“What We Deserve”
We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong. Luke 23:41
Perhaps you know the scene: two criminals, two very different characters. The first picks up the scornful blasphemy of the bystanders, but the other rebukes him. He defends the man at his side, “Don’t you fear God since you are under the same sentence?” (Luke 23: 40). They were all three sentenced to death on the cross, cursed by God and men, for “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” The second criminal recognized it. He feared God. He understood something of the awesomeness of what he was facing and he would not mock his Maker.
Would we dare call out like the first criminal? No, instead we hear the rebuke of the second criminal, “Don’t you fear God since we are all under the same punishment?” This criminal even admits his own guilt: “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve” (Luke 23: 41). There he is, hanging on the cross at death’s door, beside the Christ, and he lays his guilt bare. He does not hide. Many people know their own guilt but they try every means possible to appear innocent or to hide the truth. But this penitent criminal gave it all up. He confessed his own guilt – even more, he accepted the consequences. It’s hopeless anyway to deny our guilt, to evade accountability before the all-knowing God. And how hard isn’t it for us to admit that we are completely undeserving of any mercy and blessing?
We are sinners and we were all under the same punishment, condemned to get what our deeds deserve. We should be condemned to hang on the cross, also under the curse of God. That would be just punishment.
But the criminal recognizes that Jesus is different. While they are getting what they deserve, Jesus has done nothing wrong. Even Pilate and Herod had determined that He was innocent. That didn’t matter to the first criminal. As long as Jesus could get him off of this cross, that’s what mattered. But this criminal sees Jesus’ innocence: “This man has done nothing wrong” (v. 41).
We need to have a sense of how appalling that is! Christ did not get what his deeds deserve; instead, He received what our deeds deserve! Humanly, that is a grave injustice. So while we may question God’s motives in our life, or question his purpose in what we must deal with, we should first think about our sin and what our sins deserve. What if we were punished justly, getting what our sins deserve? Just look at ourselves, at the mess we so often make of our life.
But because this criminal knows and has confessed his sin, he pleads with Christ, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23: 42). He calls Him by his first name, Jesus, the name given to Him because He would save his people from their sins. The title above his head may have said “The King of the Jews,” and the people may have been mocking Him as “the Christ,” but this criminal calls Him “Jesus, Saviour.” That is what he needs deliverance from: sin. He understands now that Jesus’ kingdom is not merely an earthly kingdom. Even though Jesus was suffering on the cross, mocked by all the people, He had the bearing of a true king. And He was the king of a much better kingdom, because He was not hung there to save these men from the cross, but to save his people from their sins.
That is the kingdom this second criminal wanted to be a part of. He pleads with Jesus: “Remember me.” That is, “Think of me too, when you come to the place you are going. For you are good and powerful and one day will vindicate your great name and every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is the Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
You see, both criminals wanted to be saved from death, but how differently they sought their salvation. The first said, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” And the second said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” There can be a vast difference between “save me” and “save me.” “Save me from my suffering,” or “save me from my sin.” And Jesus’ reaction points us to the only way, “Today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23: 43). Look in faith to Christ crucified as your Saviour from sin and you will see Him in Paradise!
Excerpt from Clarion, THE CANADIAN REFORMED MAGAZINE Volume 59, No. 7, pg. 169, March 26, 2010
Rev. Rolf den Hollander is minister of the Covenant Canadian Reformed Church of Grassie, Grimsby, Ontario, as of March 2016