By Jeff Cloeter
Countless TV shows and movies focus on “getting the bad guy.” I think of the 1980s version of MacGyver because lately I’ve been watching reruns. MacGyver was famous for never using weapons, only his ingenuity. He could save the day with a paper clip, duct tape, and a piece of gum. Regardless of MacGyver’s method, by the end of every episode, the bad guy got what he deserved. In the past few years, the idea and title character have made a comeback that has lasted for several seasons. A brand-new MacGyver invents new ways week by week to “get the bad guy.”
Cop shows. Courtroom dramas. War movies. Whatever the setting, we love it when the bad guy gets what’s coming to him. That’s because we all have an inborn sense of justice. We all realize that when someone does something wrong, he or she must pay.
The thief on the cross appeared to be one of the “bad guys.” He had been found guilty of a serious crime and was justly sentenced to die. He was getting what he deserved. In a short plea for mercy, he said to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42 ESV).
Jesus’ response to this prayer (verse 43 ESV) must have surprised him. If we think about it, it surprises us, too: “Today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus said.
What? That’s not right! How does a guilty and convicted criminal receive mercy in his last hours on earth?
The scale has long been a symbol of justice. When a wrong has been committed, the scale tips to one side. Justice seeks to balance the scale, keeping things fair. A price must be paid to even everything out, to bring about balance. A score must be settled. A debt must be paid. A wrong must be righted.
We know very little about the thief who hung, dying, next to Jesus. We don’t even know his name. The Bible simply gives him the label criminal (Luke 23:32, 39 ESV). Jesus’ words to this criminal challenge our sense of justice. How can Jesus justly give him a “ticket to paradise”? For free? No questions asked? If this were a cop show on TV, we would be disappointed that “the bad guy got away”!
Here we get to the heart of the Christian hope. The truth is that for every one of us, the scale always tips in the wrong direction. It never balances. The verdict “Guilty!” is as true of the criminal behind bars as it is of the pastor in the pulpit. We can try to balance the scale, hoping that our good deeds will make up for our misdeeds, but it never works. None of us can truly maintain the balance of justice before God.
Justice demands that someone pay. God intended the Old Testament sacrificial system to demonstrate this. Sin had to be paid for. Restitution must be made. A life for life. Blood for blood. The Bible puts it this starkly: “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4 ESV). That’s how the scales of justice are balanced.
That was the verdict on your life. Justice demanded your life as payment . . . until Jesus stepped in. On the cross he paid for you. He is your propitiation—the blood sacrifice that frees you from your guilt before God. We might think that the thief is the bad guy who gets what’s coming to him, but instead of the thief paying for his wrongs, Jesus paid.
“Today you will be with me in paradise.” This short sentence is a monumental promise! It means there is salvation, even for bad guys. For you. For me. Jesus hung on the cross between two criminals. He is the innocent One among the guilty, the saint among sinners. This was and is Jesus’ mission, to seek and save the lost.
If we are ever tempted to think that salvation belongs only to the deserving, that Jesus came only for good people, we need only look to Calvary. Jesus’ promise to the criminal on the cross proves that for God, there is no such thing as a lost cause. No one is beyond his power to save. God’s grace is big enough to include those who have wandered farthest away.
What does this mean for us? First, if you ever doubt that God can save you, look no further than the prayer of the criminal. When you wonder if God can forgive your offenses, pray the criminal’s prayer: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus has. Jesus will. Jesus forgives. Even you!
Second, Jesus’ words are a reminder to those of us who trust God’s power to save sinners. No one is beyond his grace. This causes us to look at others differently. The incarcerated, the greedy neighbor, our greatest enemies. God’s salvation, God’s grace in Christ, is available to all who believe. Our heavenly Father “desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4 ESV). To sheep that are lost, we extend mercy. We don’t shun them. We pray for them. We long for their return.
We expect bad guys to get what they deserve, to pay for their crimes. Today, we rejoice that Jesus gives us what we could never deserve! Salvation is ours because of our Savior’s costly death, his precious blood.
Editor’s note: Today’s devotion comes from the sermon outlines that accompany CTA’s new Easter preparation theme, It Is Finished. Use these downloadable sermons and the included discussion questions to enhance your worship and Bible time in the weeks leading up to Easter!
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