Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43)
His pain was excruciating on that darkest day in history. He agonized beside two other men that Rome tortured to death. Nameless by all Scriptural accounts, he was known simply as one of the two robbers crucified by Jesus’s side (Matthew 27:38). Unbeknownst to him, his perilous end had been foretold centuries before by the prophet Isaiah, “and they made his grave with the wicked” and, “he was numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:9, 12).
He was there as the Son of God climbed the tree. The blood. The cries. The shame. The Light of the world hung, framed between two criminals. Nails pierced their hands and feet. They tremored in agony. The anguish made it hard to breathe, hard to think of anything but the pain. Add to this torture the agony of his memory. The man beside Jesus did not die a martyr’s death. By his own admission, he died for his crimes (Luke 23:41). An infamous life led to an infamous death. What would he have to reflect on?
His life seemed to end in even further tragedy as he joins in with the crowd, scribes, and Pharisees in mocking Jesus (Matthew 27:44). His voice, straining between moans and cries, sings with the choir of scoffers as Psalm 22 unfolded, “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’” (Psalm 22:7–8). His life of sin now culminated in despising God to his face.
This man — a thief and blasphemer, hung on a cross mocking the Son of God — came to see clearly who hung beside him.
Could He Be?
Maybe it was what he heard from his enemies: “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” (Luke 23:35) If even his enemies admit that he saved others, why could he not save me? Could he really be the Christ of God, his Chosen One?
Maybe it was what he saw. From the throng of weeping women trailing behind Jesus, to a crowd gathering to see whether he will save himself, to enemies surrounding to hurl assaults at him: Who is this man? A sign above his head read, “This is the King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38). Could he really be?
Maybe it was the supernatural event of his death: Darkness from noon until 3 o’clock (Matthew 27:45). What could explain this blackening out of the sun itself? Who is this that even the sun blushes and turns to flee at his death?
Maybe it was what he heard Jesus say. As men mocked this tormented man beside him, laughing and insulting him for sport, he met their derision with prayer: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Who is this that speaks thus over his enemies, while their nails are in the hands and their words shoot at him as arrows? Who is this man pleading for others, calling God “Father”? Could I be an answer to this King’s prayer? Can I be forgiven?
He Tasted Life in Death
He would be. The Father would forgive this man who hung with his Son in the dark. Nailed to a cross, one foot in death’s door, just breathes from hell’s eternal flames, and then this:
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “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.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. (Luke 23:39–42)
From reviling Jesus to rebuking his fellow thief for doing the same. He sought forgiveness, he now had a fear of God and saw his own punishment as just. He knew Jesus hung there as an innocent man, a King with a kingdom. He asked for the Lord to remember him when he goes from this cross to his crown. He knew this Christ to have mercy and grace, enough to forgive even him. And as he writhed in pain, he heard these words, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
This man would sing these lyrics loudest later that day in paradise.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I’m found,
Was blind, but now I see.
God put life into this broken vessel, just as he does for all of his children.