Today is “Good” Friday, the day we recognize Jesus’s death on the cross. Growing up, I never understood what was so “good” about it. It seemed to me the death of our Lord and Savior would be a “bad” thing, right? Setting aside why it was happening, any day that begins with scourging and ends with death by crucifixion seems like it would be bad.
But this is the day we remember as “Good”. And 2,000 years ago, there Jesus was, suspended on a cross outside the city walls of Jerusalem, a name that means “City of Peace”. And it was far from a “peaceful” death.
In an ironic attempt to mock Him, the local Roman governor had labeled Him as the “King of the Jews”. Three of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) point out how everyone witnessing the crucifixion mocked Him, too. The crowds on the ground, the soldiers who pounded the nails and raised the crosses, and even the other prisoners who were crucified next to Him. In one way or another, they all said the same thing, “if you’re really the Messiah, come down from the cross. Save yourself.” The two men crucified with Him would add, “and save us, too.”
As I’ve heard multiple preachers explain, it was common practice for benevolent people to offer a type of anesthetic to those being crucified. It helped dull the pain, but it also had the side effect of making people a little bit crazy. Jesus refused it so as to feel the full weight of what He was doing, and I’m sure, to keep His senses about Him in His final trial. The two men crucified with Jesus had apparently taking the anesthetic, and during the beginning of the crucifixions, they both mocked him. “You’re the Son of God. Save yourself, and save us too.” But Luke, and only Luke, adds a quiet conversation between Jesus and one of the criminals next to Him (23: 40-43). After being on the cross for some time, the man regained his senses and spoke up with surprising resolution.
Luke records the conversation:
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? 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, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
A few things about this exchange always stood out to me.
First, did you notice that the second criminal took a stand against the other? “You idiot. Don’t you realize what’s happening here?” I wonder if it was part of that man’s personality, or just that the finality of his situation had fully set in. When people near you mock Jesus, do you take a stand to defend Him? I try to. I don’t always. I should. The second criminal didn’t quietly go along with it for fear of being labeled. He didn’t say “well, what you believe is fine for you, but I believe something different,” or “maybe we can find some common ground if we just talked about this.” No, he was pretty resolute in what he was saying.
Second, the second criminal made a full confession. “I know what I did, and it was wrong. I shouldn’t have done it, and my penalty is appropriate.” No excuses. No justification. No blaming someone else. Just humble acceptance. And, I would also imagine, a pretty healthy dose of genuine remorse and regret. I believe that he genuinely felt bad about whatever he had done that put him on that cross. Not just because he got caught. Not just because he was being executed. But because he was truly sorry for something he did wrong.
And then, most amazingly, he does something that I think very few of us would have the courage or strength to do. He asks for something he clearly doesn’t deserve. Something he knows he doesn’t deserve. He asks that God remembers him when He comes into His kingdom.
To say something like that demonstrates a tremendous amount of faith. It requires faith in the afterlife – believing that once the asphyxiation on the cross takes over and he loses consciousness, that’s not the end. It requires faith that Jesus actually is the Messiah. Faith that He will live after that cross. And the criminal has the faith, too, to believe that in some way, he too will live after that cross. He has enough faith to take a stand for his beliefs, and he clearly declares where he wants to spend the rest of that life: with Jesus.
I imagine there must have been more than a little trepidation in his voice. Probably a good bit of doubt, thinking that he could be wrong and that this cross was the end. But, he went forward anyway, and put his trust in Jesus.
Finally, Jesus’s response was so tender, so loving, so encouraging. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Endure just a little longer – it’ll all be worth it. What an amazing affirmation. How light must have been the heart of that criminal, who had been carrying around the emotional and mental anguish and regret of what he had done. To say nothing of the physical carrying of his own cross. And now, at the very end of his earthly life, Jesus clearly told him that his slate was wiped clean.
There was no mention of “okay, say these prayers, and you will be forgiven.” No implication of “go and do this to make up for it,” or “quick, someone get some water and baptize this man so he can go to heaven.” Jesus never said, “you lived an okay life, so you can come back as a butterfly.”
No, instead it was very simple: Jesus said, “you’re coming with me, and everything will be wonderful.” And that was enough. I don’t think any man had ever felt so much relief on a cross as that man did. No matter the terrible things he may have done before, he knew he had a ticket to be with God in heaven. And the very best part is that to get that ticket, the man only had to say four short sentences, spoken from the heart.
But that is the love of God, for us. No “works” to try and make up for our sins on our own. No lengthy process to ritually cleanse our souls. No hoops to jump through. No cathedrals to (re)build. No fine print. Just an open confession that Jesus is the son of God, asking for His forgiveness, and then receiving it. Every time I write out those words, part of me still wonders why the whole world hasn’t turned towards Christianity. I’m sure that for some, it’s the same reason that first criminal didn’t turn either: “you don’t fit my idea of what God should be, so I reject you.”
But back on that hillside, Jesus still hung, among sinners, just as had been prophesied in Isaiah, about 750 years before it happened. In a prior post, I mentioned that God always answers our prayers, even though sometimes He adds, “but not in that way”, or “but not right now.” As we remember the day He died for our sins on the cross so we don’t have to pay the price for the things we’ve done wrong, He shows that same Perpetual love again.
“Save yourself. Come down from the cross. And save us, too.”
Jesus’s response, again, so tender, so loving, yet unspoken, “Okay. I will. But first, I need to die for you.”
He came down from the cross. He saved Himself. And He saved others, too. And He did it after he died.
The two criminals were asking Him to deliver them from the weight of their sin – their specific sin that put them on their crosses. Jesus, though, had something better in mind. He made them wait just a little bit longer, endure a little more physical discomfort, but He delivered them from all of their sin. Not just what had put them on the cross. Not just what they had done a few weeks ago by accident. Not just what they had done when they were younger and probably forgot about. But every sin, including the sin they inherited from their father Adam.
The same Adam who, by eating what hung on a tree, caused Man to fall from God’s grace and the land to be cursed with thorns. (Genesis 3: 17-18)
Now, Jesus bore the full weight of that curse on His head in His crown of thorns. And as He, too, now hung on a tree, He saved us all from the penalty of all our sins and opened the door for us to return to God’s loving grace. All that we need to do is accept it.