He came from a small, country town, respectable home, good community. But while there was plenty of encouragement and no shortage of opportunity, this particular lad seemed determined to rebel from the word ‘go’! If there was trouble, he was in the thick of it. He broke his parents’ hearts. They tried everything, pleaded with him but he had really ‘turned to the dark side’. Barely out of his teens, he was drawn to the lights of the big city and there he got mixed up with some serious criminal people. Some of his school teachers later said he was ‘easily led’ but truth be told he knew what he was getting into. Deep down we all know.
For a while he flashed the cash and lived a high life but then he got on the wrong side of the Romans and you don’t mess with them! It seemed to happen in a flash – he was arrested, convicted and next thing he was being led out with one of his accomplices and another man to a place called Calvary to be crucified.
There he was hung naked in agony and disgrace to pay for his crimes against society and there had been plenty! All the abuse and wickedness he had visited upon his neighbours. But this is not the biggest part of the scandal. Many in the crowd would have simply shrugged their shoulders and said he was only getting what he deserved. He was a criminal, a corrupt and dangerous man. Many would sleep easier that night knowing he was off the streets.
The real scandal comes in the last hour, the last moments of this man’s life on earth. He seems to recognise the man on the next cross, he seems to know him. Possibly he heard him preaching back in his Capernaum days, but he’d had no time for such things then. He’d heard people say in passing this was the Messiah, the Son of God, a Saviour.
From what feels like a million years ago he hears his old synagogue teacher quoting scripture about the Lord their God being compassionate and gracious and he is suddenly stricken with remorse.
He knows he’s guilty, that he deserves to die. He knows he’s lost, he’s been lost his whole life, lost by the rubbish life choices he deliberately made along the way.
He has nothing to offer, no way he can make recompense for his crimes.
Cynics would say it was calculating and insincere but in the last hour we are past caring about such things. So this dying criminal calls out to the man on the next cross, the preacher from Nazareth, he cries to Jesus ‘Remember me when you come into your Kingdom’.
- Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!
And here is the scandal of outrageous, undeserved grace – Jesus, Son of God, replies with an amazing promise, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise’!
Earlier in Luke’s Gospel we read how Jesus said He came ‘to seek and to save that which was lost’. Some might mutter none was more ‘lost’ than this scoundrel, saved by the skin of his teeth in the last moments of his earthly life.
However, this account in the Bible, the episode of the dying criminal actually gives us an accurate and sobering picture of us all. Here is a picture of men and women and young people everywhere, the whole human race.
We are time limited with guilt outstanding. That’s it in a nutshell. We will all die one day and have to give an account of ourselves before God. And we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory for which He created us.
This raises the question of how we rate ourselves. How do we assess how we’re doing in life?
A man may look in the mirror and not like some of what he sees so what does he do? He compares himself to others and says to himself, ‘Hmm, my hair’s going a bit grey BUT at least I still have some – there are others my age with no hair at all!’
We all do this in many ways. Looks. Talent. Achievement. We tell ourselves we’re maybe not as good as that person but we’re much better than those people. We may not be in the top 10% but we’re definitely in the better 50% overall.
That may work with self-counselling or dealing with other human beings but not when it comes to being righteous before a holy God! In this case we’re all in the same category as the dying criminal. Same status; guilty! Under the same sentence: death! Read the 10 Commandments again. Read the Sermon on the Mount.
This Gospel account gives us an uncomfortable but true picture of ourselves – time limited, guilty and in need of saving!
Luke also gives us in this same passage a picture of true faith. This person has nothing to offer God but penitence – honest sorrow for his sins. There is nothing he can do except trust in the Saviour provided, Jesus the Messiah, for grace and mercy. Well has the hymn-writer put it:
‘Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling,
Naked, come to Thee for dress,
Helpless, look to Thee for grace.
Foul, I to the fountain fly
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.’
Finally, scandalous as it might seem at first to some people, the Gospel here gives us a wonderful picture of amazing grace.
There is forgiveness for dying sinners because the man on the next cross, Jesus, holy Son of God, bore all our sin and its punishment there at Calvary.
We may know families that have received bad news from the doctor. We know we’re all time-limited but they have been given a specific time-frame, a number of months or years. It’s the worst news. Naturally people feel overwhelmed with sorrow and fear but those who trust in Jesus like this man are given genuine hope. We find hope in the promise of the Son of God our gracious, merciful Saviour that physical death whenever, however it comes will be for us the door to Paradise with Him.
‘Here is love, vast as the ocean,
Loving kindness as the flood
When the Prince of Life, our ransom
Shed for us His precious blood.
Who His love will not remember?
Who can cease to sing His praise?
He can never be forgotten
Throughout heaven’s eternal days.’
The bottom line is, we’re all ‘dying criminals, mortal breakers of God’s Laws and Commands. We all deserve to die, now and forever! But because the Son of God suffered and died for our sins, all who trust in Him may know the promise of eternal comfort.
Thanks be to God!