"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)
Beaten and bloody, Jesus was nailed to the cross as Jerusalem's final blow against the man who had claimed to be the Son of God. After hours of torture and mockery, this Jesus of Nazareth had finally been conquered. Never again would he threaten the authority of the Pharisees. Never again would he speak of a strange kingdom that they could not find. No more would he blaspheme God by claiming to forgive sins. Or so they thought. Rather, one of Jesus' last acts was of forgiveness and a promise of entrance into his kingdom. Not only did he declare forgiveness for those who took part in his crucifixion, but also for an unlikely individual who had a divine appointment with the Messiah that day.
Two criminals were also being crucified with Jesus that day, hanging on each side of him. James and John, two disciples, had asked Jesus for places of honor when he came into his kingdom, but they truly did not know what they were asking. (Mark 10:35-39) As Jesus was preparing the way for the entrance of his kingdom, instead two criminals, one at his right hand, and the other at his left, were positioned next to him.
Juxtaposed with Jesus, these two men created a startling contrast. They were not of the same nature. They were hardened men, and their sinful choices had ultimately awarded them the death penalty. The effect of a bitter, hardened heart is evident in one of them. His response to Jesus was one of ridicule and contempt. His words were not words of faith in Jesus' ability to save, but rather a cruel taunt for Jesus to prove that he was who he said he was. This criminal failed to understand that by remaining on the cross, Jesus was already proving himself.
The other man on the cross already knew who Jesus was. He understood he was getting what he deserved, but he also knew that Jesus had done nothing deserving of death. To him, it was an honor to die next to Jesus, having one last opportunity to ask for forgiveness. But what is even more moving is the faith behind his words to Jesus: "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
This condemned and dying man demonstrated more faith than many of Jesus' own followers. As a result, he was the first to be redeemed by the blood of Jesus. This proves that even a defiant and destructive life can be reconciled to God.
Though the rebellious criminal had the opportunity to be forgiven, he chose not to take it so he died in bitterness and sin. On the other hand, the repentant criminal humbly accepted his punishment, but seized the opportunity to have everlasting life. And Jesus, with his body brutally beaten and his flesh torn, spoke words of comfort and reconciliation for the dying man.