Grace For The Journey
One of the most illuminating encounters with Christ occurs in the midst of darkness and despair. It is Luke’s recording of the “thief on the cross.” There are actually two thieves recorded in the passage – one on either side of Jesus – and all three men are dying by crucifixion, condemned to die on Roman crosses. JC Ryle said these verses “deserve to be printed in letters of gold” and a close study of the passage reveals why. Here is what the Bible says in Luke 23:39-43, “Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, ‘If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.’ But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.’
The Bible teaches that we can learn a great deal about the entirety of a person based upon that person’s heart (Proverbs 3:23), so let’s look at this passage in terms of three men and three hearts.
1) A Stubborn Heart.
This is the heart of the thief, or criminal, hanging on the one side of Jesus. Verse 39 says, “Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, ‘If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.’” This first thief has a heart that is hardened to the things of Christ. Even in death he “blasphemed Him,” which is to speak irreverently about God. We might think a person at the brink of death would at least be open to spiritual things, but not this man.
If ever there were an apt illustration of how man – apart from the grace that awakens faith – remains spiritually dead in trespasses and sin, then this man’s stubborn heart illustrates just that. Unless God imparts a grace that awakens and regenerates our cold, dark hearts, we remain steadfast in sin.
The hymn writer wrote about this in the traditional hymn, “I Know Whom I Have Believed.” God Himself actually “creates” our faith in Christ:
I know not how the Spirit moves,
Convincing men of sin,
Revealing Jesus through the Word,
Creating faith in Him.
This is a solemn reminder that if ever you sense the Spirit of God moving upon your heart to convince you of sin, then do not harden your heart. Do not allow your heart to remain stubborn and closed. Allow it to soften and receive Jesus Christ as Lord of your life.
This first man’s heart was stubborn. He blasphemed Christ. He sneered: “If you are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” This stubborn thief joined the blasphemy of the crowd and the rulers who had also sneered at Him earlier. They had said in Luke 3:35, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Christ, the chosen of God.”
“He saved others.” They couldn’t deny that He had saved others. Indeed, there were others who had been saved when encountering Christ.
- There was Zacchaeus whose tax collecting business was entirely upended.
- There was blind Bartimaeus.,
- There was the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter.
- There was the healing of the Nobleman’s son.
- There was the son of the widow of Nain.
It is true: “He saved others.” They couldn’t deny that He had saved others – yet their hearts remained stubbornly shut.
A Softened Heart.
Consider next the heart of the criminal hanging on the other side of Jesus. Verses 40-41 state, “But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.’”
Interestingly, Matthew and Mark both report in their Gospels that this second criminal had also railed against Christ initially (Matthew 27:44 and Mark 15:32). This second criminal once had a stubborn heart, but in the span of some six hours of hanging on the cross, his heart has softened.
God can work a great deal in a man’s heart
In six hours (or six minutes, for that matter!).
This second criminal may have been reflecting on what he had perhaps overheard: Jesus’ talking with Pilate about a kingdom not of this world. Or maybe the criminal had looked over at Jesus when he heard Him praying earlier: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” (Luke 23:34). Or perhaps he had looked upon the title that had been hammered above Jesus’ head and read the words, “King of the Jews?”
Something had happened. Something changed his mind.
One thing is clear . . .
He has a new heart,
A softened heart,
A regenerated heart.
This second criminal with the softened heart now rebukes the first criminal with the stubborn heart. In essence, he says, “We deserve what we’re getting, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.”
From the lips of a condemned criminal comes a theological truth taught throughout the Scriptures – the sinlessness of Christ. He never sinned, not once. This thief acknowledges as much with the words, “This Man has done nothing wrong.” (see also Luke 23:4, 15, 22).
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
God made Christ, who was sinless, who had done nothing wrong, to “be sin for us,” to take our sins upon Himself. To die for our sins. To bear the punishment we deserved for our sin.
One man died IN sin.
One mad died TO sin.
And One man died FOR sin.
Christ can be our substitute only if He is sinless. And because He is sinless, He is perfect. He has a righteousness that is impeccable and we can receive that righteousness by believing in Him and receiving Him as Lord. It’s remarkable . . .
At His crucifixion
Jesus is stripped
Of His garment,
So that we
Who have nothing
May be clothed
In His righteousness.
The first criminal had seen Jesus’ cross as a contradiction of His messiahship. This second criminal sees the cross as a confirmation of His messiahship.
We have nothing to offer Him. We are like condemned criminals. In the familiar hymn text of Augustus Toplady:
Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress,
Helpless, look to Thee for grace
The second criminal knows this. He makes no demands upon Christ.
Verse 42 says, “Then he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’”
Here is both a cry
A confession of faith.
The man believes in Christ. He calls upon “Jesus” – which means “Savior.” He also addresses Him as “Lord” and refers to His “kingdom,” believing Christ to be a King.
The criminal offers no reason why Christ should remember him. Nor does he offer any work that might merit his salvation. He does not say, for example, “Lord, you know how good I have been. You know how kind I have been to the poor and downtrodden. Lord, you know how much I have given to charity.” No. He has nothing to commend himself to Jesus. He simply asks for what He does not deserve.
Think about this . . .
The first thief made a demand for what he believed he deserved.
The second thief made a request for what he knew he did not deserve.
We are saved entirely by grace through faith in Christ alone. We do nothing to commend ourselves to God. We have nothing to offer Him, nothing that makes us more “savable.”
If we are saved it is because God approves of us in His Son. We are accepted by God on the basis of Christ and His righteousness alone. This is true not only at the beginning of salvation but all throughout our lives. We are loved by God perfectly.
He’ll never love us any less
When we don’t do what is right
– And –
He’ll never love us any more
When we do what is right.
We never become any more “lovable” or acceptable. We are saved entirely by grace through faith in Christ alone.
Here’s how the great theologian B.B. Warfield put it: “There is nothing in us or done by us, at any stage of our earthly development, because of which we are acceptable to God. We must always be accepted for Christ’s sake, or we cannot ever be accepted at all. This is not true of us only when we believe. It is just as true after we have believed. It will continue to be true as long as we live. Our need of Christ does not cease with our believing; nor does the nature of our relation to Him or to God through Him ever alter, no matter what our attainments in Christian graces or our achievements in behavior may be. It is always on His “blood and righteousness” alone that we can rest.
The first man has a stubborn heart. The second man has a softened heart. The third Man – who is more than a Man! has:
A Saving Heart.
Verse43 says, “And Jesus said to him, ‘Verily, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.’” Here are the words of our loving Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He says to the dying thief who asks to be remembered in heaven, “I say this to you because it is a fact, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” Paradise is a synonym for heaven. Heaven is called paradise in two other places in the New Testament: 2 Corinthians 12:4 and Revelation2:7. The word always conveys the meaning of heaven.
Jesus Christ has a saving heart –
A heart that can save
All who will believe
(2 Peter 3:9).
These truth lead us to some wonderful and comforting principles for the child of God.
There Is Personality Beyond Death.
Jesus says to the believing criminal, “Today you will be with Me.” Jesus’ words highlight the truth that there is the continuing existence of a person beyond death. The personal pronouns “you” and “me” indicate that who a believer is in this life, carries over into the life beyond the grave.
There is personal identity in heaven.
Jesus says to the believing criminal, “Today, you will be with Me.” He says, “You,” which is to say “I know you. I will recognize you. And you will recognize Me.”
There is identity and recognition of one another in heaven.
Christians will recognize one another in heaven. We will see and know our loved ones who have died in the Lord. When asked whether we will know one another in heaven, an old, uneducated pastor said wisely, “We won’t be any dumber up there than we are down here!” And that is true! Even more significantly, we have biblical passages such as this one that indicate there is personality beyond death; identity and recognition of one another.
There is a reunion that occurs immediately at death.
As soon as the Christian takes his last breath on this earth, he takes his next breath in heaven. The Bible does not teach some strange doctrine of “soul sleep.” Once the Christian dies, his soul goes immediately to heaven. As Jesus says, “Today you will be with Me.” And as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:8, to be “absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”
There Is A Place Beyond Death
Jesus says, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” This is a great word to describe heaven! Whatever our notions of paradise are here on earth – a tropical beach, snow-covered mountains, beautiful gardens – these earthly ideas all pale in comparison to the splendor and glory of heavenly paradise.
It is a heavenly paradise reserved only for those who believe. Paradise is only for Christians. We must believe in Jesus Christ, trusting in Him alone to save us from the penalty of our sin in order to enter into this Paradise. Like the criminal who cried, “Lord, remember me when you come into Your kingdom,” we too must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, believing in Him, receiving Him as Savior in order to enter heaven.
There is a place not mentioned by Jesus in this particular passage – but mentioned elsewhere by Him – a place where those who do not know Him go – another place, the place where the other criminal went, a place the Bible calls hell. But we can avoid the imprisonment of hell if we believe in Christ as Lord and Savior. If we do, we have the assurance of entering into the Paradise of Heaven. And Jesus is the only way there. He said Himself in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes unto the Father except by Me.”
There Is A Person beyond Death
Jesus says, “You will be with ME.” Beyond death, there is Jesus. Jesus, whose name means “Savior.” Jesus, who loves you; loving you so much that He died for your sins. Jesus, who wants you to be with Him in Paradise.
People like to imagine what heaven is like. In the Book of Revelation, the Apostle John does his best to describe it. But . . .
What really makes heaven heavenly
Is that it is the place where our Savior is.
It is where Jesus Christ is.
Heaven is heavenly not primarily because
The streets are made of gold and
The gates are made of pearl.
Heaven is heavenly because
The love of our life is there: Jesus Christ.
Heaven is heavenly because the One who shed His blood in atonement for our sins is there.
The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day;
And there may I, though vile as he, wash all my sins away.
This is God’s Word …
This is Grace for your Journey …
Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!
Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”
Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”