I once visited a man in jail who had wrecked his life with drugs and had stolen money from work. He talked a lot about Jesus and the Bible.
On my way out, one of the guards said to me sarcastically, “Everybody in here believes in Jesus, especially around parole time.”
The two criminals crucified on either side of Jesus had no hope of a lighter sentence. They were goners. Crucifixion ended in only one way – you died. “Getting religion” wouldn’t get you out of that. Initially both robbers were spewing out hatred toward Jesus along with the mocking crowd (Matthew 27:44). But something suddenly happened to one of them. While his life was slowly and painfully draining out of him, Jesus worked a miraculous change in him.
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)
How did this happen? Was it hearing Jesus forgive his torturers? Was it seeing “This is the King of the Jews” above Jesus’ head? Was it watching Jesus’ tender care for his mother even while he was racked with pain? Whatever it was, Jesus worked an 11th-hour miracle and did the following things in him:
He realized he was a sinner who needed a Savior. He admitted he deserved what he was getting. “We are receiving the due reward of our deeds.”
He began to fear God. “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?”
He saw Jesus to be perfect. “This man has done nothing wrong.”
He called upon Christ personally. Philip Ryken says that this is the only time in the gospels anyone called him “Jesus.” Usually they called him “Teacher” or “Master.”
He acknowledged Jesus as King and asked him to save him – “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He knew there was a life after this one, an eternal kingdom where Jesus would rule as King.
What a good Friday it turned out to be for him – his last Friday was his best. For Jesus answered him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” It’s being with Jesus that makes heaven paradise. Heaven without Christ wouldn’t be heaven. It is “in your presence” that there is fullness of joy. Being with Jesus and seeing his glory is the joy of heaven.
Today, on “Good Friday,” if you’re a believer, join me in praising Jesus for his miraculous power that saved us. He opened our eyes to see we were sinners headed for hell. Showed us that he is the Sinless Savior. Moved us to fear him and call on his name, Jesus. He became our King. On top of all that, we’ll be with him and enjoy him forever. Good Friday is indeed a good day.
And don’t give up praying for family members and friends, for Jesus has saved many in the 11th hour. It’s never too late for Jesus to snatch someone from the jaws of hell. No one’s ever too far gone for his mighty arm to save. I’ve had the privilege of seeing several people over the years come to Christ on their deathbeds, in a large part due to the faithful prayers and witnessing of their family members.
(The inspiration and most of the ideas for this post came from “The Luckiest Man Alive,” in The Heart of the Cross, by Philip Graham Ryken, Crossway Books)
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Mark Altrogge has been senior pastor of Sovereign Grace Church of Indiana, Pennsylvania, since 1982. He has written hundreds of songs for worship, including “I Stand in Awe” and “I’m Forever Grateful.” Mark and his wife, Kristi, have four sons and one daughter.
Find out more on his blog, The Blazing Center.