The Lord's Day Morning
November 13, 2011
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 23 as we continue our way through the gospel of Luke together. I can remind you, a couple of weeks ago when we were last in the gospel, we were looking at the passage immediately prior to this in which Luke begins to describe the crucifixion. If you look especially at verse 34, Luke will give you the first word of Jesus from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing,” and in so doing, Luke is not only being a faithful historian and recording exactly what happens, what Jesus said, he is pointing you to specific historical facts that elaborate the theology of the cross, that explain why Jesus is doing what He's doing on the cross. And he's wanting to draw attention to the fact that what Jesus is doing on the cross forms the basis of God's gracious and just forgiveness of the sins of all those who trust in Jesus Christ. And so this is the backdrop of the passage we're going to read today.
We’re going to be looking at verses 39 to 43, a passage which records a conversation between one of the two criminals, or thieves, or robbers — depending on your translation — who were hung on crosses next to Jesus, on either side. And this conversation is of great significance. Again, Luke is drawing our attention to something that none of the other gospels tell us about. Each of the other two synoptic gospels tell us about these criminals and tell us what frame of mind they were in when the day began as they began to be crucified, but Luke alone records the interaction between Jesus and one of those criminals. And in that interaction I want us to see two or three things, so be on the lookout for these as we read.
First of all, this passage says something about Jesus’ readiness to save sinners, after all, Jesus said, “I came not for the righteous but to call sinners.” And this passage expresses that. Secondly, this passage is a beautiful picture of what real repentance is – what it looks like, what conversion looks like in a person. And then, Jesus’ declaration, the declaration we’ll read in verse 43, is a life-altering declaration and I want us to be on the lookout for that as we read today. So before we read God's Word, let's pray and ask for His help and blessing.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your Word. It is more to be desired than gold. It is more necessary than food or water for we do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. So speak, Lord, Your servant's listening. We ask this in Jesus' name, amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it, beginning in Luke 23 verse 9:
“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 of 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.’”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
In the last passage that we read in Luke, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” In this passage, Jesus forgives a criminal and ensures him of everlasting life. Even on the cross, Jesus is ministering His saving work. Even as He dies for the sins of the world, He is concerned about the heart of a convicted criminal who is dying the same awful death that He is dying. And in this wonderful exchange, this unique exchange recorded for us only by Luke, I want us to see three things today.
JESUS IS SAVING TO THE END
First of all, Jesus is at His ministry of salvation to the very end, even from the cross. Here Jesus is, enduring the physical torment of death on the cross, bearing the burden, the weight of the wrath of God for the sins of the world, and yet His heart is still on the salvation of sinners and it's represented in this conversation that He has with this thief. Jesus said that He came to call sinners, not the righteous, and here He is calling a sinner to Himself, having a conversation. At the end of the passage, you’ll note, the sinner in verse 42 — the robber, the criminal, however your translation renders it — says to Jesus, “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom,” and Jesus responds, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise,” showing concern for this sinner's soul, even from the cross. Just like in the trial in the courtyard when Peter was denying Him while Jesus was being tried by the high priest, Jesus is thinking of Peter, He's looking at Peter, He's driving Peter to repentance. So also here on the cross, while He's dying for the saving of the world, while He's bearing the sins of the world, He's thinking about this thief and He's willing to have this conversation about eternal things, about things of the soul, about things of the heart with this thief. We see, even here from the cross, while Jesus is doing the work which provides the basis of salvation for all who trust in Him, He's also focused on this thief who desperately needs to hear His word of assurance and blessing. Jesus saves and He does that work even on the cross. As the book of Hebrews says, “He saves to the uttermost,” and here He is, even on the cross, doing the work of a pastor; doing the work of a shepherd; doing the work of a teacher, and teaching this thief and responding to him and being concerned for his soul. Here on the cross, we see Jesus saving, not only in the sense of atoning for our sins, but in the sense of going after this lost sheep, this thief who is having a conversation with Him.
You know it's quite remarkable, isn't it? Jesus said that He came to save sinners and who's having a conversation with Him? A condemned criminal, a condemned criminal who admits that he deserves to receive the punishment that he is getting in this awful death of the crucifixion. Do you see what he says in verse 41? “We are receiving the due reward of our deeds.” This is a condemned criminal, the likes of which you rarely find. You go to prisons and it's amazing — everybody there is innocent; they've all been wrongly convicted. But this man is saying, “We’re on a cross,” to the other thief, “and we deserve to be here. We deserve to be condemned for what we're doing.” And that is the man that Jesus says, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
By the way, if this verse doesn't teach salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, I don't know a verse that does, because it's certainly not because this thief was a good person who had earned his way to Paradise. It is that the King, Jesus, has forgiven him and welcomed him into Paradise not because he deserved it, but because Jesus had paid for his sins and forgiven him of those sins and welcomed him by grace into His presence. And so we see Jesus saving sinners even while He's on the cross. That's the first thing I want you to see here.
A GLORIOUS CONVERSION ON THE CROSS
But the second thing I want you to see is this — we see a glorious conversion on the cross, not just Jesus’ work of saving sinners but there's a glorious conversion that's pictured here. The repentance of this thief, of this criminal, of this robber, is quite remarkable. Now I want to point out something because Luke tells us some things here that the other gospels don't tell us but what he says is consistent with what they say. Notice what they are saying. The criminal is railing against Him, verse 39, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” Now the other gospels tell us about that. Turn with me to Matthew chapter 27. In Matthew chapter 27 verse 44, Matthew says, “And the robbers also who had been crucified with Him were casting the same insult at Him.” So they’re insulting Him the same way that the soldiers and religious leaders are insulting Him. In other words, even as they are mocking Him, saying, “Well if You’re a King, come down from the cross and save Yourself. If You’re the Messiah, come down from the cross and save Yourself.” And the criminals are involved in that too.
And then if you’ll turn with me to Mark, turn with me to Mark chapter 15, and look at verses 27 to 32. Notice again, verse 27 — “They crucified two robbers with Him, one on His right and one on His left. And those we who were passing,” verse 29, “were hurling abuse at Him and,” verse 30, “saying, ‘Save Yourself, and come down from the cross!’ And so were the chief priests and the scribes, they were mocking Him.” And then look at the end of verse 31. What were they saying? “He saved others; He cannot save Himself.” And then in verse 32, “Let this Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross so that we may see and believe.” And then Mark just says in passing, “And those who were crucified with Him were casting the same insult at Him.” Now what I want you to see there is both Matthew and Mark tell you what? Both of the criminals were mocking Jesus at the beginning of the day. And Luke knows Mark, so it's not like Luke doesn't know what Mark and Matthew know. He knows what Mark and Matthew know, but he tells us that at some point during the day when Jesus was on the cross that one of the criminals looks over at the other criminal and he says, “Stop doing that.”
So what's happened? Something has changed in this man. Something dramatic has changed. Even though he started the day hurling abuse at Jesus, suddenly now he's asking Jesus if He will remember him when he comes into His kingdom. Suddenly he's rebuking the other criminal and saying, “You shouldn't be speaking to Him like that. Don't you fear God? We’re justly condemned; He's not justly condemned.” Suddenly this man's life is changed and you ask me, “What happened?” Well, one answer that you could give is that this is an example of the answer to Jesus’ prayer. Jesus had prayed, “Father, forgive them for they don't know what they’re doing.” This may be “Exhibit A.” Or you might say, “Well, the Holy Spirit's working on this man's heart,” and that would be true. But if you asked me, “What was it that caused this man to change? What did he see? What did he hear that made him change?” I don't know. It could have been Jesus’ words. It could have been His words of forgiveness to the very people who were doing this to Him. That could have been what the Lord used to change this man's heart and to open his eyes. It could have been the way Jesus was experiencing His crucifixion — His character, His dignity. This man is clearly impressed with both Jesus’ character and His message. In fact, one of the big points that Luke is driving home to us in this passage is the integrity of Jesus’ person and the testimony of His message, both of those things being confirmed on the cross. And it's clear that the thief has enormous respect for His person and enormous respect for His message. But what were the specific things that brought about the change? I don't know, but boy is the change there.
And you see the change in three things in particular. First of all, you see the change in the rebuke that he administers to the other thief, to the other criminal. He says, “Stop talking like that. You ought not to be speaking like that. Don't you have any fear of God in you?” Suddenly, this man who was mocking Jesus at the beginning of the day is concerned about the soul of the other thief.
Secondly, he admits his own guilt. Is that not remarkable? He's on a cross dying a torturous death and he says, “I deserve this.” I don't know what he did. He's called a thief or a robber or a criminal and that could mean a lot of different things. We talked about that a couple of weeks ago. We don't know what the specific crime was, but whatever it was he says, “I deserve this. I'm guilty.” He owns his own sin. You know, there are very few people that see their own sin that clearly. It's amazing how we can do horrible things and it's somebody else's fault. But this thief says, “Guilty. Guilty as charged. I'm getting what I deserve.” He sees his own sin clearly.
And then, notice also, he confesses Jesus. He confesses Jesus’ innocence. By the way, have you noticed now Luke has now told you that Pilate, the Roman governor of Palestine has declared Jesus innocent, Herod, the part Jewish ruler of one part of Palestine has declared Jesus innocent, and now one of the thieves crucified on the cross has declared Him innocent. This is one of the things that Luke is just pounding home. Jesus is not on the cross because He deserves to be there. He's on the cross for another reason. He's not on the cross because He's a criminal because He's not a criminal. He's not on the cross because He's done something wicked because He's not done anything wicked. He's there for another reason. This is all part of Luke driving that truth home. Jesus is innocent. He is without sin. He does not deserve to be punished this way. He does not deserve to be on the cross and now he's got the thief saying this, the thief himself admitting this about Jesus. And so you see this confession.
But you not only see that confession that Jesus is innocent, you see the thief going on to say, “Would You remember me when You come into Your kingdom?” Now that's amazing because over and over in this passage what have we seen Jesus mocked for? What are the chief priests and scribes mocking Him for? They’re mocking Him for claiming to be the King, for claiming to be the anointed Messiah, for claiming to be the one who they are going to see coming on clouds with power and glory in His kingdom. They charge Him with that crime but they do not accept it as true. They view it as blasphemy and they mock Him for claiming it. And then Pilate thinks the same thing. You remember when they come to Pilate and they say, “This Man is a threat to the Roman government because He claims to be a King and have a kingdom.” And Pilate examines Him and says, “This Man's no threat to Rome.” Pilate clearly doesn't think that the kind of King that Jesus claims to be or the kind of kingdom that He claims to have is any threat to Rome whatsoever. And so the Roman soldiers mock Jesus for being a King and claiming to be a King and claiming to have a kingdom. So everybody in the story is mocking Him and suddenly there's this dying man on a cross saying, “Jesus, I know You’re a King. I've watched You. And when You come into Your kingdom, could I just ask You one thing? Would You please just remember me?” And so we have this rebuke of the other thief, we have a recognition of his own sin, and we have this very clear confession of who Jesus is and what He claims to have come to do and be. It's an amazing change that happened to this man.
J.C. Ryle has a wonderful meditation on this passage and he says actually the evidences of grace in this man's life deserve our closest attention. And he identified six of them. Let me just share them with you briefly. He says first notice his concern about his companion's wickedness in reviling Christ. “Do you not fear God,” he says, “seeing you are in the same condemnation?” So suddenly this man who a few moments before was mocking Jesus, now he's concerned for his friend's soul. That's an evidence of grace. That's an evidence of a changed heart. When you start caring about other people's souls, that's an evidence that God has done a work of grace in you.
Secondly, Ryle says the full acknowledgement that he gives of his own sin. “We are justly condemned. We are receiving the due reward of our deeds.” He's owned his own sin. No excuses. No, “We’re getting more than we deserve here. I don't deserve this. It's somebody else's fault.” He owns his own sin. “I did it. I deserve this.” That's a mark of grace.
Third, his open confession of Christ's innocence. “This Man has done nothing wrong.” He says that in verse 31. Jesus’ character is vindicated to this man and this man confesses it. “This Man is innocent. He's not done anything wrong. He doesn't deserve what's happening to Him. We deserve what's happening to us; He doesn't deserve what's happening to Him.”
Fourth, notice his faith in Jesus’ power and will to save him. He turns to the crucified sufferer and he says, “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” He believes that He is a King and he believes that He has a kingdom, and that's more than anybody else around the cross except for the disciples. Right? Everybody else there rejects that Jesus is a King and rejects that He has a kingdom except this guy! It's a clear profession of faith in Jesus Christ.
Fifth, what does he do? He prays. He cries to Jesus when he's hanging on the cross and he asks Him even then to think upon his soul. He prayed a petition from Jesus. That is prayer.
And then sixth, Ryle says, the last step was his humility. He begged to be remembered by the Lord. Enough for him if he is remembered by Christ. We don't know what led to his conversion, but the mark of God's grace on this man and the evidences of his change of life are everywhere to be found in this passage.
And of course the question for us to ask is, “Do we bear the marks of that kind of a conversion?” I'm not saying that kind of a dramatic conversion, every conversion is different and unique because God makes us unique, but all of us ought to be able to see evidences of God's grace in our heart if we truly are in Christ, if we trust Him. Do we have these kinds of evidences of grace? Do we care about the souls of others? Do we see our own sin clearly? Do we embrace Jesus’ person and His words? Do we trust in Him? Do we humbly pray from Him just to be able to be remembered when He comes into His kingdom? These area all marks of the work of God's grace in this man's life. Do we see those kinds of evidences of grace in our life?
A STUNNING LIFE-ALTERING THEOLOGICAL DECLARARTION
And then there's a third thing that I want you to see in this passage, not only Jesus working for the salvation of this sinner, even from the cross, the glorious conversion of this sinner while he is on a cross, but a stunning, life-altering declaration that Jesus makes. When the man says to Jesus, “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom,” Jesus says something that would have blown the minds of all pious Jews who heard Him say these words. “Truly I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” And there are at least three things in that one little sentence that would have changed the whole theological structure of the world in which the people who originally heard Jesus say those words lived – today, with me, in Paradise.
Now when the thief said to Jesus, “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom,” I don't know how much of Jesus’ teaching this thief had heard or knew about. Maybe he had heard some of Jesus’ claims in some of His teaching while he was being held in prison before his crucifixion. Maybe he had been among the crowds in Jerusalem and had heard Jesus teaching. Maybe he had heard Jesus teaching somewhere else or maybe he had just heard Jesus speaking and teaching from the cross, enough to learn that He claimed to be a King and He claimed to have a kingdom. But when he asked Jesus to remember him when he came into His kingdom, if he believed like pious Jews in his day believed, he probably meant something like this — “I believe Jesus that the Messiah will one day come at the end of time and He will judge this world, He will save His people, and He will condemn the wicked. The just and the unjust will be raised from the dead, the just will be blessed, the unjust will be cursed. Remember me, Jesus. That is to say, forgive me and accept me and number me among the just on the last day and not among the wicked, among the unjust.” He's craving forgiveness and he's craving inclusion in the blessing of the kingdom to come at the end of this age.
And Jesus’ answer is mind blowing. He says, “No, no, no, no — today, you will be with Me in Paradise. Not just eons hence at the end of the age, not just at the resurrection of the dead, but today you will be with Me in Paradise.” Jesus’ announcement of “today” is an indication that in His death He is going to conquer death, which is the wages of sin. And therefore His people will not simply have to await the coming of the final judgment, which we do look forward to with anticipation. We look forward to the coming of the King in His final judgment and the great assize and the blessing of all those who are in Christ and the punishment of the wicked. We look for that day, but Jesus doesn't just say, “I've heard your prayer; I’ll remember you then.” But He says, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” It's an indication that what He's doing on the cross is a victory over sin, death, and the grave.
Do you realize that in that one sentence He has altered the whole way that the Christian looks at death? Death is the last enemy. It is the wages of sin. And even for those of us who believe in the Gospel, in salvation, and in the life to come, the loss of a loved one is a hard thing to bear. And Jesus is saying, “I want you to know that if you trust in Me, the minute, the second, the nanosecond that you close your eyes in death you will be with Me. Not just then at the end of the age, but today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
Secondly, Paradise, in Paradise — the abode of the just; the place where the blessed dwell until the final coming of the Lord. Jesus is articulating in one sentence the doctrine of the intermediate state more clearly than it has ever been unfolded in the Old Testament — in one sentence! If you want to understand that doctrine you have to scan the pages of the New Testament because the Old Testament only gives you hints here and there as to how to understand that. But Jesus here in one sentence is saying that the minute that the believer closes her eyes, his eyes, in death he, she, is in Paradise, immediately, before the final resurrection ever comes. We still look to the final resurrection when the just and the unjust will be raised, when Christ comes with power and glory on the clouds, when every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, we look forward to that as the last great event in this history, but until then, if you die in Christ you are in Paradise, in heaven among the blessed.
And here's the best part — today, in Paradise, with Me. Paradise isn't some airy-fairy world where you float around on clouds. It's where Jesus is. And you see, Jesus is the great treasure of the believer. In the end, we love forgiveness of sins, but we love forgiveness of sins because it allows us to be with Him. We love justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, but we love it because we treasure Jesus more than anything else and the greatest blessing for the believer is Jesus. He isn't just the means to our blessing; He Himself is our greatest blessing. And so He turns to this thief who had asked to be remembered and He says, “Remembered? Ha! You’re going to be with Me! I won't have to remember you, you’ll be with Me! You won't be forgotten because you’ll be with Me!” It will be the greatest thing because all the people that we’ll want to be with – all you have to do is sit there on the pew right now and you can think of a dozen right now that you would give your eye teeth to be with. There are young people in this room who have never known their godly grandparents and they will be with them. There are husbands who've lost the face of the wife who loves them. They will be with them. But among all those precious things, the most precious will be to be with Jesus. Today, with Me, in Paradise. And He says it to this thief! If that's not salvation by grace alone I don't know what it is.
But you see, the question for us my friends is, have we repented like this thief? Have we trusted Christ like this thief, because do you remember what Billy read in 1 Peter 2? Just turn with me there. We read it this morning. It wasn't planned; it was just providence. What does Peter tell us? First Peter chapter 2 – “You are living stones,” verse 5, “being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God in Jesus Christ for this is contained in Scripture: ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a choice stone, a precious cornerstone, and he who believes in Him shall not be disappointed.’ This precious value then is for you who believe, but for those who disbelieve, ‘The stone which the builders rejected became the very cornerstone, a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.’ For they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were appointed.” To believe, or to not believe — that is the question. If you believe and you walk out of here in to that parking lot and die, Jesus’ word is, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise if you believe.” So that is the question. May God grant you to believe.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word. Work it deep into our hearts we pray. In Jesus' name, amen.
Now as you take up your hymnals, turn with me to number 25. And again, be on the lookout for the words in stanzas three and four which articulate the sense of sin and the prayer to Jesus to be remembered that we hear from the thief on the cross. Number 25, “O Light That Knew No Dawn.”
That thief, by grace, heard the Savior say, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy that I have prepared for you.” All you who believe, likewise, receive God's blessing. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.