Matt Carter speaks on Luke 23:39-43.
Series: The 7 Sayings of Jesus
On the cross, God, the Immortal, the great I Am, who came to us in the flesh, was dying. As He was dying, He said a few things we ought to listen to.
Last week we learned the first thing Jesus said to the people who were crucifying Him was, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” (Luke 23:34 ESV). Even in the middle of Jesus being unjustly murdered, He prayed and poured out forgiveness. Because of this forgiveness we received through Jesus Christ, we are able to forgive, even when people don’t deserve it.
Today, we’ll look at the second thing Jesus said on the cross. He not only forgave those who were crucifying Him, but He also forgave a criminal hanging next to Him.
God, through His great love and forgiveness, is able to forgive even the worst of sinners, in the last moments of their life. This is a beautiful picture of God’s grace.
Two of the seven statements Jesus made on the cross, deals specifically with the subject of forgiveness. There are hundreds of principles Jesus taught during His time on earth. As He was dying, He could have reiterated or retaught any of those things. Yet, He spent two of the seven things He said on the issue of forgiveness.
God knows how deeply we struggle with the idea and concept of forgiveness.
One thing that was eye opening to me after Ronnie’s murder in Libya was people’s response on the Internet to Anita’s letter of forgiveness to Ronnie’s killers. I guess I thought when she did this people would be profoundly moved. I thought her forgiveness to people who hadn’t asked for it and definitely didn’t deserve it would portray such a beautiful picture of forgiveness. Some people were moved. But there were people who were appalled. The idea of a woman so quickly and easily forgiving her husband’s killers did not register to them. It didn’t make sense how or why she would do that. Through this process, I realized the concept of forgiveness is absolutely foreign to a sinful heart. Someone who hasn’t received the unmerited gift of forgiveness has a much more difficult time understanding the concept.
God knows this about us. He knows how difficult it is for us to forgive those who have wronged us. He also knows how difficult it would be for a lot of us to believe God could forgive us, because of how often we’ve wronged Him.
This is why Jesus spent two of the seven things He said on the cross about forgiveness.
The Criminal on the Left
After Jesus was crucified and was hanging on the cross, He had an interaction with two thieves who were on crosses next to Him. One of them was being crucified to Jesus’ left and the other on His right.
While the criminal on the left was hanging there, broken, bloody and dying, with just a few minutes left of life, hurled abuse and rejection at Jesus. He blasphemed Him all the way to his dying breath. He rejected the only hope he had in the world that was right next to him.
The guy on the right was also a criminal. He encountered Jesus too, but he confessed his sin and cried out to Him for mercy. Jesus forgave him and offered him eternal life right there on the spot.
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” Luke 23:39 (ESV)
This guy was in the exact position as Jesus was with nails in his hands and feet. He looked over at Jesus and hurled abuse at Him. The Greek word there is blasphemeo, meaning to hurl hatred and spew venom at Jesus. Some of your translations use the word railed abuse at Jesus.
He yelled at Jesus, “I thought you were the Christ?” The word used there is Messiah, the Anointed One of God. All Jewish people knew there was a messiah coming. Understand he was not making a statement of faith here. He didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah of God. The tone in the original language was bitingly sarcastic and demeaning.
“…Save yourself and us,” He cried. This guy actually asked Jesus to save him. Both of these guys cried out to Jesus to save them. However, the condition of their hearts was radically different. When this guy cried out to Jesus to save him, there was no brokenness or humility in his heart. He had no repentance over his sin. He just saw Jesus as some guy he could manipulate to get him off the cross.
How did Jesus respond to him?
Jesus said absolutely nothing. Scripture doesn’t even point out that He looked at him.
This guy won the lottery. He was dying, but was being crucified next to the guy who created the wood he was being crucified on. The guy knew Jesus claimed to be the Messiah of God. If there’s anybody in the world who should take Him up on this, who ought to be open to the gospel, it ought to be this guy. But he wasn’t.
18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18 (ESV)
The Bible actually says there are going to be people who have this response to Jesus, no matter what their situation is. There are two kinds of people.
To those who are perishing, the word of the cross is going to be foolishness. It’s the Greek word moronos, where we get the word moronic. These people are going to hear the message that God created us, we sinned, so He came in the flesh and lived a perfect life then died on the cross paying the penalty, absorbing the wrath of God for us so that if we trust in Him we can have eternal life. They’re going to hear this and say it’s moronic, foolishness, and stupid.
It shouldn’t shock us when a guy is dying and even with his last breath still won’t cry out for mercy. It shouldn’t shock us when people don’t understand that a woman who has received the unmerited favor, grace and forgiveness from God is able to offer the same thing to people who murdered her husband.
The second kind is the people who are being saved. When these people encounter the message of the cross, it will be the power of God in their lives. When we hear the message of the cross, the power of God begins to work in us and we’re able to grasp it and believe it. It’s not because we’re smarter or godlier. It’s because of the power of God.
I would share the gospel with my grandfather over and over. Every time I did, he just thought it was dumb. There are other people I’ve shared the gospel with who in that moment thought it was the greatest thing they had ever heard, they embraced it and threw their lives upon it. I’ve seen it in my own life. I’m a sinner, but I’m telling you that every time I hear the gospel, there is something inside of me that screams out that it’s the truth. I’ve tried to run from Jesus, but He won’t let me go.
Scripture tells of thousands following Jesus because He was feeding and healing them. Then finally Jesus stopped and said, “Hey, quit following me because I’m feeding and healing you. Unless you drink my blood and eat my flesh, you can have no part of me.” They responded, “What? You want us to do what?” The whole crowd, except the twelve disciples, left Him. They were standing there with their mouths hanging wide open. Jesus had just cleared the whole crowd with one sentence. Jesus looked at them and said, “Y’all want to leave me too?” Peter responded, “Where am I going to go? You alone have the words of life.” My heart is like Peter’s; I don’t know where I would go, because Jesus alone has the words of life.
The gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it’s the power of God in their lives. This is exactly what’s going on in this story with the thieves.
Criminal on the Right
40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” Luke 23:40-41 (ESV)
The criminal on Jesus’ right was in the same position as the first. He was broken, bloody and dying, with only a few moments to live, but his response was radically different than the first guy’s response. The condition of his heart was different.
First, he asked the other criminal if he feared God. This reveals he had a fear of God in his heart. For people being saved, there is going to be a godly, holy, righteous fear and amazement of the Lord. It’s one of the evidences of being saved.
In addressing this point, John Piper considers the thief on the left like an ant, saying:
“It is even more fitting that sinful creatures bow before God in holy fear, instead of railing against God as if a rebel ant should kick against the foothills of Mt. Everest and demand that it flatten out so the ant can walk across.”
That’s what people who are perishing do. They have no fear of God in their heart and demand from Him what they want. The guy on the right was telling him to shut up, questioning how even in this moment he didn’t fear God.
41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds... Luke 23:41a (ESV)
He said he was a sinner. This is what people who are being saved do. They understand they’ve fallen short of the glory of God and deserve the cross. They confess it.
…but this man has done nothing wrong.” Luke 23:41b (ESV)
First, he had a fear of God in his heart. Second, he confessed he was a sinner. Third, he confessed Jesus was not a sinner. People who are being saved know the only hope they have for righteousness is not found in what they’ve done, but found in the righteousness of Jesus.
42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Luke 23:42 (ESV)
The last thing he did was throw himself on the mercy of God. He admitted Jesus was the only hope he had and asked Him to remember him.
Unlike the first criminal, who Jesus completely ignored, Jesus lifted up His head and said one of the seven things He said on the cross.
43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43 (ESV)
The man cried out for Jesus to save him and Jesus saved him.
Remember I said the reason God spent two of the seven sayings on the cross on forgiveness is because God knows how hard it is for us to forgive people, but also because He knows how hard it is for a lot of us to believe He would actually forgive us.
There are a lot of us who have the hardest time wrapping our minds around God just wiping clean a person’s slate. It just doesn’t make sense. There are probably a lot of us in the room today who are not Christ followers. The reason you’re not isn’t because you don’t believe in God, but because you don’t believe God could actually forgive someone like you.
There are probably more of us in the room that are believers, Christ followers, but right now we’re so mired in sin that we’re in the place where we think God might be done with us. We don’t think God would offer forgiveness to a person who keeps failing like we do.
If there’s any story in the Bible that teaches us our salvation is by grace alone, through faith, and is not by works that anybody should boast and a gift of God, it is this story.
This guy had absolutely no time to hop off the cross and go be obedient to Jesus. He had no time to go live fifty years radically for the sake of the gospel. With his dying breath he confessed he was a sinner, Jesus was not and asked for mercy. And the mercy of God came like a flood into this guy’s heart.
Your salvation is not based on what you’ve done. It is a gift of God.
Look at what Jesus said to this guy. We learn a lot of theology about heaven based on what He said.
“Truly, truly I say to you…” meaning what He is about to say is true, “Today…” That’s good news folks! That word today teaches us there is no purgatory. You’re not going to die, but then have to work some stuff out before you go to be, or not be, with Him. There is no soul sleep after you die.
Paul said when he is absent from the body, he will be present with the Lord. That’s the whole point of what’s going on here. Jesus was pointing out that there’s coming a day when you’re going to die and in that very moment you’re going to wake up in the arms of Jesus.
“…Today you will be with me in Paradise” Luke 23: 43 (ESV)
Which one of these statements are your more excited about: that you’re going to be with Jesus or be with Him in paradise? I don’t know what paradise means, but I do know if the Creator of heaven and earth says paradise, then I’m signing up for that!
I did a series a couple years ago on heaven and hell. We talked about how heaven is one of the under preached theologies. It’s not going to be this place where you float around in the clouds, playing harps. God actually creates a new earth and that is where we spend eternity. That’s going to be amazing! There will be no sin and all the implications from it will be gone. Think about the food! It’s going to great! There are all sorts of things we could talk about regarding what it will be like.
But the true joy of heaven is going to be Jesus. Paul said, “I count all this other stuff as loss compared to the surpassing value of knowing Jesus.” I love my wife, my kids and this church, but nothing compares to me knowing Jesus. The joy of my life, hands down, has been knowing Jesus.
The joy of heaven will be knowing Jesus forever.
If you’re more excited about the paradise than you are about knowing Jesus, there’s something not right with that.
There’s a very simple question I want you to consider today. You have two thieves dying on a cross. Through out the course of your life, starting right now, you’re going to respond to Jesus in one of these two ways.
The question is not are you a criminal or thief. Scripture says we’re worse than both. We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, the wages of our sin is death and that if we are in our sin and have not been redeemed by the blood of Jesus, then we are worse than criminals. We are enemies of God.
The question is, which thief are you?
Will you reject Jesus with your words or life, even to your dying breath? Or will you throw yourself upon the mercy of God?
You might believe Jesus is the Messiah, and you might want him to do some good stuff, but if you reject Him with your mouth and life, when you die, Jesus will respond to you exactly like He responded to the thief on the left. He won’t say anything.
But if you’re here today and you’re afraid of this, remember the guy on the right. If there is breath in your lungs and life in your body, you can cry out to Jesus. Tell him you’re a sinner, He’s not and you need Him to save you. If you do that, I don’t care who you are or what you’ve done; these will be His words to you…
“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”