As an instrument of Roman justice, the purpose for crucifixion was not merely to carry out a death sentence. It was to do it brutally, causing the most suffering possible. It was expected that the grotesque suffering would be a deterrent to the masses. The victim often took days to die.
This made the conversation among three suffering victims all the more unexpected, nailed, as they were, to crosses on a hill called Golgotha just outside Jerusalem. Jesus of Nazareth hung between two unnamed criminals. In a few gasping sentences the talk turned to the after-life — the world beyond this world.
One criminal seethed with bitterness. He hurled sarcasm and insult at Jesus. “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” he taunted (Luke 23:39). This man was obviously hard and unrelenting to the end.
The criminal on the opposite cross rebuked him. Suffering equally, he chastised his fellow sufferer: “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly since we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man (referring to Jesus on the center cross) has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:40,41) Then, addressing Jesus in painful gasps, he asks, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
Where did a wicked man get this hope for an eternal kingdom? He knew Jesus’ name. Had he listened from the fringes of a crowd at some time when Jesus was teaching about the way to heaven? Luke’s account doesn’t say.
We should not be surprised that the dying man’s interest was on his uncertain future. That’s because God plants an instinctive awareness in all of us that there is life after death. As a pastor I have been with a number of people when they were near death. If they retained consciousness to near the end of their passing they usually were open to hear the Gospel’s message about what was ahead.
I don’t recall one of them ever saying, “Well my end has come. When I stop breathing I will cease to exist.” Rather, they wanted to hear what the Scriptures say about “the other side.”
What went on at Golgotha tells us things we long to know. The penitent criminal could never undo his offenses. He was experiencing his last moments of life. But in those last moments he heard Jesus’ words, “This day you will be with me in Paradise” Wondrously, he encountered the ever-ready, always-offered mercy of God.
But he experienced this mercy on God’s conditions — “repentance and faith” (Acts 17:30). That meant taking responsibility for and turning from the sins of his past, insofar as possible in present circumstances, and putting his faith in Jesus, whom he must have vaguely understood as King and Savior.
In saying to his fellow criminal with fading breath, “We are getting what our deeds deserve,” he was owning his sins in the presence of the only one who could forgive them. Jesus was in that very moment in the process of dying — “the just for the unjust” — and paying the man’s sin debt. And with great humility the dying man expressed faith by his request: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Responses from those three crosses represent life’s fundamental issues and the optional responses for all of humanity: There’s hostility to the Gospel, hard and unyielding. There’s penitence, humbly asking for a place in the eternal kingdom, and receiving the promise of God’s mercy. And above all, wonder of wonders, there’s the Savior, Jesus our Lord, assuring of the mercy requested: “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Photo credit: db Photography | Demi-Brooke (via flickr.com)