Luke 23:35–43 (NIV) 35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” 36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” 38 There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews. 39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
My dear friends in Christ,
Can you see the three men hanging on their crosses? They don’t look all that different. Luke describes the two men on either side of Jesus as “criminals.” Criminals. What had they done wrong? Were they smuggling illegal substances into Palestine? Had they stolen from Pilate’s treasury? Were they murderers? We don’t know what they did. We do know they were guilty. One of these criminals said to the other, “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve” (Luke 23:41). That didn’t stop them from piling ridicule on Jesus along with everyone else. “‘Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.’ Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him” (Mark 15:32 NIV).
It’s easy to look at these two criminals and think, “They deserved everything they got!” As we look around today, we probably think the same thing about many others. If and when they catch the man who kidnapped and killed two girls as they walked in an Indiana park, he deserves that kind of death. A drug dealer who provides heroin to the loved one who overdoses—he deserves that kind of punishment. People who do those kinds of things deserve what they get!
Why didn’t the Holy Spirit tell us why these two criminals were executed? Could it be so that we can see ourselves as we look at them? Wait just a minute—we haven’t done anything that deserves that kind of punishment, have we? Remember our theme for this Lenten season? Repent: Turn to Jesus! Repent? What have we done that is so bad, so evil? The question should be, “What haven’t we done?” Sin deserves punishment. Sin leads to death. Here at Calvary, we deserve the same punishment as those two men. It doesn’t matter how large or small we think our sins are. No, we haven’t robbed a bank, or shipped drugs over the border. We haven’t sold individuals as slaves. We haven’t pulled out a weapon and killed someone.
We are still guilty of sin. Sometimes our sins hide in here—our silent thoughts. We harbor anger and hatred in our hearts against someone. That anger is as deadly as murder. We try to satisfy our hunger and lusts in the anonymity of the internet, unaware that we are destroying the commandment that protects the love of husband and wife. Sometimes our sins flow from our mouths. We tear down classmates so we can feel better about ourselves. Our mouths start a forest fire of gossip and lies that destroy people’s reputations and even their lives. Sometimes our sins show up in our actions—the hand that reaches out to slap, the foot that kicks, the eyes that roll and noses that snort. We claim to follow Jesus, yet our thoughts, words, and actions mock him viciously. We have sinned. We should be there on Calvary. We should be punished justly and receive what our deeds deserve.
God had a deeper purpose to carry out on that hill. Isaiah predicted it 7 centuries earlier. “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:4–5 NIV). Jesus hung on a cross too. He was punished, not because he had done something wrong, but because we had done everything wrong. One of the two men hanging next to Jesus recognized that. In the haze of pain, amid the voices that mocked Jesus, we hear him ask, “Don’t you fear God 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” (Luke 23:40–41 NIV). Jesus was innocent but he willingly endured the pain we deserved. He withstood the suffering for us. Nails pierced his hands and feet for our sins. Finally, Jesus died so that we could live.
Confronted by Jesus’ innocence and perfect sacrifice, the criminal repented. He heard Jesus forgive the soldiers who crucified him. Could Jesus forgive him too? The Holy Spirit changed this criminal’s heart as he endured his punishment and faced death. He turned to Jesus and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42 NIV). He also recognized that Jesus was the only one who holds the key to that kingdom. He has the key to eternal life. What would Jesus say? How would he respond? Would he laugh at the man and tell him, “I’m sorry, only good people can enter my kingdom!” Or, “I’m sorry, it’s too late. You’ve spent your whole life disobeying every last law and command I gave you. You’re going to spend eternity in hell!” Jesus didn’t lock the door. He didn’t open it just a crack and give the man a glimpse of what he would miss for an eternity. He unlocked the door and opened it wide: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43 NIV).
Jesus literally said, “Amen!” What I am about to tell you is true. I cannot lie. I will not lie. Truth!
“Today.” Not tomorrow, not after a few hundred years between hell and heaven working off all of those crimes. Today!
“With me.” What a beautiful phrase— “with me.” Jesus promised to do more than just remember the criminal as “one of the men I died with.” Jesus promised that the man would be with him. Truth! Today! With me!
“In paradise.” Jesus’ used the Persian word for an incredible garden, a place like the garden of Eden only better, safer, eternal. Jesus was opening the door to paradise and promising that this criminal would walk in. Truth! Today! With me! In paradise!
Can Jesus do that? Can he promise forgiveness and an open door to heaven for someone like that criminal? Can he promise it to us? Yes! That’s why we need to repent and turn to him. Jesus is the only one who can forgive us. Jesus is the only one who has the key to heaven. He unlocked the door for us with his perfect life and innocent death. He opened that door wide to all who acknowledge their sins and come to him for forgiveness. He welcomes us into paradise with open arms.
Repent. We all need to do it. We have plenty of sins! Turn to Jesus. Look what happened when the criminal repented! Jesus welcomed him to heaven. We’re not there yet, and none of us knows when the end of our lives will arrive So, what do we do? Remember what “repent” means? It means “change your mind,” or “make an 180-degree turn” in your life. With Jesus’ forgiveness and love, we can change what we’ve been doing. We can “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5 NIV). Instead of focusing our eyes on shows, or movies, or pictures that tempt us to sin, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8 NIV). The more time we spend in Jesus’ words and promises, the more we can focus on the incredible blessings he has showered on us in our lives. When we spend time in his Word, we can share what we have with the people around us. The more time we spend with him, the more we will be convinced that we really don’t want to live here because “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20 NIV).
Repent: turn to Jesus! He has the key to heaven, and the door is wide open waiting for us to arrive!
To God alone the glory!