The Dying Thieves
One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save Yourself and us.’ But the other answered and rebuking him said, ‘Do you not even fear God? Since you are under the same sentence of condemnation and we indeed justly for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he was saying, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in paradise.’ (Luke 23:39-43)
Everyone has heard that the Lord Jesus was crucified between two thieves. We would be going outside Scripture if we elevated them by calling them ‘freedom fighters.’ The New Testament nowhere makes heroes of them; they’re to be considered as hardened criminals getting what they deserved in the estimation of one of them. Perhaps the central cross had been reserved for their ringleader Barabbas. The most we know about them is through what the Gospel writer Luke has recorded for us.
Now everyone knows that one thief who hung alongside the Lord Jesus Christ at the last hour of his life put his faith in Christ. He heard these grand words of assurance from the lips of Jesus, the promise that Christ himself made to him, that he indeed would be with our Lord that very day after they had died, in paradise. It’s always quoted as an example of salvation at the eleventh hour and indeed it is. And that’s an enormously important concept which I don’t want to hurry over. People may be truly regenerated at the very end of their lives. It is very rare. I wish I could bring to you examples of people I know who confessed God and repented of their sins shortly before they died, but I know personally of very few. I shall mention one later. Such conversions are not impossible. I would think there is little hope for a man who is putting all his hope on that happening to him so that he can live a godless life now and until that moment.
There was once a farmer on the island of Lewis in the Hebrides whose land went right up to the cliff top. One day in his horse and cart he was driving along near the edge of the cliff unaware that the sea had eroded the cliff. Suddenly it gave way so that he, the horse and the cart, all fell through the air, down and down, onto the rocks beneath. As he was falling it seemed that he remembered all he had heard from attending church, all he’d been taught from his Christian parents and from Sunday School teachers, and youth leaders and believing friends. It all came flooding into his mind, and while he was falling through the air he cried to God to save him. In that same instant he was given divine assurance that the God of grace had heard his prayers. He crashed onto a huge pile of seaweed and sand which cushioned his fall so that he not only escaped death but any injury. He lived thereafter for many years, adorning the gospel he had come to believe and confess at that instant, by a new life in Jesus Christ, the life of a changed man who was a disciple of our Lord, and he kept up his confession until his death.
When he told others of his own experience he would inevitably make this point; if he had hit the rocks and cracked his skull and died, his church-going friends would have said, ‘Alas, poor Jock; he heard the gospel so often, always resisted it, and then died so suddenly, there’s no hope for him.’ They wouldn’t have known that it was as he was falling, while he was in flight, he was perceiving and finding the mercy of God in Jesus Christ. His point I make my own to you today and it is this, that we don’t know what is happening in the minds and hearts of our loved ones in their last days and hours. When we’re there at the bedside we’re concerned for them as they get nearer and nearer to death. We are praying for them and thanking God for them. We feel unworthy of the love they have showered upon us, and we hold their hands and stay there as they sleep, or slip into unconsciousness or into a coma. We read a psalm aloud; or we read the promises of Christ; we read John 14, and we pray. We don’t know what is happening within them at the end. We always say that we expect many surprises in the great day. Some we never expected to be in heaven will be there, while others we thought would certainly be there might be absent.
I am affirming now that there is such a reality as salvation at the eleventh hour. I know that there is great danger from affirming such a truth, that sinners will take comfort from it and plan to live their whole lives without Jesus Christ because they think that at the end of a life lived in defiance of God they will actually want to say a prayer for forgiveness and for the gift of eternal life. I believe that many will die suddenly; I believe that the drugs they are taking will kill any clear thinking about God in their lives. I believe that the sense of hypocrisy in beginning to do what they have studiously avoided doing for seventy years will be so great that they won’t speak to God. Be warned – those of you who are putting off salvation to the end. Why should God choose to pay attention to you when you have ignored him all your days? What good reason do you have at this moment for saying ‘No’ to the Lordship of God over your life? I am saying to you ‘Don’t abuse this incident of the salvation of the dying thief. Don’t absolutise it to make you dream that you can live without God for a lifetime and then say one sentence and all will be well.’
Yet my chief concern now is this; don’t downplay this incident. It’s very important. Don’t become a Pharisee or the Prodigal Son’s older brother as you ‘tut tut’ the mercy of Jesus Christ in saving a common thief at the end. There is salvation at the eleventh hour; it is a reality. I met an old friend one or two summers ago on her annual visit to Aberystwyth. Her father was over 100 years of age, and at 97 he had begun to change, after decades of proud atheism, to openness to hearing her words and prayers. Now he will ask her about the words she said to him in the morning; he will hum a hymn-tune and ask her what are its words. He, whom she never saw make any gesture of affection to her mother, is now willing to receive a good-night kiss, and he will speak some warm words of appreciation to her. At over a hundred, salvation could be coming into his life.
That is one lesson that this Scripture is telling us, but that isn’t the only truth that this familiar incident teaches us. It’s always dangerous to focus on one point and then to neglect all the other truths that God would speak to us. There are really four lessons I want us to look at.
1. GOD IS SOVEREIGN IN THE SALVATION OF SINNERS.
The exercise of mercy is optional with God. God says, ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and whom I will, I harden.’ On Golgotha there were two criminals who were crucified together, one on Jesus’ right and one on the left. Both were equally near to Jesus, both observers and auditors of all that had happened that unforgettable day. Both were dying men; both were in acute pain; alike they had been convicted of heinous crimes; both needed forgiveness. One died in his sins with no sense of guilt, blind to the beauty and reality of he who was hanging alongside him. The other repented and believed and went to be with Jesus forever. Why? Why on earth do we see this? Why was one lost? It was not necessarily because he was worse than the other? Why was only one saved? Not necessarily because he was a kinder or better man than the other? Yet their eternal destinies were as different as heaven and hell. It’s a tremendous warning to all of us.
There are many reading these words whose faith is truly in the Lord Jesus Christ. They make a credible and genuine profession of faith in him, but there are loads of you who haven’t, both young and old. You’ve gone to church on many, many occasions. You’ve read these sermons on the web many times and found them profitable. You’ve heard the same gospel, the same entreaties, the same beseechings and exhortations. Mercy has been freely offered to all of you, and yet your brother has responded and entrusted himself to Christ and you haven’t. Your wife has and you haven’t, and there is a greater separation today between you both than there was between these two men on Golgotha.
Think of David and Saul, two kings, both rulers of Israel, both reigned the same number of years. Both had the same preacher, Samuel, as the court pastor. One perished and the other lived to love God and sing, ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’ Two disciples, Judas and Peter. Both sat on the Mount when Jesus’ disciples came to him and he opened his mouth and taught them saying, ‘Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ Both heard the Sermon on the Mount the first time it was preached; both saw him in the boat in the storm, speaking to the winds and the waves and they obeying him. Both saw him raise Lazarus from the dead, and yet one man went to heaven and the other went to hell. You know two siblings from a Christian home, the recipients of the same parental love, the same parental prayers, and coming under gospel influences in the same congregation. One trusts and follows Jesus Christ; the other rejects. We can’t explain why that is. We say, ‘Even so Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight. Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent; thou hast revealed them unto babes.’
How is it that two people can hear the Word preached like this and one be made alive concerning the living God – his conscience is alerted and convicted, he has dealings with God in Christ – while the other leaves the place as blasé as when he entered, more concerned about sport and sex than his never-dying soul? I’m saying to you, men and women, salvation is all of grace. Don’t abuse the mercy of God that has brought you here to hear these words. The exercise of divine mercy to a sinner like you is optional. If you are brought back week after week to hear of good news in Jesus Christ then embrace that news for yourself. Receive it into your life. It is true. Most of the words you read in the papers are biased – anyone who has ever had anything to do with an incident reported in the papers will know that an angle has been put on it. There is not an angle put on anything in the Bible except that of the simple eye-witnesses who are persuaded that what they have written is true. Check up on it! You’d better!
There is no need that anyone here should be lost. God will take no delight in your becoming a castaway. The gospel is sincerely offered in Christ to every one of us. It isn’t his will that the worst man in this building should harden his heart, reject God’s Son and perish. God’s sincere desire is that every one of you should see this same one whom the dying thief saw, and that you come to know him for yourself, and confess him as this criminal did. One thief was saved so that none should despair, but one only that none should presume.
Then there is another thing we see in this incident.
2. THE DYING THIEF GAVE MANY INDICATIONS THAT HIS LIFE HAD BEEN TRANSFORMED BY JESUS CHRIST.
We are sensitive to the world looking at people who go to church and saying about them, ‘Hypocrites! They preach all the big virtues and practise all the big vices.’ If you say, ‘I am a Christian,’ then live like a Christian. It is not enough to talk the talk; you have to walk the walk. If you are claiming that the Maker of the Universe has personally intervened in your life so that you have become his child, then where is the family likeness? The prophet Isaiah looked at the religious people of his day and he said, ‘These people worship God with their lips, but their hearts are far from God.’
Here is a man who knew he was going to be dead before the end of the day. You are thinking, wouldn’t any such man say a prayer to God to save him? Wouldn’t you? Didn’t soldiers under fire in a foxhole pray to God to show them mercy? How do we know that this criminal was sincere? What are the signs that tell us that a transformation in his mind and soul has taken place before he opened his mouth? Are there indications that this man wasn’t just serving God with his lips but that his heart had been renewed and changed by Jesus? I want to show you a number of clues of evidences of true religion here.
i] He was concerned for his companion and his folly; ‘Don’t you fear God?’ he says (v. 40). He hears the curses from his friend’s lips. ‘Don’t you, in this wretched state, soon to die, fear God? You and I are hanging on these crosses; isn’t there some fear? Is there reverence? God is light and in him is no darkness at all. Is there some awe of the infinite, unchangeable Jehovah with whom, before the day is out, you are to have an open-ended encounter? It is appointed unto men once to die and after death, the judgment.’ He said to his cursing companion, ‘Do you fear God?’ He didn’t say to him, ‘Do you fear men?’ He would never fear anything that men could do to him ever again; they’d done their worst. They’d crucified him! What more could men do? He was a dying man. There was nothing he feared in men, but beyond the judgment of men, a great white throne.
This is a moral universe in which we live, and what we sow, that we must also reap. If only he had seen this earlier. If this repentant thief, whose trust was now in Christ, had seen it earlier how different his life would have been. He would not have walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, not sat in the seat of the scornful. He sowed to the world and to the flesh and to the devil and from them he reaped destruction, but now – see what a change is taking place in his life. Sin has abounded but now grace far more abounds. He is a new person; he is concerned for his companion. ‘Fear God,’ he shouts across Jesus to him. Do you fear God?
ii] He ackowledged his own sin. He took responsibility for it. He hadn’t been bought in a victim culture. Here was a man who didn’t blame others. He says, ‘We are indeed punished justly’ (v.41). There was no bluster. There was no cover-up, no protestations of innocence. He was open; he looked back through his life; he thought of those criminal actions that had finally brought the death sentence upon him; ‘I broke the law,’ he said, ‘I’m guilty,’ he said; ‘I am justly condemned for what I have done. I’m getting what I deserve,’ he says.
It’s an indispensable mark of grace when a person will bow his head and acknowledge before God his sin. The Lord Jesus once spoke of two men going to the Jerusalem temple to pray. One stood tall so that the people could see and hear him as he prayed, and as he spoke to God he rehearsed to the Lord his own tithing and his giving and his praying. He was especially glad not to be like a wretched man who was almost crouching near him in the Temple. That man beat his bosom and gazed at the floor and cried, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner.’ Jesus watched those two people worshipping God and the one who thought, ‘I’m giving God wonderful worship,’ was deceived, while the one who beat his bosom and hung his head went out justified. Jesus was asking the Pharisees, ‘Have you seen that you’re sinners?’ The Lord Jesus came into this world to save sinners. The good news of Christianity can only be a help to a man or woman who acknowledges his own sin.
iii] He declared the impeccability of Christ, that is, Jesus’ blamelessness. The criminal believed in the perfection of the Lord Jesus Christ. ‘This man,’ he says, ‘has done nothing wrong’ (v. 41). ‘We are a pair of crooks . . . but not Jesus;’ holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, higher than the heavens, a lamb without spot, and without blemish. When Jesus denounced the Pharisees as white-washed tombs, he said nothing wrong. When he called Herod a fox, he said nothing wrong. When he spoke of a place of darkness where there was wailing and gnashing of teeth, he said nothing wrong. When he warned us that one day he would be the great shepherd and all the world would be gathered before him, and he would divide them into two groups as a shepherd divides his sheep from his goats, and that all men would receive their eternal destinies from his lips, he wasn’t a megalomaniac when he said words like that. He said nothing wrong. This criminal knew it. He himself was a thief, but the one alongside him on that central cross was discontinuous with all mankind. You couldn’t fit him in to any category whatsoever. He never did anything wrong.
iv] He believed in Jesus’ power to save sinners. ‘Jesus!’ he says; he addresses one person, one unique individual who bore this saving name. He didn’t cry, ‘O Ground of Being’ or ‘O Great Deity Above – whoever your name might be.’ No, he spoke to this one person, and he uses his great name that speaks of Christ’s divinity, the name that means ‘Salvation is of the Lord,’ or ‘Jehovah saves,’ ‘Jesus . . . remember me!’ Here’s a man who didn’t believe in annihilation, who didn’t think that after they had died on their crosses their lives were going to be snuffed out. The corpses that they would take down and bury would decompose and return to the dust from whence they came. A dead body, a handful of dust is itself utterly insufficient to explain this extraordinary life. You couldn’t reduce it to its chemical composition and think those elements could explain the love that makes a man lay down his life for his friends. You couldn’t compress a person’s seventy years with all its self-sacrifice, joy and grief and say, ‘Life’s ultimate meaning is found in death. We live and we die and that corpse is what it’s all about.’ No.
The dying thief was aware that he would exist after death, and Jesus would live on too. In that life to come he would be conscious of what had been done by him, and to him, and with him while he was in this world. Jesus too would remember those that had whipped him, and those who had tried to throw him off a precipice. He would remember his mother holding him in her arms and teaching him the Bible and her prayers. Jesus would remember everything, ‘And I don’t want him to forget me. Remember me!’ the dying criminal asked, ‘when you come into your kingdom.’
The Son of God, so racked in pain, looking almost sub-human, like a carcase of meat with nails through his limbs, was hanging there. He didn’t look like a king; yet this thief was persuaded that Jesus of Nazareth was the King with real rule and authority. Jesus was coming into a reign of surpassing glory. ‘Remember me,’ the thief says, ‘in your kingdom, on that day when this shame is all over, and you come into it.’ So he prayed to Jesus.
We are to pray to God alone. When the Apostle John prayed to an angel, the angel said to him on two occasions, ‘Worship God only.’ ‘Do not pray to me!’ And yet this man’s heart goes out so humbly to the Messiah hanging alongside him. He didn’t ask Jesus, ‘I want to sit at your right hand.’ He says, ‘When you are dealing with the affairs of the Milky Way and the distant stars of space, and upholding all things by the word of your power, and hearing the urgent requests of multitudes of people, every moment of the day, then remember me! Because you are God dealing so graciously and lovingly with all whom you’ve created and loved . . . in the midst of all that . . . don’t forget me.’ That was his humble prayer. He longed for the King of love not to overlook him.
I’m saying to you that where grace is present it shows itself. There can’t be such a thing as secret holiness, secret discipleship, secret grace. The secrecy is bound to destroy the grace or the grace is going to destroy the secrecy, and so it was in this man. It bleaches out of him the pomposity, and the pride, and all the filth that had ruined this man’s life. God’s grace begins to manifest itself in his life.
Thousands die every week without any awareness of that. They feel that they’re safe because of some experience of many, many years ago. A bishop put his hands on their heads; they said a prayer; they walked to the front; they raised a hand; they’d been baptized – and all is well, they think, because of such things. Men and women, all is not well because of that. Yesterday’s grace is a day late today. For today there must be today’s marks, there must be a saving change in how you live your life, and the nearer to death you come, the clearer must be your hope, and the more focused your longings must be.
Have you ever thought of how this man – this criminal – came to believe upon Jesus Christ in this way? We don’t know if he had ever met him before this day. But consider this first Good Friday, and all that the man had seen and heard. We know he would have been carrying a cross following Jesus, and then, suddenly the procession comes to an halt, and Jesus is speaking to the professional women mourners of Jerusalem who’d come out every time a young man was going to his execution, and these women would come out dressed in their mourning gear. They would all gather together and they’d holler and wail loudly because that’s the thing mourners did. Jesus had stopped and quickly silenced them and said, ‘I don’t want your pity. Don’t weep for me; weep for yourselves, weep for those who have children, for there is a fearful day of judgment before you. You will envy those who have no children in that terrible day.’
What authority Jesus had! What royal dignity was his, and again when they kneeled on one outstretched arm and spread his fingers with one man holding a great spike of a nail in the palm of his hand while another lifted up a sledge hammer and nailed that hand to a cross, then what dignity he had. He didn’t swear and spit at them, ‘I’ll tell my Father about you.’ He said, ‘Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.’ He knew exactly what was happening! He loved his torturing neighbours as his tortured self. This dying thief had seen and heard all of this, and then thought to himself, ‘What sort of man does this?’ Yes, what sort of man does? The Lord Sabaoth’s Son. He and no other one.
There was also the sign above his head staring at him all the time, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ There were the strange taunts. They were not, ‘Stupid Nazarene!’ They were not, ‘Serve you right!’ Rather they were theological, thoughtful statements weren’t they? ‘If thou be the Son of God come down from the cross. He saved others . . . He trusted in God . . .’ What thoughts buzzed around the thief’s mind. ‘Jesus trusted in God. Jesus claimed to be the Son of God.’ Then there were his words of concern for his mother’s welfare. Though he was suffering greatly Jesus was thinking of someone else. And then there was the abiding presence of this man. Like a lamb without spot and without blemish, and yet dignified in his silence and suffering. All those broken fragments were enough. When the thief gathered them all together on Golgotha, and the Holy Spirit’s light came upon them, the criminal concluded, ‘This is the promised One; this is the Messiah, the one who would bruise the serpent’s head,’ and so he thinks on these things and cries to him, ‘Remember me!’
Now let me ask you, how much of the Bible have you heard? How many sermons have you heard? How many prayers at the table? How many graces? How many Sunday School classes have you heard? How many camps have you gone to? What knowledge, what Catechism answers and definitions have you memorized? Far, far more than this poor man ever had, and yet he improved the little bit of knowledge he had, he took it to King Jesus and he cried to him that he would have mercy on him and save him. Have you done that with the knowledge that you’ve had from God? ‘To whom much is given much will be required.’
3. SEE THE AMAZING POWER AND WILLINGNESS OF CHRIST TO SAVE SINNERS.
The Bible says, ‘He is able to save to the uttermost those that come to God through him, for he ever lives to make intercession for them.’ And you would see the evidence of that in what we’ve been considering today, more than anywhere else in Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. Consider that Jesus was at his weakest, under such pressure to be sorry for himself, to be drawn in on himself, unheeding of any in need around him. He who had known no sin was knowing the awfulness of being made sin. The heavens were black; he was the object of the magnificent rectitude of a sin-hating God, and yet in the midst of all this he had time for this man. If he had time on Golgotha to consider this thief, how much more today will he think of you, be ready to get involved in you, and be concerned for you, and ready to change you for ever?
Think again of the utter unworthiness of the criminal, the lack of promise, the total lack of potential in the life of this man. The world looked upon him and said, ‘He is trash, he’s getting what he deserves, he’s nothing, he’s rubbish.’ This man was at the point of death. What did he have to offer God? This man was not going to be supporting the Lord’s work for the rest of his life. He was not going to become a deacon, or a missionary, or preach in the open air. He was not going to work and invest and expand his business, all the time tithing to the church. He wasn’t going to draw a bucket of water from the well. He was simply going to die. He’d never come down alive from that instrument of torture. Yet with nothing at all to offer God he was saved. He received mercy from God.
Surely if salvation is of grace and not of works, you see it here most clearly in all of Scripture. He was never baptized, he never took the bread and drank the cup, and yet his heart and life moved out to Jesus, and the Saviour heard him and saved him. And thankfully the way of salvation never changes. He who saved the dying thief lives and is with us today.
Dear dying lamb, Thy precious blood
Will never lose its power,
Till all the ransomed church of God
Be saved to sin no more.
The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day,
And there have I as blind as he
Washed all my sins away.
(William Cowper, 1731-1800).
4. HOW NEAR A TRUE CHRISTIAN IS TO GLORY.
The moment a man trusts in the Lord Jesus, how near he is to heaven. He has entered its kingdom already. He is under the government of its King. Jesus says to this man, ‘Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.’ There’s a body of divinity in that phrase. ‘Today,’ says Jesus. In other words, in Christ you are ready. Let me put it this way. You are as ready this moment sitting in that chair as the moment you die. You are as ready as if you had served and suffered for Christ as Paul had through his thirty years. You are as ready for a glorious entrance into heaven as anyone whose faith is in Christ. If your faith is as thin as a spider’s thread, as long as it is lodged in Christ you are safe. It is not great faith that makes us ready for heaven, it is a great Saviour who saves us. Our salvation depends not on our good works but on God’s delight with the Lord Jesus and his perfect works. For Jesus’ sake God washes us and takes us to himself. It is his joy to open heaven for all of us.
‘Today . . . paradise!’ is the promise, and it can only mean this, that after death there is no more purging left to be done. ‘Today you will be with me,’ not ‘Today you will begin a millennium in purgatory.’ Today, where I am going you will also be! The only purgatory that heaven and earth knows is the place called Golgotha where he by himself purged us from our sins. ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ The man just cried, ‘Remember me . . . don’t forget about me.’ Jesus said, ‘More than that! Not only will I remember you I will take you to live with me for ever.’
That’s the salvation that the Bible speaks of. What a wonderful day it was in the life of this man! That morning he breakfasted with the devil on earth; that night he supped with Christ in glory. That morning he was a culprit standing before the bar of earthly justice and found guilty; that night he stood before the bar of divine glory and was justified. That morning he went out of the gates of Jerusalem hooted and jeered at and pelted, never to see the Temple again, but that evening the gates of the heavenly city opened wide and an innumerable company of angels rejoiced at his entrance. Jesus who actually died before him was there to welcome him and introduce him to his Father. It all happened that day, it occurred on that wonderful day, that marvellous day.
Oh that today might be such a day for you! The set time, the promised day when God has dealing with you in Christ, when you come acknowledging your own sin and need and seeing in him an all-sufficient welcoming Saviour – may it be today. May God bless his Word to us today. Amen.
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