Have you ever heard the gospel being told by a condemned criminal? That’s what we heard this past Sabbath from the thief on the cross as we continued our seven last words of Christ sermon series.
Rewind to Luke 23:39-43. Only Luke gives us the details of this exchange between Jesus and the thieves. And in this exchange, we see why it is impossible to ignore Jesus. You can believe in him or not, but you can’t ignore Him. Why? Because Jesus is forever and always in the middle of our mess. Wherever there are sinners, Jesus is in the middle of them. He is a God who hangs with sinners.
One of the thieves was changed by the way Jesus was dying. As he listened to Jesus’ repeated prayers for forgiveness for all of them, he realized he was witnessing a sacrifice and not an execution. And in that moment, he was suddenly aware that the sacrifice was for him.
In verses 40 and 41 we have the gospel in miniature. When he said, “We are getting what we deserve,” he was speaking for all humankind. The Bible says the wages of sin is death. We all deserve to die. It is the just and righteous consequence of rebellion against God. “But the gift of God is eternal life.” (Rom 6:23) How so? How does this work? It’s what the thief says next: “But this man has done nothing wrong.” The gift of God is the Man who has done nothing wrong. That man took what we deserved and gave us who believe what He deserved.
The thief understood the gospel and then, took a leap of faith—as big a leap as a man fastened to a cross can make. He couldn’t do anything but make a faith confession: “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” (vs. 42) In that simple confession, the thief acknowledges that Jesus is Lord, and that He is a king. He sees what no one else saw that day—the true nature of the kingdom of God in the character of its King who cares more about saving others than saving himself.
The thief understood that in Jesus was salvation and salvation is a gift of grace. Rewind to Eph. 2:8-9 – “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” There was absolutely nothing the thief could boast about. He could never pray the prayer of the Pharisee (see Luke 18:11-12). He was everything the Pharisee was not; everything the Pharisee despised and rejected. And that’s why the thief, like the publican, was justified while the mocking Pharisees were not. It is better to be a repentant sinner on a cross than an unrepentant saint on a pedestal.
But what the self-righteous rejects, the only One who is truly righteous, receives. The thief’s prayer, like that of the publican was the prayer that saves. He didn’t pray, “reward me.” He prayed, “remember me.” “Have mercy on me!” And that’s the only way anyone will ever get to heaven—by mercy not merit. Don’t get it confused. Jesus does the saving; you do the clinging. And the only thing you and I can ever boast about is what a Savior He is!
Next comes Jesus second word—the word of salvation: “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in paradise.” (vs. 43) The thief believed, and Jesus saved him on the spot. He stopped dying long enough to save somebody else. Jesus was literally fulfilling the taunts and insults of his haters. He was saving others, and to do that He couldn’t save Himself.
Jesus didn’t give the thief a way off the cross, but He gave him a way into the paradise of God. The same is true for us. Following Jesus doesn’t get us off the crosses we must bear (“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33). Following Jesus is not a “get-off-the cross-free-card.” But it is a “Nothing-can-separate-me-from-the-love-of-God” card. (See Rom. 8:38, 39.)
All the thief had was all he needed—Christ’s promise of paradise. The thief possessed paradise the moment he believed the promise. In the words of the hymn: “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives…praise the Lord!
Christ’s word is as good as the thing He says. Remember, this is the One who spoke and it was; He commanded and it stood fast. When the Creator tells you on oath that you will be in paradise, paradise is yours the moment He speaks it. The thief knew that day the cross wasn’t the end for him. He knew that day that he was going to be with Christ forever and that the cross, rather than keeping him out, was in fact, the gateway to paradise.
The word ‘Paradise’ itself has a lesson for us. Nowhere else does Jesus use this word except here. It is a word with Persian origins meaning a walled garden. “When a Persian king wished to do one of his subjects a very special honor, he made him a companion of the garden which meant he was chosen to walk in the garden with the king. It was more than immortality that Jesus promised the penitent thief. He promised him the honored place of a companion of the garden in the courts of heaven.” (Barclay) The promise of paradise reveals a God who makes honored companions out of dishonored sinners.
In the two thieves are represented the whole of humanity—guilty sinners condemned to die. The question is not whether you are the thief on the cross, it is which thief are you? One saw powerlessness and mocked Him. One saw proof of God’s love and believed Him. It is not our sin that keeps us from God. Our problem is our inability or refusal to respond to the love of God and to repent. Only one of the thieves did that. How will you respond? —Pastor Randy
P.S. With six days left to before the start of our Experience Jesus meetings, you can help get the word out without leaving your house. Call or text a friend, or use your Face Book page, if you have one, and tell your friends all about it. Direct them to the Experience Jesus Face Book page, or the Renton church Face Book page. You can also direct them to the registration page: RelevantSeminars.org/Renton. Let’s use what we can to let this message go viral.