The Man Who Died Next To Jesus

There is an ex-convict walking the streets of gold who knows more about grace than a million pastors. His understanding of its doctrines would put the greatest of theologians to shame.
And his story is my story.

The Mockery of Christ

All four Gospels tell us about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In Matthew 27, Christ carried His death machine to “the place of the skull” – an appropriate name for the place where humanity would seek to kill God.
Arriving at this wretched place, His hands and feet were nailed onto wooden beams, and He was left to die. An execution called shameful, gross, and demeaning. Considered worthy for only the worst kind of people: slaves, pirates, or traitors to the state.
The kind of men we would spit on if we saw them. The kind of men in whose death we would rejoice.
Christ was not alone in His misery. Two men hung on His right and left, dying for the punishment of their own sins. Of these two men, we know very little, except that when priests and the teachers of the law mocked the God-man, they were joined by the voices of these two convicts. Matthew tells us that these two guilty lowlifes “heaped insults on him”. Mark’s account (Mark 15:27-32) is almost identical.
These two men, probably enemies of the state, hurled insults onto an innocent man, the innocent God.
But Luke, in his search for details, shows us that for one man, mockery was not the end. In Luke 23:35-43, the King of Kings performed one of His greatest miracles and showed people of all generations what the grace of God looks like:

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.’

Jesus Speaks

Jesus speaks to this man. This horrible, wretched man. This man who, by his own admission, deserved the the shame and torture of crucifixion.
Do not ignore the gravity of Jesus’ choice to speak.
He refused to answer Pilate.
He responded with silence as the guards beat Him and called for Him to prophesy.
He was quiet to Herod’s questions.
He had nothing to say to those who accused Him in His farce of a trial.
He ignored those who mocked Him.
But to a desperate criminal, He spoke, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.
This man did not deserve the grace of God. A few moments earlier he had mocked Christ. But in between, something inside him changed. This man who had lost everything, who was on the brink of death, who was rightly being judged for his crimes; this disgusting criminal of a man, without hope, turned to the innocent man dying next to him and boldly turned from his mockery and defended Christ against the words of his accusers.
And with the desperation of a man at the end of his rope, he asked for compassion. He asked for grace. And amazingly, the Son of God turned to that man and said, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.
This is grace.

Death After Salvation

But even this was not the end of the man’s story.
In the Gospel of John (19:31-32), we read that after Jesus died, this man still lived.
In order to hasten his death, the guards smashed the bones in his legs to bits. And he died, slowly and alone, likely to the sound of mockery.
I can’t imagine what must have gone through his mind. Jesus had responded to his plea, but now Jesus was dead. The sun had lost its light, the Earth shook, the veil was broken, and this man was left dying.
Was he scared? Did he think that all hope was lost?
He was suffocating, slowly. Painfully. Maybe bleeding out from his hands and feet. Two broken legs adding to his suffering. Were Jesus’ words still in his mind?

I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.

Did he worry that Jesus had lied to him? Did he know of Hell? Did its existence shake him to his core?
I guess I’ll never know.
But I do know that one day, I shall meet this man in paradise. The Christ whose blood washes me of my sins also washed this man clean. He closed his eyes for the final time and opened them in paradise.
In this life, there will be pain. In this life, there will be moments of fear. There will be times when you stare down the anguish of life’s agonies and wonder, “Did Christ lie to me? Am I truly His? Will I see Him one day?”
And as you struggle in these things, remember the man whose blood was shed beside Jesus and who, though a wretched sinner deserving of death, received grace that saved him from the fire that does not cease.

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