“Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us. But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong. Then he said to Jesus, Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom. And Jesus said to him, Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)
When the three men were fastened with nails to their crosses and lifted up to die a slow and painful death, both malefactors joined in the mockery directed toward Jesus.
However, the more the malefactor on the right observed Jesus, the more he was affected by what he saw. He beheld how Jesus did not complain, express dissatisfaction, or protest.
Jesus’ innocence became apparent as this malefactor heard Jesus demonstrate a loving concern for His executioners, praying to the Father to make forgiveness their precious possession. The Holy Spirit brought life to this man’s soul when it was on the verge of death.
With amazement we consider what the grace of God does in a short period of time in the soul of an unlikely prospect. The malefactor is so moved that he rebukes the other who continues to throw shameful remarks toward Jesus. Then he speaks the words that critically need to be spoken–that is, his confession of sins. He doesn’t make excuses for his conduct. He doesn’t blame anyone else. He freely admits that he deserves exactly what he is getting.
Beautiful words continue to flow from this mouth that shortly before had been used to mock the Lord. He correctly and reverently declares the innocence of Jesus. He understands that he is being crucified with a Man who knew no sin. There must be a high purpose to Jesus’ being on the cross!
The Word Fulfilled
Finally, the malefactor speaks directly to Jesus. From what he had learned from the Scriptures as a child, and from what he knew of Jesus from that morning, he is certain that this same Jesus will appear again in glory. Nothing can prevent this from happening, not even the crucifixion. He is confident that the Word of God will be fulfilled in Jesus.
Nearly everyone was hoping for the Christ to establish a glorious, earthly kingdom. The penitent malefactor isn’t interested in that at all. He is hastening toward that Day when the glory of the Lord will appear and gather all believers into His heavenly kingdom. His prayer is for Jesus to remember him on that Day. He casts himself upon the mercy of the Lord. He places his soul in Jesus’ hands. As a miserable sinner, it is his only hope. But it is a hope generated within his heart by the Spirit.
Jesus answers the man’s prayer in a way which exceeded the man’s hopes! That day of glory to which the malefactor is looking forward is not far off. For him, that day is “today!” as he is about to leave this world and take that permanent step into eternity.
What awaits him later in the day is something that no sinner deserves: an entrance into Paradise. In the moment of his repentance and Jesus’ promise, every sin, every speck of guilt attached to that malefactor, is instantly and totally wiped out. With these simple yet powerful words, Jesus changes the status of the man from malefactor to saint. All this, of course, is accomplished on the basis of what Jesus has already begun to do–suffer and pay the debt for the sins of that malefactor and every one of us malefactors.
Our Savior gave the penitent malefactor the assurance of entering heaven. And through His Word of grace and sacraments, He offers the same thing to us. As we read: “For so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:11).
What a joy it is to know that Jesus makes “home” and “Paradise” mean the same thing for us!
–Pastor Delwyn Maas