“ ‘…today you will be with me in paradise’ ” (Luke 23:43, NIV).
I’m not for sure who first made the following statement, but it is one that has always stuck with me. “Grace is: God’s riches at Christ’s expense”. In other words, we gain forgiveness and salvation because of what Jesus accomplished for us through his death at Calvary.
The Apostle Paul writes, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV). Just imagine, Jesus, the personification of holiness and perfection, becoming sin incarnate on the cross. Within his flesh, Jesus took the sins of the world and literally carried them to the grave. Because of this single act, each of us is declared righteous and holy regardless of the wrongs we have done. Theologians throughout history have referred to this truth as “The Great Exchange”. Jesus endured the consequence of our sin so that we could receive the undeserved reward of salvation.
In considerng this second phrase of Jesus from the cross, we need to look once again at the Biblical narrative of the crucifixion and Luke’s account of two men who were eyewitnesses of, and participants in, the horrific reality of the cross.
Luke writes, “Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him (Jesus) to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals – one on his right, the other on his left” (Luke 23:32-33, NIV).
The text continues a few verses later, “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’ ” (Luke 23:39-43, NIV).
If Jesus’ words “ ‘Father, forgive them…’ ” (Luke 23:34, NIV) applied to a global audience, then Jesus’ reply “ ‘…today you will be with me in paradise’ ” (Luke 23:43, NIV) was personal. As Jesus was interceding with the Father on behalf of the entire world, he took time to address, on a personal level, a criminal.
Perhaps Jesus fixed his gaze upon this man and saw someone worthy of salvation. More likely, however, Jesus recognized nothing in this man deserving of the gift he was about to offer, but gave it to him anyway. That is, after all, what grace is. Grace is not what is fair or what any of us deserve. It’s what is loving and merciful and compassionate. Jesus understood grace and thrived on extending it to others.
I’m reminded of Paul’s words, “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8, NIV).
“While we were still sinners…” (Romans 5:8, NIV) the text says. Jesus doesn’t wait for us to make ourselves approachable before him. He comes to us just as we are. Jesus doesn’t avoid us when we are unclean from the filth of sin. He reaches out to us. Jesus doesn’t ignore us while we struggle desperately to get our act together. Instead he acts on our behalf with love and mercy. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NIV).
Some of us struggle with this idea of grace. I will admit that it can be a difficult concept to accept. This is because it is so counterintuitive to the way we normally think.
Perhaps it would be easier to understand Jesus’ mercy toward this criminal if he were a more likeable character. Maybe we would find ourselves rooting for a good guy who had had some bad breaks in life. We might even overlook whatever past mistakes he had made, chalking them up to his upbringing or to circumstance. We would be all in favor of Jesus forgiving such an individual on Earth and preparing a place for him in Heaven.
Up to the time of his request for mercy, however, I picture this criminal joining right in with his cohort in crime, mocking Jesus, hurling insults like rocks at the Savior. This man did nothing deserving of forgiveness, nothing that should have stirred compassion in the heart of the Savior. But Jesus continued to extend love, even to this otherwise unlovable character.
And along the way something changed in the criminal’s heart. While the text does not indicate a lengthy exchange between this man and Jesus, I suspect that they may have had other words with one another. They were neighbors, after all, in the most unfamiliar and desperate setting of a crucifixion. They had been together for several hours. Perhaps a conversation between the two led to this criminal’s conversion. At the very least, this man would have had an extended opportunity to view Jesus’ tremendous suffering and unconceivable compassion. He would have heard Jesus’ curious words of mercy despite the merciless torture of the cross. He would have had the chance to experience Jesus’ grace under the extreme pressure of this unbearable situation.
(To be continued…)