Certainty In Uncertain Times: Luke 23:39-43 – How To Be With Jesus In Paradise

Grace For The Journey

We have been studying through the Gospel of Luke and we find ourselves nearing the end of this Gospel and that means, of course, we find ourselves nearing the end of the life of Jesus Christ.  Jesus has been sentenced to death.  He has been led away to be crucified on a Roman cross at a place called “Calvary,” or “Golgotha,” the place of the skull.  He is hanging on a cross between two criminals.  Last week we studied His prayer in verse 34 where Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”  The Jewish rulers and the Roman soldiers had said, “If you are the Christ, save yourself.”  But as we studied last time, Jesus does not save Himself so that He may save others.  To paraphrase the popular song, “When He was on the cross you and I were on His mind.”

This morning we read about a conversation Jesus has with one of the criminals, a life-changing, and life-saving conversation.  Here is a remarkable passage about the last-minute salvation of a dying thief.  In the very last moments of his life, the dying thief trusts Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.

Dr. Vance Havner used to tell a story about this passage of Scripture.  He described how many so-called professing Christians have tried to use the account of the dying thief to defend their lack of commitment.  Havner told about a minister who was talking to one of these so-called Christians.  The minister asked the man if he was active in a local church.  The man responded, “No, but the dying thief on the cross wasn’t active in any local church and yet he was saved.”  The minister then asked whether the man had been baptized.  The guy said, “No, but then the dying thief on the cross was never baptized and he made it into heaven.”  The minister then asked the man if he had ever partaken of the Lord’ Supper, or whether he tithed or supported missional work.  The fella said, “No, but the dying thief never did any of those things and he was still saved and went to heaven.”  Finally, the minister said, “You know what?  The only difference between you and the thief on the cross is that he was a dying thief and you are a living one.”

We are right to point out that if this dying thief had the opportunity to come down off the cross and live his new life in Christ, he surely would have been baptized, become active in a church, give to missions, and so forth.  But he did not get that opportunity.  He was a dying thief and yet he died saved.  In the words of the hymn:

The dying thief rejoiced to see 

That fountain (of forgiveness) in his day;
And there may I, though vile as he,

  Wash all my sins away.

Let’s take a closer look at these five verses and then I want to share with you a few principles that surface from our study of this text.  First, look again at verse 39, “Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.”

This is now the third time Luke has told us about those who are taunting Christ.  We read last time how this is one of the fulfilled prophecies from Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.  Both Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 prophesy of Christ’s being taunted by his enemies.  Luke records the fulfillment of that prophecy as we read about the Jewish rulers taunting Christ, the Roman soldiers taunting Christ, and now one of the condemned criminals taunting Christ: “If you are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” 

Verse 40 tells us, “But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation?’”  This second criminal sees something in Jesus that the first criminal does not see.  The second criminal sees the innocence of Jesus.  He says here in verse 40, “Do you not even fear God?”  That is, he is saying, “How can you blaspheme God here in these final moments of your life?!”  We, too, have been sentenced to death” . . . “And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong” (Verse 41).

The criminal says, “We deserve what we are receiving, but not this Man.  This Man has done nothing wrong.”  We have previously noted that . . .

One of Luke’s main points

In reporting the crucifixion is

To stress the innocence of Christ.

Luke recorded three times that Pilate had found Jesus innocent in verses 4, 14, and 22.  Luke reported Herod’s finding Jesus innocent in verse 15.  Now this criminal sees that same innocence as will also a Roman centurion see this innocence of Jesus when we eventually get to verse 47.

Then, the Bible records the request of the condemned thief in verse 42, “Then he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’”  Here is the second thief accepting the justice of his own condemnation and recognizing the innocence of Christ, recognizing also who Jesus is: the Messiah, Savior, Christ, King, Lord. 

Note the response of Jesus in verse 43, “And Jesus said to him, “Verily, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.’”  That word “paradise” is a beautiful synonym for heaven.  It is used only two other times in the New Testament.  Paul uses the word “paradise” in 2 Corinthians 12:3-4 when referring to his being “caught up into Paradise” in some sort of vision or experience from God.  John also uses the term “paradise” to describe heaven when writing to the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2:7 where Jesus says, “To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.”

This dying thief is saved in the last moment of his life, having seen Christ for who He is and turning to Him to be saved.  Now, I want to share with you a few truths about salvation that are taught here in this passage.  This small passage of Scripture is tightly packed with three truths about salvation . . . Three things salvation involves . . .

I. Salvation Involves Mystery.

There is a mysterious element involved in salvation that is difficult to understand.  Jesus was talking about that mystery in the conversation He had with Nicodemus in John 3.  He said, “Nicodemus, you must be born again,” and Nicodemus did not understand what Jesus was talking about.  He said, “Are you talking about my entering my mother’s womb a second time?!  How can a person be born again?”  Jesus answered in John 3:8, “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.”  In other words, “You can’t put your finger on the precise moment at which a person’s eyes are opened and they see Christ for who He really is.”  It is a mystery.  Some see and some do not see.

John Newton described receiving God’s saving grace that way when he wrote, “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”  Can you explain salvation fully?  No, but like the man who had been born blind said in John 9:25, “One thing I know: that though I was blind, now I see.” 

The other Gospel writers tell us that both criminals had railed against Jesus.  Both of them initially blasphemed and taunted Christ (Matthew 27:44; Mark 15:32).  But then something happened in this second criminal’s heart.  Something changed.  Something changed so that the second thief began to see Jesus for who He really is.

Many have speculated and conjectured as to what they think it was that changed the second criminal’s view of Christ.  We might add to their speculation by remembering that this crucifixion lasted for six (6) long and grueling hours.  A lot can happen in 6 hours.  Maybe this second criminal was recalling what he had overheard, hearing Jesus talk with Pilate about a kingdom not of this world.  Maybe the criminal had looked over at Jesus and heard his prayer back in verse 34, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do,” and he gazed upon the title that hanged above Jesus’ head and read the words, “King of the Jews.”

Something happened.  Something changed his mind. 

That something

Is Someone.

I can hear Jesus saying, “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).

Jesus teaches plainly in John 6:44, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.”  God draws us to saving faith by the work of His Holy Spirit.  Both criminals had witnessed the same things . . . 

  • They had both seen and heard everything that transpired on that day. 
  • They had both heard about Jesus.
  • They had both heard His prayer from the cross.
  • They both had been exposed to the truth about Jesus.

Yet only one believed. 

The only explanation is the gift of God’s amazing grace to open the heart of one of those criminals to see what he previously was blind to.  God by His grace through the man’s faith, in Christ alone, saved this man from sin.

But what a mystery!  The hymn-writer records this very mystery in the hymn, “I know whom I have believed.”  He writes:

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

God moves by way of the Holy Spirit, convincing men of their sin and creating faith in Him.  God does that.  Salvation is a mysterious gift of His grace.

JC Ryle concludes that this fact should teach us humility.  He writes, “How is it that under precisely the same circumstances one man is converted and another remains dead in sins, why the very same sermon is heard by one man with perfect indifference and sends another home to pray and seek Christ, why the same Gospel is hid to one and revealed to another.  We only know that it is so, and that is useless to deny it.”

Salvation involves mystery.  I was once dead in my trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1), but God made me alive, He created my faith in Him and opened my eyes to see Christ for Who He is.  Salvation involves mystery.  

Secondly . . .

II. Salvation Involves Humility.

This second thief humbled Himself before the Lord Jesus Christ, confessing his sin, and acknowledging Christ as Lord and Savior.  He says to the other thief in verses 40 and 41, “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.”

He does not sound like the average criminal today, does he?!  The joke about jails and prisons is that everyone there thinks they are innocent.  But not this fella, he knows he is guilty.  So in humility, he says, “We receive the due reward of our deeds.”  That is like saying, “God, I know I am a sinner.  I admit I am guilty.”

If we ever hope to be saved

From the penalty and punishment

Our sins deserve, then we must

Humble ourselves before the Lord

And admit the errors of our ways.

We must – in humility – come to the Lord confessing our sin and repenting (turning) from our sin.

This passage illustrates that we

Are not saved by what we do. 

Our good deeds and acts

Of kindness do not save us.

This thief had nothing to offer Christ, he had not kept the sacraments or ordinances of the church, he had nothing to offer Christ – nothing.  We do not come to Jesus clutching a spiritual resumé of all the religious things we have done.  Jesus said, ““Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).  We come poor in spirit, we come like the thief–naked, poor, destitute, humbly.  As Augustus Toplady puts it . . .

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;

This second thief rebukes the first thief for failing to see the contrast between their just suffering and guilt with the unjust suffering and innocence of Jesus.  The first criminal had only cried, “Save Yourself and us!”  The second criminal cries, “Lord, save me!”

One thief made a demand for

What he believed he deserved. 

The other thief made a request for

What he knew he did not deserve

Salvation involves mystery, salvation involves humility.

Thirdly . . .

III. Salvation Involves Eternity.

Jesus answers the second thief’s request that he should be remembered in Christ’s kingdom by replying in verse 43, “Verily, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”  Which is to say a couple of things: 1) Jesus may have just as well said to the thief, “My Kingdom is not some faraway place in some faraway future.  My Kingdom is a present reality that may be enjoyed right now.  When you trust in Me you enter into that Kingdom.”

But note also, 2) The immediacy of the Christian’s entrance into heaven at the point of death.  Jesus says in verse 43, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.”  Today.  The thief will not enter into some kind of ‘soul sleep,’ nor will you go to some kind of purgatory to be further purged from sin.  By the way, if the thief needed no purgatory, who in the world does?!

Jesus says that the thief will be with Him in Paradise “Today!”   The Bible is consistent in this teaching.  The Bible says in 2 Corinthians 5:8, “We are confident, yea, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.”  Paul wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to the Christians at Philippi that he was not sure if he would remain alive and continue ministering to the believers there or whether he would, “depart and be with Christ, which (he said) is far better” (Philippians 1:23).  To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.

At death, the non-Christian’s soul goes to hell and the Christian’s soul goes to heaven.  The body is buried, the soul goes to heaven.  What does that soul look like?  I do not know, but we will be able to recognize one another there.  There is biblical precedent for that as well as just common sense.  If we are going to a more perfect place, then we will possess a more perfect knowledge and awareness of one another. 

And while our bodies may be buried in the ground, one day the Lord will come again, He will return, and He will raise up our mortal bodies and change them into immortal bodies,  glorious body like His own (1 Corinthians 15:42-55).  Then our souls will inhabit that new body and we will live forever this way with the Lord.

What a tremendous comfort to those of us who have had Christian loved ones die!  Our mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters who died in the Lord are present right now with Him.  They are there right now in a beautiful place called heaven, a place Jesus refers to here as Paradise.  What a comfort to those of us who have lost our Christian loved ones.

These words may comfort us as we contemplate our own condition before God.  Some think, “Well it is just too late.  I am too great a sinner to be forgiven.”  Let me ask you, “Are you any greater a sinner than this thief?”  It is not too late to turn to Christ.  It only becomes too late at death.  But it is not too late right now.

One preacher (Samuel Johnson) is remembered for frequently using a short verse of poetry to illustrate the last-minute act of this thief in turning to the Lord.  It describes the wonder of the thief’s redemption at the very last minute.  The poem is just two short lines about a man who had been thrown from his horse and what he does just before hitting the ground . . .

“Between the stirrup and the ground,
I mercy asked and mercy found.”

This thief in the last moment of his life asked for mercy and, what a wonderful thing, mercy he found!

On the cross hang three men, two guilty men and one innocent Man: The first thief, the second thief, and Jesus Christ. 

One man died in sin. 

One man died to sin. 

And

One Man died for sin.

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!

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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