presented in all of the universe. All it takes is an acknowledgment and respect of who he is and of who we are. He’s the sinless son of God who died for our sins, and we are the sinners who are in desperate need of a savior.
I spent some time today meditating on what I might’ve done or said if I was one of the criminals being crucified by Jesus. Something occurred to me. Even though crucifixion was an awful, torturous way to die, that second criminal’s best moment of his life came because he was being crucified. Getting nailed to a cross and executed was the best thing that ever happened to him. You know that at the start of the day as they led him to his death, as they drove the nails through him, he wasn’t thinking about his good fortune. He wasn’t feeling like a lucky man. But how fortunate was it that on his day of death, there was another there also being executed, a man named Jesus.
Another thought I had was that horrible pain has a way of bringing clarity to us. This man may not have ever been able to admit that he was a sinner deserving of death had he not found himself in an awful situation. When life crushes you beyond what you thought possible, it has a way of clearing your mind and giving you a clear view of things. And when you consider all of this, you have to question why we react so poorly when we find ourselves in the storms and terrible moments in life. Those might be the moments of our salvation. Our breakthroughs may be found on the worst days of our lives. When we are at our lowest and most broken, Jesus is at our side, close enough to touch. When we remember that, then even our worst days end up being not so bad, because they brought us a special consultation with our Lord.
The criminal on the cross gives us a moment of such beauty. We have to remember who we are and who he is. When we do those two things, so much else about life falls right into place, because when we’re honest about who we are, then there’s no question how much we need to cling to our Savior. And there’s not much that can go wrong when we are holding tightly to Jesus.
I love all of you! I hope you’re having a wonderful week so far.
If you are in need of prayer or just need someone to talk to, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.