God wanted it to be completely clear that Jesus was placed on the cross in the middle of two criminals receiving their just punishment for how they had lived their lives. Their crimes had brought them to “Golgatha”—the place of the skull. It was the garbage heap of the town. It was a place meant for those who lived their lives for themselves and ignored the laws of community. Their deathbeds were crosses with no loved ones gathering around them. Their personal choices in life had led them to the crosses on which they would die. Both criminals found themselves nailed to crosses, experiencing one of the most excruciating deaths one could die.
Into their predicament came Jesus. He was nailed to a cross just like them. They knew Jesus was the reason all these extra crowds have come to their crucifixion scene. With all these people no one seems to care that their own lives had come to this. They were like nobodies. No one cared about the crimes that brought them to their crosses. No one came to cry beside their dying bodies. The crowds were mocking, grinding their teeth and ridiculing the One in the middle. Women were crying for the One being crucified with them.
Criminals talk; they learn things. Both criminals discovered somewhere along the way that Jesus was on a cross like them but not for the usual reasons. He was special. He was on the cross because He claimed to be the Son of God.
Both criminals spoke to Jesus from their crosses. Jesus only responded to one of them. One criminal mocked and ridiculed Jesus. Jesus didn’t answer him. Earlier Jesus had told his disciples that he did not come to judge the world.
If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world (John 12:47).
Jesus did not judge the criminal who mocked Him. This criminal was already judged. He was not only judged by the Roman government and considered worthy of death, but he was born into the judgment of sin and death spiritually. He lived his life under that condemnation. He most likely never even heard of Jesus before that day. He probably didn’t see Jesus heal or teach or learn about the promised Messiah from the Jewish Holy Book. He was given the good fortune in his life of being crucified beside Jesus. He looked at Jesus. He heard what the others were saying about Jesus. He spoke to Jesus. Yet, his heart was very far from accepting Jesus’ love for him. All he wanted from Jesus was a miracle escape from the cross. If Jesus had granted him his request, he would have continued on in his life of ignoring Jesus.
There was another criminal nailed to a cross and by his own admission receiving the punishment he deserved. There was no breach of justice here. The laws of the land were clear, and the crimes this man had committed were met with this horrific kind of death. He too, noticed Jesus. He too, took in all the crowds were saying about him. He saw the few women and others who wept, powerless over His undeserved plight. He witnessed the face of his mother bearing her own invisible spear through her heart. He used his little breath not only to speak to Jesus, but also to speak to the other criminal. He said:
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 (Luke 23:40-42).
Jesus answered this criminal. He told him the greatest truth anyone can ever learn. Every one of us are born into the disease of sin for which prognosis is death. We may not die as criminals, but all will die. We have no hope. In the midst of our hopeless predicament of death comes Jesus. He takes on flesh so that He can die like one of us. He does not die because He is destined to die from the disease of sin for He is the only one who has never sinned. He dies to provide a remedy for sin. This criminal asked, for a remedy for his sin. Jesus answered Him in the same manner He answers any of us who ask for sins hold on us to be severed.
Jesus answered him, truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43).
These sweet words are my hope in this life diseased from sin and destined for death. I hope they are yours as well.