Which side of the CROSS are YOU on? Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)
The above scriptural passage reveals the conversation between three men who have been condemned by the Roman Governor to die horribly through crucifixion. Two of the men on the left and right are condemned criminals, who are getting the correct punishment that they deserve for whatever they have done. In the middle cross hangs an innocent and righteous Man, who has done nothing deserving of death. This fact was verified multiple times by the trial courts of both Pilate the Roman Governor, and Herod the Jewish tetrarch of Galilee (see Luke 23:4, 14, 15, 22).
As the three men were hanging on their crosses, based on the other Gospel narratives, both the criminals initially insulted Jesus. However, in the Gospel of Luke, one of the unrepentant criminal charged at the Son of God hanging on the cross next to him: “If He was the Christ, why did He not save them all?” Even until his final breathing moments on this earth, this hard-hearted criminal “blasphemed” against Jesus, and he was blind to recognize that the ‘giver of life’ was so close to him to grant his desires if only he would ask Him in the right way!
It is only in the Gospel of Luke that we read that the other criminal apparently had a change of heart and, with his faltering understanding, cast himself on Jesus’ mercy. Turning to his criminal companion, he rebuked him for his irreverence. He reasoned that after all they were both suffering for crimes that they had committed, and their punishment was well deserved. He recognized that the Man hanging on the middle cross had done nothing wrong as he knew the difference between those who had sinned and deserved to die and the One who did not!
Turning to Jesus, this repentant criminal asked Jesus (addressing Him as ‘Lord’) to remember him when He came back and set up His kingdom on earth. His faith was remarkable as he sincerely believed that Jesus would eventually reign as the “King of the Jews”. It is but certain that he had repeatedly read the inscription nailed above the head of Jesus that read: "THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS" (v.38). While others mocked Jesus’ seeming inability to save Himself, this criminal recognized that Jesus would live and rule one day. He too wanted to be saved and take part in Christ’s kingdom. So, this criminal made the right choice and humbly asked Jesus to remember him when He would take over His kingdom. Jesus rewarded the faith of this repentant criminal by promising that they would be together in Paradise that very day. Paradise refers to the dwelling place of God, which is the state of blessedness from death to resurrection. This criminal had sought eternal life in the future, but received the assurance of everlasting blessing starting that very day!
In his exposition called 'Luke', Charles R. Erdman writes: "This story reveals the truth to us that salvation is conditioned upon repentance and faith. However, it contains other important messages also. It declares that salvation is independent of sacraments. The thief had never been baptized, nor had he partaken of the Lord’s Supper. ... He did in fact boldly profess his faith in the presence of a hostile crowd and amid the taunts and jeers of rulers and soldiers, yet he was saved without any formal rites….out of a life of sin and shame, the penitent robber passed immediately into a state of blessedness. Again it may be remarked that salvation is not universal. There were two robbers; only one was saved. Last of all it may be noted that the very essence of the joy which lies beyond death consists in personal communion with Christ. The heart of the promise to the dying thief was this: “Thou shalt be with me.” This is our blessed assurance, that to depart is “to be with Christ” which is “very far better.”
You too should make the right choice about Jesus, as your eternal destiny is at stake! Both the criminals got the same opportunity to make the right choice about Jesus – while one blasphemed and was condemned to eternal separation from God, the other criminal repented and was rewarded with an eternal fellowship with Jesus. Hanging on the cross next to Jesus, the Son of God, while one criminal went to hell, another criminal went to heaven. Today, you need to choose which side of the cross are you on?