A Few Feet or an Eternity Apart (2)
Scripture: Luke 23:32–43
A Few Feet or An Eternity Apart?Luke 23:32-43
March 29, 2002 • Good Friday Service • First Baptist, Asbury Park
Pastor Randy Smith
A few years ago the top story in all the Chicago newspapers was devoted to reporting the tragic deaths of a few children who died as their school bus was hit by a train. The bus was trapped at the intersection behind traffic with the tail end of the bus exposed to the railroad tracks. As the train collided with the bus, the children sitting in the front of the bus were saved, but those in the rear were instantly killed. The paper's headline read, "Life and Death Separated by a Few Feet at a Crossing."
Approximately 2,000 years earlier only a few feet separated two criminals as they painfully endured crucifixion. Both men were destined to die for crimes they committed against the Roman Empire, but as the Scriptures declare, physical death is not the end of our existence. Though both men that day died physically, only one man died spiritually. The newspapers back then could have read, "Life and Death Separated by a Few Feet at a Cross."
"And two others also, who were criminals, were being led away to be put to death with Him. And when they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. But Jesus was saying, 'Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.' And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves. And the people stood by, looking on. And even the rulers were sneering at Him, saying, 'He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One.' And the soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, and saying, 'If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!' Now there was also an inscription above Him, 'THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.' And one of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, 'Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!' But the other answered, and rebuking him said, 'Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.' And he was saying, 'Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!' And He said to him, 'Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise" (Luke 23:32-43).
1. RESPONSE OF THE FIRST CRIMINAL
In addition to Jesus, two criminals were nailed to a cross that day. Their recorded responses profoundly reveal the reality of their hearts and their eternal destinies. Though all three men had words to say from the cross, let's begin by examining the words of the first criminal. Based on Luke's gospel in verse 39, his response was, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!"
Crucifixion, reserved for those guilty of the grossest crimes was described as the most heinous form of death. Cicero, a contemporary of Jesus Christ wrote, "Let the very name of the cross be far away not only from the body of a Roman citizen, but even his thoughts, his ears, his eyes." C.H. Spurgeon, a contemporary of our time said, "Crucifixion was a death worthy to have been invented by devils. The pain which it involved was immeasurable." It was said that a man crucified died a 1,000 deaths on that cross. Large nails driven through the hands and feet left the individual gasping for breath as he slowly suffocated.
Bearing this excruciating pain one can imagine how this first criminal would turn to Jesus and say, "Save me Jesus! What is going on? You restore sight, feed 5,000, walk on water, cleanse the lepers and raise the dead! Why Jesus, why are you not doing anything? All you can say is, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. What kind of Messiah are you?"
This scenario reminds me of the many religious leaders today who give permission to be angry with God. We forget that we are undeserving sinners. We forget that we are the clay and He is the potter. We forget that our plans are not necessarily His plans. So many today thank Him for a close call, but then have the audacity to question Him in times of tragedy.
The first criminal simply wanted a ticket off the cross, and he was willing to use any cosmic genie that would accomplish his worldly desires. His comments were no better than the rulers in verse 35 and the soldiers in verse 36 who mocked Jesus. Yes, his comments appeared not as outwardly blasphemous, but inwardly they revealed a heart that saw Jesus as a puppet to be commanded, rather than a King to be followed. There was no element of brokenness, repentance, or humility. The first criminal was oblivious to the eternal plans of God., and there he hung beside his Creator, beside the Word of Life. And from Jesus he heard no argument, but only a deafening silence. In the criminal's most desperate hour, all hope was lost as he beheld no promise from the King.
2. RESPONSE OF THE SECOND CRIMINAL
But a few feet away, another criminal was crucified on the other side of Jesus. He was suffering the same pain and also would have given anything to be off the cross. How tempting it would have been to see Jesus as the solution. How easy it would have been join the others in the orchestra of anger and ridicule directed at Jesus when no miracle was performed.
Yet this man was different. Rather than participating in the folly, verse 40 says he rebuked his partner in crime. Then in a most dramatic fashion, when the uttering of a single word would have strained every muscle, he revealed the heart that pleases the Lord.
Don't miss these steps! First, he expressed a righteous fear. "But the other answered, and rebuking him said, "Do you not even fear God , since you are under the same sentence of condemnation" (Lk. 23:40). As long as we are presenting God as the "man upstairs" or our "buddy" or our "fire insurance," we will never ascribe to God the reverential fear that He deserves. This man recognized God as the writer of Hebrews described Him, a "Consuming Fire" (Heb. 12:29), the "fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries" (Heb. 12:29). He saw him as Moses realized Him, the great "I am" (Ex. 3:14), and Isaiah as he exclaimed "Woe is me, for I am ruined…For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts" (Isa. 6:5). He saw Him as Peter when he said, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord" (Luke 5:8). This criminal on the cross recognized God's holiness, His sovereignty and His righteous judgment over sinners like himself. He bowed in submission to His Creator in holy fear.
Next in verse 41, he admitted he had done wrong. "And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds" (Luke 23:41). It is only when we correctly understand God's holiness that we can rightly comprehend our own sinfulness. When we understand the glory that God deserves, we see how far short we have fallen from it. We understand that our conscience is stained, and all things are laid open to an omniscient God who will render justice. The second criminal accepted the punishment he deserved. He recognized his sinfulness. He admitted his guilt.
In addition to recognizing his own unworthiness, he thirdly acknowledged the righteousness of Christ in the remainder of verse 41. "But this man has done nothing wrong." Here we see the mark of a redeemed heart, the comparison between the desperate condition of humanity and the greatness of God.
The Scriptures often testify to the sinlessness of Christ. "For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin " (Hebrews 4:15). "(Jesus) who committed no sin , nor was any deceit found in His mouth" (1 Peter 2:22). And we all know that Christ had to be sinless in order to be the perfect and spotless Lamb of God who would bear the sins for His people and serve as an acceptable sacrifice to propitiate the wrath of God.
In understanding the sinlessness of Christ, the thief naturally knew that Jesus had done nothing worthy of deserving death, much less death on a cross. He knew that Jesus was accomplishing His divine mission. His death was more than being betrayed by a friend, more than the evil plots of the Jewish leaders and more than the tyrannical leadership of Pontius Pilate. It was God's will for Christ to be on that cross. Contrary to the world's beliefs, the cross was not a sign of Christ's weakness, but rather a demonstration of His love, power and obedience to the will of the Father.
In antiquity, to accept one's punishment was an expression of penitence and eternal forgiveness. However, this criminal does not rest on the atoning power of his own death to find acceptance with God. Rather, he appealed to the atoning work of Christ. "And he was saying, "Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom" (Lk. 23:42)! The thief knew that Jesus was a King and that Jesus had power over His tormentors, but willingly chose not to exercise it. The King was destined to die as a Lamb, but one day return as a Lion and vindicate His Name. And on that day, the Scriptures declare, "Every knee will bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Phil. 2:10).
In a day and age when the Messiah was expected to be a political deliverer, the thief's faith is contrasted with that of the onlookers. They thought His death would prove Him to be a fraud. He knew that Jesus' death would prove His Kingship. As a matter of fact, it's been said that the dying thief had more faith at that moment than most of Jesus' own disciples. The thief could see beyond the present shame to the coming glory that awaited the King.
The thief knew that he had no merit of his own to bring to the King. He simply pleaded with the King to be remembered and sought the help of Jesus as a spiritual beggar in the last waking moments of his life. Jonathan Edwards once said, "If there be ground for you to trust your own righteousness, then all that Christ did to purchase salvation, and all that God did to prepare the way for it is in vain."
William Cowper in 1711 conveyed this well in the popular hymn. "There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel's veins, and sinners plunged beneath that flood, lose all their guilty stains. The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day, and there may I, though vile as he, wash all my sins away."
The thief's plea for remembrance was an act of faith. As a hardened criminal, he (like us) has nothing to bring to the cross. It was not "remember my works," but rather, "remember me, remember my faith." It was a total surrender and yielding of oneself to the mercies of Christ.
3. RESPONSE OF JESUS
How did Jesus respond? In one of His 7 recorded sayings from the cross, Jesus said, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise" (Lk. 23:43). Literally the beginning reads, "Amen, I say to you," expressing both confirmation and authority. From the lips of the King Himself, there was to be no doubt. On that day the repentant thief would be in Paradise. Though being crucified as a vile offender, the thought was almost too good to be true. All of his sin, all of his guilt, taken out of the way and nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14). The thief was only hours from Paradise.
You may ask, where and what is Paradise? The word Paradise is found 2 other places in the New Testament. The first is Paul's private revelation in 2 Corinthians 12:3. "And I know how such a man - whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows - was caught up into Paradise , and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak." The second is Revelation 2:7. "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God." Where is the tree of life? According to Revelation 22:1, the tree of life is in the heavenly city of God. Though Paradise in the Garden of Eden was lost, a better Paradise has been regained for those who love Jesus-eternity in the heavenly abode of God.
The account mentions no decent into Hades. The account mentions nothing of purgatory. The account mentions nothing of soul sleeping. The account even mentions nothing of the thief's baptism. Rather, both the thief and his Savior would be in Paradise this day.
The book of James says that our life is but a vapor which appears for a while and then vanishes away. So many Christians are unprepared for death. Even more unbelievers are tragically unprepared for death. Hebrews 10:31 says, "It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God." But for those who trust in Jesus, we have a hope, a security, an eternal rest. We have the confidence that we, like that thief, upon death will be in Paradise. "And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life" (1 John 5:11-12). Who on earth can take another breath of air without having this assurance? For many of us there may come a time when the doctors will say, 24 hours at best. Because of our faith in Christ and His work on the cross, the Scriptures give us confidence that on that day we will be with Him in Paradise!
"To be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord." (2 Corinthians 5:8). "Home with the Lord ." "You will be with Me in Paradise." We long to, walk the streets of gold, be reunited with loved ones who departed in Christ, be done away with this frail body subject to weakness and death, end the battle with personal sin, have the evil one forever out of our lives, have our enemies subdued, learn divine mysteries and enter our heavenly rest. However, as excellent as these qualities are, no person will be in heaven if this is all they are hoping for. Heaven is reserved for people who want more than anything else to spend eternity with Jesus. To be with the One who is their treasure chest of holy joy and their eternal delight (Psalm 37:4). To gaze upon the One whose promises are more desired than all the world and whose lovingkindness is better than life (Psalm 63:3). How dare we love the gifts more than the Giver and worship the creation more than the Creator. Yes, we want the Kingdom, but ultimately we are longing for unbroken, rich fellowship with the King. Better not because we ever spend one moment apart from Him, but better because we "will be revealed with Him in glory" (Col 3:4).
Our relationship with Him on this planet is only to be a shadow of what is awaiting us in eternity. The day when we will see Him face to face and no longer dimly in a mirror (1 Cor. 13:12). The day when we will walk no longer only by faith, but also by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). The day when we shall see Him just as He is (1 Jn. 3:2). Spending the rest of eternity, worshipping our first love, joining in the heavenly chorus, singing, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing…To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever" (Rev. 5:12-13)
Now for those of you in Christ, I hope these thoughts bring an "amen" to your hearts. But for those of you not in Christ, I can clearly imagine what you must be thinking. Pastor, what makes you think Jesus is the only way to God? What makes you think that Christ had any authority to say what He did to that thief on the cross? Why should I put my faith in Christ?
The answer is this, Easter Sunday! After dying in a tomb, Jesus Christ, just as He predicted, rose from the dead and unlike any other religious figure, appeared to many as a living testimony. When God raised Him from the dead, it was a divine approval of Christ's suffering and dying for our sins. There was no penalty left to pay for sin. There was no more wrath of God to bear. The work of atonement was finished. Christ was victorious over sin, Satan and death. And for those in union with Christ, we have the grand promise from the Scriptures that we too will be raised from the dead with the same power. Is it any wonder that the resurrection of Christ transformed a cowardly band of disciples to be bold proclaimers of the message and eventual martyrs for the faith? Is it any wonder that the resurrection is so often mentioned in the Scriptures as the cornerstone of biblical Christianity? Is it any wonder that even the biblical writers themselves exclaim that Christianity either stands or falls based on the validity of the resurrection? "If Christ has not been raised your faith is worthless and you are still in your sins" (1 Cor. 15:17).
Beloved, the resurrection has occurred, but sadly many are still in their sins for rejecting Christ. All of us according to the standard of God apart from Christ are as vile as that thief on the cross. All of us have no merit to save ourselves. All of us must cast ourselves fully into the arms of Jesus if we are to have any hope. The rescue mission of Jesus could not be defined any clearer, "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Lk. 5:32). On his deathbed the devout astronomer Copernicus said, "I do not ask for the grace you gave St. Paul; nor can I dare to ask for the grace that you granted to St. Peter; but, the mercy which you did show to the dying robber, that mercy, show to me." "Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling; Naked, come to Thee for dress, helpless, look to Thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly, wash me Savior, or I die."
There are only two kinds of people in the world. The two criminals on the cross represented both types. There are those who have the Savior, and those who do not. Which one are you? Do you reject the Messiah and join in the blasphemous jeers with the angry majority? Or do you confess your sin, trust in the finished work of Christ and choose the narrow road that leads to eternal life. Life and death separated by a few feet at a cross.
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