Rejection has been the theme of these last few chapters, the Jews reject Jesus and Jesus rejects them. But the final conversation that Jesus has is one of acceptance, as Jesus is accepted by a criminal and gloriously the criminal is accepted into the kingdom of God. Let pause, and consider this interaction.
The first criminal joins in with the chorus of rejection:
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (v. 39)
He does not see what the disciples did not see (22:24-27), Jesus kingdom is different. Jesus is either the save himself or he can save others, he cannot do both. He must sacrifice himself for his followers. We saw in the Garden of Gethsemane, that is only his obedience, his willing offering of himself, which can deal with the disobedience and weakness of his followers.
But the second criminal rebukes the first:
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? (v. 40)
This second criminal faces death with honest realism. He has no hope of being saved from his fate and recognizes that it is God whom he must now reckon with. His honesty extends to his position before God:
“…We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve…” (v. 41a)
None, except Peter in his grief, so far have acknowledged their fault in their rejection, but this criminal sees that he has lived a life in rejection of God and that he deserve the judgement that he is receiving. He, however, sees that Jesus is different:
“…But this man has done nothing wrong.” (v. 41b)
The criminal sees his own guilt but Jesus’ innocence. The more I read his final statement, the more I think that there are few greater displays of faith:
“…Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (v. 42)
For us, this side of the resurrection, surely it is easier for us to see this, But this criminal looked and a dying, and while all around him saw nothing but failure, he saw a kingdom to come. He saw a future with Jesus, at the very moment when such a thing looked most unlikely.
This man’s acceptance of Jesus as his king is met with the acceptance of Jesus:
“…Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (v. 43)
It’s a double acceptance, this man accepts Jesus and Jesus accepts him into the kingdom of heaven. What wonder is this? Entrance into God’s kingdom does not depend on your good works, intellect or ability, but on another, Jesus the king who unconditionally accepts anyone into the kingdom who accepts the kingdom itself.
How is this possible? Because the king dies, he the innocent want bears the cost of our sin, that this man, and us, if we follow his acceptance, can be accepted into the kingdom.
Heavenly Father, on this day we remember the death of your Son. Your Son was innocent and did not deserve to die. We are guilty and deserve your anger. But Christ is our king, and we acknowledge his rule. Thank you that he died in our place, and remember us we pray, in Jesus Name, Amen