THE GREATEST CONVERSATION – Luke 23:39-43
Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on August 28, 2011 under 2011 |
Preached August 28, 2011
Theme: God’s saving grace is revealed to us through the conversation Jesus had with the two men who were crucified with Him.
(Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
This morning, I ask you to turn with me to the twenty-third chapter of the Gospel of Luke; and walk with me through what I believe is one of the most important stories in the Bible.
It’s a part of another, far greater story—that is, the story of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. And of course, only that story deserves to be called the greatest story of all. But this smaller story tells us what the story of Jesus’ death on the cross has to do with you and me personally. And for that reason, it is truly one of the most important stories in the Bible.
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Let’s begin by thinking about the characters that are found in this story. After having been betrayed by Judas, and turned over the the chief priests, and examined by Pilate and found by him to be innocent; and after, in spite of his innocence, begin given over for execution—after He had been abused by the soldiers and beaten with scourges—Jesus, the sinless Son of God, was led away to be crucified.
And the Bible tells in Luke 23:32-33;
There were also two others, criminals, led with Him to be put to death. And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left (Luke 23:32-33).
Who were these two other men? We know very little about them. The Bible doesn’t give us their names. It doesn’t even tell us clearly what it was that they had done. It only tells us that they are “criminals”. In Matthew’s Gospel, he uses a word that’s translated “robbers”. But even then, that word in the original language is vague. All that we can really say for sure is that these were two ‘bad guys’—two crooks who were found to be severely guilty of breaking the law and were sentenced to the horrible death of the cross.
And perhaps it’s best that these two men—whoever they are—are nameless to us; and that their specific crime is left untold. That way, we can place ourselves in the story with them. It was, after all, no mere accident that these two men were crucified with Jesus. It was the fulfillment of a promise that God had made long ago in the Old Testament. Back in Isaiah 53:12, we’re told this about how the promised Messiah—the Christ—was to die: “And He was numbered with the transgressors . . .” When Jesus—the sinless Christ—died on the cross, He didn’t die far away from the realities of human sin. Just as was promised some seven-and-a-half centuries before it happened, He died surrounded by sinners—as if “numbered with the transgressors”. What a picture it is that God has given us, at the cross, of His love for us. Truly, He “who knew no sin” became “sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
So then; those are the characters in this story. Jesus could have been crucified alone. But I believe that one of the reasons that God the Father decreed that “transgressors” were to be crucified on either side of Him was so that a conversation could occur between them. And what a conversation it was! It’s a conversation that the philosophers of this world have largely ignored. And yet—rightly considered—it’s one of the most profound and important conversations that has ever been recorded in all of human history. It was a conversation that sinners had with the Son of God while He was dying on the cross for sin.
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Now; let’s look how this remarkable conversation began. After Jesus was crucified along with these other two men, we’re told in verses 35-38;
And the people stood looking on. But even the rulers with them sneered, saying, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Christ, the chosen of God.” The soldiers also mocked Him, coming and offering Him sour wine, and saying, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself.” And an inscription also was written over Him in letters of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew:
THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS (v. 35-38).
And at first, both of these two men spoke that way toward Him. Matthew tells us, “Even the robbers who were crucified with Him reviled Him with the same thing” (Matthew 27:44). Perhaps they were just going along with the crowd. But it may also be that sin had so hardened both of their hearts that they would dare to mock the very idea that God would send His Son as the promised Savior to atone for their sins—even as they themselves were being executed because of those sins.
As you know, people still mock that idea today—two-thousand years later. You see it in the movies and on television. You hear it on the talk-shows. You find it in the books sold in the bookstores. The cross of Jesus Christ is an object of jest and ridicule to some people. They love to make fun of it, and hope to laugh it into irrelevance. But it should really come as no surprise to us that they would do so. The Bible tells us clearly that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18). If we were to ask why it’s laughed at as foolishness by those who need it most, the Bible tells us that as well. As the great preacher of the cross, the apostle Paul, once wrote;
But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them (2 Corinthians 4:3-4).
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But sometimes—by God’s grace—the devil’s blinders are taken away. As the Bible tells us elsewhere, “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27); and it’s quite a shock to realize that death is at hand, and that judgment is soon to follow. All the light-hearted philosophizing—all the laughing and mocking and ridicule—sometimes comes to an abrupt halt when someone realizes they’re about to die, and are going to step into eternity completely unprepared to stand before the holy God that they have hardened their hearts toward and sinned against.
And it seems that that’s what happened for one of those two dying criminals. Somewhere along the way—as it hit home to him that he was about to die—he experienced a manifest change of heart toward this man named Jesus who was being crucified next to him. Perhaps he watched the way Jesus was dying. Perhaps he heard Him say, concerning those who were crucifying Him, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (v. 34). After a while, his manner of speaking about Jesus began to change.
Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong” (v. 39-41).
And please take note of this: Right then and there, these two criminals became illustrations of the only two ways that anyone anywhere—including everyone in this room today—can react to the cross of Jesus Christ. Once you’re confronted with the idea that God would look down upon us in mercy for our sins, and would send His own Son to die on a cross and pay the penalty for our sins for us, you can only either harden your heart against it, and mock it, and disregard it—as the first criminal did; or you can allow your heart to be softened by it, become humbled before it, and acknowledge the implications of it by faith—as the second criminal did.
Look closely at how the second criminal reacted to it all. First, his heart was humbled before God. He asked the other, “Do you not even fear God?” He acknowledged that a righteous and holy God exists; and that, because he was under the same condemnation of death as the Man being crucified next to him, he himself will be standing before that God very shortly. As it says in Hebrews 4:13, “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.”
Second, he recognized that he was a guilty man before that holy God. He acknowledged that he had sinned against the righteous God before whom he must soon appear. After acknowledging that he and the other were about to die, he added, “And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds.” He had made a mess of his life; and now look where he was! As it says in Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . .” And as Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death . . .”
Third, he recognized that though this was the justice of the situation for himself and the other criminal, it was not the case with the Man named Jesus who was being crucified between them. They were guilty and were getting what they deserved; but he urged the other criminal that it was irreverence toward God to mock Jesus; saying, “this Man has done nothing wrong”. Perhaps as he and the other man were hanging on the cross next to Jesus, watching how Jesus was responding to those who ridiculed Him, he thought back to Isaiah 53. As a Jew, that passage of Scripture would have been one that he would have known from childhood. And perhaps he would have remembered what it says in that passage about the promised Christ;
All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not His mouth;
He was led as a lamb to the slaughter,
And as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
So He opened not His mouth.
He was taken from prison and from judgment,
And who will declare His generation?
For He was cut off from the land of the living;
For the transgressions of My people He was stricken (Isaiah 53:6-8).
Finally, he acknowledged that this Man being crucified next to him was a King. He believed that He had a kingdom over which He would soon exercise rule; and that this kingdom endured beyond the grave. And so, in humble faith and with the little bit of breath that was still in him, he looked to Jesus and spoke what, for all we know, may have been the very last words he spoke on earth;
Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (v. 42).
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Now; this man wasn’t a saintly man. It doesn’t really appear that he was a religious man at all. And his time was up. He didn’t have a chance to go out and become a religious man. He couldn’t reform his ways. He didn’t have a chance to go out and do any good deeds. He didn’t have any time to go to the synagogue, or study a single page of Scripture, or observe any religious ceremonies.
But he knew enough at that moment to be considered a rather profound theologian! He knew that, since he and the other man were both under the same sentence of death as Jesus was suffering, they should be responding with fear and reverence toward God rather than with ridicule. He also knew that both he and the other man truly deserved to die for what they had done, and that they were suffering a just punishment for their sins. He knew that Jesus had done nothing deserving the penalty of death that they were now suffering. He knew that there was a life beyond the death of the cross; and that a kingdom awaited the One who was dying between them in that life. He knew that his only hope was to appeal to Jesus for mercy beyond the grave. And he knew enough to pray that wonderfully simple prayer: “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”
And the way that this great conversations ended proves that he was a very wise man indeed. Luke tells us;
And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (v. 43).
After Jesus uttered those words to him, I wonder if that guilty, sin-burdened criminal didn’t weep for joy as he hung on the cross! What a promise! Everything that Jesus says is absolutely true; but when He says, “Assuredly, I say to you . . .”, you can bank your eternity on it! Before that dark day was over, the Son of God would once again be in the realms of heavenly glory; and this criminal would be with him!
It’s been two-thousand years since that conversation occurred; and that criminal is still there—enjoying the glories of heaven with Jesus.
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Now; in closing, I’d like to suggest a couple of very important lessons we should take away from the story of this great conversation.
One lesson is that we should always remember what it takes in the sight of God to be saved. Sometimes, we add a whole lot to the requirements to what is necessary for someone to be saved. We come up with a lot of rules and regulations. We come up with a lot of rituals and ceremonies. We come up with such a long list of ‘dos’ and ‘don’t’ that we practically make it sound like someone needs to be ‘perfect’ before they can be saved—not realizing that if they were already perfect, they wouldn’t need to be saved!
One of the great things that this criminal’s story teaches us is that there is only one thing that is necessary to be saved—and that is to trust in Jesus and in the payment He made for us on the cross. As it says in Philippians 16:31, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved . . .” As it says in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” As it says in Romans 10:9-10;
. . . if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation (Romans 10:9-10).
All that this man did was turn to Jesus—with what little understanding he had, and with a genuinely humble heart—open his mouth, and say, “Lord, remember me.” And we have it by Jesus’ own words that that was enough. He was saved. Salvation is a remarkably free gift—purchased for us by the Son of God at the price of His own life on the cross. We should add nothing to the requirement than the simple faith that the criminal on the cross displayed.
But another lesson is that we should make absolutely sure that we have—each one of us—personally done what this criminal did. We should make sure that we have personally turned to Jesus by faith, and have—in our own words—prayed, “Lord, remember me.”
We shouldn’t take from this story the idea that we can put that prayer off until the future, wait until we are breathing our final breaths on our death-bed, and only then use one of those last breaths to cry out to Jesus. That’s a terrible presumption! Very few people actually have the luxury of a death-bed! None of us in this room this afternoon can even know for certain whether they will still be breathing by the end of the day!
As it says in 1 John 5:11-12, “And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” If you don’t know for certain that you have life—if you don’t know for certain that if you were to die ‘now’, you would be ready to stand before a holy God—then you need to be honest with yourself and recognize that there might not be a ‘later’ available to you. Right now is the time to follow the example of the criminal on the cross, turn to gaze upon the cross of Jesus Christ—where the righteous, sinless Son of God died in the place of sinners—and say, “Lord, remember me!”