************ Sermon on Luke 23:42-43 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on March 8, 1998
"The Second Word of the Cross: Salvation"
I Christ Crucified Between Two Thieves by the Will of God
A It was no accident that the Lord of glory was crucified between two thieves. There are no accidents in a world ruled by God. Certainly there can be no accident on that day and with that event which lies at the center of world history. No. God was in charge. From eternity He had decreed when and where and how and with whom His Son would die. Nothing was left to chance or the whim and fancy of man. All that God had eternally decided came to pass exactly as He had ordained, and nothing happened except that which He had eternally purposed. Everything man did, God's "power and will had decided beforehand should happen" (Acts 4:28).
When Pilate gave orders that the Lord Jesus should be crucified between the two criminals he, unknowingly, was carrying out the eternal decree of God and fulfilling the prophecy of Scripture. Seven hundred years before Pilate gave this command, God had declared through Isaiah that His Son was to be "numbered with the transgressors" (Is 53:12). How inconceivable this must have seemed, that the Holy One of God should be numbered with the transgressors; that He Who wrote the law with His very own finger on the two tablets of stone would be assigned a place with the ungodly; that the Son of God was to be executed with criminals. Incredible as it may seem, it actually came to pass: on Good Friday Jesus hung on the cross with a criminal on his left and right. This reminds us that not a single Word of God can fall to the ground. What God ordains and announces comes to pass.
B Why did God ordain it that His only begotten Son should be crucified between two criminals?
Our Lord was crucified with two thieves in order to demonstrate, as the Lord's Supper reminds us, the full extent of His humiliation. At His birth He was surrounded by the animals of the stable and placed in a manger. Now, at His death, He is numbered with criminals. As the early Christian song tells us, He "made himself nothing" and "humbled himself" (Phil 2:7,8).
Our Lord — though sinless, holy, and perfect — was crucified between two criminals, He was "numbered with the transgressors" (Is 53:12). This reminds us of what the Lord's Supper shows us: that He hung there in our place, as our Substitute. We, not Christ, are the transgressors. It should have been us hanging there on the tree between the two thieves. It should have been us suffering the shameful death of the cross. But Christ took our place. He was numbered among the transgressors in our stead.
Jesus hung between the two thieves. God used those two men to dramatize the only two possible responses to the Christ: belief and unbelief, acceptance and rejection, repentance and impenitence.
II The Sovereign Grace of God
A A very important lesson we learn in this second word of the cross concerns the sovereign grace of God. The two criminals were crucified together. They were equally near to Christ. Both of them saw and heard all that happened those six hours Jesus hung on the cross. Both were wicked, both were dying, both urgently needed forgiveness. Yet, one of them died in his sins; he died as he had lived — hardened and impenitent. While the other, he repented of his wickedness, believed in Jesus, called on Him for mercy, and went to Paradise. Only the sovereign grace of God can account for this difference in response.
Don't we see exactly the same thing happening today? Under exactly the same circumstances and conditions, one is melted and another remains unmoved. Under the same sermon one man will listen with indifference, while another will have his eyes opened to see his need and his will moved to seek God's offer of mercy. To one the Gospel is revealed, to another it is "hidden." Or, to get closer to home, some covenant children will claim God's promises for themselves while other covenant children become covenant breakers.
Why? Why does this happen?
While maintaining that every person is responsible before God for his own sin, we must also say that only those come to God whom God allows to come to Him. We have to confess here the gracious sovereignty of God.
B In the salvation of the dying thief we have a clear picture of victorious grace. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith," says the Apostle Paul (Eph 2:8). God is the God of all grace and salvation is entirely by His grace from beginning to end. Grace planned salvation from eternity, grace provided salvation, and grace so works on and in God's elect as to overcome the hardness of their hearts, the stubbornness of their wills, and the enmity of their minds. Grace begins, grace continues, and grace consummates our salvation.
Salvation by grace — sovereign, irresistible, free grace — is nowhere illustrated in Scripture as well as in the case of the forgiven thief on the cross. Consider that this thief had no "good works," no high standard of morality, and no self-righteousness before his conversion. Rather, he was a vile and wicked man; he respected neither the law of God nor the law of man. There is no way that either he or anyone else could say that he had earned his salvation. And, after his conversion, this thief had no life of service, no grateful response, no fruits of salvation — for his conversion took place just before his death. Yet, he was still saved. In other words, his salvation was by sovereign grace. And that too is the message of the Lord's Supper.
I am always comforted when I think of that thief. He is proof-positive that I don't have to reach a certain standard or level of holiness before God will accept me as His child. That thief is proof-positive that I don't have to get my wayward life under control in order to claim the promises of God for myself. That thief is proof-positive that salvation is not conditional upon a life of good works. That thief reminds us that salvation is totally by grace; that it is free, unmerited, unearned, and totally dependent upon God and His mercy.
C Note, also, when the Lord saved this thief. The thief's conversion occurred at a time when, to all outward appearances, Christ had lost the power to save either Himself or others. What I mean is that Jesus' enemies were triumphing over Him; His friends had mostly forsaken Him; public opinion was against Him; He was suffering and dying upon the cross; and, even those who believed in Him had doubts about Him. Yet, the thief confessed a faith in Christ.
How is this possible? How can we possibly explain that a dying thief took a suffering, bleeding, crucified man for His God!? There is only one explanation — sovereign grace!
It must also be explained that the thief's conversion took place before the miraculous happenings of that day. He cried, "Jesus, remember me," before the three hours of darkness (Lk 23:44,45); before the curtain of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom (Mt 27:51); before the earth shook and the rocks split (Mt 27:51); before the tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life (Mt 27:52); before the centurion and those with him exclaimed, "Surely he was the Son of God!" (Mt 27:54). God designed to save the thief under the most unfavorable of circumstances to show that it is only by sovereign grace that the thief is saved. God shows us that salvation is only of the Lord.
III A Penitent Sinner
A To get to the heart of the second word of the cross we must also realize that the penitent thief is a symbol or representative of sinners everywhere.
In Matthew's Gospel the Holy Spirit has been careful to tell us that both thieves "heaped insults on him" (Mt 27:44). How terrible was the condition and action of this robber. On the brink of eternity he unites with the enemies of Christ — the chief priests, scribes, elders, pharisees — in the awful sin of mocking our Lord. Think of it: a man in his dying hour insulting the suffering Savior! What a demonstration of human depravity and of hatred towards God.
Congregation, as the Lord's Supper reminds us, that same depravity and hatred is naturally present within each and every one of us (cf Q & A 5,8). You may not think so, you may not feel so, you may not believe so. But that does not alter the fact. The Word of God declares, "the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure" (Jer 17:9). This is a statement that applies to all. It is universal in its application. It describes what every human heart naturally is by birth.
Congregation, do you see yourself in that thief? That's what the Spirit of God want us to see. It want us to see a picture of ourselves.
B The thief on the cross is not only a sinner, he is also a converted sinner. He rebuked the other thief for his mockery of the Lord Jesus: "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong" (vs 40,41). We see that the thief repents of his sin and evil. He acknowledges his guilt and the judgment of God upon his sin.
That's not all. We also see him turning in faith toward Christ: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." The thief, by grace, somehow recognized Jesus as the Messiah, as the Son of David, Who someday would rule over the Kingdom of God to be established here on earth. "Remember me," says the thief. He is asking the Lord to not forget or ignore him, to be mindful of him, to give him a place in the Kingdom. The thief is placing his fate in the hands of Jesus.
The Lord wants us all to recognize ourselves in that penitent sinner hanging there on the cross beside Jesus. He wants us to recognize our sin and the wrath of God on it. He wants us to repent of that sin and turn to Jesus in faith. He wants us all to cry out, "Jesus, remember me ..."
IV A Word of Salvation
A The crosses were only a few feet apart so the Lord immediately heard the cry of the penitent thief. What was the Lord's response to the robber's cry? He could have said what was said to Karla Faye Tucker, the pick-axe murderer who was recently executed in Texas, "You deserve your fate: you are a wicked criminal and your reward is death." Or, He might have replied, "Too late: you should have come to Me sooner."
Do you remember the promise of Christ: "whoever comes to me I will never drive away" (Jn 6:37)? We see the truth of that promise here.
Jesus answered the thief, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."
Jesus gives the thief far more than he asks for. The thief asked for a place in the Kingdom; Jesus tells him he will enter paradise. The thief was asking about the future; Jesus speaks of the present — "today." The thief asks Jesus to remember him; Jesus says, "you will be with me."
Jesus took no notice of the taunts and jeers of the people, the rulers, the soldiers. He made no response when they ridiculed Him to save Himself. But the prayer of the penitent thief caught His attention and elicited His response. Don't forget, at the time He was grappling with the powers of darkness and carrying the weight of the whole world's guilt. Yet, as the Lord's Supper reminds us, Jesus always has time for a penitent sinner. No sinner who comes to Jesus will ever be turned away. There never is a time that we can come to the Lord and He will turn us away. No time is inopportune for Him. No day is unacceptable to Him.
I urge you, congregation, to turn to Jesus right now in repentance and faith. Yes, you can wait until later. Like the thief, you can be saved at death's door. Yet, none of us ever knows when or how he will die — so it is best to turn to Jesus right now.
B We also see here the power of Christ the Savior. The Lord Jesus is no feeble Savior. When the thief cried out, "Jesus, remember me," the Savior was in agony upon the cross. Yet even then, even there, He had the power to redeem from death and to open the gates of Paradise. This tells us to never doubt the ability of our Savior to save. If a dying Savior could save how much more a Savior Who rose in triumph from the tomb, never more to die!
C "Today you will be with me in paradise." Here is a clear statement that death is not the end — either for Christ or the thief, or for anyone else. Here is a clear statement that the soul exists after the death of the body.
"Today you will be with me in paradise." "Paradise" is a Persian word meaning "garden, park." It refers to the future bliss and happiness of God's people.
Notice what life after death in paradise is: it is life with Christ! "Today you will be with me in Paradise," says Jesus. It was this thought which was with the martyr Stephen in his last hour. Remember his prayer: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (Acts 7:59)? It was this blessed expectation which moved the Apostle Paul to say, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain ... I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far" (Phil 1:21,23).
What awaits every believer at death? Not nothingness, not annihilation of the soul, not unconsciousness in the grave, but life with Christ in paradise. This awaits every believer, I say, and only the believer. As for the unbeliever, instead of life with Christ in paradise, it is life without Christ in hell.
To be "with the Lord forever" (1 Thess 4:17) is the goal of all our hopes. To have us with Himself forever is what our Savior is looking forward to.
Listen to the penitent's prayer: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
Listen also to the Lord's gracious and sovereign response: "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."
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