Jean’s Gospel: Paradise for the Condemned
“Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’ ” (Luke 23:32-38)
Our text does not tell us of what offenses the criminals were guilty. It just calls them criminals. But that is just as well, for if we knew their offenses we might be tempted to pass right by this story comfortable that the text is not speaking to us. The reality, however, is quite the opposite: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23); and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23); and again, “the law brings wrath” (Rom. 4:15).
Most of us will not be condemned in a human court of law or put to death publicly like the two criminals crucified next to Jesus. Most of us will die from old age, disease, or, for a few of us, as victims of an accident or crime. But every death is a judgment: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). In the sight of God, all of us have earned the wages of death. Our sin has brought us all under the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18). Our judgment is only a matter of time.
The two criminals were condemned for breaking the law; for their sin. Their time was almost up. They were crucified lawfully by the Romans, who administered “God’s wrath” as “ministers of God” (Rom. 13:5-6). Pilate was of the “governors as sent by to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” (1 Pet. 2:14)
It is fitting that we remember this story during the season of Advent. Advent means “coming.” Traditionally, during Advent, we prepare to celebrate the first coming of Jesus: His nativity in Bethlehem, and look forward to His second coming, when he brings final judgment, the resurrection and a new heaven and a new earth. But in between these two major Advents, there is an individual Advent for every Christian.
When Jesus comes, He comes not just to but for the objects of His coming. If Jesus had been hung between the two criminals, but without uttering a word, the criminals would not have experienced His Advent. True Jesus was right there between them, fully God and fully man, but without His saving word for these sinners, their time would have expired, and they would have died eternally in their sins.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
But Jesus does not just come to these criminals (or the others present who crucified or mocked Him), He comes for them. “Father, forgive them….” In Matthew’s account, initially both criminals “reviled him in the same way” (Matt. 27:44) as did the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, who mocked Him (Matt. 27:41). Even at this horrendous moment, Jesus intercedes for these people.
In these words, “Father, forgive them,” we behold Christ our Mediator. Jesus stands between us and God. Yes, we are judged sinners, guilty and deserving of eternal punishment, so we need forgiveness. But that is only half the story. On the cross, Jesus bore our sins in His body. He redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us. He died for our sins. And Jesus satisfied the wrath of God for us. Thus, because of His sacrifice for us, Jesus is able to intercede with His Father for our forgiveness.
Therefore, we should read, “Father, forgive them,” believing and confident of two things: First, Jesus does not intercede abstractly; He intercedes for you personally; you are among the “them” for whom Jesus intercedes. If Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), and if “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24), which in both cases is most certainly true, then Jesus came and died for every one of us, for whom He suffered the judgment that we have earned.
Second, God your Father most surely forgives you all your sins. Why? Not because you have done anything worthy of forgiveness, but solely because “one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” (Rom. 5:18) That one act of righteousness was Jesus dying on the cross for your sins.
“One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.’ ” (Luke 23:39-43)
One of the criminals heard Jesus from the cross and believed that He is the Son of God, that He was innocent, and that His Father would not let His Holy One see corruption (Ps. 16:10; Acts:2:27). The Advent of Jesus to and for this criminal bestowed faith by the hearing of the word of Christ.
We hear his confession: “for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds.” The other unbelieving criminal knew this as well. The only difference between the two men had nothing to do with the nature of their crimes or any amendment of life. The only difference between them was that only one of them believed Jesus, that is, believed that Jesus procured His Father’s forgiveness for him by His one act of righteousness. Thus, when he pleaded with Him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus revealed to this man what faith in Jesus grasps onto: Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.
This promise of Jesus remains for us today. Wherever the Gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed, there is an Advent for the hearers of His saving word. He comes to us full of grace and truth in the Gospel. Let us not despise this Gospel but hear it and believe it with thanksgiving. Our days in our sinful flesh are numbered, but through faith in Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and was raised for our justification, death is just a short interlude, just a going to sleep, followed by a waking to Jesus in paradise. Amen.