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Good News for a Dying Thief

God on the cross did for us what we could never do for ourselves.


On that first Good Friday, nearly 2,000 years ago, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was crucified. For six hours he hung on the cross, and during that time, he uttered seven sayings. Obviously, making any kind of intelligible statement (let alone a theologically weighty one) while dying on a cross would have been incredibly difficult. Crucifixion was a torturous death reserved for slaves, the poor, and for criminals. In fact, the pain of crucifixion was so horrendous that a word was invented to explain it—excruciating. It means "out of the cross." The way to understand the cross and the pain is that it was excruciating. In the midst of his own death, Jesus made seven statements, and in his dying, he shows us how to live.

Today we're going to look at Jesus' second statement from the cross. Let's begin reading in Luke 23:39:

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 for 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."

As I read the gospel account of Jesus' crucifixion, I can't help but be struck by the irony of what happened on that day: that he was accused of blaspheming God, but he, being the Son of God, was blasphemed by them; that his tormentors mocked him as a king—they put a sign over his head that read "King of the Jews"—but the irony is that he really was a King; that he was pronounced innocent five times, but he is executed as guilty; that the Author of Life is dying, and he's dying so that the spiritually dead might have life. The list of ironies could go on and on but they were all part of Christ's crucifixion.

Fearing God's impending judgment

I want to look at what this second saying from the cross has to teach us today. Luke writes: "Two others who were criminals were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him and the criminals, one on the right and one on his left." We don't know their names; the gospel writers tell us nothing about them, other than what we read here. Matthew and Mark tell us that they were robbers—common thieves—sentenced by Pilate to be put to death. If all we had about them was found in this account in Luke, we might assume that possibly only one of the criminals never hurled abuse at Jesus, but when you read Matthew 27:44, it says this: " And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way." The same way as what? The same way as the crowd who had hurled abuse at Jesus—the crowed that was mocking Jesus, making fun of Jesus, and saying blasphemous things against him.

We know from the chronology of that day that at 9:00 A.M. they are nailed to the cross. Initially, in their pain, unbelievably, inexcusably, both criminals use what energy and breath they have to mock the King of Kings. But somewhere between 9:00 A.M. and noon, one of the thieves suddenly goes silent. There hasn't been supernatural darkness—that comes in the afternoon when everything goes dark for three hours. There hasn't been an earthquake—that comes when Jesus gives up his Spirit. There hasn't been any resurrection. There hasn't been the centurion uttering those immortal words, "Truly this man was the Son of God." All of those events will occur later. But as the one thief hurls abuse, the other grows silent. Until finally, in Luke 23:40 the silent thief says, "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."

Do you know what's happening in that moment? This man's heart is being transformed by the power of God. This man has encountered Christ, and it has changed him. What happens is a textbook example of conversion. First of all, he fears God. Salvation begins with an understanding that someday all of us will stand before the living God—that all of us will stand before the One whose eyes burn with fire, and we will give an account. This is what awaits all those who do not receive Christ as their Savior. Revelation 20:11 says, "Then I saw a great white throne and him who is seated on it. And from his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them." What you have there is the un-creation of the universe—it's gone in a minute. Peter says it is "destroyed by fire." "And I saw the dead, great and small"—that means everybody: the high rollers, the up-and-outers and the down-and-outers—"standing before the throne and the books were opened, then another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done."

Based on these verses, we can safely say that no one will be in hell by accident. No one will say, "I don't know why I ended up here." No, everything a person says, does, and thinks, will be recorded, because, in the words of Hebrews 9:27: "It is appointed unto men once to die and after that the judgment." This is the truth. All men, all women, all people will face judgment. It says, "And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them." In other words, there's no place to hide; there's no place to escape. Outside of Christ and putting your faith in Christ, you will be here. And it says, "They were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done." It's all written down. Every time you cursed, every time you condemned, every time you slandered someone, every time you spoke in anger, every time you thought lustful thoughts in your heart, every time you acted out in sin, all of it is written down. It says, "Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire; this is the second death—the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the Book of Life, he was thrown into the lake of fire." There's a judgment coming.

One of the signs that God is working in a person's heart is that all of a sudden they have a sense of impending judgment; they have awareness that someday they will give an account to the living God, and there's fearfulness regarding that judgment. I know that's not popular in our day. In our day everybody wants to believe that since Jesus died for all our sins, we just have to try to be a good person. And if you try to be a good person and think nice thoughts about God, you'll be okay. Wrong. Many people say, "We shouldn't be afraid of God; we shouldn't fear God." Wrong. Listen to what Jesus said in Luke 12:4: "I tell you friends, do not fear those who kill the body and after that have nothing more they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear. Fear him, who after he has killed, has the authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him." Jesus knew the Father well, and Jesus said, "Be afraid."

"It's a fearful thing," the writer of Hebrews says, "to fall into the hands of the living God." It's a frightening thing; it is a terrifying thing. Hebrews 10:26 says, "If we go on sinning deliberately after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins." In other words, if you say, "I don't really know about Jesus, and I don't really care about Jesus, and I'm not going to submit to Jesus," there's nothing left. There's nothing that can take away your sin. There's nothing that can pay the penalty for you. There's nothing for you to do that will get you into heaven—not your good works, not your nice thoughts, not your code of morality. Jesus says, "There's not sacrifice for sins but a fearful expectation of judgment and a fury of fire that will consume the adversary." He goes on to say, "How much worse a punishment do you think will be deserved by the one who spurned the Son of God, has profaned the blood of the covenant, by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace." Let me put it this way: when the Spirit of God is calling out to people and you reject that, you enrage the Spirit of God. We don't like to think that way, but it's in the Bible. The thief on the cross in Luke 23 is in the same places.

I'll add one more thing for those who think we don't need to fear God: Fear God and you don't have to fear God. Don't fear God, and you better be scared to death. This thief, out of the conviction of the Holy Spirit is at a place where suddenly on the cross, he fears the judgment.

What I find so interesting in Luke 23 is that the thief is not looking for someone to get him off the cross. That's the way people think who don't have a healthy fear of God; they only want God for what God can do for them. "God, if you can get me out of this jam …;" "God, if you do this, then I'll serve you …;" "God, if you do this, I'll do that …." But that's not salvation. The thief is not looking for someone to get him off the cross. He wants to avoid divine judgment. Ultimately, his problem isn't what's happening to him on earth; it's what will happen to him when he faces God's throne in eternity.

Recognizing our sin and Jesus' righteousness

How does he know that? First, he's Jewish. He's been raised to understand the law of God and the holiness of God, and he's violated the law. He also knows that his punishment is just, and if this is what men do to him for breaking the law, then what is God going to do? And he's scared to death. So he was internally convicted by the Holy Spirit that he was only getting a small sample of the punishment he would get from God. In that moment of hanging on the cross, he understands that the worst that man can do to him—excruciating pain—is only a small sample of what he will get when he faces a living God. And this man is afraid. But it doesn't stop there, because salvation doesn't just stop with that fear. There's an awareness that judgment is coming.

But then second, notice he recognizes his sin and Jesus' righteousness. Verse 41 says, "And we, indeed, justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds, but this man, he was done nothing wrong." That's the core of the gospel in one statement! I'm wrong; Jesus is right. I've failed; he hasn't. I deserve to die; Jesus deserves to live. That's the gospel: he took our sin, he bore our punishment; we deserved the punishment he bore.

It doesn't make any difference to the abusive robber. He doesn't care if Jesus is right or wrong. All he cares about is if Jesus can get him off of the cross and out of his predicament, and if Jesus can't get him off of the cross, then he's not interested in following him. Being a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ means that you understand there is an impending judgment and doom, and that on your own you and I have no way to escape it. Our best state, our most righteous thoughts, our most righteous deeds will never cancel our sin debt. God on the cross did for us what we could never do for ourselves. Jesus, pure and righteous, took our place. In the "divine exchange" God became our substitute and bore our sin on the cross, that we might have his righteousness—something we could never have on our own.

Trusting in Jesus as Savior and King

Third, he put his faith in Christ as his Savior and his King. A lot of people are willing to follow Jesus as long as he'll save them from their sins (it's kind of like fire insurance). But they don't want Jesus as their king. But if he's not Lord of everything in their lives, then he's not Lord of all; and if he's not Lord of everything in their lives, then his saving work can't redeem you.

Look at Luke 23:42: "And he said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.'" In a word, he's asking for forgiveness. How's he ever going to get into the kingdom unless he's forgiven? And how did this idea of forgiveness ever get into his mind, unless he had heard Jesus pray, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do"? And I love this: "And he said, 'Jesus, Yeshua'" Jehovah Saves is what it means. This was the plea of a broken, repentant sinner asking for God's grace and God's forgiveness. We could put it this way: "Save me from the judgment of God. Save me from what I deserve. Forgive me. You prayed, 'Father forgive them!' Can I receive forgiveness?" Then the thief asks Jesus, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom." Nobody's ever survived a crucifixion, so the thief believed that Jesus would die and rise again and then bring in his kingdom. The thief's words convey a tremendous Christology. He's saying, "Jesus, this is not the end of you. You can save me, and you are my King."

The words of Romans 10:9 echo in my mind: "If you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved." This is what's happening in Luke. It's a living illustration of Romans 10:9. The thief believes that Jesus will rise from the dead, and he confesses with his mouth, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. You're a king, and I want to be one of your subjects." This is salvation. When someone believes in his heart that Jesus Christ, the righteous, pure, holy Son of God, has died for our sin and has been resurrected, and is seated at the right hand of God and that he is King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, and we say in that moment, "Jesus, I want to be in your kingdom. I want to you to be my King," that person experiences salvation. Translated into our lives that means praying, "Lord, whatever you ask, I'm going to do—starting with baptism."

Of course the thief didn't have a chance to be baptized, so Jesus continued by giving his second saying from the cross. "Truly, I say to you," Jesus began. Why did Jesus say "Truly"? Because it sounded too good to be true. "Truly, I say to you today"—not next week, not next month, not next year, not years from now, but today, right in this moment—"you'll be with me in Paradise." Heaven. Heaven is not a place where we will go and see Jesus. Heaven is a place we will go and be with Jesus.

So what's this second saying all about? Well, we could say that Jesus died caring about others, and that's true. He's bearing the sin of the world. In that moment, God is laying on him the sin of us all. The pain of crucifixion is one thing, but the Romans crucified 30,000 Jews, so Jesus wasn't the only Jew crucified by the Romans. It's not the physical pain of the crucifixion, though that would be agonizing. The real pain involved Jesus bearing the weight of the sins of everyone who would ever believe on him. The alienation of sin, the pain of sin, the loneliness of sin, the destructive fury of sin—all of it he's bearing. Imagine what your sin has done to you and people around you, how it's made you feel, how it's made them feel. Jesus bore all of that weight, all of that ugliness and pain. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us." And as Jesus bears that weight, he also reaches out to the thief on the cross—someone who had blasphemed him with the crowd.

So this is what the second saying means: Jesus died bringing a man to eternal life. That's what he did. He died praying for his enemies; he died bringing people to eternal life. And that's how you and I should live.

Conclusion—Two important questions

I want to close with two important questions. First, if Jesus' death shows us how to live, and he died bringing people to salvation, with whom are you sharing Christ? I'm not asking if you've ever shared Christ. I'm asking this: In the last week or in the coming week, with whom are you going to share Christ? Who around you doesn't know him as their Savior? Who around you has not yet opened their heart to his redemptive work? Who would benefit by hearing words from you that would be words of grace, that would be empowered by the Spirit, and that would penetrate their heart? Who are you trying to share Christ with? I'm just saying that Jesus died bringing people to faith in him that we might live bringing people to faith in him.

As we're walking through this series, we're talking about Jesus Christ dying for the sins of the world; we're talking about the coming judgment. Do you realize the judgment that people will face? And have you told them? You say, "You know the problem is they're just not interested. They're abusive towards me and towards the gospel." Oh really? It reminds me a little bit of our Gospel reading where it says, "and the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way." In the span of hours, or actually minutes, someone under the convicting weight of the Holy Spirit and the demeanor of a prayer response could go from darkness to light. They may be as seemingly disinterested as two thieves hurling abuse, but your words of grace and your prayer on their behalf and your care for them and identifying with them could be used by God to change their heart. Or you might say, "Well, I really don't know how much to say." How about you not worry about how much you need to say. Jesus didn't say very much. But you have to say something. And if you will, you can introduce people to the greatest reality they'll ever know.

I'm so glad that somebody looked at me and thought there was a chance I would respond. Many people thought that I didn't have a chance.

Second, if you've never had your heart transformed by Christ and you're not living in obedience to him as your King and your Savior, let me also ask some questions. I'm not talking about living a life of perfection. I'm talking to those who have not yet made a decision for Christ or perhaps you made the decision years back, but somehow along the line, you fell away. Do you fear God? If you don't know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and are content living away from him, then in honesty, truth, and love let me say that you should be scared to death. All of our current disasters—an earthquake, a tsunami, a reactor melting down—remind us of how fragile life is. Jesus, talking about the disasters of the day, said, "Don't worry about whether those people were righteous or not; just recognize that someday judgment's coming your way, and are you ready?"

On the day of any disaster, I doubt anyone thought it was coming. We don't think about disaster. We don't think about that time when death is right there, because we can't see ahead. And because it hasn't happened yet, our human nature, as sinful as it is, has a tendency to comfort itself with the idea that because it hasn't happened yet, therefore it won't happen. But it will. And only energized by the Holy Spirit can we get some sense of the impending judgment. Listen, there is a heaven; there is a hell, and only those whose name is written in the Book of Life will go to heaven. Everybody else goes to hell.

So rather than worry about the fairness and the justice of God in this moment, if you haven't given your heart to the Lord Jesus Christ, then you should be terrified, literally. I say this not in hate or anger; I say it because you have to recognize the severity of an attitude that says, "I don't care," or "I'll do it a different time," or "I'll do it later." If the Spirit of God is working in your heart and you're feeling like there's a battle raging inside you because what I'm saying is true, that's a serious thing. What you do with a call to repentance makes all the difference in the world. As it says in Acts 17, "God commands all men everywhere to repent."

Today is the day of salvation. Now is the appointed hour. Do you fear God? Do you understand the seriousness of sin—that our sin is so serious that the God of the universe leaves Heaven, lives on earth for 33 years, and lives an absolutely perfect life that he might present himself as the sacrifice for our sin on the cross? It's so serious that Jesus not only suffers the physical horror of crucifixion, but he's also punished for our sin and for my sin. That's how serious it is.

Do you understand that the pure, spotless, perfect Jesus died for you and took your place? He bore your sin that you might receive his righteousness. Have you put your faith in him as the Savior and the King of your life? For if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart God has raised him from the dead, you'll be saved.

This whole story rings with a sense of urgency. Two men were crucified with Jesus. Only one responded to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was at the cross working, calling people to faith in Christ, and only this thief responded.

Could it be that Jesus is calling you today? That his Spirit is working in your life right now calling you to come to him? "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." He calls you to himself. Will you respond?

John Lindell is the Lead Pastor at the James River Assembly in Ozark, Missouri.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Fearing God's impending judgment

II. Recognizing our sin and Jesus' righteousness

III. Trusting in Jesus as Savior and King

Conclusion—Two important questions