Selected highlights from this sermon.
Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.
To the thief that heard these words of Jesus spoken to him, we can only imagine what went through his mind. But we can look at this sentence and find many blessings.
As Pastor Lutzer compares and contrasts the two thieves, and breaks down this promise of Christ’s, we’ll learn what blessings this simple sentence holds for those who’ve put their trust in Christ alone for salvation.
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I view the cross of Christ as a collision between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man. If somehow we could come up to God’s standard, or else bring Him down to ours, there would be no need for a sacrifice, no need for a cross. But because we are sinners, and God is holy, the cross was necessary.
You may know that this is the message that emphasizes the second saying of Christ, the second cry of the cross: “Today you’ll be with me in Paradise.” And it is really no accident that Jesus Christ was crucified between two thieves. If you and I had been responsible for the crucifixion, no doubt we’d have said, “Well, it makes sense to have the thieves crucified over here, and we’ll put Jesus next to them.” But the centurion who was in charge did not realize that he was really fulfilling Scripture, because the Scripture said in Isaiah 53 that He was numbered with the transgressors, so He dies among the transgressors, right in the midst of transgressors. And when it says that He was numbered with them it simply does not mean that there was one, two, three—not that kind of numbering. It means that He was reckoned with the transgressors, that He was considered to be a transgressor, both by men and eventually by God, as we shall see in this series of messages.
What we’d like to do today is to look at this remarkable, incredible conversion story—the thief on the cross. The text is the 23rd chapter of the book of Luke. And we’re going to look at this text today with two goals in mind. First of all, that you and I who have trusted Christ as Savior may have more faith in Him than ever, that our faith in Him will be inspired, deepened and made more confident, but also that those who are listening who have never trusted Christ as Savior, that those might be brought to that look of faith, that they too may be with Christ in Paradise. That’s the agenda.
What I’d like us to do is to look at the facts of this man’s conversion. First of all, his impending fate, his impending fate. You’ll notice it says in chapter 23, verse 39, one of the criminals, who hung there, hurled insults at Him. “Aren’t you the Christ. Save yourself and us.” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you hear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly for we are getting what our deeds deserve, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
Who was this penitent thief, as he is sometimes called? First of all, I need to point out that he began to jeer Christ along with everyone else. You can find it in the book of Matthew, chapter 27, verse 44, where it says that those who were crucified with Him (the two criminals) began to mock Him. They joined in the crowd, both of them, but there was something that changed him there on the cross.
You know, I believe that this criminal who was a thief, represents the whole human race. “Oh,” you say, “well, I’m not a thief. I’ve never stolen anything significant.” Think of it this way. Let’s suppose that you worked for a firm in New York who sent you to Chicago, and they paid your way, and they kept sending you a check month by month which you signed and deposited, and yet you never worked for that firm at all. You worked for yourself or for somebody else. Isn’t that a picture of the human race?
God gives us gifts and abilities. He gives us health. He gives us the ability to earn money. He gives us relationships. He gives us sunshine and bread and food and opportunities. And He gives all that to us, and think of how many people there are in the human race who simply go through life serving themselves, doing their own thing. That, I think, is thievery. And so he represents the human race.
Now mind you, he was in a helpless predicament. Look at him there on the cross, this thief. He could not walk in the paths of righteousness because each foot had a nail. He wasn’t going anywhere. It was impossible for him to serve others because in his hands there were nails, and in a few moments (in a few hours at least) he was going to die. There was no way that he could turn over a new leaf, and somehow balance the score, and to somehow save himself by his good deeds. It was too late for thinking thoughts like that. He was in a desperate predicament, and his fate was determined.
Those of us who are interested in the causes of human behavior wish we could sit down with this man and find out how he got into thievery. One of the questions I would ask him if I could is, “What was the first thing that you stole?” It’s probably something very little and then the problem was he got by with it. One of the worst things you can do is to steal and get by with it and lie and find it beneficial, because you are going to do it again and again and again with more risqué behavior. So here he is, one of these men who is bad to the bone, and he’s going to die real soon.
But what I find in the text most interesting is his remarkable faith. Yes, his impending fate, but his remarkable faith. He began by deriding Jesus, as I pointed out a moment ago, and then suddenly he begins to change and begins to criticize and rebuke his friend across the way, his partner in crime, and he turns to Jesus.
Why the change? Well, I think there are several reasons. First of all, I think that the thief obviously heard Jesus Christ say what we emphasized in our last message, namely, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He said to himself, “I need forgiveness too.” And he began to see the silliness of his own rebellion. He began to see how stupid it was to rebel against God. He was dying and he needed forgiveness, and the words that Jesus spoke touched his heart.
And then, of course, the people who walked by, you remember, said “He saved others. Himself He cannot save,” and they were giving testimony actually to the good deeds that Jesus did, and His ability to heal, and maybe even His ability to raise the dead. And so they were testifying to Christ in the midst of their jeers.
But I think there’s another reason. Pilate wrote a Gospel tract. Pilate is one of the most interesting people in the Bible. If you were to study the Gospels clearly, you would see the four different ways he tried to get Jesus released. He tried this, he tried this, he tried that, and nothing worked. He wanted to give them Barabbas, hoping that they would choose Jesus over Barabbas. And that didn’t work. And finally he reluctantly gives in. But one of the things he did is he took and he wrote a placard. Now this was common to do because when someone was crucified you were supposed to know why they were crucified. Their crime was written on a placard and placed above the cross. And Pilate wrote the words that are in your text there in verse 38: “There was written a notice above him which read, ‘The is the King of the Jews.’”
A little sidelight! In the nineteenth chapter of John you find that the Jews objected to this. They said, “Don’t write the King of the Jews, but that He claimed to be the King of the Jews.” Pilate, in a rare burst of courage said, “What I have written I have written,” and there it stood. It was hung around the neck of Jesus as He was paraded through the streets of Jerusalem as He was brought there to be crucified, and it’s very probable that the thief on the cross (both thieves on the cross) knew about this sign. They knew about His crime. They may even have been able to catch a glimpse of the sign. How else could this man know that Jesus has a kingdom unless he saw the sign—The King of the Jews? And so in that context, faith is birthed in his heart, and there is something within him that says, “This man is different. I’m going to believe in Him.”
Think of how remarkable his faith was. First of all, it was remarkable because he believed in Jesus when Jesus was no better off than he was. I mean here is Jesus. He doesn’t look much like a Savior. He most assuredly does not look like a king. And He hangs there on the cross and He seems to be crucified in great weakness, and He’s in a position to help nobody. And yet the man believes.
Let’s take our video camera and we see the three men dying on the cross. The naked eye cannot tell the difference between them. We wouldn’t be able to say, “Oh, the middle one—he’s the Savior. No, the middle one looked awful—terrible. The Bible says that His beard was plucked out by its roots. We see the crown of thorns. We see the mockery. We see the lacerated flesh. We see the blood and we say, “That’s not the Savior.” And in the minds of the Jews that finished it. Of course, He was not the Savior. How could a Savior die such a horrendous terrible death? And so they wrote Him off. It was proof in their minds that He was not the Redeemer. And here this criminal believes. It was a remarkable faith.
Could I also say that it was an honest faith? Let’s look at the text again. He is speaking to the criminal across on the other side of Christ. And he rebuked him in verse 40. He’s saying, “Don’t you fear God since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
It is sometimes said that it is almost impossible to find anyone who is guilty in prison. Because of the tendency that we have to justify ourselves, to put the best spin on everything, to try to put everything in context that makes us look good, it is very difficult for anyone to admit what he admits. He says, “I’m getting my just desserts. I sinned. I was a criminal, and I deserve to die.” That’s what I would call honesty. And so he admitted his need.
Could I say also it was a very humble faith? A man who died there might have said, “Oh Lord (as best he can), honor me when you get into Your kingdom.” That’s not what he says. He says, “Remember me.” Now think about that for a moment. He was the kind of person that society would be very glad to forget. We’re talking about scum. We’re talking about people who do not want to admit that they are relatives of his. We’re talking about someone who has been a scourge on society and someone that they are glad to get rid of, and so he does not pray, “Honor me.” No, no, no, but “Remember me.”
From my heart to yours, everyone of us wants to be remembered. We’d all like to be remembered by man to some degree. It would be terrible, wouldn’t it, if we died and everybody forgot about us for the next week and never remembered us again. We’d like to have somebody remember us for a little while. But even if we are not remembered by man, how much better it is to be remembered by God, and so he says, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Could I also say that it was a courageous faith? Just think of this. Underline this in the text of your Bible. He said, “This man has done nothing wrong.” He went against the jeering crowd. He went against those who were saying, “Crucify him. He deserves to die.” Those who were mocking Him said, “You know, if you’re a king, show us your kingdom.” And what he was saying is, “This man did nothing wrong.” In that phrase he condemned the high priest, the Sanhedrin, all of the Jewish community that wanted to see Jesus Christ die. He also condemned the Romans who crucified then an innocent man, and he went against the grain and believed.
I think on a human level, if you were to ask why it is that some people do not accept Christ as Savior, the most common reason would be fear. They fear what their relatives are going to say. They fear what their church background is going to say. They fear what it might cost them in the marketplace. They fear. They don’t know what it’s like to trust Christ as Savior, and therefore they are filled with fear. Maybe this is why it says in the book of Revelation that the fearful and unbelieving are in the Lake of Fire. They were too scared to accept Christ as Savior. Well, he wasn’t. He believed.
Well, we’ve looked at his impending fate, and his remarkable incredible faith. What about his future? Let’s think of the words of Jesus. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” You know, when Jesus said, “You’re going to be with me,” obviously the inference there is fellowship. “We’re going to have fellowship together. We’re going to sup together (to use an old word). We are going to be together.” And we think of the promise of Jesus to the disciples. “I go to prepare a place for you, and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself that where I am there you may be also.”
Incredible! The same promise is made to this thief. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” You say, “Well, where is Paradise?” Paradise is heaven. I have to add a parenthesis here. Did Jesus go to Hades as the Apostles’ Creed says, that He descended into hell? That’s a very debatable point. It is based on a text where it speaks about Sheol, and so forth. It may simply mean the grave. I’m not going to solve that problem today because scholars are divided on it. But let me simply tell you this. If Jesus did go into Hades, He did not preach to anyone there are as some people think He did. He did not redeem us through that suffering. And if He did go, it was only for a very brief time because He said to the thief, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
Now, I have to add another word today, and that is the word “today.” You know, especially because we are on the radio, we receive lots of letters, and I receive many letters from dear people who always want to instruct me in soul sleep, who believe that when someone dies their soul sleeps until the Day of Resurrection, so everyone who dies now is unconscious until the Day of Resurrection. I can appreciate these people. Unfortunately, however, they put confidence in a prophetess who told them these things, because I don’t think you get this from the Bible.
So look at this text here: “Today you shall be with me in Paradise.” These people interpret it this way. They say, “Jesus said to him, ‘I tell you today (pause) you shall be with me in Paradise.’” That is not what the text says. You look at it and you can see in the Greek construction what Jesus was saying is, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Obviously He said those words. Today, not yesterday, not tomorrow. He said today. That’s very evident but what He’s saying is “Today you are going to be with me in Paradise.” What an incredible promise.
Now, I know that sometimes I get criticized because people say, “Pastor Lutzer, you are clearer than you’d have to be.” (chuckles) I suppose that’s a good criticism, that I’m clearer than I’d have to be, so once again I am going to be clearer than I probably would have to be. But I need to tell you this. Notice that He went directly into the presence of Christ. There was no purgatory. Now if purgatory existed he’d have been a candidate for it, believe me, with his history. Notice that he was not baptized. He had no opportunity to participate in communion. He did not have to call on Mary who was right next to the cross to intercede for him. Direct contact with Christ, God working immediately in his heart, granting him the ability to believe, and Jesus is speaking to him directly and says, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” What a promise to hang on to when you are dying on a cross, or on a hospital bed.
Now, folks, what happened after the promise was given to him? I want you to notice that the text says in verse 44, “It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour for the sun stopped shining.” That’s from noon, if you calculate the time the way in which they did. That’s from noon till 3 o’clock, three hours of incredible darkness. Not only does darkness come, but Matthew says (And you have to read all the Gospels to get the full picture.) that there was a terrible earthquake, and the rocks were broken. Smashed! And not only that, but we find that in the darkness there was a voice that this thief heard right next to him. The very one in whom he had come to believe said, “Oh my God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?”
And now that thief begins to doubt and he begins to say, “Maybe he isn’t a Savior because he IS just as bad off as I am. He Himself is forsaken by God. How can someone forsaken by God be a Savior, be a king?” And I don’t know, but I tend to think that his heart began to tremble. He saw the darkness, he felt the earthquake, he heard the voice and he thought, “Maybe my faith was misplaced.”
Let me ask you something today. Was his place in heaven secure even though he now had doubts? And the answer is yes. “Yes, Yes,” because Jesus had said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” And if Jesus says, “Today you’ll be with Me,” you will be with Him even though there is an earthquake, and even though there is darkness and blackness. And even if the person next to you cries out in despair, the promise still stands.
You and I are going to die someday, some of us by heart attack. We won’t have a lot of time to think through what we should have been doing on earth. (chuckles) We may die in a car accident. We may die also of an impending disease (terminal disease) and we know right well we are dying. I didn’t intend to share this because today you are learning more about me than maybe you care to know. But I have always prayed that I would not die suddenly. I want to know that I am dying. Now it’s not because I’m this brave guy. I am just as scared as anybody else, but I’ve got some things I’d really like to do, and I’d like to see whether God would grant me the dying grace as a witness. Now, having said that much, let me add that I hope it’s not going to happen soon you understand. (laughter) “Lord, you know that there is a p.s. added to this prayer.”
What are you going to do, my friend, when the darkness comes? What are you going to do when the doubts begin to arise? What are you going to do when the earth begins to shake? What are you going to do when the people around you are crying up in despair? What are you going to do? You are going to hang on to the promise of God that “he that believes in Me has everlasting life.” And that’s the promise that I want to hang onto from this life to the next.
I think of Cowper. I know that his name is pronounced Cooper, and I know that because, once again, I get letters, particularly from the English Purists who say, “Pastor Lutzer, get it straight. It’s not Cowper. It’s Cooper.” So all those of you who write letters, listen to this. It’s Cooper.
He wrote those wonderful words, “God works in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform,” but the night he wrote those words he tried to commit suicide. If you look at his biography which is incredibly interesting, you find that this man, with incredible talent, who wrote awesome poetry and marvelous poems, had so many doubts, primarily because of his background and the insecurities that he brought to that situation. He was in an insane asylum on four different occasions, and yet he loved Christ. And he wrote about Christ, and he believed on Christ, and his friends saw in him Christ, and yet he died wondering whether he would be damned. There’s no doubt in my mind, from what I’ve read about him, he will be saved. “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
I have a responsibility as a preacher, and that is to cause those of you who have never trusted Christ as Savior to doubt your salvation, because there are many people who have false assurance. And I need to be able to separate you from those who have come to trust Christ as Savior and believed on Him but have gone through periods of doubt, because in the end Christ does save.
I’d like to be able to summarize all of this in three very important realities, all from the text of Scripture. First of all, I want you to know that both thieves prayed, but only one was saved. Both thieves prayed. Look at the text there. Verse 39: “One of the criminals who hung there, hurled insults at Him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us.’” That’s a prayer. But all that he cared about was physical salvation. “Get us down from this cross.” He didn’t care about eternity or where he was going to spend eternity. Just do something for me now. That’s the way many people treat God.
William James, who had a great impact on American education, was a pragmatist. He said, “We don’t know which religion is right because we don’t yet know which one gives us the greatest results.” We would say, “We still don’t know which one gives us the biggest bang for our buck. Give me a God who will do something for me. Give me a God who will heal me. Give me a God who is going to make me some money. Give me that kind of a God. If you are God, do this.”
Well, the man was lost. Another parenthesis! Do you realize that if Jesus had answered that prayer He would not have been able to say to the thief, “Today you will be with me in Paradise”? because Jesus had to die physically to redeem us spiritually. The cross was necessary if you and I were to be redeemed, and so in the midst of this you find that both thieves prayed. And there are plenty of people who prayed today. There are people who I have met who have said, “You know, I pray to God everyday. I pray for healing. I pray for my children. I pray for this, and I pray for that,” and they are not saved. They are not saved.
Let me give you a second reality as we look at the text, and that is that the thieves represent the whole human race. They represent the human race. As I say, it’s not an accident that Jesus was crucified between two thieves, because in being there on the middle cross, He divides humanity in two. Humanity, you know, is not divided geographically in God’s eyes. It is not divided racially. It is not even divided on the basis of who was better than someone else in terms of who was more evil or who was more righteous. That’s not where the division comes. This thief who believed was probably just as wicked as the thief who did not believe, but that was not the issue in the dying moment. The issue was which one looked to Christ as Savior. That was the issue in that dying moment, and the whole human race is divided between those who have trusted Christ as Savior and those who have rejected Him as Savior. And that’s the division that God sees. And we look at those three crosses on Calvary and symbolically we see the whole human race.
The final reality, and that is today is the day to believe. Today is the day to believe. You say, “Oh yes, but you know the thief believed in the last hour.” Pastor Wiersbe has a very interesting insight. He said that the thief did not believe on his last opportunity. He believed on his first opportunity. This was the first opportunity. He was unacquainted with Jesus so far as we know, and so he heard the Gospel and he believed. Listen, if you think that you are going to be converted on your death bed, there are very, very few death bed conversions. Some, but not many! In fact, the Puritans used to say about the dying thief who was saved, “There is one such case recorded that no one may despair, but only one, that none might presume.”
Listen to me very carefully. You cannot come to Christ unless the Holy Spirit of God works in your heart and draws you to Him. If you wait until you think that you’re going to come to Christ on your deathbed, not knowing, of course, that there may not be a deathbed, because there are so many creative ways to die… But if you think that you are going to wait until that moment, your heart might be as hard as the other thief at that moment. He is the one who also heard Jesus pray. He’s the one who knew about that placard above Jesus—The King of the Jews. He’s the one who saw the people parade there, the mobs that said, “He saved others. Himself He could not save.” And here he is in his dying moment. Can you figure this guy out? He’s dying and he still won’t believe. “If I am to believe, show me. Get me down from this cross,” and he goes into eternity without the protection and grace and the forgiveness of God.
Don’t you dare think that it’s going to be easier to accept Christ than it is today. Never! Not a chance! Your heart becomes a little harder. You become more used to the Gospel message. You rationalize a little more, and it becomes more difficult all the time. Today is the day to believe.
I spoke to you about Cowper, who we now pronounce correctly. And one day he wrote a hymn. It has six stanzas. We only have five in our hymnal, and apparently all six are on Spurgeon’s grave in England. And some day I want to go to England. I want to go to Spurgeon’s grave and I want to see all six of those stanzas. Spurgeon, by the way, was a great English preacher.
But the song is:
There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains:
Some people don’t like it because it has too much blood. I understand that. It’s symbolic of the fact that we are redeemed by Christ’s blood.
But the second stanza says this:
The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there may I, though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away:
And my dear friend, today, though vile as he, we come to the cross and we accept what Jesus did for us, and we say, “I put faith in you as Savior, as King. Remember me when you come into your Kingdom,” and we hear the promise of Jesus that “You will be with me in Paradise,” even though the darkness will come, and the earthquake will rock the earth, and the voices around will sound hopeless.
Father, what can we say that has not been said? How can we put it that men and women will believe? We pray in this moment that You might take away all the rationalizations, all the fears, all the excuses, and grant to many today the ability to believe.
We do not offer them the Christ on the cross who was writhing in pain. We offer the resurrected Christ, the triumphant Christ, an ascended Christ, and we pray that with that look of faith many today shall believe and live.
Now I want to ask you a question today. How many are there in this auditorium today (and we’re talking about the choir and all over—anyone who is listening to me) who say, “Pastor Lutzer, I know that I have put confidence in Jesus Christ. I transferred my trust to Him, and I have the assurance of His promise that some day I will be with Him in Paradise?” Could I see your hands please? All over the auditorium—hundreds of you.
Now I want to speak to those of you who could not raise your hand. So what are you going to tell God when you get to heaven, or when you are judged, I should say, if you’ve never trusted Christ. You’ve never given up your religiosity, never given up your self-righteousness. You’ve never given up that pride that has hindered you. Why don’t you at this moment pray this prayer? Say, “Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner. I know that I am condemned with that thief, but at this moment I transfer all of my trust to You. I embrace Jesus as my Savior and my King. And grant me the same assurance that the dying thief had.”
In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
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