“Today, You Will Be with Me in Paradise,” Last Minute Grace – Eternal Rewards
Reflections on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross
Luke 23:32-43 reveals an interesting side story as one meditates on the crucifixion of Jesus. It is easy to miss as Luke pours out all the details of our Savior’s last 24 hours: Judas agrees to betray Jesus, Jesus’ last meal with His disciples, His precious prayer in the garden, His betrayal in the garden, His arrest, His denial by Peter, and the kangaroo court to condemn Him; He is mocked, beaten, spit upon and led away to be crucified. Then right in the middle of this dark storm of information, Luke includes this intimate account of the two thieves who happened to be crucified on the very day of Jesus’ own crucifixion.
Usually, the people condemned to crucifixion are the stars of their own humiliation show. But, on this day and on this hill, these two thieves were eye-witnesses to the most un-just injustice ever known – an innocent man was being torn apart. Adding insult to injury, these guys were not placed there next to Jesus as mere witnesses or even out of convenience, but as symbols of disgrace. The soldiers used their presence to further increase Jesus’ own humiliation by sandwiching Him between the rejected and discarded of humanity. It is amazing how the prophecy of Isaiah comes to life, “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; ... and he was numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:3 & 12).
All four gospels describe how Jesus was crucified with a condemned man on his right and a condemned man on His left, but only Luke records the conversation between the three. One chose to join the mocking and said, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself ... and us!” But the other criminal had heard enough and rebuked his fellow condemned, “Do. You. Not. Fear. God? You are under the same sentence of condemnation. We deserve to die for our crimes! But THIS MAN has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40-41). Eternal theological truth just spewed out from the mouth of this rejected felon.
Let’s push the pause button on this scene for a moment and think about this thief’s statement. Not everyone gets it and too often we overlook the basic fact of our own unworthiness before God. Scripture is clear – “There is no distinction: for all have sinned and all have fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22c-23). What this means is this: we, you and I, are just as unworthy as the criminals crucified next to Jesus. These thieves did not ‘just happen’ to be there – God destined them to be exhibit “A” of our own dis-qualified status before God. We justly deserve the wrath of God – no more and no less than these unnamed condemned men next to Jesus. Do you believe this? Do you truly know this hopelessness? Because the threshold to the entry to eternal life is at this point. We are sinners before the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure and without any hope whatsoever. Talk about bad news.
But it is at this very point that the Good News of the gospel of Jesus Christ is revealed. The thief did not just rebuke the other criminal, but he also asked the Son of God for an undeserved favor, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Look closely at this plea. This unnamed thief becomes the first the person drawn to the crucified Christ and speaks out our Savior’s personal name – “Jesus! … Remember me”
Out of all the shouting and jeering and deafening commotion of the circus surrounding their crucifixion, Jesus’ words pierced the darkness and the heart of this condemned man by saying, “Today YOU will be with ME in paradise.” (Luke 23:43). On this day, of all the criminals condemned by Rome, on crosses across the entire Roman empire, this thief was crucified next to Jesus Christ, and became the first human with the assurance of glory.
These criminals perfectly represent all mankind. Like them, we have all sinned. Like them, we all deserve only death. Like one of them, many people today will refuse this offer of grace, but like the other, some will receive His hope, love, mercy, forgiveness, eternal life, and paradise – simply because they asked. As the song writer, Michael Card, wrote, “Jesus was stretched out on that cross between criminals so that we can know for ourselves the amazing reach of His love. From every wasted life, from every compromised motive, from every personal hell – it reaches all the way to paradise” (Violent Grace, pg 107).