“Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him.They said, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.’
The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? 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, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” – Luke 23:32-43
The two criminals that were crucified alongside Jesus can be seen as representative of all of humanity. They illustrate the position we all find ourselves in and also demonstrate the two different decisions that can be made.
We are all criminals, under judgement, and physically dying (Romans 3:23, 5:12). Both criminals were suffering for the crimes they had committed and their time on earth was short. Though we might not notice it as apparently, our own lives are short and we too are suffering the effects of our sin.
The first criminal mocks Jesus and wants Him to prove Himself by saving them all physically. He is still focused on this present earthly life. If Jesus is a savior, then He will prove it in the way the criminal wants. To him, Jesus is only any good as a savior if He will keep him from physically dying that day.
The second criminal rebukes the first. He recognizes that they are receiving the just reward for their crimes, which shows his repentance. He also acknowledges that this earthly life is secondary and that Jesus is truly the Messiah when he asks Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
After essentially confessing Jesus as Messiah, Jesus tells the second criminal “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Another interesting point about the second criminal is that he never has a chance to do anything more than declare his faith in Jesus and receive salvation. He has no opportunity to try to earn any part of his salvation, like so many of us knowingly or unknowingly try to do. He–like all of us in reality–can do nothing to deserve his salvation and yet his testimony has been read and heard countless times in the proclamation of the gospel. In the same way that under the power of sin we are just like the criminals and approaching death, we are also like the second in our salvation, freely receiving that which we did not and could never earn.
So, we can either be like the first criminal, denying the work of Jesus and looking for a savior to do what we want in this short earthly life or we can be like the second criminal and acknowledge Jesus for who He is and accept the salvation He offers. There is no in between.