“This man has done nothing wrong!” came a dying man’s impassioned plea.
It was this horrifying scene. Three men, iron nails through their wrists and feet, hanging on rough wooden beams. One man, the featured execution, had a shredded back and bloody head from the beating he endured and the mock crown of thorns on his scalp. He was, by far, the worse for wear. The punishment reaped upon him would have killed the average man. He should have at least lost consciousness from the blood that was spilled. As he hung from his cross he, too, was talking, but not to the two men hanging beside him. He was talking upward and outward. Psalms came from his lips — quotations of sacred scripture.
It wasn’t easy for anyone to speak. The witnesses of the executions could hardly speak considering the gruesome sight before their eyes. Crucifixions were ugly affairs, meant to shame the dead and warn the living. Transgressions would be met with death. For those shamed, speaking was difficult because the longer they were fastened to their crosses, the less air they were able to breathe. Crucifixion is a drowning process. It takes air away. So in Luke 23, when one crucified man started reviling Jesus and mocking him from his post, he was choosing to spend, essentially, his final breaths on the task. The other criminal spent his final moments of air defending the Lord. In a way you have a prosecution/defense scenario playing out while the three men died together.
“If this man is who he claimed to be,” the prosecution pointed verbally at the defendant next to him, “why doesn’t he save himself with his miraculous power and — if he’s really that great — save us, too?”
The prosecution went back to dying. The defense responded, “Don’t you fear God? I deserve this, you deserve this… but this man between us? He doesn’t deserve this. He is innocent.” The words of the criminal echoed those of the trial judge (Pilate) earlier: “I find no fault in him.” With this, the defender turned towards Jesus.
“Jesus,” he said, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
It only took one look — one simple roll of the head — and destiny was forever changed. For one man, for all men, for all women. Jesus said something very simple and yet very important for all to hear — in all of space and time.
“Today,” he said. Today. This day. Maybe this hour. When we both die. “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Saved. The man would be saved. When he breathed his last that afternoon he would be together with the innocent man beside him in his kingdom. In his place of reward. In paradise. it was somewhere every Jew knew the righteous went to dwell upon death. Paradise. Where Abraham and Isaac and Jacob were enjoying the righteous reward, whatever that was, as well as King David, and Elijah and Elisha and Ezra and Zerubbabel and John the Baptist and… Paradise. Every Jew knew that the wicked went to Sheol, that place of wicked torment, and the place to which this man’s actions had condemned him. One criminal thought he was beyond saving so he let his insults fly. The other thought there was still a chance. A fool’s hope, perhaps, but a chance.
No one is beyond the saving arm of the Lord. At any point in their life, even on their deathbed. The criminal on the cross got to enjoy the Christian life for all of seconds, minutes or an hour at the most. He never joined a church. He never partook of the Eucharist (communion). We never get to hear his life story and then see him baptized. He received a ticket to Paradise because he did one thing: believe in Jesus.
I’m ever amazed at how simple spiritual salvation really is. We want to complicate it because it doesn’t match our logical reasoning for saving. What did you do to deserve saving? That is society’s common thought. The simple biblical truth is that we cannot save our spiritual selves. Utter and total failure. No meditation, prayer, medication or routine can save us. We have a disease — sin — that we cannot cure. It is inherent and it is fatal. Only when we reach outside of ourselves to ask for the healing that God provides can we find a cure for our disease. And when we do — bam! — instant salvation.
There was no “catch” for the thief on the cross. Jesus didn’t make him atone for his sin. The man was about to die for that. But what was atoned for was his soul. Jesus did that. The man could not. Christ looked at him and said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
“For it is by grace you have been saved through faith and this is not of your own, it is a gift of God, not by works so that no man can boast of it.” This story illustrates Ephesians 2:8-9 perfectly. It is by grace through faith. Jesus showed his grace to the criminal when he expressed his faith. And the criminal was saved.
It was — and IS — that simple. No tricks.