One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
The mockery wasn’t simply confined to those standing around the cross. One of the criminals joined in, perhaps fuelled by his pain. “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” It wasn’t said as a prayer but as an insult. If Jesus was the Messiah, he should prove it by setting them all free from their pain and inevitable death. The fact that he didn’t do so, proved that he wasn’t Messiah. To him the whole thing was a bitter joke.
“Save us!” We can understand the desperate desire, even though spoken in bitter jest, to be set free. What kind of salvation would it be if it simply granted a person a temporary release from the consequences of their own crime, without any recognition of personal guilt or of the need of God’s forgiveness? What kind of kingdom would it be that allows people to continue to live as they like, waving a magic wand when necessary to remove any unfortunate consequence?
What a contrast with the second criminal. He realised there was something terribly wrong with what was taking place. He knew that Jesus was innocent but they were guilty, yet they were all suffering the same punishment. “Don’t you fear God?” he asked the other man. His criminal conscience had not been warped so far that it couldn’t recognise injustice. In addition, his awareness of the injustice made him think of God. There is, of course, no such thing ultimately as either justice or injustice in a godless universe, just the illusion. But as for many, the man’s deep-seated awareness of injustice pointed him to a world beyond this one where justice is done.
There was no thought of asking Jesus to do a miracle to set him free. Instead, his awareness of the fear of God made him think even more about Jesus. He knew Jesus was innocent. He had heard him pray forgiveness for those who were crucifying him. He had heard him speak to God as Father. Suddenly it all came together. Yes, Jesus was going to die on the cross that day, as they would, but death would not hold him. It could not hold him. For he was the true King. He would enter his eternal Kingdom.
And that led him to another thought: might he, even though a guilty criminal, actually have a part in Christ’s kingdom? He turned to the King: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” A transformation had taken place in his heart. He wanted forgiveness. He wanted Jesus to be his King. He wanted to be a subject in his kingdom. But would Jesus have him?
The King gave his now famous reply: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” The answer was “yes”! Not only was he forgiven but he received assurance of complete acceptance by the King himself. In a few hours when he died, he would be welcomed immediately into the King’s presence.
And that is what the King offers as a gift to all who trust him, who cease being rebels and instead submit themselves to the rule of the King: assurance of complete acceptance. For the criminal who was converted that day, he would discover the truth of Christ’s promise in a few hours. He had no opportunity to work out the implications of trusting Christ in his daily life. The majority who trust in Christ do so long before their death, sometimes 70 or 80 years before. But time changes nothing about Christ’s acceptance of us. And death changes nothing. There is no delay, no period of probation to see if we are worthy to make the grade. On the contrary, while we may not be criminals according to the laws of our land, none of us would make the grade. With Christ, forgiveness is a gift, based on what he has achieved, not on what we achieve.
So whether we have a long life ahead of us, or only a few hours to live, those who have trusted in Christ the true King have this same ringing assurance: “you will be with me!”