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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
Title:The Word of Salvation
Text:Luke 23:42-43 (View)
Occasion:Easter (Good Friday)
Topic:Christ's Suffering

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

NOTE:  all songs from the 2010 Book of Praise

Psalm 43:1-3
Psalm 5:1-3 (after the law)
Hymn 25:1,7
Hymn 28:5-7
Hymn 26

Scripture reading:  Luke 23:26-49
Text:  Luke 23:42-43
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

How good do you have to be in order to be saved by Jesus Christ?  To some the answer is obvious.  Obviously, you have to be a good person.  Jesus Christ would not suffer and die for people who are totally lost causes.  At the very least you must have a good heart.  You may hear that and say to yourself, “Well that’s the kind of thinking you would expect from people who haven’t brought up in the church, people who haven’t been taught the catechism, people who aren’t Reformed.”  It may surprise you then that as a pastor I’ve heard people with all the same background as you saying those same sorts of things.  I have heard Reformed church members say that they are too far gone for Jesus to be of any saving good.  They would agree that Christ died for sinners, but not for sinners as bad as they are.  You just get to a certain point where you’re just too far gone and there’s no hope for you.  It wouldn’t surprise me if someone here this morning is thinking this exact same thing.  If you are, you’re at the right place at the right time.  We have a text on this Good Friday which speaks to you.  Even if you’re not thinking these things, maybe you’ll be tempted to at some point.  Or perhaps you’ll encounter someone who does think along these lines.  Our text gives some clear teaching which can help us personally and also help us help others.  On this Good Friday, we’re at Golgotha again and we’re considering the second saying from the cross, what’s called the Word of Salvation.  Let me first set the scene for you. 

Before us are three wooden crosses.  Three men hang from these crosses bruised, bloody, and naked.  Their appearance is all they have in common.  Two of them are nameless convicted criminals.  The other is a famous Rabbi whose teaching, preaching, and miracles upset the Jewish religious leadership.  Jesus of Nazareth is on the centre cross, flanked by a criminal on the left and one on the right.

There are others there on Golgotha too and they together mock Jesus.  The soldiers mock him.  The Jewish religious leaders mock him.  The people wag their heads and throw insults at him.  Pontius Pilate is not personally present, but he gets a word of mockery in as well.  He makes sure that there is placard above Jesus which reads, “This is the King of the Jews.”  The whole atmosphere is one of disdain and contempt for Jesus. 

The criminals crucified with Jesus join in pouring on the hate.  Luke tells us that one of the criminals insulted him.  But from the parallels in Matthew and Mark we learn that both were initially in on the act.  Both criminals disrespected our Saviour, hoping to have some fun with him in the last miserable hours of their lives.

Think with me for a moment about what these two criminals had in common.  Both were actual criminals.  They had broken the law.  The exact nature of their crimes is not clear.  Traditionally they were regarded as highway robbers and perhaps they had murdered as they were carrying out their crimes.  Both of them had walked alongside Jesus on the way to Golgotha.  You would expect rough men to curse and swear as they head for their execution, but Jesus was not like that.  He struggled with the weight of the cross, but he did not act like them.  They both observed Jesus’ demeanour as he was nailed to the cross.  They both saw the sign affixed to the centre cross with its message, “This is the King of the Jews.”  They both saw Jesus hanging naked on the cross.  Both criminals heard him, not cursing his enemies, but instead praying for them:  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  They both heard that.  And they both joined in the insults along with all the bystanders.

But suddenly these two criminals don’t have so much in common anymore.  Between verse 39 and verse 40 something changes in one of them.  As he hangs on the cross, he has a change of mind and he vocalizes it to the criminal on the other side of Jesus.  He realizes that he is about to die and face the judgment of God.  He asks his accomplice whether he realizes that.  Then he notes that the two of them are receiving what they deserve.  Their crosses are justice.  But Jesus’ cross is a miscarriage of justice.  He realizes that Jesus has done nothing wrong.  Somehow he reaches the conclusion that Jesus is an innocent man apparently suffering death for no valid reason.

Then he turns from addressing his fellow criminal and speaks directly to Jesus.  But this time he speaks differently.  No longer does he speak words of reviling.  Now he has a humble plea.  He says, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”

Let’s first consider what it is exactly that he is asking.  He’s not asking for much.  He simply asks Jesus to remember him, to give thought to him.  This is another way of asking for mercy.  He is asking Christ to remember him for good, to bless him, to save him.  He asks that, when the Day of Judgment comes, Christ will not give him what he deserves.  Here on this earth, his crimes deserved a cross.  That was justice.  But now he humbly asks Jesus for grace at the last day.

Notice how his view of Jesus has changed.  He sees the placard with new eyes, “This is the King of the Jews.”  He recognizes that Jesus is in fact Lord and king.  And he is more than a human king.  He is the Lord, the High King of heaven and earth who will someday come with judgment.  When that day comes, he will be feared by all his enemies.  You had best go to him while you can and ask for mercy. 

Notice too how his view of himself has changed.  Here is this criminal.  Some time ago he was the big tough guy who was just going to leave this world cussing the Romans like all other crucified criminals did.  But now he sees himself through God’s eyes.  He sees that he is a sinner desperately in need of grace.  Time is running out.  His life is almost over.  He recognizes the truth expressed in Hebrews 9:27, “…man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.”  He has a desperate need for mercy, a word of pardon.  He needs that right now, before it’s too late.  Therefore, he speaks up to Jesus and asks him to remember him.

There’s nothing this criminal can do to make himself better or more desirable to Jesus.  He’s hanging naked and bloody on a cross too.  His hands and feet are nailed to the wood.  He can’t do any good deeds.  There’s nothing he can do to try and make up for all the wrong he’s done in his life.  He can’t make atonement for his own sins.  He needs someone else.  He needs Jesus.

This man has turned from death to life.  He has eyes that see and ears that hear for the first time.  The Holy Spirit has worked repentance and faith in his heart.  There’s repentance:  literally, a change of mind.  He thinks differently about God, himself, his sin, and Jesus.  He has faith and that’s shown in that he begs Jesus for mercy.  This criminal has become a child of God.  When Jesus dies, he dies for him too.  This criminal miraculously became our brother in Christ. He became our brother through grace.  He didn’t deserve it, he had done everything to forfeit it, and there was nothing he could do to earn it.  He was helpless.

Loved ones, apart from God’s regenerating work this is us.  This is all of us in our sin.  Without the work of the Holy Spirit, we are thieves and robbers.  We haven’t necessarily stolen from people, but we have robbed God.  He created us as his own handiwork, created to praise and glorify him.  When any creature fails to consciously magnify the Creator, that creature is robbing God of glory.  God is owed glory.  You owe God glory and praise with everything in your being every waking minute.  When you don’t give that to him, you rob him.  Robbing God is always a bad idea.  Robbing God will find you in fear at the Day of Judgment.  As I mentioned in the introduction, there are some who are well aware of their plight.  But for some reason they think that they are too far gone.  But look at the criminal.  If anyone was too far gone, it was him.  He had wasted his life, robbed men and God.  He had been mocking Jesus to his face.  Yet he dares to ask for mercy from the Saviour.  Anyone can do likewise.  The gospel invites one and all to the cross to find grace.  The good news says that all are welcome to bow before Jesus to receive redemption.  No one is too far gone.  As long as you have life, you have the way open to come to Christ.  Any and all sinners are welcome, even the worst. 

But we should never presume upon God’s grace.  No one should ever think that this can be put off to the last moment because of what happened with the thief on the cross.  Someone once noted that we only have one such late-hour conversion story in Scripture.  The Holy Spirit didn’t give us more; otherwise we might become presumptuous and think that we can put off commitment to Christ until the very end of our lives.  Because you may not know when you are in the final hours of your life.  It could come suddenly, without warning.  Today is the time for repentance and faith, today is the time for commitment to Christ, or recommitment to Christ, as the case may be.  Today is the time to again turn from our sins and trust in the Saviour.  As it says in Isaiah 55:6-7, “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near.  Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts.  Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.”  That’s exactly what we see our Saviour Jesus doing in verse 43 as he utters the second saying from the cross.  He responds to the repentant criminal with abounding grace.

Jesus ignores everyone else.  When they mock him, he doesn’t reply.  But when this repentant sinner comes to him with a humble plea, Jesus answers.  He answers in an unexpected way.  If Christ was an ordinary sinful human being, you might expect him to take some time to warm up to his new friend on the cross next to him.  That’s quite a sudden shift and most people would be skeptical.  But Jesus is not an ordinary man.  He doesn’t ignore the pleas.  He responds not with skepticism, but with grace.

At the front of his answer is his last “Amen.”  Our translation says, “I tell you the truth.”  But in Greek, he says, “Amen.”  In other words, he is solemnly affirming what he says.  It’s an iron-clad guarantee, an irrevocable promise.  There should not be a shred of doubt that what Christ says will come to pass.

“I tell you the truth, Amen, today you will be with me in paradise.”  With this answer, Jesus gives the repentant criminal far more than what he asked for.  The criminal asked to be remembered on Judgment Day.  He asked for mercy in the distant future.  Notice that Christ’s response puts the emphasis on something that will happen “today.”  Today you will be with me in paradise.”  The criminal asked simply to be remembered.  Christ replies, “You will be with me in paradise.”  In other words, Christ is saying that there will be fellowship with him in heaven.  Paradise here simply refers to heaven.  However, that word does make us think of the Garden of Eden.  Before the fall, the Garden was a place of fellowship between God and man.  Paradise also makes us think of the new heavens and new earth.  Revelation 2:7 describes that as being Paradise as well.  The new creation will also be a place of fellowship between God and man.  Those who die and go to heaven experience a foretaste of that.  Jesus promised that to the thief on the cross.  On that very day, he would be with Jesus in heaven. 

The second saying from the cross is packed with meaning.  First of all, it tells us something about our Saviour and what happened to him when he died.  There are those who say that when he died he went to hell.  However, this passage is clear.  When he died, the soul of our Saviour went immediately to heaven.  So then what do we mean when we say with the Apostles’ Creed that he descended into hell?  That refers to his experiencing the wrath of God for us on the cross.  He experienced hell in the darkness that descended for three hours.  The wrath of God against all our sins was poured out on him.  You see, Jesus did not go to a place called hell.  He experienced hell on the cross in our place.  The cross was his hell.  So, when he died, his suffering was over and he went immediately to God’s presence in heaven.

Then we can move on to consider what the second saying meant for the man on the cross next to Jesus.  It meant that he was going to die.  But his death would be an instant entrance into eternal life.  There are those who say that when we die, most of us need to be cleaned up before we go into God’s holy presence.  If we have unresolved sins, these will need to be purged from us in a place called purgatory.  However, the gospel promises something entirely different.  The gospel promises all who repent and believe that Jesus has taken care of all our sins, past, present, and future.  The blood of Christ is our purgatory.  Through his blood, we are washed, purged, made completely clean so that we can come into the presence of the holy God.  That’s something that happens instantaneously when we die, right away, no delay.  One moment your soul will be here on this earth, and the next, you will be in heaven.  This is a comforting thought, isn’t it? 

There in heaven your soul will consciously enjoy fellowship with Christ until he returns for judgment.  When the criminal died, he went to heaven to be with Jesus.  For a Christian, there is no greater thing to desire.  We love Christ.  We can’t imagine that heaven would be desirable apart from Jesus.  A heaven without Jesus?  Who would want that?  As believers, we long to be in his blessed presence.  We long for that fellowship and communion with him that sin can no longer break.  Here on this earth, our relationship with Christ goes through ups and downs, peaks and valleys.  It does that, not because of him (he’s always faithful), but because of us, because of our sins.  But in heaven, there will be no more ups and downs.  There will be perfect, unfettered communion with our Saviour.  Our text holds out this gospel promise to us.

The amazing thing in our text is that the crucified Saviour would even want this communion.  He wants this communion and fellowship with someone who mocked him.  The Son of God desires this relationship with someone who robbed God of glory with a sinful life.  But when the criminal repents and believes, when he throws himself upon Jesus’ mercy, Jesus welcomes him home with open arms.  I find that astounding and I hope you do too.  This grace of our Lord Jesus is available for all.  And when I say “all,” it really does mean “all,” with no exceptions.  One commentator (Arthur Pink) put it well when he said, “If this dying robber was not beyond the reach of Divine mercy, then none are who will respond to the invitations of Divine grace.”

Later that Good Friday, three men died.  One died of his own accord.  Scripture says that he gave up his life.  He died quickly.  The other two held on for some time.  In fact, they had to have their legs broken to make them die before the Sabbath.  Both were criminals, sinners of the worst sort.  Both had seen Jesus and how he died.  Both had heard his words of grace on the cross.  Both had seen the true words about him over the cross, that he was a king.  When one died, he died in his sin, so far as we know.  When the other died, he died in Christ who had died for him shortly before.  That very day he was with Jesus in paradise.  How can you explain the difference between these two men?  Brothers and sisters, it is all grace.  One did not deserve it more than the other.  You can’t say that one earned it while the other did not.  All grace, God’s sovereign grace.

So it is with our salvation.  You say you hate your sins.  You want to fight against them.  You’ve heard the gospel call again today and again have looked to Christ.  Why have you done that, while others who’ve heard the same message haven’t?  It’s not because you’re better, not because you’re cut from better cloth, but only because of God’s grace.  At the end of his life, as he lay dying, Martin Luther uttered his last words:  “We are beggars.  This is true.”  Indeed, and the fact that we receive so much from God in Christ is due not to anything in us, but because of God’s sovereign grace. 

That leaves us in praise for God.  That leaves us with love for our gracious Saviour.  As we contemplate this second saying from the cross, we know that these words are also directed to us, meant to prepare us for the time when we are called out of this world.  Jesus says, “When that day comes, on that very day, you will be with me in paradise.  Though you have been a robber and much worse, my grace is sufficient for you, my blood is enough to wash away all your sins.  You can be sure that you will have eternal fellowship with me.”  Brothers and sisters, that is a promise to treasure.  AMEN. 


Merciful Saviour,

Without the work of your Spirit, we are all robbers of the worst sort.  We confess to you that even as redeemed people, we are sinners.  We need your grace every day.  Thank you for giving us the assurance of grace from your Word.  Thank you for what you told that repentant criminal.  Lord, we eagerly look forward to being with you in paradise.  We give you thanks for making the sacrifice on that Good Friday which assures us that your promise will come true for all who repent and believe.  We do repent and we do believe, and we ask that, with your Holy Spirit, you would make our faith stronger.  Please continue to bless us today as we commemorate your work on the cross.  We pray that you would help us to always fix our eyes on you in faith, to live out of union with you, to praise your name every day with lips and lives.  We pray in your name, AMEN.      




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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