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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
 frca.org.au/mountnasura/
 
Title:Christ's Promise of Paradise to a Repentant Sinner
Text:Luke 23:39-43 (View)
Occasion:Easter (Good Friday)
Topic:God's Amazing Grace
 
Preached:2019
Added:2019-04-29
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 16:1,5                                                                                          

Ps 130:3,4

Reading – Luke 23:1-49

Ps 22:1,3,6,8

Sermon – Luke 23:39-43

Hy 68:1,6,8

Hy 16:1,3,4,5

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


Beloved in Christ, you don’t want to miss out on someone’s last words. When a person is on his deathbed, family and friends gathered around, sometimes powerful things can be spoken. Words of comfort. Words of hope. Words of encouragement for others.

That’s certainly the case when we consider our Lord Jesus. He hung on the cross, approaching death in a terrible cloud of pain and anguish. This was no peaceful passing. Yet Jesus opened his mouth to speak. In the hearing of those gathered, He spoke some “last words,” seven different dying statements.

The first is what Jesus says in Luke 23:34. As the Roman soldiers carried out their gruesome task, the Lord prayed with an amazing love, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” Then as Jesus sees his mother standing by the cross, He entrusts her to his beloved disciple: “Woman, behold your son” (John 19:26).

Even while thinking of others, Jesus’ own pain was getting worse. “I thirst,” He cried out (John 19:28). Then came his heart-wrenching prayer, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). In the darkness of death, He was cut off from his God and Father,

A short time later He shouts another dying word, “It is finished” (John 19:30). His life was done; salvation was won; his mission accomplished. So it is that He speaks that final thing, even on a note of triumph, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

That’s six. There’s one more—it’s what Christ said a bit earlier, to one of the criminals crucified at his side: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Perhaps more than any of the others, these words have been discussed endlessly. This scene is spoken of as the classic “death-bed” conversion: “What about the robber on the cross?” someone will say, “Wasn’t he saved at the very end?” Let’s listen to what this last conversation reveals about Christ our Saviour. I preach to you God’s Word from Luke 23:39-43,

In a final earthly conversation, Christ reveals his grace:

  1. what the one criminal said
  2. what the other criminal said
  3. what the Saviour said

 

1) what the one criminal said: The events leading up to our text hardly need to be recounted. There’s the Last Supper, the Garden, the betrayal, and the arrest. There is Peter’s denial, the soldiers’ mocking, and Christ’s trial before Pilate and Herod. Jesus is condemned, He is flogged, and He is sent to Golgotha.

Finally, Jesus arrives at the place of execution. And there, we read, the Roman soldiers “crucified him” (v 33). We’re used to the idea of crucifixion—it’s just another fact of Easter. Yet we forget that this way of inflicting death was particularly gruesome, dragging on for hours or days, as the victim went into shock and slowly suffocated under his own weight.

Crucifixion was reserved for Jews and barbarians and non-citizens. This was one way the Romans could show their clout in the empire; by killing someone on a cross, they could make an intimidating display of their power. Sometimes, even hundreds of people were crucified at the same time! On this Friday morning, the executioner has a few to take care of. Luke tells us: “There were two others, criminals, led with [Jesus] to be put to death” (v 32).

In Mark’s gospel, these two criminals are described as “robbers.” However, there’s a bit of a problem with that. The Romans didn’t consider robbery to be a capital offense—it wasn’t something that could get you executed. But the Greek term that Mark uses is actually broader than just “robbery;” it can also mean insurrection, the act of starting up a revolt. And indeed, the Romans were brutal in putting down anyone who rebelled.

Today these rebels are in good company, for Jesus himself was accused of “[misleading] the people” (v 14). He was declared innocent by his earthly judges, but found guilty in the court of public opinion. So these three Jewish revolutionaries will be united in death.

All this was no surprise to Jesus. Just recently, He told his disciples how Isaiah’s words applied to himself, that “‘He [would be] numbered with the transgressors.’” Now the time of fulfillment has come. In his death, the Son of God would be just another lowlife criminal. Just another Jew, hung up by the Romans like a piece of meat. Just another human like us, and condemned for transgression.

The other two are also brought to Golgotha, and they’re crucified, “one on [Christ’s] right hand, the other on the left” (v 33). These crosses have often been pictured in a symmetrical pattern; the left one lower, the right one lower, the middle cross—Christ’s cross—standing taller, more prominent, closer to heaven. Whether that was actually the case, we don’t know.

Yet there’s definitely symbolic value in where Christ was. For later He finds himself in the middle of an argument between the other two criminals. He even becomes the deciding factor in their lives, on a road which leads to eternal destinations. Are you with the man in the middle? Do you confess him, or not?

The point of view of the one man was pretty clear. “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘If you are the Christ, save yourself and us!’” (v 39). He might’ve been in utter agony, but this didn’t humble his spirit. Being on death’s doorstep didn’t make this man pause and ponder the big questions. 

No, he wanted nothing to do with Jesus. Notice that he even uses the title so important to Jesus’ identity. “Aren’t you the Christ?” He’s saying, “Aren’t you supposed to be someone great, God’s promised Saviour? Then do something dramatic like you’re supposed to, and save us all!” He echoes what others were saying too. The spectators had already started to shower insults on him. If this Jesus was really special, then He’d do something about the mess He was in.  

Here again, we see how God had every moment planned in his counsel. Centuries before, David had cried out in his suffering (in Ps 22), “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: ‘He trusted in the LORD; let him rescue him. Let [God] deliver him, since He delights in him” (vv 7-8). Now it’s being fulfilled. Here was Jesus, in the very act of suffering for the sins of the world, yet they’re all saying that they don’t want what He’s giving.

And how this multiplied his suffering in these last few hours! For if anyone does, Jesus has a heart for sinners. He longs for the redemption of God’s people. He prays for the repentance of the lost. This was the same person who wept over Jerusalem and her unbelief. It grieves the Lord when people choose cursing instead of his blessing.

That mocking criminal beside him isn’t so unique, then. He stands for all who reject the Christ and who scorn his sacrifice unto death. For so many people today, just like that criminal, know about the cross. They don’t understand it, but they’ve heard Christians talk about Christ and the cross and sin and salvation. Yet they say He’s not for them.

Why not? Well, what does He have to offer us? What do we need that we can only get from him? He’s a sorry sight! Dying a death of the lowest low. Powerless. Shamed. This is the Christ, the Son of God? This is the one who will save, bring glory? People want glamour, beauty, and strength—that’s how it’s always been. They can’t accept that a death is somehow the way to life.

And there’s many who can think of  “salvation” only in worldly terms. A person’s salvation today is about being the glory of independence, being free to do whatever you want. For the Jews, salvation was about getting rid of the Romans. For that criminal, the “salvation” he craved was an end to his physical suffering—and Jesus wasn’t going to grant it.

Yet what is our deepest need? What’s the thing we need more than anything in this life—more than good times or security or material things or praise? We need a Saviour! For we’re just like that criminal on the cross. It might not look like it, but all of us are dying. All of us stand right on the edge of eternity. For each one of us, death is not far away. It doesn’t take much, and we’re gone. What would you hold onto in your final moments?

We need a Saviour. Not just someone who gives us nice things, or who helps us cope in the hard times. We need a perfect Saviour, one who can be fully righteous in our place, and who can pay for all our sins. We need a Saviour who can triumph over death, and then who can meet us on the other side.

 

2) what the other criminal said: Mark’s gospel tells us something interesting about the criminal on the other side of Jesus. In 15:32 Mark records, “Even those who were crucified with [Christ] reviled him.” Notice the plural; he’s saying that both these convicts got involved. These dying men joined the crowds in throwing out their nasty words.

But then something happens. The other criminal begins to think it over. He changes his tune. The only way to say it is that the other criminal repents. For by the time we get to our text, he turns and rebukes his fellow convict: “‘Do you not even fear God,’ he says, ‘seeing you are under the same condemnation?’” (v 40). He first realizes how foolish it is to deny their guilt.

And notice what is moving this criminal: the fear of God! That’s his question, “Do you not fear God? Don’t you revere the heavenly Judge, in all his perfect holiness? Don’t you understand why we’re on these crosses—that the holy LORD is treating us fairly?” He humbly acknowledges, “We receive the due reward of our deeds” (v 41).

He displays one of the marks of true repentance. For those who repent will acknowledge the offense of what we’ve done, that our sins have separated us from God’s favour; we’ve angered him, and we deserve his condemnation. True repentance is when we place ourselves in the hands of God, and we confess He’d be justified in doing with us whatever He wanted: “Let me receive the due reward of my evil deeds.”

“But,” the criminal continues, “this man has done nothing wrong” (v 41). Here’s where this conversation goes to the next level. This criminal won’t just speak of his own situation, his own guilt and penalty. He’ll speak of Christ. For he knows of Christ. This is what he knows, in the first place: that the middle man is innocent!

How does he know? It’s possible that word had already got around the streets of Jerusalem. Earlier that morning, Pilate made the announcement three times, “I find no fault in this man” (vv 4,14,22). King Herod had reached the same conclusion. Even the Roman centurion, a few verses later, will declare, “Certainly this was a righteous man” (v 47).

Lots of people knew it. Even Gentiles knew it. This criminal knew it. But more than that, he understood that this innocent Jesus was different. He knew that even this horrific death on the cross wasn’t going to be the end for Jesus. And so the criminal turns from his fellow convict on the far side, and he looks to the one hanging just beside him, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v 42). Somehow he knows that people hadn’t heard the last of this man!

“Lord, remember me.” This is a humble prayer. He doesn’t ask to be let off his cross. He doesn’t ask for forgiveness, or even for salvation. For this criminal knows he’s a transgressor, knows he fully deserves God’s wrath. He simply surrenders his life into Jesus’ hands, because he knows that’s a good place to be.

“Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Hearing that loaded statement, and the faith that it implies, there’s a pile of unanswerable questions. So where’d this criminal come from? Who was he anyway? And who told him about the kingdom?       

The “kingdom” was a big idea in the Old Testament. It was a picture of God’s glorious reign over his people and even over the whole world. “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,” David sang in Psalm 145:13, “and your dominion endures through all generations.” And so when Jesus the Son of David began his earthly ministry, He proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17). With him the kingdom was drawing near.

For the criminal in these last moments, the bits and pieces were coming together. The things he might’ve learned from the Scriptures as a child, the rumours he might’ve heard about Jesus these last few years—now it was starting to make sense. He begins to see Jesus for who He really is. With the eyes of faith, he sees that this Jesus is actually a king. He’s a king who has a kingdom. He’s a king who will be ascending to his heavenly throne in just a short time.

To be sure, He didn’t look like a triumphant king. Jesus was dying, remember? He was stuck on a cross. He had a crown, but it was made of thorns. Cross #2 might’ve that sign attached, “This is the King of the Jews” (v 38), but that was just a cruel joke.

Yet somehow this man believes it. Jesus might only be an hour from dying, might be nailed down tight and physically powerless—yet those are only the things you can see. There’s far more to this man in the middle. For him, death is not the end. For him, death throws wide open the gates of the kingdom! 

So even as Jesus hangs dying on the cross, we hear someone accept the message of Christ and him crucified. This repentant criminal sees what the wisest in the land failed to see. He understands what the most learned failed to understand. This is Jesus, Son of David, King of glory! The first criminal was typical of all who don’t believe—stubborn in their pride. This second criminal is typical of all who respond to Christ in faith—lowly in their sin.

This criminal is a wonderful example of just what the crucified Christ can do. Take someone utterly guilty, someone from the lowest place of society, someone with absolutely nothing to offer. Put him in the most bitter of conditions, and put him on the very doorstep of death. Surround him with hateful people who want nothing to do with Jesus.

And see what can happen, by the power of the Spirit! Christ can change his mind. See how that cross is a ladder, reaching all the way up to heaven. It’s a bridge that stretches across the great chasm, and right into Paradise. For believing who Jesus really is, this sinner crosses over from death to life. In the last hour he repents; and in the last hour, he is saved.

So is this the classic “death-bed” conversion? Is this the ultimate example of turning to God at the last minute? Perhaps it is. And God might sometimes cause it to happen that way, but that’s not the lesson of our text. Our text is not an encouragement to put off responding to the Lord until tomorrow. It’s not an excuse to live it up now, while telling yourself that you’ll change in due time, that you’ll wait until things get really bad and you’re at death’s door. Rather, the lesson of our text is the undeniable power of the cross!

Jesus shows us that whatever we have done, there is hope. Maybe we’ve done some pretty bad things in our life, things that make us ashamed. Or maybe we’ve been hardened in our sin for such a long time, walked apart from God for so many years. Maybe we’ve given up on ever changing, given up on ever getting right with God. But in Christ, there’s always hope. There’s hope for salvation, hope for renewal—hope and grace for all who turn to him.

The cross of our Lord has always had one of two results. From the beginning, even from that dark day long ago, it has been this way. On the one side are those sinners who see the cross and laugh. They know about it, but they never get around to believing it. These will surely die, uncomforted and unsaved.

But on the other side of the cross are broken sinners who repent and submit themselves to God’s righteous judgment. They plead with Christ to remember them because Christ is the only hope they have: “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” These sinners will also die, but they’ll be welcomed into glory by their King.

Today is a good opportunity to think about this once again. Where are we? As transgressors who deserve death, as criminals in God’s eyes, what are we doing with the message of the cross? Are we embracing it with urgency? Are we repenting and fleeing from our sins and are we believing in the gospel, because the time is short? Are we turning our eyes toward Christ and praying for God’s mercy?

 

3) what the Saviour said: Jesus once taught, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt 12:34). With these “last words” Jesus really shows us what kind of heart He has. He has a heart full of grace, a heart with mercy in every beat. Even while dying in bitter agony, Christ will speak words of comfort to a hopeless sinner.

Some might question the criminal’s sincerity: “What did he have to lose, confessing Christ like that in the last hour?” But Christ knows, and that’s why He answers, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (v 43). Every word counts here. First is that statement of certainty, “Assuredly.” Truly, Jesus Christ will save.

And He’ll do so “today.” The criminal made his desperate plea even as life was fading away. But Christ assures him that his answer will come far sooner than he ever could’ve hoped. Today is already the day of salvation! Because King Jesus will die on this cross, not a loser, but victorious. He will die, so that all who believe can be with him forever.

“You will be with me.” Sounds so simple, but this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship. In the kingdom, they’ll be together: this criminal and this Lord, this convict and this King! Christ won’t have only the holiest gathered around him. Christ doesn’t only welcome the “all-star team” of the covenant: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and David. For who were these men? They were sinners all, and rebels against the LORD. Criminals, and subject to his just condemnation.

When we stand before God, we too, are just as poor as that criminal on the cross. We’ve got nothing to offer him. No good accomplishments. Nothing of true worth. All we have is our shame; the long list of our transgressions; the sad history of our life.

But the cross makes it possible. Instead of being treated as our sins deserve—shut out of God’s kingdom—we are freely welcomed into his presence. He doesn’t condemn us, but He takes us to himself. “You will be with me,” He says, “with me in life, in death, and with me forever in Paradise.”

Do you see how the cross brings us back to where it all began? Jesus’ words bring us back to Paradise, to the Garden of the LORD in the very beginning. There, man and woman walked with God, talked with God—they were with God. That was Paradise, a place of sinless perfection, a place of unbroken fellowship between the Creator and his creatures, a place of glory and blessing. And that’s what our Saviour came to restore.

Already in the Old Testament, the prophets pointed to a new Paradise as the sure hope of God’s people. When Israel was struggling in sin and broken by the exile, Isaiah told her, “The LORD will comfort Zion, He will comfort all her waste places; He will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in it, thanksgiving and the voice of melody” (51:3). The desolation of sin would be transformed into the garden of the LORD—a place where God’s people can be with him forever.

Already at the moment we die, we get a taste of this. Those who die in faith go to be with Christ, not with life diminished but life enhanced. This is what Christ promises to everyone who believes in him, “You will be with me in Paradise.”

Beloved, that’s the destination. And Christ is the only way to get there. So let us confess faith in him, and let us do his will—walking with the Saviour today, so that you may walk with him forever!  Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2019, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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