For Christians the crucifixion of Jesus was an immense event in history, but that’s not how it would have appeared to the Romans of the day. Crucifixion was a common event in Roman occupied territories. It was a punishment chosen for a range of offences, but mainly reserved for people who were a threat to the state, and their very public humiliation served as a warning to all. Roman crucifixion was not an execution after the manner of, say, Queen Anne Boleyn. Her terrible death at the Tower of London was swift, attended by dignitaries and shielded from public gaze. Romans typically assembled a small batch of condemned criminals for crucifixion and Luke (Luke 23:32) refers to two criminals. (Note Luke is careful not to say ‘other’ criminals and imply Jesus was also a criminal; he makes very clear Jesus’ innocence throughout).
We don’t know much about the two criminals although Matthew records they were robbers (Matthew 27:38). Bizarrely, the robbers initially use their vantage point alongside Jesus to add to the mocking by the crowd (Matthew 27:44). What is apparent from Luke’s Gospel is that a wholly unexpected change came over one of them.
For reasons that are not explained, one criminal, instead of haranguing Jesus, begins to defend him (Luke 23:14). We don’t know what changed him but he accepts he was guilty of his crimes and resigned to his terrible fate. In contrast he declares Jesus was innocent and asks Jesus not to forget him in his Kingdom. It seems clear he accepts Jesus as the Messiah whose Kingdom was coming.
Jesus’ response is extraordinary. He must have been in agony but still his response is immediate and unhesitating, ‘Today, you will be with me in Paradise.’ Paradise was the hope for righteous Jews, we might call it ‘heaven,’ and Jesus makes clear this criminal would be there with him.
From these few words we can unpack some aspects of Jesus’ forgiveness of sin: Forgiveness is available for all; here was a man on death row, at the end of his life, a ‘deathbed conversion’ yet he is welcomed. Forgiveness only requires a simple faith. There was no complex theological dialogue or training course, he simply put his trust in Jesus and his claims. There was no doubt about the result of forgiveness. There is certainty that the man would be with Jesus from ‘today,’ the moment he died. Finally, there was forgiveness without discrimination. Despite the fact the man recognised he had wasted his life he would be with Jesus in the same way as anyone else.
If all this sounds improbable, it is, but that is the nature of grace. The forgiveness and welcome of this career criminal reminds us God gives ‘immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine’ (Ephesians 3:20).