Today we are going to continue our Lenten series on the Seven Last Words of Christ as we examine the power and impact these words can have on our lives. Last week we began with Jesus' first words on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” as we looked to the incredible act of forgiveness to better understand it, see what Jesus intended it to look like, and ways we can move towards that kind of mindset ourselves. Today we will look at the next phrase, “Today you will be with Me in paradise” as we seek to understand faith and how that provides us grace, hope, and forgiveness.
A Tale of Two Thieves
Our Scripture lesson from the Gospel of Luke describes a Friday in the city of Jerusalem. Outside the city wall, just north of the Damascus Gate, in a place long reserved for public executions, three crosses stand beside a road. A crowd has gathered this day. Not that crucifixion was unusual. But this day is different. An unusual man is being crucified. He wasn’t an ordinary criminal—not a thief or a murderer or a pickpocket. In fact, there were those who thought He wasn’t guilty at all. But there He was on the middle cross. And on either side, two men were crucified with Him.
Who were those two thieves that day? The translators use different words to describe them, “Thieves, robbers, malefactors, bandits.” Luke’s word means “members of the criminal class, professional criminals, members of the underworld.” Tradition suggests that these men were political revolutionaries bent on overthrowing the yoke of Roman rule. Beyond that, we know little else. We don’t know their names or their hometowns or the specific crimes committed. We assume that they had been partners in crime, but that is not certain. Some suggest they were brothers, but there is no way to be sure.
We would not know them at all except for this: They are supporting players in the greatest drama of all time, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It may appear that these two men are exactly alike. They were both criminals who were sentenced to die together at the same time at the same place on the same day. Both had been severely beaten before they were crucified, both were stripped naked before the leering crowd, both were covered with blood and dirt. Both men were dying and both would soon be dead. No surface differences to be seen.
But in reality, no two men could be more different. These two men who were crucified beside Jesus differed on one main point: How they viewed the man in the middle. They saw him differently and asked him for different things. One man wanted escape, not forgiveness; the other wanted forgiveness, not escape.
The Amazing Faith of Thief #2
Pause with me and let us look together at the man who wanted forgiveness. Was any man ever in a more desperate situation? Brutally crucified, he is dying in agony for sins he had committed, crimes he had done. He is a guilty man justly punished. He deserves to die and he knows it. By sundown, he will be dead. And at the last moment he makes one final appeal to the man hanging next to him: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (42)
I submit to you that here we have the most amazing example of saving faith in all the Bible. No man ever looked less like a king than Jesus did that day, yet this man saw him as he really was. Jesus is hanging on a cross, most of the disciples long gone into hiding and the crowd gathered round that day intent on mocking him. Yet it is here that this thief comes to faith. Somehow this man saw a bleeding Jesus and believed that he would someday come in his kingdom.
It’s incredibly amazing when you consider that this man had none of the advantages the disciples had – he probably never heard Jesus teach, watch him heal, or multiply bread to feed thousands. He missed all the outward signs of Jesus’ kingship. Yet he believed. He knew nothing of the virgin birth, the Old Testament prophecies, the conversation with Nicodemus or the raising of Lazarus just one week earlier. The coming miracle of the resurrection was unknown to him. All the things we take for granted, he knew nothing about.
Saved at the Last Second
Yet there on the cross, he came to understand the heart of the gospel. In that light his words seem all the more remarkable. He defended Jesus to the other criminal: “This man has done nothing wrong” and then proceeds to ask Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It is the modest prayer of a man who knows he does not deserve what he is asking for.
His prayer is a bit unusual. But it reminds us that God judges the sincerity of our hearts and not the accuracy of our words. The thief didn’t know what to say, but he certainly directed his words at the right person. When he said, “Jesus, remember me,” he didn’t know all that he was asking for; before sundown he received far more than he expected. This thief on the cross was dying for his sins—a guilty man justly punished. He cried out to Jesus and at the very last second he was saved.
A Promise in Three Parts
How do we know this thief was saved? By Jesus’ response: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus answered his request by giving him a promise with three parts:
1. Immediate Salvation. In the Greek the word “Today” is first for special emphasis. Meaning: “This very day.” Wherever “paradise” is, Jesus told the thief that he was going there that very day.
2. Personal Salvation. Again, the Greek words are very important. The phrase is met emou, which means, “to be with me in a very personal way.” It is not “You over there and me over here” but “You and me together, side by side.” It means to be in the personal presence of another person. Wherever Jesus was going, this thief would be right by his side.
3. Heavenly Salvation. “Paradise” is the crucial word. The scholars tell us that it originally referred to the walled gardens of the Persian kings. When a king wanted to honor his subjects, he would invite them to walk with him in his garden in the cool of the day. This same word was used in the Greek Old Testament to refer to the Garden of Eden; in the book of Revelation (2:7) it refers to heaven: a place of beauty, openness and inexpressible blessedness.
If you take these three promises together, you see what a remarkable thing Jesus is saying. He is promising that this thief—who has lived his entire life in crime—will, upon his death, be transferred to a place where he will be in the personal presence of Jesus Christ. Truly, this thief received much more than he asked for.
Out of a life of sin and shame, he passed immediately into eternal blessedness.
Lessons of Hope and Encouragement
As I reflect on this story, I take from it a couple of lessons of hope and encouragement:
1. It is never too late to turn to Christ. Sometimes people say, “I’m too old for this” or “I’m too old to try that.” Sometimes it may be true on the physical level. As you get older, there are some things you just can’t do any more. But thank God, no one can ever say that about turning to Jesus. It’s never too late to turn to him. As long as there is life and breath, as long as the heart still beats, the invitation still stands.
Those of us who are praying for our loved ones should take great hope from this principle. Sometimes we look at people and say, “They are just too far gone. They will never come to Jesus.” Then we get discouraged and stop praying for them. But if this story teaches us anything, it is that no one is ever too far gone. It’s true, he waited until the very last second . . . but it’s also true that in that last second he was saved. Don’t ever give up on those you love. They may, like this wretched thief, waste a lifetime and then at the end turn to Jesus Christ. Don’t despair . . . for yourself or for anyone else. It’s never too late to turn to Christ.
2. Even the very worst can be saved at the very last moment. I know that some people feel that they are too far gone in sin to ever be forgiven. Some feel so enslaved by their habits that they despair of ever being set free. Many people would do anything to be forgiven but they think that forgiveness is impossible. Let me put the matter plainly. It doesn’t matter what sins you’ve committed. It doesn’t even matter if you’ve broken the Ten Commandments—all of them, one by one—this week. It just doesn’t matter. You can be saved right now. If this man can be saved, anybody can be saved. If there’s hope for him, there’s hope for you. If he can make it to heaven, so can you. If Jesus would take him, he’ll certainly take you.
I do not mean to suggest that anyone should wait until the last moment to be saved. Far less do I intend to suggest that anyone should live an intentionally sinful life with the purpose of coming to Christ just before you die. People who live that way aren’t serious about salvation. They are putting off until tomorrow that which they ought to do today. I’m sure if we could speak to this thief who was crucified with Jesus, he would say, “Don’t delay. Don’t wait. Give your heart to Jesus now.” But the fact remains, that this thief was indeed saved at the very last moment. Thank God it is so. It happened by the grace of Jesus Christ.
3. God’s way are not our ways. In our first Scripture lesson this morning, Jesus told the parable of the vineyard workers where those who were hired late in the day were paid the same amount as those who had been hired for all day. And at the end of the day, those who had been there all the time complained about the unfairness of it all. And the vineyard owner responded saying: "But he answered one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?'” Sometimes Christians have this sense of jealousy when they have served Christ all their life and someone else is given the gift of eternal life after professing faith at the last possible minute. While that might seem true on the surface, undoubtedly the other person’s life would have been better had they the comfort of walking with Christ throughout their life. We should rejoice though that God doesn’t handle things according to our own sense of fairness and righteousness. Let us give God praise that His ways are far beyond our own - that God is motivated by grace and love and mercy – that even those who turn their hearts to God with the last breath of their life receive salvation from sins and life eternal.
I take my stand with the second thief upon the cross. For we all get to heaven the same way, by the grace and mercy of God. Over two hundred years ago William Cowper wrote a famous hymn that includes a verse about the dying thief. To my knowledge, this is the only hymn that mentions this man:
There is a fountain filled with blood, Drawn from Immanuel’s veins.
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.
The dying thief rejoiced to see, That fountain in his day.
And there may I, though vile as he, wash all my sins away.
All that God wants from us . . . and all that He will accept . . . is simple faith in His son, Jesus Christ. When we place our faith in Jesus Christ, in that very moment we are saved. The point is simple. Do you know Jesus? Do you really know Jesus? Seize today to make yourself sure. Humble yourself and thank Christ for His sacrifice, ask Christ to renew His presence in your life. Do not question, do not wonder, make certain you know the Savior.