When we picture Calvary, what do we think of? Probably a cross. Maybe a cross on a hill somewhere. If you're Catholic, possibly the historic crucifix image of Jesus on said cross.
But when you think of the cross, do you remember that there were three?
There were two men crucified alongside Jesus. We don't know two much about them, other than that they were criminals, and their crimes were likely severe. Crucifixion wasn't the only execution method out there - the Romans used it as torture for the guilty and a message to be sent to the masses: "This is what happens when your break our laws."
So there are these two other guys, both facing a drawn-out, painful death. Both beaten to a pulp and forced to haul the means of their death up to their execution site while a crowd followed behind in perverse fascination.
These men hang on crosses alongside Jesus, naked, bloody, and in excruciating pain - the word "excruciating" literally derived from "out of the cross."
The first one to speak mocks Jesus "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" He's angry. He has nothing to lose or gain. And he's so angry that he uses a precious breath to accuse.
In crucifixion, if you don't die from blood loss, shock, or cardiac arrest first, it's suffocation that kills you. You have to push on the nails in your feet to get a breath in and out. While this whole dialogue in Luke 23 looks straightforward on paper, it's one of the most painstaking, intense conversations in all of scripture.
And now the second man, in just as much agony as the first, has something to say.
"Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong."
Remember that each phrase, each breath, is hard-won. These are his last words.
And then, knowing his guilt as well as Christ's character. "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
And that's all it takes. Jesus, his lungs burning and muscles aching, assures him.
"Today you will be with me in Paradise."
This statement, one of the extensively studies "seven sayings of Jesus on the cross" sends chills up my spine every time I read it, in the most wonderful way.
Jesus doesn't interrogate the man. He doesn't ask him what his crime was or make sure he's repented of every specific sin. He simply acknowledges the man, and tells him the best thing he could possibly hear.
"Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
If anyone on the ground heard this, I imagine they were thinking something along the lines of "This guy? THIS guy? Seriously? That's just not fair."
No, it's not. That's the beauty of it. If grace and salvation were fair, then you and I would be in a whole lot of trouble.
Paul summarizes it so simply in Romans. "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."
That's what this is about. The ground is level at the foot of the cross. Christ is the equalizer.
If there's hope for the criminal on the cross next to Jesus, there's hope for you too.
Tetelestai | It is finished.