One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? 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, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."
Luke 23: 39-43, NIV
The irony here is hard to miss. Here we have the Righteous One, the One who made the blind to see, who made the lame to walk, who cleansed the leper, and raised the dead – the One who preached the good news to the poor, who ate with sinners, who loved the unlovable – who was willing to touch the untouchable – here we have this Jesus being sentenced to death.
And this perfect man, this man so filled with love, who was gentle and humble in heart, is now bloody, bruised, and beaten, and nailed to a tree. And if that doesn’t make sense to you, then consider the fact that hoards of wicked, godless people were pummeling him with words of anger, and hatred, hurling every bit of sarcasm at him that they can muster. Matthew in his gospel tells us that at first both of the criminals who were being crucified beside him were reviling him and joining in on the taunting of the crowd, “He saved others, why not himself? What about this temple you said you would destroy and rebuild in three days? (If they only knew what was happening in front of them when they said that!) “If you really are the king of Israel, come down from there!” You see, the One who possessed words of life is now facing words of death.
Luke tells us that one of the criminals looked at him and spouted, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself, and us!” It is seemingly at that very moment that the Spirit of God does an amazing thing in the heart of the criminal dying on Jesus’ other side. For in a moment of self-reflection he realizes that his own sentence is just. He knows he deserves to pay for the guilt of his sin and he confesses his guilt with his own mouth – but this man, “what has he done?”
So in that one snapshot of history, we see the perfect example of the greatest exchange the world has ever known. A criminal confesses his sin, and confesses the truth about Jesus – that the man dying next to him was without sin, and that He was the King, the Messiah. And in this powerful moment, Jesus, who had an immeasurable amount of sin being placed upon his own shoulders, was willing to shoulder the guilt and sins of one more.
So for that criminal, in that moment, his sin and his guilt was transferred to our Lord who was hanging just a few feet away, and the perfect righteousness of the Son of God was credited to him in exchange. What a great deal that was for that criminal – at one moment he was spiritually bankrupt, and in the next moment his cup runneth over as God’s grace and perfect righteousness is given to him. And in an intimate moment he looks to His Savior and calls out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Now his statement is an expression of the Jewish hope that one will be delivered on the last day, that at the end of time he will experience life again. But Jesus makes an even better promise. For this criminal will not have to wait ‘til the end of time to experience fellowship and life with God.’ No, the Savior turns to him in the midst of his own suffering and assures him by saying, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
For all who truly believe, this is our hope...may your heart be filled with thanksgiving, and great expectation.