A very bad man was getting what he deserved, and he knew it. He said to another criminal, “We are receiving the due reward for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41).
He was speaking of Jesus, who was hanging on a death instrument between these two criminals. I suppose both of the criminals knew they were getting what they deserved, and neither of them liked it. Both of them even prayed for Jesus’ salvation. One prayed, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (23:39). This criminal was looking for a cheap way out. He was asking for temporal salvation. He wanted Jesus to skirt justice for him. But Jesus didn’t do it, because that’s not what Jesus does. That criminal didn’t get what he asked for. He died, just as he deserved. Justice wasn’t a big deal to him, and he got it.
But the other criminal respected the justice of his situation. He knew he was getting what he deserved, and he didn’t fight it (23:40-41). So instead of asking Jesus to skirt justice, he asked Jesus to be merciful. He prayed, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42).
It might seem like a fine distinction, but the difference is real. Mercy is not the same thing as skirting justice. Mercy comes as a result of Jesus satisfying justice. If Jesus answers the first criminal’s prayer—if he hops down off the cross and rescues these two criminals—then there is neither justice nor mercy. But Jesus stays on the cross. He satisfies justice and, therefore, grants mercy to each repentant sinner.
The second criminal’s prayer is a remarkable display of faith. Think about who he directed his prayer to. He prayed to a condemned criminal, who was mocked as a pretend king and hung on a cross to die. He could see Jesus’ humiliation, and he could tell death was imminent. Jesus’ own disciples had fled in fear. They had given up on the “kingdom dream.” But this criminal believes. He seems to be the last believer left. He is the only person on earth to look at Jesus on his cross and see a king. So he prays to a dying man, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” That’s either remarkable or stupid. Jesus’ resurrection proves it to be remarkable.
But as remarkable as that prayer is, it’s nothing compared to Jesus’ response. “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (23:43). The criminal rightly believed that someday, somehow, Jesus would come into his kingdom. And Jesus assured him, that day was, “Today.” That’s right. That’s what Jesus was doing on the cross. He was coming into his kingdom. He is the King who reigns through suffering.
And by some miracle of faith, a criminal was the only one to see it. He prayed for mercy. So Jesus took the criminal’s justice, and the criminal received Jesus’ mercy.
Behold your King in his suffering. He has taken your justice. He has given you his mercy.
The peace of Christ be with you all,