Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content


Home > Sermons

A Thief in Paradise

The gift of salvation through Christ leaves us with nothing to pay.

A Thief In Paradise

D. James Kennedy

"The day had just dawned," said Krummacher. "The most momentous, the most decisive, the most eventful day in the entire history of the world." And so it was. It greeted our Lord with dreadful insignia. It approached ominously with bloodstained robes. In one hand there was a scourge and the spiked crown of thorns, and in the other the horrid cup and the cursed tree. So began the day of infamy, that black Friday, which men call good. The sun had just now only reluctantly begun to climb over the mountains of Moab as if hesitant to shine its rays upon the ghastly deicide that should be displayed that day at Calvary.

It had begun to purple the peeks of the mountains and first the top of the temple shown brilliantly white, and then the white city, the holy city, seemed as if by some magical levitation to rise out of the black sea of night. Before the sun should have covered its face once more with a sable curtain of night to end the day of shame, the most loving, the most compassionate, the most holy, the purest, the kindest Man that ever walked upon this earth should lie cold in his grave, caked in his own blood. The sun also shown slanting rays through the small window into the dark and verminus cell that lay beneath the palace of Pilate.

Two thieves faced death along with Jesus.

And in that cell there were two men to whom I would like to call your attention this day and through whose eyes I would like to have you see those tremendous events that were transpired, for they saw them as no one else did. No doubt it had been for them a fitful and restless night, if indeed they slept at all, for this was the last night that they would spend in this world. Their beards and hair were tossed and dirty. Their clothes were filthy. They had been in that dungeon for some few days, but now it soon was to be over. All would be passed, even the last few possessions they owned, the clothes on their body would become the perquisites of the persecutors at Golgotha. The gamblers of Golgotha that soon would go home with the spoils of the day.

Their names were Dismus and Gizmos. And they had a friend, also, who had until just shortly been with them in the cell. He was their leader, a notable prisoner. His name was Barabbas. He had been the one that had at first lured them into a life of crime. They really had not planned to become what they finally became. Perhaps they were motivated at first by patriotism, by antagonism to the Roman imperialists; but little by little they descended into thievery and robbery, brigandage and finally murder. And at last the long arm of Rome reached out and grabbed them and threw them into a prison and condemned them to die. And soon it would take them and splat them against a cross. And then, like a bothersome fly, it would flick them into eternity.

Dismus and Gizmos. Right now they were concerned about the injustice of it all as they had received report that their friend and compatriot, their fellow in crime, Barabbas, has been set free. "There just is no justice, said Gizmos. "It's just not fair. Why he was worse than we are. In fact, we would not have been here if it had not been for him. And so they lamented their plights.

But they had not long to wait till the iron door was thrown open and a cohort of Roman soldiers armed with spears and swords came to take them to their final destiny. And as the crosses were placed upon their backs they were to meet for the first time their companion on a hill far away, that strange itinerant preacher, that Prophet of whom they had heard but had not seen because, to tell the truth, they were not particularly interested in spiritual things. But there he was leading the way before them.

The centurion on his white horse with whip in hand cleared the rabble out of the way as they slowly made their path through the Via Delarosa on their way to the place of the skull, Golgotha. Finally there, these two men Dismus and Gizmos were not the type to give up easily, and both of them fought like tigers as they were at last manhandled and thrown to the ground and with knees on their elbows and wrists finally they were impaled to the crosses and raised up to be silhouetted against the sky.

And at last there came Jesus. Already on the way to the cross they had begun to hate him. They had begun to hate him because of the fact that he reminded them of Barabbas and the injustice which they felt that they were suffering. They hated him more when after collapsing under the cross a stranger, Simon the Cyrenian, was commandeered to carry the cross for him. No such help had been provided for them. They were left to fend for themselves. Were not their crosses just as onerous and burdensome and heavy? Oh yes, they hated him because their hearts were filled with hate. They had spent a lifetime hating people. They hated the Romans. They hated society. They hated Pilate who had condemned them. They hated this rabble that surrounded them mockingly and tauntingly. They hated the high priest that came to watch. And most of all they vented their hated on this stranger from Galilee.

One thief turned to Christ and experienced a deathbed conversion.

And then something happened, which was to have a profound and irrevocable effect upon Dismus. Both of them had been engaged in cursing Christ, words that flowed so easily from their lips. Foul fisherman's language, billingsgate, imprecation, terrible oaths were heaped upon Christ. They had simply joined the mob that had jeered him, even the ecclesiastics had said, "If thou be the Christ, then come down from the cross and we will believe thee. And the soldiers said to him, "If you're the king of the Jews, then save yourself. And so they said the same things. "If thou be the Christ, save thyself and us. Get us out of here. And then in the midst of all of this vile vituperation, suddenly they heard words issue forth from the lips of Jesus. "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Those words struck to the very soul Dismus. How can this be? How can this man pray for those who are torturing and tormenting him? Surely his blood has turned to liquid fire as ours has. Surely his body is convulsed with pain as ours is. How could he pray for those that hate him and mock him so? These words absolutely devastated Dismus. In all of his career he had never met anyone who would such a thing as that, and he was stunned.

But more than that the Spirit of God had begun to work in his soul, a transformation to which was totally to change his entire life, having been cursing but a moment ago, he now cuts off his fellow malefactor with this rebuke. "Dost thou not fear God, seeing that thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done 'nothing amiss'.

Astounding statement. They had given the final bit of irony, the last bit of hatred had been heaped upon Christ when they had him crucified in the midst of two malefactors as if by being thrown into the garbage heap with the rest of the garbage he might seem to stink as well; but rather, instead, like a white lily growing in the black much he shown all the brighter in his purity. "This man hath done nothing amiss. Incredible statement.

And then he turned to Jesus and said, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. Remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.

Here the church of Jesus Christ had been utterly decimated. The vast multitude that once had followed him had fled. Even his closest disciples had forsaken him. And now the church had been reduced to virtually nothing. There they are in the very nadir of despair. There is no bright Easter morning; there is but the darkness of black Friday. But there in the midst of that this thief sees beyond the cross and beyond the grave to a glorious kingdom which shall come, and he says, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus utters those unforgettable words. "Verily, I say unto thee, today thou shalt be with me in Paradise.

How pregnant with meaning are these words. Some people say that they cannot see that the thief was really penitent or that he was converted. Indeed, they don't believe in deathbed conversions. And I would like to ask you. Do you? If you don't, you obviously are going to have a considerable problem dealing with Dismus, who was at the very edge of the precipice of life, soon to fall out of this world altogether. And in those last hours, those last moments he receives a guarantee from the King of the kingdom. "Today with meParadise. Some people say Well, I don't see any evidence that he really was converted. Do you not? Well then, let me open your eyes just a bit.

I want you to know that in just a few moments there that thief did more than some church members do in a whole lifetime of confessing Christ. Again, this was not in the halcyon days of Christ's popularity. This was not in the glorious days of his resurrection power, but this was in the darkness of defeat and despair. And there when all of the world saw nothing but the end of all things this man saw a kingdom. And what did he declare?

He declared, first of all, that we should fear God.

And then he declared that he was receiving the due reward of his deeds. He confessed his sin and that the appropriate punishment for them was what he was getting, capital punishment.

Beyond that, he declared, in the midst of the taunts, in the midst of the mockery, in the midst of the humiliation, he declared the innocency of Jesus. What other voice that day was lifted in his defense beside his? There was none else.

And then turning to Christ he cast himself purely upon the mercy of the court. He saw that though skewered to across he was a Kind on a wooden throne, and yet would reign over a glorious kingdom. "Remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. No vain pretensions of his goodness, no claims of morality, but simply a casting himself upon the mercy of God.

We must not delay our conversion for God is not mocked.

Well, now, if deathbed conversions are real, I can just hear what some few of you are saying. You just think you'll wait, don't you? Oh how devious is the human heart. You're going to get the best of both worlds, aren't you. The truth is you'll get the best of neither, but you know it not. And furthermore, the Scripture plainly declares "Be not deceived. God is not mocked.

I remember a young man who came to my office on time, and I talked to him about turning his life over to Christ. He was leading a while life, and he wouldn't hear of it. But he said, "You know I grew up in a Christian home, and I believe everything you say. I know Christ is the Son of God, and I know he died for our sins and I believe he rose from the dead. And one day I'm going to accept him as my Savior and Lord, when I get old but not now because, man, I've got a lot of living to do. And I said to him after much expostulation, I said to him finally, as he got up and went to the door, I said to him just before he left, "The Scripture says he who being oft reproved hardeneth his neck shall suddenly be cut off and that without remedy. God is not mocked.

Two weeks later I received a word. He was going 75 mph on the freeway when a truck stopped in front with the tailgate down. Decapitated instantly. Suddenly cut off. God is not mocked.

I am sure, and I rejoice in the fact that it matters not how sinful you may have been, it matters not into what depths of depravity you may have sunk, it matters not how vile may be the habits that you have formed or what passions control your life, I believe that the grace and mercy of Christ is there for you. It doesn't matter how long you have lived in that sin, but I'll tell you this. If you connive in your heart to deceive the Lord, be not deceived. God is not mocked. Yes, that thief went to Paradise, but I would remind you there were two thieves, and one of them went to perdition.

Salvation is an instantaneously free and undeserved gift.

Do you believe in instantaneous conversions? I remember a man who was a minister. He said to me driving the car one time, "I don't believe in these instantaneous conversions. That man had a big problem, because you see, my friend, what he was actually doing is denying the very essence of Christianity. Because, you see, the only type of conversions there can be is instantaneous. It's like a birth. There may be a long time of gestation, but finally when the child is born, thank God for the woman, it doesn't take three weeks or three months or three years. And our new birth is similar to that.

You see, eternal life is a gift. Indeed, if eternal life were a wage that we had to earn by working and meriting and deserving, we might work a long, long time. But a gift by its very nature is not only free but instantaneous. You offer me a gift of great cost. It cost ten million dollars, you say. It is a precious jewel. And I say, well, that's wonderful but I couldn't accept it as a gift. You see, I must earn it first. So I will go out and I will begin to work. You hold it out there. Keep your arm out, and I will be back in ten or twenty or thirty years, and by that time I will accept it. You see, you deny the very essence of grace when you deny that salvation is a gift. And a gift can only by it's very nature be received instantaneously.

How wonderful it is. And how wonderful it is that this passage makes it very clear that he did nothing to deserve it. Ah, my friends, it is all of grace. The hardest concept that people have to grasp is that it is of grace. It is free. Heaven is free; paradise is free. It was paid for by another. It is free to us. How difficult that is. How long it took me to ever be able to understand that.

How about you? If you think that it's something that we must work hard and long, we must be pious and we must go to church for thirty or forty years, I would ask you to consider What did Dismus do to earn paradise? Would say it was his brigandage or his thievery, his revolutionary activity or his robbery that earned him his place in paradise? He did nothing; it was all done for him by another, even Christ.

And that's the wonder of the gospel. It is free.

I shall never forget when I made that great discovery. After supposing for years that I must work for it and earn it and deserve it, I discovered that it was free. Wonderful to tell. When I was a child and had nothing to pay, they fed me and clothed me day after day. She nursed me through measles and other such ills and mended my clothes, and he paid the bills. They hoped for me, feared for me, prayed for me too. Saved me from evil and carried me through. I never asked how. I never asked why they should wear out their lives for a thing such as I. Well, that was their way, and I was a child and had nothing to pay.

Those days are far gone. I grew to a man, a respectable person according to plan. Took sixteen in collars and wore a black coat, political candidates called for my vote. I wrote to the papers and gave them my views and preached to the people all patient in pews. I got paid once a month, had an account at the bank with a checkbook that showed the amount. Well, was it worth all God's trouble? So much of my life is wood, hay, and stubble; so little of me goodto meet his desire, so much of me badonly fit for the fire. If God should call for a reckoning, ah, what could I say? Lord, this poor sinner has nothing to pay. Nothing to pay? Give him justice, they say. There's nothing for nothing. Take him away! But God says Stay. Christ is for those who have nothing to pay.

You see that's God's way. Christ is for those who have nothing to pay.

"Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.

D. James Kennedy is pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. His most recent book is What if America Were a Christian Nation Again? (Nelson 2003)

(c) D. James Kennedy

Preaching Today Tape #19


A resource of Christianity Today International

Related sermons

The Greatest Trial Ever Held

The story of Pilate
Leith Anderson

On the Cross

The account of Good Friday
Sermon Outline:


I. Two thieves faced death along with Jesus

II. One thief turned to Christ and experienced a deathbed conversion

III. We must not delay our conversion for God is not mocked

IV. Salvation is an instantaneously free and undeserved gift