Read: Isaiah 53:1-12; Luke 23:39-43
Imagine being in prison for 39 years. Now imagine that you were innocent, and that the lies of a 12-year-old boy and the misconduct of some of those who investigated the crime were the reason for your incarceration. That is precisely what happened to Ricky Jackson in 1975. He and two friends were falsely accused of killing a money order salesman in Cleveland, Ohio. Eddie Vernon, then 12 years old was a witness whose testimony-though he was a block away from the crime scene-was the reason for the guilty verdict. He really hadn't seen anything, but urged on by a friend, he lied. While imprisoned, Ricky Jackson sometimes imagined ways he might kill Eddie Vernon if he ever saw him again. At the same time, he wanted to be the man his mother had raised him to be. He tried to remain focused on not turning into the kind of man he was falsely accused of being.
And what about Eddie Vernon? What was his life like during those decades? He was ridden with guilt and wished he could take Jackson's place, knowing that he had done a grievously wrong thing. Yet, it took a long time before he did what was right. After more than 3 1/2 decades, Eddie Vernon unburdened his heart to a pastor, and the clergyman encouraged Vernon to bring the truth concerning his lies to light. He did just that, and with the help of the Ohio Innocence Project, Ricky Jackson was exonerated and set free. In addition, he won a lawsuit against the city of Cleveland and some of its police that yielded him $1M. He is enjoying his freedom, and, the simple things such as getting food out of his refrigerator when he wants to and both cleaning or not cleaning at his own discretion. However, it isn't only Ricky Jackson's release from prison that has been freeing, it is the forgiveness he has extended to Eddie Vernon that has brought sweet fruit into both of their lives. Both men told their story to Story Corps. Because Jackson chose to forgive, he has been set free and has lost every desire to harm Eddie Vernon, and Vernon is enjoying the freedom received when offenses are no longer carried. He still struggles with what he refers to as "being able to forgive himself", but he has the peace that can only come when the one who was wronged sets the wrongdoer free.
In today's scripture from Luke 23:39-43, we are reminded of another time when two were bound, but sadly, only one was set free. How many people have relished this scene where a hardened criminal repented and received total cleansing from the Savior Who extended it, even while He was atoning for our sins. What a picture of being set free, having nothing to offer in return.
However, as redemption was being received, a very different scenario was also unfolding right there on Calvary. A second man, probably as guilty in the earthly sense as the first, was also dying and in agony. Surely, he heard the admission of the other criminal concerning his own guilt. Surely, he watched how the Savior died and he heard Jesus cry out to His Father to forgive those whom He said "didn't know what they were doing". This second man undoubtedly had the same knowledge about Himself and Jesus. He even heard Jesus promise paradise to the other criminal; yet, he apparently died having not chosen true freedom from sin and its penalty. He spurned the chance he had to be set free. Sadly, two were bound, but only one was set free.
Back to Ricki Jackson and Eddie Vernon. Can you imagine Jackson offering forgiveness to the one who cost him 39 years in prison and Vernon refusing the offer? That seems unfathomable. How could someone say no to such undeserved mercy?
Yet, Jesus' offer is so much greater. Why? Because, Isaiah 53 is the prophecy that tells us that Jesus not only extended forgiveness, but He also secured it for us. The One Who had no sin bore the transgressions and guilt of us all. The One Who had been wronged bore the shame, punishment and rejection that should have fallen upon each of us. The spotless Lamb of God became in a way we can't truly comprehend, sin for us so that we could have His righteousness credited to our accounts, John 1:29; 2 Corinthians 5:21.
The sad and tragic thing is that it is not only the second criminal who spurned the Savior, it is still happening today. Yet, it is not too late. All who are still breathing may run to Jesus for the freedom He continues to hold out. If the criminal who joined Jesus in Paradise could address us right now, he would tell us that he never regretted bowing his knee that day. And sadly, if the one who didn't call out to Jesus for mercy could address us right now, he would no doubt say that he has never ceased to regret his lack of repentance.
Lord, Thank You for Your patience which will result in more people whom You love being saved, 2 Peter 3:9.