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Online Text Sermon - The Penitent Thief, Luke ch.23 vv.39-43

Date13/03/2005
Time18:30
PreacherRev. Maurice Roberts, Inverness
Sermon TitleThe Penitent Thief (Poor Quality)
TextLuke ch.23 vv.39-43
Sermon ID1075

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"And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:39-43).

Here we have a famous account of Christ and the thieves on the cross. As you know, there were three crosses and our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified on the middle cross. On either side of him there was another cross on which was being crucified with him what is called a 'malefactor', that is, a criminal. These were desperate, dangerous, wicked men who had spent much of their lives committing sin and crime. The Lord Jesus Christ was in the middle. The reason for that, I believe, is to fulfil a prophecy found in the Old Testament: "he was numbered with the transgressors" (Isaiah 53, 12). The Lord Jesus Christ therefore was counted as one of these malefactors. He had no sin of His own, though the sin of the world was laid on Him.

We are continuing the theme now which we began this morning as we spoke about Christ being our propitiation. My concern this evening is to look at these three crosses. First, the Lord's cross and the Lord upon it; and secondly to look at the thief who found mercy and forgiveness, who was on the cross on one side of him; and then, thirdly, to look at the thief who was on the other side of our Lord, who received no forgiveness because he did not want it.

That reminds us, doesn't it, that if we are to get to heaven we must first of all desire forgiveness of sins for ourselves. It's a good question that I put to you when I say, 'If God were to call you tonight, out of this world, by death, would you be ready to go?' If God were to call you, personally, tonight, would you be ready to go? You see, that's the condition of these two men, and indeed for that matter of Christ Himself. This was the last day of their lives. They were all to die this day. It was the end of their life upon earth; and the day is going to come which will be the end of your life and mine upon earth.

We should think of that day. This is not to be morbid or over sad, it is to be real, realistic, to be sensible. The day is going to come when you will leave this world and unless you are foolish you will think about that day now, whilst you have health. If you are wise you will be asking God that He will make you ready for that last day of your life so that you will be well prepared to go from this world when you have to go because we receive many calls on our life in this world and sometimes we can say no. When somebody calls at the door and invites you to go somewhere and they say, 'We'd like you to come with us.' It's open to you to say 'No, thank you, I want to stay just where I am.' Or perhaps the telephone will ring and somebody will say, 'Will you come and join us somewhere? Come out and meet me somewhere.' It's open to you, if you wish, to say, 'No thank you. No. No, I'm not coming.' But when God calls us out of this world, as He does in the day of our death, it's not open to us to say no. When God summons us to leave this world and to appear before him for judgment, you can't say no, you can't refuse. You can't say to God, 'I'd rather not go, thank you. No, no - I'm going to stay here thank you.' You can't do that because when God calls us we have to go. We have to go without preparation if we have never ever been thinking about these things in this life. As you very well understand, it's not only old people and people with grey hair who go, as some of us have. Sometimes it's children who go first. Sometimes boys and girls who are really quite young, who are in their teens. God may call them out of this world young. It happens all the time. I have to visit hospitals, as you know, and sometimes it's not just the old people who are sick and dying, but it's children, young children. That brings home to you and me how important it is to be ready when God says, 'Come out of this world.' And that's why I want to look at these things tonight.

Let's look at it in that way, with these three crosses in our minds. First of all, the middle cross, where our Saviour dies. Then the dying thief, who repented and came to faith. And then, thirdly, the other thief who did not want to repent, and who died. Let's look at it that way.

I begin by considering Jesus Christ on this middle cross. He died there on the middle cross fulfilling the Old Testament prophecy that 'he was numbered with the transgressors'. He was accounted as a sinner. He had no sin of His own but he bore the sins of the world. Now the question arises, Why did Jesus not simply come down from the cross? I mean, he had tremendous power; we saw that in His miracles. On one occasion He was in the boat and there was a storm, you remember, and Jesus simply spoke to the wind and the waves and said, 'Be quiet! Be still! Hush! Be quiet!' and immediately everything went still.

Let me teach you another example. You remember the occasion when our Lord Jesus Christ was in the Garden of Gethsemane, when they were coming to arrest Him and to put Him on trial and crucify Him. Do you recall how these men with lanterns and sticks came towards our Lord - quite a group of them - to lay hold on Him? They said, 'We're looking for Jesus of Nazareth,' and Jesus turned to them and said, 'I am he,' and immediately all of them fell backwards as though a strong wind had knocked them over on their backs. How did that happen? It happened because Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God with all power in heaven and earth put forth just a little bit of His power, just a little touch of His power. He could have put a lot more power into those words had He wished to do. He could have put so much power into those words they would have fallen flat on their backs in death, but He didn't do that.

You can see very well that when our Lord was on the cross He could very, very easily have come down from the cross. There was nothing to keep him there apart from one thing. I want you to ask yourselves as I'm speaking: what was that one thing that kept Jesus on the cross? What was it? Well you may say that it was what Pontius Pilate did that put Him on the cross. Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor and he had the power to crucify Christ. So the reason why Jesus was on the cross was because of Pontius Pilate. No, no. That's not the real reason why He was ever on the cross at all.

'Oh all right,' you say, 'it wasn't him but it was Judas Iscariot who put our Lord on the cross; after all, Judas was one of the disciples wasn't he? And he betrayed our Lord for thirty miserable pieces of silver. He sold his Master and gave a kiss to the Lord as he betrayed him. Jesus said, "Do you betray the Son of Man with a kiss, Judas?"' You say, 'Yes, it was Judas who was to blame. Judas put him on the cross; that's why our Lord was crucified.' Yes, up to a point you are right. But that's not the reason that kept him there.

'No,' you say. 'It's because the disciples wouldn't help him. All the disciples forsook him and fled. They should have been rallying round him. They should have protected him. They should have helped him. So it's the disciples' fault in a way.' Well, there's some truth in that, but it certainly isn't the main point.

'Or maybe,' you say, 'no, no, it was really the Roman soldiers - they are the ones that had the power. They had swords and spears and helmets, the breastplates and daggers and greaves on their shins, and all of that. They are the ones who really kept our Lord on the cross.' My friends, none of these things put our Lord, or kept our Lord, on the cross.

I'll tell you what did put our Lord on the cross. I'll tell you what kept Him on the cross. It was His love for you and me and the world! His love for the world, for our souls, for our eternal destiny! That's what put our Lord on the cross, and kept Him there! Nothing else could have done it. He could easily have destroyed all his enemies. Do you recall what Peter did on one occasion when they came to arrest our Lord? Peter took out his sword and he flashed it about, foolishly, and cut off somebody's ear, you remember, and Jesus said to him, 'Peter, put your sword back where it came from. Do you not realise, Peter, I have only got to speak a word and my Father will send twelve legions of angels.' Perhaps you don't know what a legion is? It's like a large part of a Roman army. A legion had roughly six thousand soldiers in it - 6,000! Twelve legions, multiply it and you've got the number you need. Legions of angels, not just men! But these angels were waiting in heaven to come flying down if necessary, to deliver our Lord from the hands of these wicked men - from Pontius Pilate, Judas Iscariot and the Roman soldiers. These angels would, at the drop of a hat, have come rushing down from heaven and delivered our Lord, taken Him down from the cross, and protected Him from suffering and death.

Jesus would not ask for them to come. Why not? Because Jesus intended to die - for us. I say it again, my dearest friends, it was love for our souls that put our Lord on the cross. It was love for you and me and sinners like us - hell-deserving sinners like you and me. That's what put our Lord on the cross, and that's what kept Him there. That's why our Lord said the kind things He did: 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.' He knew very well that neither the Roman soldiers nor the Jewish people had any understanding that He was our blessed Saviour, the Saviour of the soul, the One appointed by God Almighty to take us to heaven and to glory. That's why He stayed on the cross and was content to bear all the unkind things they were saying about Him. Terrible things we were reading, 'Come down from the cross,' they said, 'and then we will believe.' He could easily have done that, but if He had come down from the cross there would have been no way that you and I could have our sins forgiven. He could easily have come down from the cross, and as He had healed so many people's bodies He could have healed the wounds in His own hands and feet, just with a word. He could have come down from the cross, I say it again, and destroyed His enemies in a moment. It was love for you and me that put our Lord upon the cross and kept Him there.

I want to ask you, young people first, do you realise that Jesus Christ gave Himself for you, that you might have Him and that you might believe in Him, and that you might be made holy and good, and have your sins pardoned? So that when God calls you out of this world in death you may not go to the place of punishment but to the place of glory and happiness? Do you realise that? Have you given your own hearts to Christ? Well that's what faith does. When we really believe in Christ we give our hearts to Him. We say, 'Lord, I can't live without you. Oh, come and make me a disciple of yours, make me one of your own true people. Make me thine, Lord. Give me grace to follow thee all the days of my life.' Well, boys and girls, that's exactly what you've done! There's no point in knowing these things for the sake of getting more information! We don't preach sermons just for the purpose of entertaining people. This is not like switching on the television. You, yourself, have to listen to what Christ is saying! Then He says to us, 'Come unto me, and I will give you rest' (Matthew 11, 28). Believe in me, and you will have everlasting life.' I'm asking you now, as you are sitting here, something that God will require of you in the day when you die and face him in the judgment: Have you repented of your sin and are you believing in this blessed Saviour whose love brought Him into the world? 'God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son...' (John 3, 16). 'Here is life, not that we love God but that he loved us, and gave his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.' Does that mean nothing to us at all? Are we just content to know these things with our heads but not to believe them in our hearts?

And older people, older ones who, for all we know, have less time in this world. Older ones who have heard these things perhaps many times, is it having its effect upon your life? Is it having a meaning for your soul? My dear friends, do you think you're going to live forever in this world? Why, then, do you put off this most important of all decisions, to choose this day Jesus Christ as your Saviour and Lord? There is nothing that gives the angels of God in heaven more happiness than to hear of one man, or one woman, or one boy or girl coming to believe in Jesus Christ for themselves. And that's the wonderful thing we turn to now.

Secondly, as we turn our minds for a moment from Christ on the cross to the dying thief on the cross. This is the one who came to faith in Christ. There were two thieves, one on either side. One repented and one did not. One is now in heaven, the other in hell. He'll be there for ever and ever because there's no change after entering into death. 'Where the tree falleth,' says the Bible, 'there it shall be' (Ecclesiastes 11, 3). As a man lives, so shall he die; as he dies, so he will be to all eternity. You cannot change once you have entered into a state of death, but you can - by the grace of God - change now. That's why we look at this second man, because here we have the example of a man who was extremely wicked, godless, and worldly - a criminal. However, he came to believe in Jesus Christ.

Let me tell you a little bit about this man. He came to faith, and it's interesting to ask the question: What was it that brought him to believe in Christ? Was it the prayer that he heard Jesus saying, 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.'? Was that what it was? It may have had an effect upon him. Or was it when He said to his mother, Mary, 'Behold thy son [John],' and to John, 'Behold thy mother.' Was it that he saw that even in the sufferings of death this Jesus loved others and cared for others? Even when He Himself was in the midst of terrible torment He still cared for others. Was that what impressed him? No doubt it might well have had an effect. Or was it, I wonder, that he noticed the words written above the head of Christ, 'THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS' (v.38)? Perhaps he read those words, which were in Hebrew - the language of the Jews, in Greek - the language of Greeks, and Latin - the language of the Romans. I don't know which of these languages he read, probably all of them. But as he looked up like that, he would have seen these words.

Pontius Pilate had those words written, you recall, and the Jews did not like them. They said to Pontius Pilate, when the words were written: 'Don't write these words, "THE KING OF THE JEWS", but that he said 'I am the King of the Jews.'" Do you remember what Pontius Pilate replied? He said, 'What I have written I have written' (John 19, 22). What a strange thing to say! It's worth discussing that some time. Whatever did he mean? 'What I have written, I have written.' Did he mean, "I know very well that this Jesus is no ordinary man; I know, I can see, I've interviewed him, I've spoken to Him. I know He's innocent. I know that it's for malice that you've delivered Him up to me. I know that He is an unusual man. My wife had a dream about Him and sent a message to me saying "Have nothing to do with this righteous man," He is different from others"?

I don't know which of these things it was, or whatever else it was, that led this thief to be converted. But the Gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - tell us this: that when this wicked man was first nailed to his cross, he too was cursing and blaspheming Christ and, like the other one, he was saying, 'If you're the Son of God, get off the cross and take us off and we'll believe in you.' As time went on, in those three hours or so before the darkness came down (that's the usual view we have, that it was before the darkness began) - although we can't be dogmatic - it seems quite likely that this thief, either seeing the words, or seeing the character, or hearing the prayer of Christ, he came to believe that this Jesus was indeed the Son of God. He wasn't the only one to believe this of course. Round the cross there were soldiers. One of the soldiers, a centurion, who was like a regimental sergeant major, he also, seeing the miracles, hearing the words, seeing the character of Christ, he also came to believe that Jesus was the Son of God. So this man on the cross had a true conversion. He had what we call a 'U' turn; his life was going the devil's way but right at the end of life, just before death claimed him, he did a right about turn and went the other way; he went God's way, just for the last few minutes of his life. He probably was dead shortly after 3 o'clock because our Lord died at 3 o'clock and then came Roman soldiers with a hammer in their hand, each of them - it's a very cruel thing - and in order to get these thieves quickly off the cross they broke their legs - terrible thought, because in breaking their legs you shatter the nervous system of a body and people die very quickly. Very, very, very cruel! When the soldiers came with their hammers, these two were still living and our Lord was now dead.

It was shortly after 3 o'clock these two thieves also died. This man died a man of God. I want to tell you the stages and the steps in his conversion. We know this from his words. Various steps and changes were in his mind. The first one is this: he was concerned, first of all, at the wickedness of his fellow thief. He said to his fellow thief, you remember, 'Do you not fear God?' - saying these wicked things to Christ - 'Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly" (v.40-41). That's how conversion is to be seen and shown in a man's life; it's when a person starts to say: Lord, I'm a wicked man, a wicked woman.

Do you know that about yourself? or are you really self-righteous? Are you able honestly to look at yourself just now, in the mirror of God's word, and are you able to say, 'I know myself to be a wicked man.'? 'Oh,' you say, 'I'm not like the thief on the cross. I was never a criminal. I never was worthy of going to prison.' Well no, maybe not. I don't believe you were for a moment, but you are a sinner, the same as we all are: 'For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God' (Romans 3, 23). That's what this man discovered about himself. He admitted his sinfulness, and he was concerned about the sinfulness of his fellow. He began to stand up for Christ. That's a wonderful thing, when you see people beginning to stand up for Christ. Most people are ready to blaspheme Christ, and if you don't believe me, you go into the High Street next time there's an open air. Watch for yourself and see what people think of God and of Christ. They don't like to hear these names. But when a person begins to be converted to faith in Christ they begin to have new thoughts of Him, high thoughts of Him, great thoughts of Him, which they never had before. They begin to realise who He is and why He's on the cross. Then he says about Jesus, 'This man hath done nothing amiss' (v.41): He's done nothing wrong. 'This man on the middle cross,' he says, 'He's innocent of any crime, or any sin.' You see, not like the liberal theologians of another mould, this poor thief who never went to a theological college; he knew that Jesus had no sin of His own. It's a pity some of our learned theologians couldn't learn a lesson at his feet. There are a lot of clever people today who think that really Jesus was just a little bit bigger than we are - a sinner like ourselves they think. But 'oh no,' says this thief, 'He never did anything wrong.' He was sinless, holy, the Son of God, and he sees the difference. I don't know how. God opened his eyes to see it. God gave him grace to understand it. 'He's done nothing wrong,' says this man.

Then he believes that Jesus has a kingdom, up there. So he says, "Lord, remember me, when thou comest into thy kingdom" (v.42). Isn't that wonderful? It's all the more wonderful when you think of the picture. What did he see? He saw a man on a cross in pain and suffering. He saw him covered in blood, blood streaming down His face, His hands, His feet; yet he distinctly understands that this Man who suffered is a king, and that He has a kingdom in glory. He says to Him, 'Lord, remember me. When you come into your throne and sit in your throne and come to your kingdom; think kindly of me, Lord!' Then there's something else. He prays to Christ to be remembered in mercy.

That's where we must look at ourselves. Maybe you do say your prayers. But now, my friends, do you ask God to have mercy on your soul? Maybe you have a Christian mother, or a Christian father, young people, and that's a wonderful thing to have. Maybe both your parents are Christians - and that's a wonderful thing to have - but that won't save you. In the Day of Judgment your mother can't hold your hand, you know, and your daddy can't stand at your side to plead your cause with God. In the day of death and the Day of Judgment we are all on our own. There's nobody then to help us, unless... unless He helps us, the one that loved us and died for us. If he's on our side He will help us in the Day of Judgment, and He will forgive us and take us to glory. But we must in this life live for Him, and live with Him, and in the faith of Christ. We must serve Him and glorify Him, no matter what people say to us or say about us. That's what this man here dared to do; he was a fool for Christ's sake.

It doesn't tell us in the Gospels what the bystanders thought of this thief. They must have been amazed. Here was this fellow, this criminal, who, at the end of his life, turns right round and confesses Jesus Christ to be his Lord. That's what he was doing. The people standing round the cross - these Pharisees and scribes - they must have been amazed! There's one tremendous lesson comes out of the conversion of this thief, and here it is very simply. It is the lesson that nobody is saved by their own goodness. If anybody was a hopeless case, it was him. He had a rotten past, a rotten present - no hope for the future - but one thing he came to have: he believed in Jesus Christ. That's all you need!

That's all you need. I don't know why some of you make such a meal out of this; why it takes you so long; why it's so difficult. I don't mean to be reproachful in saying that. My dear friends, I don't say that to hurt you or to shame you, but I say it provoke you, to stir you up. Why, there's nothing whatever you have to do to get to heaven but only one thing, believe in Him. 'Whosoever believeth in him should not perish' (John 3, 15) - at once God will bestow eternal life upon you, and you will certainly never perish. That's all you need. That's all this poor man could get. He hadn't time for baptism. He hadn't time to get to the Lord's Table. He hadn't time to become a member of a church, hadn't time to 'clean up his act' as we say and do a few decent good acts which would counterbalance his bad ones - he had no time for that. One thing only he had time for - faith in the Redeemer! Faith in Christ alone! That's all he did. That's all you need. That's all you need. Faith alone in Christ will be enough. You see what Jesus says to him - 'To day shalt thou be with me in paradise' (v.43). Our Lord couldn't put His arm round him but metaphorically speaking He did. Metaphorically His arm of love was stretched out to him and that's what our Lord does. He will carry you all to glory if you have that faith in Him.

Oh, don't leave it, day after day. Today is the best day of your life for giving your heart to God. There will never be a better day than today to come to faith in Christ. Though you should live to be 110, and that's not probable, there will never be a better day in your life than today. Now, this very moment, put all your trust in Jesus and pray to Him for mercy for your soul, as this dear dying thief did in his day, and receive that gracious promise: 'Today shalt thou be with me in paradise' (v.43).

What's paradise? Paradise is a word meaning heaven. It's really a Persian word meaning a garden; it's the word we use for the Garden of Eden - paradise. We can't go back to the Garden of Eden because of the curse, so God has planted another garden, as it were. This other garden is in heaven - a beautiful place full of light and joy and glory - and that paradise is what Jesus was talking about; the garden of heaven where the trees grow. The tree of life is there, where all the angels are, where God is. In paradise you can talk to God face to face. In paradise you can talk to the beloved Holy Spirit. Oh, how we should love the Holy Spirit. There we can talk to God the Father and the Son.

Let me thirdly speak of this third person, the third cross, the man we call the impenitent thief, because he would not repent; he was not sorry for his sins. He did not give his heart to Christ. He didn't echo the prayer of his fellow thief. He should have done, he might have done, but he refused to do. He uttered no prayer. He went on cursing, as far as we can see. He died as he'd lived - a godless man. He died without faith. He died without hope. He died without Christ. Poor man! He is eternally lost.

It is said about Judas Iscariot when he committed suicide, 'He went to his own place' (Acts 1, 25). That's a terrible word. That means he went to a place that suited his own wicked heart. He went to the place where everybody else was like himself. You see, if a wicked man were to get to heaven he wouldn't be happy there. If a wicked person were to get to heaven, they would be miserable because there would be no one there they could have any conversation with. They couldn't happily talk to God. They find church services too much and so they never even go to church for one hour in the week, so, if they were to get to heaven by any means, they would find it would be like hell to them. They'd hate anything to do with God and Christ and heaven. So if a wicked person got to heaven if that were possible - it isn't possible, but if they did - it would be a misery to them. They don't belong there. So when wicked men die they go to their own place, where everybody else is like themselves - wicked, where everybody hates everybody else. That's where this unhappy man went.

I'm going to close in a moment, but let me remind you what a foolish man this was. He had the opportunity of a lifetime and he threw it away. I once heard of a girl who, in a fit of foolishness, tried to commit suicide. She threw herself onto a railway line in London and the train came and mercifully didn't kill her but cut off her arm. She was spared to live, but what a stupid thing to do. What a stupid thing to do! That's what this dying thief did, only with his soul, not simply his body. He did the most stupid thing he could. Instead of turning to Christ and saying, 'Lord, have mercy upon me also, and say a kind word to me, Lord, for I also am dying in my sin.' Our Lord would quickly, with love, have turned to him, and He would have said, 'You too, my friend, will sit with Me in paradise.' That's all you have to do - to repent and to believe in Jesus. But he refused. He wouldn't do it. That's how many are in this life.

Shall I tell you why people will not repent and believe in Christ? Shall I tell you why? It's because of the pride in the human heart. My dear friends, is that your problem tonight? You're too proud. You're too much in love with yourself. You are too full of yourself. You're not prepared for anyone to call you a 'holy person', with a sneer. You're too proud to take it. You don't want anyone to laugh at you for being a religious person. You don't want anyone to scoff at you because you now love Christ. Well, how stupid, to care for what men think of you or what men say of you, when all that really matters is what God will say about you in the end.

Three crosses. In the middle, a loving Saviour who could easily have come down from the cross and delivered Himself out of the hand of wicked men. Why did He stay there? For us! For us men and our salvation, that we through faith in His blood may have heaven and God and peace. Then, secondly, the dying thief who repented. No good works had he done, but he came to faith in Jesus, and so he is in glory today, shining like the stars of heaven. Then, thirdly, the thief who did not repent.

What's going to be the end of your life story, dear friend? What will they write down in heaven about you when you come to the end of your life? Will you be like this man? Or will you be like that? Will you be penitent? Or are you too proud? Will you come to faith in Christ? Or will you harden your heart? 'To day if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness' (Psalm 95, 8). May God give to every one of you who has not got Christ the ability to repent and trust in Him.


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