From Luke 23
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him 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. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
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.”
The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.
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.”
That passage from Luke is one of my favorite because it speaks to the immeasurable love of Jesus Christ, that even in the midst of His own pain and suffering, as He was dying on the cross, He answered the one who called on His name and saved him from eternal condemnation.
I’m sure many sermons have been preached about the criminal who Jesus saved that day. But so there’s no confusion, this isn’t about him. This is about the criminal who was not saved, the one who said to Jesus, “You’re the Messiah? Then get us down off these crosses!” He’s the one I’m referring to here as the “other criminal.”
Very little is known about the other criminal and in fact, we don’t very much about either of them. We don’t know either of their names. We only that both men were under a sentence of death. They were getting what their deeds deserved. The one who said, “Jesus, remember me.” said so. One day we will know his name. We will meet him in Heaven. He is with Jesus at this very moment. He was very close to being eternally separated from God but in the final hours of his life, he discovered grace. He knows the saving power of Jesus first hand.
But what about the other criminal? We tend to dismiss him and focus more on the one who cried out to Jesus for salvation. But have you ever wondered about that other criminal? Have you ever wondered who he was? I have. And I’ve discovered who he was. He was me. Just like his partner in crime, the other criminal cried out to Jesus too, but for different reasons. All he wanted was for Jesus to get them out of the jam they were in. He just wanted to save his own skin. I’ve done the exact same thing. I’ve cried out to God on more than one occasion to get me out of some mess I had gotten myself into. For years I only prayed when I wanted something. I was just like the other criminal. And according to the Bible, we’re all just like the other criminal. In Romans 3, God’s word says:
There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.
And just a little further down, in verse 23, Paul wrote, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Now we’re all very familiar with Romans 3:23. But if you read that one single verse and stop right there, it almost paints a portrait of hopelessness. It very aptly describes who the other criminal was, and it also describes who we are. We are fallen sinners who can never be right in the eyes God, not on our own. You can’t read Romans 3:23 and stop there though. You have to read on, because in the following verse is found the message of hope. Verse 24: “And all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
It’s almost tempting to say that on one side of Jesus hung the criminal represented by Romans 3:23, and on the other side hung the criminal represented by Romans 3:24. But the truth is, verse 23 is an accurate depiction of both criminals. Just like all of us, both men sinned and fell short of the glory of God. Both were condemned to death, not just by the Roman authorities, but also by God. They both cried out to Jesus and asked to be spared. But that’s where the similarities end. One cried out to be spared from the cross, the other cried out to be spared from eternal condemnation. One cried out because he wanted a little more time in this world. The other cried out for eternal life. And He was the one who was justified, who was made right, by grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
On one side of Jesus then, we see redemption. On the other side, rejection. On one side of Jesus we see eternal salvation. On the other, eternal condemnation. Like those two criminals, everyone has a choice to make. To paraphrase the word of God spoken through Moses to the people of Israel: Set before us is life and death, blessings and curses. Choose Life!