Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33 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...
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’
40 But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’
42 Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
43 Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:32-33, 39-43).
Despite the severity of the punishment, one of the criminals said, “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.”
He was genuinely repentant.
When a person is truly repentant, they believe they deserve to be punished. And if they are punished, they do not complain about the punishment, they accept it (even welcome it).
If you are a reasonably good person you can understand someone who committed murder coming to loath themselves. You can understand that person saying to themselves, “What kind of man does that?” If a murderer reaches that point they will be so remorseful that they will either kill themselves, or be so repentant that they hand themselves in and seek the death penalty for their crime.
That’s genuine repentance.
Now that makes sense for the murderer. But what if your standards were so high, that when you did something wrong, you started to say to yourself, “What kind of man does that?” (Because of the way you spoke to your wife or because you didn’t go and watch your child’s football game.) Wouldn’t such an attitude lead you to change? Wouldn’t such an attitude lead you to repentance?
Our problem is not that our bad desires are too strong; our problem is our good desires are too weak. If I am honest with myself I have to admit that I do not always feel the way I ought to feel toward others. I am not as kind and compassionate as I ought to be. My desire to please God is nowhere near as strong as Jesus desire was. There's something rotten at my core. If I was truly good, I would not even wrestle with many of the things I struggle with. I could not be tempted by them.
Jesus’ did not wrestle with the kinds of things I wrestle with. His intimacy with his Father was perfect and his love for him was so strong that his greatest delight was to do his Father’s will. He would not let any thing in this world interfere with the perfect intimacy he enjoyed. He could not be tempted by lesser things. (A person is only as strong as their strongest relationship. And there is no relationship stronger than the eternal relationship in God.)
It is true that Satan tried to tempt Jesus. But it is also true that Satan could not tempt him. ("God cannot be tempted.") So does this mean Jesus did not have to struggle against sin? Not at all. Jesus always pushed sin away from himself. And when we are made like Christ, we too will continue to push sin away from us for all eternity. (See here.) No matter how weary, or hungry, or how much pain Jesus had to endure, he could not be made to go against his Father's will. (If Satan really knew who he was dealing with; he would not have tried to interfere with the relationship between Jesus and his Father. You're not going to tempt a man who has just eaten all he wants at the finest restaurant, with a rotten apple; but you might tempt a man who is starving. "...to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet" Prov 27:7.) No man, woman or child has known the kind of intimacy that Jesus knew while he walked this earth. People could hurt Jesus; but they couldn't take away the source of his strength.
Now we must not think that Jesus suffering was easier to endure because he was divine.
"It is with the holiest fear that we should approach the terrible fact of the sufferings of our Lord. Let no one think that those were less because he was more. The more delicate the nature, the more alive to all that is lovely and true, lawful and right, the more does it feel the antagonism of pain, the inroad of death upon life; the more dreadful is that breach of the harmony of things whose sound is torture. He felt more than man could feel, because he had a larger feeling." (from "The Eloi" in George MacDonald's Unspoken Sermons )
So how can we know such love and such strength?
First we have to be honest with ourselves; we do not deserve special treatment. We have turned our back on the only one who is truly good and have become slaves to sin. Our bad desires are strong and our desire to do good is weak. (If our desire to do good was truly strong we would be far more honest, kind and brave.) The only thing we deserve is punishment. We truly have become objects of wrath. But even that is not bad news. God’s wrath does not burn against us, it burns for us. He hates sin because it destroys sinners whom he loves.
And even though we deserve to be punished, God would rather not resort to that. He wants to help us. But he knows we won’t trust him until we know we are forgiven. So this he offers us. All we have to do is acknowledge that we have sinned against him and turn and follow Jesus.
Once a person knows how good God is, they will turn to him—the source of all that is beautiful and good.
God is very kind to us, even though we don’t deserve it. Every good thing comes from God. And as if that is not enough, God—the creator of this world—became a man and died for you and me just because he loves us. He died to set us free from sin, which ruins our lives and the lives of others. Jesus died to set things right; to set things right between us and God. When our relationship with God is set right, all our other relationships will begin to be set right too. But in order for this to happen, we must trust him.
We cannot be close to God while we refuse to trust him. He loves us just as we are, but he loves us so much that he wants us to be perfect. Only when we are all that we were meant to be can we be truly free.* We must examine ourselves and turn from our sin.
Today is the day of salvation. Thank God for becoming a man and dying for you. Thank him for forgiving you. Ask him to help you, then start to trust him. Only he can set you free. Only he can make things right.
One final note. Jesus didn't just die for us; by his spirit he rose his body back to life to show us who he truly is.
*Do not regard doing what Jesus says as service to him. Everything he asks us to do is for our sake, not his. If I fail to build my house on the rock, the storms will come and my house will come crashing down. If I am to be free, I must do what Jesus says.