This is one of the most famous stories from the cross. Along with Jesus, two robbers were crucified by his side. And at first, both mocked him. In the ESV, it says
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39)
Somehow, that word, “railed,” really strikes me. And it makes me think about how many people rail at God when they face the consequences for their sin. Here was this criminal who had done wrong and was being punished for it, but far from being repentant, it seems he felt that he was being wronged. Perhaps he felt justified in the things that he had done, and so as he railed at Jesus, he said, “Are you really the Christ? Then save me from this! I don’t deserve this!”
Apparently, according to the other gospels, the second criminal joined in with the first in railing at Jesus, at least at first. But perhaps as Jesus refused to answer, but instead only looked with pity upon his abusers, the second criminal started to quiet down. He saw the dignity of Jesus in a situation where all dignity had seemingly been stripped away from him. He saw the compassion, love, and forgiveness Jesus had for those who had crucified him. And as he did, perhaps he remembered all the stories he had heard about Jesus. Perhaps, he had even gone to listen to Jesus at one time and seen him perform all those miracles.
As he considered all these things, perhaps he then looked at himself, and for the first time, admitted, “I was wrong. I made all these excuses for what I did. But ultimately, those were just excuses. I was wrong. I deserve this.”
And so after hearing again the railings of the man beside him, he said,
Don’t you fear God…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. (40-41)
Then he turned to Jesus, and pled with him,
Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. (42)
I’m not sure, but perhaps for the first and only time on the cross, Jesus smiled. And he said,
I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise. (43)
And in that moment, the man was saved. In death, he found he life.
As I said, so many people are like the first man on the cross. They do wrong, but when they are caught in their sin and suffer for it, instead of admitting their wrong, they rail at God.
Sometimes, people wonder how God could allow eternal punishment. I think part of it is because there is no repentance in hell. Rather, there is an eternal railing against God. They rail that they were justified in their actions. And they rail that God would punish them for what they know deep in their heart is wrong. And part of hell is the knowing they are wrong and are getting what they deserve, but being too proud to admit it.
But for those who will only recognize their sin, humble themselves, and repent, as the second criminal did, there is forgiveness and there is life.
But that time is now. Because once you are dead, it is too late. As the apostle Paul wrote,
I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation. (II Corinthians 6:2)
How about you? Have you humbled yourself before Jesus? Have you received his salvation?