The condemned criminal hanging on a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem knew that he was guilty. He had committed the crimes for which Rome had condemned him. He deserved the sentence of crucifixion that he was now suffering. He also knew that the excruciating torture and his swiftly approaching death were among the least of his worries. Far more worrisome was what he knew would happen to him after he died.
A condemned criminal cleansed
The condemned criminal knew that yet another court appearance lay ahead of him. Only this time he would not appear before a Roman judge to answer for crimes against Roman law. This time he would appear before God to answer for his crimes against God’s law. The sentence he deserved for those crimes was infinitely worse than the hours of excruciating torture on his cross.
However, hanging next to this deservedly condemned criminal was Jesus, the rabbi from Nazareth. The condemned criminal knew that Jesus did not deserve to be there. He also knew that Jesus had claimed to be God’s promised Messiah. His mind perhaps returned to things he had learned about the Messiah when he was younger. Perhaps he even remembered these powerful words through the prophet Isaiah: “The punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Whatever this condemned criminal remembered about what God had promised concerning his Messiah, God the Holy Spirit used that to create a trust in his heart that Jesus was his Messiah. In humble faith, he turned to Jesus and made a simple request: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
In response, Jesus said perhaps the most beautiful words that this criminal had ever heard: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
A guilty criminal was cleansed of all his crimes. The guiltless Son of God suffered the punishment a criminal had earned so that the criminal might live with him forever. A man condemned by Rome was through faith in Jesus declared not guilty by God. A sinner who deserved an eternity of torment in hell is now in paradise with Jesus.
Our death sentence pardoned
You and I may not be able to relate to the condemned criminal on the cross. Most of us do not share his experience of a death sentence for crimes we have committed, but we do by nature share with him a justly earned eternal death sentence. The list of our crimes against God’s law is no less extensive than his was. Nor is the punishment we deserve from God for all those crimes any less severe.
At the same time, Jesus’ mercy toward us is no less complete. The power of his blood to cleanse us from our sins is no less absolute. The punishment Jesus suffered on the cross for that condemned criminal he also suffered for us. And the “not guilty” verdict God proclaimed over that repentant criminal he also has proclaimed over us for the sake of Jesus, who died for him and for us.
A time will come when we, like that criminal, will have to face death. When that happens, we can do so with no less confidence than the criminal had after he heard Jesus’ comforting words. Those words Jesus spoke to him he also speaks to us: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Author: Steven Lange
Volume 109, Number 03
Issue: March 2022