We will be posting a series of devotionals for the 7 days of Holy Week, leading up to Resurrection Sunday. Each is a reflection on one of the seven sayings of Jesus on the cross.
“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Today we look at the second saying of Jesus while He was hanging on the cross. For me, this mini-narrative that takes place during the crucifixion is the easiest to identify with, because the two criminals hanging on either side of Jesus is a literal example of the most common responses humanity has to the power of Jesus.
On one side, a criminal scoffs and mocks Jesus, questioning how someone who is supposed to be so powerful is in the same boat as him? If Jesus is God, why not get down, why not fix the situation, or what the criminal is really asking, why won’t you fix MY situation?
Often, one of the biggest barriers for people to come to Jesus is the question of “why doesn’t God stop the bad things in the world?” This is a legitimate question for people to wonder about since we believe God is both all-powerful and all-loving. So why wouldn’t He spare the world from hurt and pain? But I think when people ask this, they may have selfish motives inside of them whether they show it or not. It’s not just that they expect Jesus to intervene in the tragedies of the world, such as hunger, oppression, disease, natural disasters, etc.. But it’s that they want Jesus to specifically spare them from any difficulty or harm. And the ironic aspect of this desire, is that Jesus is literally, in this moment on the cross, doing the work that can save this criminal and save all of us from ultimate difficulty and harm.
I frequently talk to our students about having a “zoomed out” perspective on life. It’s easy to be caught up in this day, this exact moment, this exact situation and think what is happening now can never be overcome and will last forever. When problems arise in life we question where God is, why He doesn’t care, why He doesn’t do something. But, if we zoom out, we see God’s perspective on the situation. We can see how God has been at work and still is at work. We can see how present difficulties can be used for good in some way down the road. And ultimately, we can see that in the big picture, God has taken care of the eternal problem of our lives; our sin separating us from a holy perfect God. The first criminal missed this, and wanted satisfaction in the here and now.
But the second criminal also speaks up, and gives an incredible, yet simple, statement of faith. The other criminal understands that he fully deserves where he is and what is happening to him. His crimes, his actions, his evil has put him right where he belongs, hanging on a cross to face death. That’s where I deserve to be. That’s where you deserve to be. We might think we’re “good” people, but we aren’t. We are selfish, egotistical, prideful, sinners who think we can do life on our own without God. We think we deserve good things from God because we’re not as bad as we could be, or as that neighbor, or coworker, or classmate that is MUCH worse. But that’s us judging ourselves on our own scales of justice, not the perfect scales of God. No amount of good can ever come close to enough to be right with a holy God.
The second criminal understands this. He says, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40-41).
This is the response we need. We need to see ourselves hanging on that cross because it’s the only thing we deserve. And Jesus being next to us is not what He deserves. He should be the one on the ground doing the crucifying if He wanted to be fair. Thank goodness He isn’t fair. Praise Him for being gracious and merciful. Jesus has done nothing wrong, but He’s exactly where He wants to be so that we don’t have to be next to Him receiving death.
The second criminal then makes a simple request in Luke 23:42, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Over the years in youth ministry a common issue that has made students hesitant to put their faith in Jesus is that they don’t understand everything about Him or the Bible. Or they think they need to figure out the habitual sins in their lives before Jesus will accept them. This story is a place I often turn to show them what Jesus asks of us when we come to Him. The criminal doesn’t recite the thread of Jesus through the Old Testament up to this moment. He doesn’t make amends with all the people he’s wronged before talking to Jesus. He doesn’t do anything other than acknowledge that he deserves this, Jesus doesn’t, and He hopes Jesus remembers Him.
What this criminal doesn’t know, is that Jesus has known Him since the foundation of the world. Jesus knows everything this man has ever done or thought and has been thinking of Him while He’s dying for His sins. Of course Jesus will remember him! It is Jesus’ greatest desire for us to ask Jesus to personally know us and for us to know Him.
This week, rest in the truth of the promise that we will be with Jesus in Paradise. It’s true, there are many hardships and trials in this life that we may pray and wish that He would deliver us from. But zoom out. See the big picture. The greatest threat we could ever face, our own sin and the punishment we deserve for it, has been defeated. Our price has been paid even though we didn’t earn it or deserve it. Take this week to remember Jesus and to rest in the beautiful truth that our Savior was thinking of and remembering us when He was on that cross, and is now preparing a place for us to remain with Him for eternity.