“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
We have been looking at how the life of Jesus Christ makes the Gospel both reasonable and desirable. We have seen how the Good News that Jesus declared and demonstrated speaks to both the head and the heart of the listener. We saw His Searching Mercy displayed in His encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4 and His Scandalous Mercy bestowed on the unwanted, sinful woman in Luke 7 who wet His feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.
This month we will marvel at the Shocking Mercy of Jesus. To be crucified in the ancient world was to be labeled as the worst possible criminal. What the Persians introduced in the sixth century B.C., the Romans had perfected by the time of Christ. The purpose of nailing a criminal to a wooden cross was twofold: to cause a lingering, torturous death and to publicly display the victim in shameful dishonor. It was a gruesome method of execution, and the Roman Empire would line the roads with slowly dying victims, some of them hanging for days as a warning to others who might consider committing a crime. Crucifixion was such a terrible death that Roman citizens were exempt from it, except for major crimes like treason.
This, then, was the punishment pronounced on Jesus Christ after He was falsely accused by the religious leaders, who, being under Roman authority, could not prescribe the Jewish death penalty of stoning. So the religious leaders partnered with the Roman government, and Jesus was crucified. It was customary to brutally flog the condemned criminal prior to crucifixion, which the Romans did to Jesus.
Now, hanging on the cross between two thieves, His shocking mercy appears.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him, “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise”(Luke 23:39-43).
Notice the striking difference between the criminals. It’s not that one mocked and the other did not; Matthew 27:44 reports that both men reviled Jesus while they hung there. The difference is that one criminal acknowledged his sin and the just punishment for it; the other criminal did not.
And while Jesus was dying in the most excruciating way that sinful men could devise at that time, not to mention enduring the inconceivable mental anguish of being separated from God the Father when our sin was imputed to Him, He still showed Shocking Mercy to the criminal who cried out for what he knew was undeserved grace. As scandalous as our Lord’s mercy was in the life of the sinful woman who was the uninvited dinner guest, it was every bit as shocking in the final moments of life for this hardened criminal. And though he only asked Jesus to remember him, our Lord’s mercy extended beyond mere remembrance all the way to redemption.
Like the stories of the woman at the well and the sinful woman, this account speaks volumes to the hearts of lost people living in this contemporary, post-Christian culture. Jesus extended mercy to a convicted, condemned criminal and assured him they would be together in paradise.
Reason for hope
This single story of shocking mercy offers us many reasons for hope:
- No one is beyond the reach of God’s mercy.
- As long as we are still drawing breath, it is never too late to receive God’s mercy.
- God’s forgiveness is not conditional on the sinner’s promise of a changed life. (The thief could do nothing after his prayer except die.)
- We must believe that God’s mercy will be extended to those for whom we are praying.
The “good thief,” as he is often called, acknowledged his sin and opened his heart to the mercy of Christ. He never asked to be freed from his crucifixion (as the other criminal did), but only that Jesus would remember him. And when he breathed his last, you can be certain that he was ushered into the Kingdom of Heaven, there to meet Jesus face-to-face, all because of God’s Shocking Mercy that spoke words of life and hope to a dying man.
Throughout my years as a pastor, I have seen this single story bring tremendous hope to many people who have been witnessing to and praying for family members and friends, sometimes for decades. Is there anyone reading these words right now who does not have a friend or family member who demonstrates no signs of salvation, even after years of praying and witnessing to them? This account of the thief on the cross encourages us to never stop believing that God will show grace to unbelievers, even in those final moments as they breathe their last. His mercy is indeed shocking . . . and gives us solid, historical reason for great encouragement and joy.
This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!
Dr. Tommy Boland is senior pastor of Cross Community Church in Deerfield Beach (www.thecrosscc.org). He blogs regularly at tommyboland.com. For more articles by Dr. Tommy Boland, visit goodnewsfl.org/tommy-boland.