A number of movies for kids have the following plot line: — the one who is the bad guy at the beginning of the story becoming the good guy at the end – Darth Vader, Mega Mind, Shrek, Wreck-it-Ralph.
This passage from Luke is not like that. The bad guy who asks to be remembered by Jesus was still a bad guy at the end of verse 43. All that had changed (and it is a big change) was his relationship with God. The change was not due to anything in the bad guy. The change was all because of the only good guy in the story, the Lord Jesus Christ. What Jesus did on the cross saved the bad guy.
Firstly, the guy was really bad. He is described by Matthew and Mark as a robber. The Greek word implies he was a thug. He was not a sneak thief. He was not a scammer. He was the type of guy who’d hide behind a tree waiting for you to pass, and then hit you over the head with a brick, take all you had, and then leave you for dead.
His philosophy of life was
- get what you can for yourself
- other people are to be used as a way getting for yourself.
- this a normal way of life
- God is just like me. (The other bad guy even said as much, thinking that the ‘real’ Christ must be out to serve himself – ‘if you are the Christ, save yourself’.)
Sadly, such attitudes are not rare. Advertisers depend on people being like this. “The most important person in the world is you” is the sort of line they use to get you to buy … whatever.
Secondly, this bad guy came to see things in a very different way while he was hanging on a cross. It was not fear of death, nor the pain that brought him to his new way of thinking. The other bad guy was unmoved by these things. What changed this bad guy was the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit who applied the Gospel of Jesus to him in an effective way.
How did he hear the Gospel? He heard it from the mockers.
What did the mockers about Jesus?
“He saved others….”
This was undeniably true. Even Jesus’ enemies admitted it. Jesus raised dead people to life. He gave sight to blind people, restored the ability to walk to lame people. No doubt Jesus ‘saved others’.
“Save yourself, if you are the Christ, the chosen of God.”
The word ‘Christ’ means ‘anointed one’ – a king, a prophet, a priest. A person of great authority. The saviour of God’s people. This is joined to the fact that ‘Jesus saved others’.
The bad guy had also heard Jesus ask his father to forgive bad people – those who had nailed him to a cross. The Christ, the king and saviour, the one who saved others, also forgives.
How does one of the bad guys react to this information?
- He stops mocking
- He respects God
- He admits, for the first time, that he is a bad guy who deserves a bad guy’s end.
- He sees that Jesus is a good guy – He has done nothing out of place.
- He believes Jesus is the Christ who saves others.
- He asks for mercy
This is faith; faith that comes from the work of the Holy Spirit. The bad guy believed that the one who was in the same mess as he was could and would save him – not from crucifixion, but from the Judgment of God. Against hope, in hope, he believed.
Jesus’ replied as follows: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise”.
Jesus makes an oath ‘Amen’ – true! – you will be with me.
Jesus was not in the habit of jollying people along. If he has bad news, he would tell it like it is.
The rich young ruler was sent away sad, the hopeful followers were told it would be tough, and Paul was told how much he would suffer for the sake of Christ.
But to this self-confessed bad guy, Jesus says, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’
Paradise is a Persian word for a garden. The hanging gardens of Babylon were, we are told, built by the king for his wife. It was a refreshing place in a desert, a place of safety and comfort. It was built for the one the king loved.
Jesus told his disciples that it was necessary for him to go away (via the cross) to prepare a place for them. Into that place, this bad guy would enter immediately upon his death.
Until his death, he was still a bad guy – but a saved-by-grace bad guy. After his death, he was made perfect in righteousness (for Jesus’ sake) and is now no longer a sinner. He no longer experiences guilt or shame or pain. No more tears. He is in paradise with Jesus.
How do we respond to the message of Jesus?