Encounters With Christ – From Prison to Paradise

Grace For The Journey

And the irony is that, in the midst of such darkness and despair occurs one of the most precious encounters with Christ in the entire New Testament. It is Luke’s recording of the thief on the cross.  In point of fact, there are two thieves, one on either side of Jesus as all three men hang there, condemned to die on crosses there at Calvary.  Our chief concern this morning lies primarily with the penitent thief, the repentant thief.  It is just five verses, verses 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, “Verily, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.’”

JC Ryle says these verses, “deserve to be printed in letters of gold.” He adds, “They have probably been the salvation of myriads of souls.  Multitudes will thank God for all eternity that the Bible contains this story of the penitent thief.”

Jewish thinking locates the entirety of a man’s intellect and will in the heart.  Solomon, for example, writes in Proverbs 4:23, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life,” or, “everything you do flows from the hear.”  And even today many of us think this way. I pray for my daughters, for example, that God would grant them “a heart of wisdom (cf Psalm 90:12).  Jesus taught that what comes out of a person’s mouth is an indication of what is inside a person’s heart (cf Matthew 15:16-20).

We can learn a great deal about the entirety of a person based upon that person’s heart, so will study this passage in terms of three men and three hearts.

There are three men dying here in this passage.  Three men mentioned in verses 39-43.  We will take them in the order they occur in the text.  Three men with three hearts.

1) The First Man Has A Stubborn Heart.

This is 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 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.

It’s what the hymn-writer talks about when he writes:

I know not how the Spirit moves,
Convincing men of sin,
Revealing Jesus through the Word,
Creating faith in Him.

I do not know either, how the Spirit moves, but I know He does.  And . . .

“I know Whom I have believed
And am persuaded that He is able
To keep that which I’ve committed
Unto Him against that day.”

Here is a solemn reminder that if ever you sense the Spirit of God moving upon your hearts 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 said to Jesus in verse 39, “If you are the Christ, save Yourself and us.”  He joined the blasphemy of the crowd and the rulers who sneered at Him and said, back up in verse 35, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Christ, the chosen of God.”  “He saved others.”  They could not deny that He had saved others.  There were others who had been saved when encountering Christ.  They had heard, perhaps, about Zacchaeus and how his tax collecting business was changed entirely.  They had heard of others like Blind Bartimaeus, the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, the healing of the Nobleman’s son, and the son of the Widow of Nain.  “He saved others.”  They couldn’t deny that He had saved others.

Is it not remarkable that, though they knew He had saved others that their hearts remained stubbornly shut?

A stubborn heart.  The second heart is the heart of a man who is heart is not closed, but open; not stubborn, but . . .

2) A Softened Heart.

This is the heart of the criminal on the other side of Jesus.  Verse 40 states, “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 had a stubborn heart, but in the span of some six hours of hanging on the cross, his heart was softened.

God can work a great deal in a man’s heart in six hours (or six minutes, or six seconds!).  This second criminal may have been reflecting on what he had overheard, hearing Jesus talk with Pilate about a kingdom not of this world.  Maybe the criminal had looked over at Jesus when he heard his prayer back in verse 34, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do,” and maybe he gazed up there at that title that was hammered above Jesus’ head and read the words, “King of the Jews,” a little sign one preacher refers to as “The first Gospel tract.”

Something happened.  Something changed his mind.  One thing is clear: he has a new heart, a softened heart, a regenerated heart.  Jesus said to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

This second criminal with the softened heart rebuked the first criminal with the stubborn heart.  He asks him in verse 40, “Don’t you not even fear God?!”  He adds, “You and I are under the same condemnation,” and – in verse 41, “And we indeed justly.”  That is, “We deserve what we’re getting, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.”

Here is a man who confesses his sin.   He knows he is guilty. He does not blame anyone else for his actions.  He says, “We deserve this, but this Man has done nothing wrong.”  See also Luke 23:4, Luke 23:15, and Luke 23:22.

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.  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.  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.

This is remarkable really.  At His crucifixion Jesus is stripped of His garment and He became naked so that we could be clothed in His righteousness.

One man died in sin.

One man died to sin.

And One Man died for sin.

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.  Nothing in our hands we bring; simply to the cross we cling.

The second criminal knows this.  He makes no demands upon Christ. He simply says in verse 42, “Then he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’”

Here is both a cry

And a confession of faith.

He believes in Christ.  He calls out to Jesus; Jesus which means, “Savior.” He calls Him, “Lord.” He believes He is a King, an eternal King.  He pleads, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”  He mentions no great work he had done for Christ.  He doe not say, “Lord, you know how good I have been. Lord, 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: “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”

Think of 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 will never love us any less when we do not do what is right – and – He will never love us anymore 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.

Let me share a quote from BB Warfield that drives this home explicitly . . . “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!  The third Man has . . .

A Saving Heart.

Verse 43 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, “Verily, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”  That is, “I am going there shortly. You will be there with Me. There, in Paradise.”  Salvation.  A saving heart.

Paradise is a synonym for heaven.  Heaven is called paradise in two other places in the New Testament: 2 Corinthians 12:4 and Revelation 2:7.  The word always conveys the meaning of heaven.

From these words of Jesus in verse 43, there are three things the Christian experiences at death . . .

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 a continuing, or continuity of a person beyond death.  These pronouns – you, 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. I receive 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.  We will be able to identify one another.

When asked whether we will know one another in heaven, one pastor back said, “We will not be any dumber up there than we are down here!”  And that is true.  And even more importantly, we have passages such as this one that indicate there is personality, identity, and recognition of one another beyond death.  And this 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.  It happens immediately.

The Bible does not teach some strange doctrine of “soul sleep.”  No, once the Christian dies, his soul goes immediately to heaven.  As Jesus says, “Today you will be with Me.”

The Bible says in 2 Corinthians 5:8, “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”

Jesus teaches that there is personality beyond death. But not only does Jesus teach that there is personality beyond death. Secondly, Jesus teaches:

There Is A Place Beyond Death

Jesus says, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.”  Isn’t that a great word to describe heaven?!  Whatever our notions of paradise here on earth – a tropical beach, snow-covered mountains, beautiful gardens – these earthly ideas all pale in comparison to the splendor 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.  We have to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, believe in Him, receive Him as Savior in order to enter heaven.

You see, 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 hell if we believe in Christ as Lord and Savior.  If we do, we have the assurance of entering into the Paradise of Heaven when we die. 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.”  He is the only way to enter heaven, the only way to have joyful everlasting life.

What is beyond death for the Christian?  There is personality beyond death.  There is a place beyond death. Finally, and most importantly . . .

There is a Person beyond Death

And by “Person” we mean the Person!  Jesus says, “You will be with ME.”  Beyond death, there is Jesus.  Jesus, whose name means “Savior.”  Jesus, who loves you, who loves 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, heaven, is that it is the place where our Savior is.  It is where Jesus Christ is.

Pastor Jerry Vines illustrates this importance this way, “Let’s just suppose that you had been separated from a loved one for a long, long time.  You thought you would maybe never get to see them again.  Then there’s a discovery that they are found and you get a call from the White House, “We have located your loved one. We have arranged for you to have a reunion with them up here at the White House.”  So you go in there.  They usher you into one of those lovely rooms in the White House.  I can imagine standing there and you look at the carpet and say, “My, what gorgeous carpet.”  You look at the chandeliers and what lovely chandeliers.  You look around at the walls and what beautiful walls and the paintings on the walls.  Probably you would be pretty impressed if you had never been in the White House.  Then about that moment a door opens up and in walks your loved one that you hadn’t seen in a long, long time.  You know what? I have a feeling when you get a glimpse of that loved one, the carpets won’t have much meaning to you anymore.  The paintings on the wall, the chandeliers won’t have much meaning.  You will be caught up with the sight of your loved one.

And that is what makes heaven heaven.  It is not that the streets are pure gold, and the gates are solid pearl, nor all the rest.  It is that our loved one is there.  Jesus is there.  

This is God’s Word …

This is Grace for your Journey …

Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!

Pastor Terry

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.”

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