Online Text Sermon - The Last Day of the Sinner on Earth, Luke ch.23 vv.42-43
|Preacher||Rev. James Clark, Inverness|
|Sermon Title||The Last Day of the Sinner on Earth|
|Text||Luke ch.23 vv.42-43|
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"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, 42-43).
Some are called by God at the first hour when they are children, like Samuel - "Speak, Lord; for thy servant heareth" (1 Samuel 3, 9). Others are called to the Lord about the sixth hour when they are young men or women - like Mark or the apostle John. Some are called by the Lord at the eighth or ninth hour, in middle age - rather like the apostle Paul. Some are called in old age, not very many but some are; perhaps Joseph of Arimathaa was one of them, perhaps Simeon. They are called, some of them, at the eleventh hour but some are called in the final minute of the eleventh hour. This is one of them - the dying thief.
Matthew Henry reminds us there is only one deathbed conversion, so to speak, in Scripture; only one, that we may not despair and lose hope but again, only one, that we may not presume upon leaving repentance until the last minute. This passage is relevant to all of us because what you have here is a day which will come to us all. This is the sinner's last day on earth. He was told in this case that it would be his last day. When we consider this passage, we must not forget there was another thief in the background; he saw the same person as the saved thief and he heard the same discourse as the saved thief, yet, he made no application to Christ. Today, in the preaching of the Gospel, we can say with Paul that, "Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?" (Galatians 3,1). The word literally means 'placarded' - in other words the Gospel is to you a visible word; it is a word picture. Consider now and consider in half and hour, which thief you identify with: one heard the Lord's words and repented and believed, the other, seeing and hearing exactly the same things, did not believe and died in his sins.
Some young people, perhaps, take the view that these things are far hence and it will be many years before they come to them. Rather like Augustine when he was a young man; he knew the importance of reconciliation with God but he writes in his confessions, "Convert me Lord, but not yet!" J C Ryle tells of a little girl who came out of a church service with her mother and father. They were speaking with the pastor at the door when she went in to the churchyard and walked among the gravestones. After a while, she came back. It had struck her that some of the graves were shorter than she was. You see, young people, there is no guarantee you will live to be old. God does not give guarantees. On very few occasions does God actually say, as to Hezekiah and others, "Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live" (2 Kings 20, 1). For very many it comes suddenly. So this is the sinner's last day on earth; it is applicable to us all because that day is moving towards us and we are moving towards that day.
Let us look first of all at the dying thief's conviction and confession of sin. Before he comes to this confession of faith, he rebukes his companion. If these two were caught with Barabbas then they were indicted for murder and insurrection - they were not so much thieves as violent robbers. Perhaps they were patriots trying to drive the Romans out; perhaps they were just trying to steal to make a living. He was convicted of ideals. When a person receives the first work of the Spirit in the soul, you will find in that person a deepening sense of morality, a heightened sense of ideals, a moral vision and sensitivity. He had not yet come to faith but he was aware of the majesty, consistency and ideals of the law. You see this in his speech to his companion: "And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss" (verse 41). Before the Spirit convicts of sin, He convicts of the majesty and reality of God's law. As it is written, "for by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Romans 3, 20). If you do not have the majesty of the law impressed on your soul, how shall you be convicted of sin? You have nothing to measure sin against. But the person like this man, has not yet closed in with Christ. This can happen for many months, perhaps many years. Remember, the proof that this is saving, is that it leads to union by faith with Christ. The Pharisees spoke of the majesty of the law - they never closed with Christ. We have known of some who have been under intense conviction of the greatness of God's law and who will speak of themselves as great sinners - but they never close with Christ. So there is a danger in resting on some kind of moral idealism and sensitivity to moral greatness. It can be as the Confession says simply "a common operation of the Spirit". A saving operation is when it leads the person to close with the Christ: "for by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Romans 3, 20).
This man did come to repentance. He had been indicted on a charge of murder. The sentence was that he was not fit to live. On the cross, he came to the realisation that he was not fit to die either. It may be that some here are aware of that. You are perhaps tired of living because of your circumstances but you are also scared of dying. You are aware that you are not fit to die. That awareness is a good thing if it is a spiritual awareness: when you are convicted that there is but one step between yourself and death and eternity and beyond, that you are not fit live without Christ; and you dare not die without Christ. We speak of horrors and tragedies but the greatest horror and tragedy is one that we have not yet seen: what lies beyond death for those who die in their sins, who die alone, without Christ. However, he repented.
The word 'repentance' means that you change your mind. We read, "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts" (Isaiah 55, 7). "Forsake...his thoughts" - change his mind; that is repentance. He reflected on his past life, as perhaps you are. "We indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds" (verse 41) - deeds, plural. How many 'deeds' have we committed and covered? We then committed more and covered them, and have forgotten them as time passes? But God has not forgotten them. Because we have forgotten our sins does not mean that God has forgotten. The sin of Judah was written "with the point of a diamond" (Jeremiah 17, 1) so that no man despite his efforts would be able to rub it out; it remains there. We read in Daniel - "the judgement was set, and the books were opened" (Daniel 7, 10). There is only one way whereby sin is blotted out and that is by the blood of Christ; all other ways are futile. People who are trying to cover their sins without the blood of Christ know that it's futile but they distract themselves or they go to company where there is much talk of easy believism or salvation which is divorced from morality and forgiveness. He reflected on his past life. He said, "We receive the due reward" (verse 41). Where there is true repentance God's judgement is justified - "we indeed justly" (verse 41). That is a mark of grace, of true repentance, that you accept God's condemnation just as David did - "that thou mighest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest" (Psalm 51, 4). Justifying faith justifies God: "we indeed justly" (verse 41).
Do you notice that this man, having come to this point, is now more absorbed in the death of the person next to him than in his own death. The death of Christ became to him a matter of all-importance. He addresses himself to Christ; he sees Christ dying. He knows he is dying, for his death, his life and his eternal life depends on the death of the One next to him on that middle cross. He becomes absorbed in that death. He is literally dying looking unto Jesus, looking unto Jesus enduring the cross, despising the shame. The death of Christ was more important to him than his own. Is that not the way you view Christ? Without the death of Christ you dare not die. By faith and repentance, you must be linked to that death as well as the resurrection life that came after that death. "Crucified with Christ," said the apostle, and he says it several times - crucified with Christ!
"But this man hath done nothing amiss" (verse 41). There was an artist called Steinberg in his studio painting. He had just come to the end of a painting when a neighbour's child came in - a little girl. It is amazing how pointed children's' questions can be. She said, "What is the painting about?" In the painting there were three crosses; the middle cross was empty. Over in this corner was a cave with a stone rolled over it. The painting depicted the other two thieves being taken down from the cross and carried away. She asked him what the picture was about. He said, "Three people have been crucified - one has already died and been buried here. These are the other two - they were criminals. She asked if the man on the middle cross was a bad man too. Steinberg said, "No, He was a good man; He died for others." The girl immediately replied, "O, did He die for you too?" That is the question for you: did He die for you too? The response to that question makes for your life, eternal life and manner of your death. "Did He die for you too?"
The thief moves on from repentance unto life, to explicit faith: a confession of faith - "And he said unto Jesus, Lord" (text). Here was a man who had no time for good works, baptism or even the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. However, he had the faith to discern the Lord's body and that is the qualification for attendance at the Lord's Supper - the faith to discern the Lord's body. "He said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me" (text). Where there is faith there is understanding. People talk about a blind faith. There is no such thing. Faith, hope and love - and it is in that order - faith, hope and love. Those who believe in Christ have a new understanding. When converted, they ask, "How did I never see that before?" What was this man seeing? He was seeing that Christ was numbered among the transgressors - but only "numbered". He had been hearing Christ from the cross - faith comes by hearing: "Father, forgive them" (verse 34). Here was a Man who addressed God as His Father. The other thief heard the same words but the words came with power to this one but not to that one. You see in that the sovereignty of God, the electing grace of God. It happens so often: one in a pew hears the Word of God with power, the other does not. Saul of Tarsus going to Damascus was struck down to the ground. His friends saw a light - he saw a face. His friends heard thunder - he heard Christ speaking to him. The electing grace of God! Some remain natural hearing the Word of God. What is natural? having not the Spirit (Jude 19). This thief saw that Christ was only "numbered"; He was not a transgressor.
Being a Jew, as we consider he was, he would know some of the Old Testament. He was seeing Christ 'numbered' and fulfilling Psalm 69 where Messiah says, "I restored that which I took not away" (Psalm 69, 4). He was the Substitute, the Surety, the One Who said, "Behold, I come" (Psalm 40). This thief who couldn't move a muscle on the cross, who was paralysed, was saying in his soul - "Behold, I am coming too." There was a blessed meeting: "Behold, I come." "Behold, I come." That is what the sinner says in faith: "Christ must come and, behold, I come", and there is a blessed meeting.
You see how he defended Christ from his companion. If you have faith in Christ, you will soon be brought to the point where you will have to defend His Name. His companions, the Jews, were deriding Him. The sad thing is, according to Matthew and Mark, so was he, so was this man. It says in Matthew and Mark that both the thieves reproached Him. But this man came to faith. The others could not get over the stumbling block of the cross. The offence of the cross - they could not get over it. They made their objections quite clear: "If this is the Saviour, why doesn't He save Himself? The Jews seek a sign; let Christ the King of Israel come down from the cross." Salvation to the natural man means glory in this world, not the next. "Save Thyself and us; save us now (verse 39)!" They wanted the glory now. However, like Christ, you must endure the shame and then like Christ you will be crowned with glory and honour.
See how this man's faith projected into the future: "Remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom" (text). We were reading of that in Daniel 7. When Christ left the earth, He went to receive His kingdom. Some of the Parables are based on that doctrine. We see Jesus, "who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12, 2) - crowned with glory and honour. There was given to Him a kingdom and this kingdom shall have no end, unlike the kingdom of the people who were putting Him to death. He saw in Christ the Lamb of God and, remember, this was taking place at Passover time. He would understand that the Lord was providing Himself a Lamb (Genesis 2,8).
Why did this change take place? Was it simply that this man had a natural interpretation of events? No, there was something supernatural going on here. This man's conversion was the result of Christ's intercession on the cross: "Father, forgive them" (verse 34). The Father immediately responded to the intercession of His Son, the Christ, and the Spirit was despatched. This man was made willing in his last day by God's power. He was numbered with the transgressors and He made intercession for the transgressors. Christ did not come to save the righteous but the unrighteous. He died for the ungodly and here was one right next to Him. Even in Christ's last moments, He was seeing of the travail of His soul right in front of Him and He was satisfied.
The main difference was, there weren't just three persons there, there was a fourth Person, there was the Holy Spirit. He was also present and that always makes a difference - the presence of the Holy Spirit. You cannot see Him but you can hear the sound thereof. What was the sound thereof? - "Lord, remember me" (text), because it is written that no man can call Jesus Lord except by the Holy Spirit. Here is the sound thereof - "Lord, remember me." You cannot see the Holy Spirit but you can see His work. This was probably the most rapid work of the Holy Spirit in Scripture in conforming a soul to the likeness of Christ. Ordinarily, when the Holy Spirit comes to apply Christ to the soul, the substance of the image of Christ is formed. Ordinarily, the Spirit then takes years to complete that image: to, so to speak, fill up the outline of the image of Christ so that at death the believer is then made perfect in holiness and perfectly conformed to the image of God's Son (Roman's 8). In this case, it was the work of a few hours. The likeness was formed in the soul; within a few hours, that image was brought to perfection. "To day shalt thou be with me in paradise" (text). When he saw Christ in paradise he was like Him. Although he was a robber, a thief, he was just as righteous as any other sinner in heaven. There is no distinction - all who go to heaven go in the righteousness of Christ. There is not a case of more righteousness or less righteousness, they are all equally and openly acknowledged, acquitted and justified in the sight of God for ever. Many said of this man that he was not fit to live; he knew he wasn't fit to die. Many condemned him but there is no one condemning him now - he is beyond condemnation: "There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8, 1). "Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died..." (Romans 8, 33-34). They can no longer condemn him. He is beyond condemnation, he is safe, the work of the Spirit rapidly bringing him into the likeness of Christ in a few hours.
Calvin in his commentary remarks on how remarkable this man's faith was. Despite all the signs and circumstances, his faith penetrated to Christ Jesus. He knew Who He was. He wanted to die with Him and be like Him, and Christ took him to heaven. If you have Calvin's commentary on this passage, you will not read any finer exposition.
In the United States of America about one hundred years ago, a young man was involved in a fight. He killed someone else in the fight and was put in prison - sentenced and convicted to death. It was commonly thought that because of the young man's age the governor would issue a pardon. The governor called in his assistant, a man called Bob Stewart, and he said to him, "Everybody expects me to pardon this young man but I can't! I want you to go to the prison and tell this young man from me." Bob Stewart, who was a Christian, went to the prison. He went in to the young man's cell and, of course, the young man knew who he was when he was announced - the governor's assistant. He stood up eager for good news. Bob closed the door, sat down with him and said, "The governor cannot pardon you." The young man's face fell. Bob went on, "However, there is another kind of pardon, a pardon which God holds out to you in Christ. Christ is God's pardon held out to every sinner to be received by faith." Many condemned this thief to death but there is another kind of pardon whereby sinners are accepted, accepted in and for the Beloved.
I said that some people believe we may leave this to our dying day - that is not wise. The reason being that a doctor did a survey in the last century of three hundred alleged deathbed conversions. What happened was that in his visits he found that these people who thought they were dying were making some kind of profession. In this case, all three hundred recovered. Only months later, of the three hundred, only ten continued to maintain their profession of Christ. So my friend the odds are against you. The statistics say that only 3-4% of deathbed conversions are genuine. Is it not far wiser to be reconciled with God now? People take out insurance policies for the future. They are of no avail when you come to die. There is dying in Christ or dying in sin. If you die anywhere else except in Christ, Christ Himself says to you, "I go my way, and ye shall seek me, and shall die in your sins: whither I go, ye cannot come" (John 8, 21). What a blessed deathbed or death cross this man had: "Lord, remember me" (text). To remember is to have someone in mind. He had him in mind - he was the fruit of the travail of His soul. Not like Joseph and the butler. Remember how the butler promised that when he got out of prison he would remember Joseph. He didn't. This man was dying and he seems to have had a premonition that the Lord would die before him. He didn't want to be left alone. The Lord was going to heaven, he was remaining on earth; he said, "Lord, remember me" (text). When? "When thou comest into thy kingdom" (text). When you are in heaven and I am still on earth, "Lord, remember me" (text). In other words, "Lord, intercede for me. Do not forget me."
It is written in Isaiah 53 that He makes intercession for transgressors. That intercession did not cease then: "He ever liveth to make intercession for them (transgressors)" (Hebrews 7, 25). It is a blessed thing to be in the intercession of Christ in life and especially in death. Others will remember you while you are dying but their remembrance cannot save you from sin nor take you to heaven to be with Christ but His remembrance can and does, "Lord, remember me" (text). The response was, "To day shalt thou be with me in paradise" (text). So it was confirmed that this would be his last day on earth.
Nehemiah said something to the same effect several times when he said, "Remember me, O my God, for good" (Nehemiah 13, 31). There cannot be any greater good than being joined to the Lord - "Remember me" (text). For those that overcome, who get past the stumbling block of God's way of salvation in the cross of Christ, the Lord said they would have the right to the tree of life which is in the midst of the paradise of God (Revelation 2, 7). "To day shalt thou be with me in paradise" (text).
It would be an interesting study for you to examine the four gardens in the Word of God: creation, Gethsemane, resurrection and heaven. The garden in heaven is one that cannot be lost; there is a coming in but there is no going out. There is a tree of life but there is no forbidden fruit. If a person is there, they are there for ever. "To day shalt thou be with me in paradise" (text).
Our time has almost gone and you have heard the same things as that other thief. Which one do you identify with? Is it, "Lord, remember me" (text) or is it like the other, silence - the silence of embarrassment and despair. Your hope is in the Gospel, which Christ openly sets forth before you. It is by means of this death alone that you can go through the veil into this paradise of God in heaven. The veil is Christ's flesh we read in Hebrews. This man was absorbed in the death of Christ. He would go through that death and beyond into the life which is in heaven with Christ. He is one of those of whom it may be said, "These all died in faith" (Hebrews 11, 13). When you die in faith and your strength and powers slip away, you become more sensible of another strength, another power. Believers have already wrestled with God at Peniel; they have met with Christ. They have wrestled to get the blessing. When their strength was disappearing, they hung on and they would not let Christ go until they received that blessing. They go through their lives hanging on, limping as Jacob, hanging on.
The story is told of two atheists - one was dying the other came to visit him. The one in the bed said, "I'm going; I'm slipping." The other atheist said, "Hang on, hang on." The other man groaned, "I have nothing to hang on to!" When their strength is gone, those who have hung on Christ - and remember it was when we were without strength that Christ died for the ungodly - they will find as their strength slips away that the eternal God is their refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms (Deuteronomy 33, 27). In Psalm 61 and 63, you have a reference to the wings of God. It was told to Ruth that she had taken refuge with "the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust" (Ruth 2, 12). Christ said, "How often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood" - and how does she do that? - "under her wings" (Luke 13, 34). On a hill outside Jerusalem, on Calvary, there was a man - God-Man; He was on a cross and the wings of God-Man were visible: "under whose wings thou art come to trust" (Ruth 2, 12). He was facing Jerusalem; His hands were held out and that is where you are to take refuge - under the wings of Christ. His hands are stretched out still to sinners. "Father forgive them" (verse 34). No, it doesn't say your name. It doesn't say John Smith. If it did, you would be worried, there could be another John Smith; but Christ died for sinners and that spreads the net very wide. Christ is freely offered to you in the Gospel. Christ calls to you in the Gospel. Is someone not happy with the terminology, well let us put it another way. It is your duty; according to God, it is your command, to close with Christ. He has commanded all men everywhere to repent, and women. His commandment is that you should believe on the Name of His Son, Christ Jesus (1 John). Christ's hands are stretched out still. Which thief shall you be with? "Lord remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom" (text), or the other who died in silence holding on to nothing? How blessed it is dying in faith, looking unto Jesus. That middle cross is dividing us all in our lives and in our deaths.
May the Lord give you the same grace as this dying thief.
William Cowper put it this way:
There is a fountain filled with blood,drawn from Emmanuel's veins. And sinners plunged beneath that flood,lose all their guilty stains.
The dying thief rejoiced to seethat fountain in his day.And there have I, as vile as he,washed all my sins away.
Can you say that, my friends? Can you say that? May God give you the grace to live and die saying, "Lord, remember me."
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