Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Today You Shall Be With Me in Paradise


The season of Lent began officially this week on Ash Wednesday. For centuries, all over the world, Christians have observed this season that leads up to Easter as a time of heightened spiritual concentration on the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. This year, our focus during this season is on the seven sayings of Christ on the cross. Herschel Hobbs says of these sayings,

Every word falling from the blessed lips of our Saviour is precious indeed and of eternal import. But there is an unusual significance in the seven words of Jesus spoken at the cross. Few men indulge in mere prattle in the face of death. Therefore we may be certain that He who never indulged in an idle syllable chose wisely and with purpose the final words left for Him to speak as He walked into the valley of the shadow of death.[1]

We began last week with the first saying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Today we move ahead in Luke’s Gospel to the second saying, in which our Lord says to a condemned criminal, “Today, you shall be with Me in Paradise.” The first word of Jesus is a prayer to His Father. The second word of Jesus is an answer to the prayer of the man on the cross beside of Him. This story of the exchange of words between Jesus and the repentant criminal has been called “the most surprising, the most suggestive, the most instructive incident in all Gospel narrative.”[2] That may an overstatement, but certainly Russell Bradley Jones is correct when he says, “It is doubtful whether any other gospel incident presents the plan of salvation more clearly or simply.”[3] For here in this text, we meet a sinner who undergoes a radical conversion, who receives a promise of paradise from the Savior, and thereby exemplifies the scandal of grace.

I. Notice the radical conversion of the sinner.

By the time we come to this narrative in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has endured one abuse after another at the hands of sinful men. He has been betrayed by a friend, accused with lies secured by bribes, convicted and sentenced in a mockery of justice, beaten, scourged, paraded through the streets in shame, and now crucified—stretched out to die in the most cruel and unusual form of punishment the world has ever known. But sinful humanity was not satisfied. Still, after all this had been done, they mocked and insulted Him as He bled and died on the cross. Verse 35 says that the rulers were sneering at Him and taunting Him. Matthew 27:41 tells us that these included the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Mark 15:29 says that the people passing by were hurling abuse at Him. Verse 36 or our text here in Luke says that the soldiers were mocking Him. And Matthew and Mark tell us that the two criminals who were crucified on either side of Jesus were both insulting Him (Matt 27:44; Mark 15:32). This was a bit unusual, for most accounts of crucifixion indicate that if the victims say anything at all, they shout curses at the soldiers and the crowds of people. These two, instead, “used their dying strength to join in the taunting of Christ.”[4] But at some point, one of the two criminals begins to have a change of heart.

We may wonder what could create such a radical change of perspective in the heart of this criminal. Surely many have wondered the same about some of us. How is it that we no longer think, or speak, or act in the ways that we used to? The change of heart that we have experienced is not altogether different from that of this man, and the causes are likely the same as well. First, we must notice the words of human witness. Surely, in the case of the words that this man heard, the witness was somewhat accidental. In the taunting and mocking of Jesus, this criminal heard it said of Jesus, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One” (v35). We must wonder if the criminal began to think, “He saved others? What could they mean that He saved others? Are there some who believe that He is the Christ, our long awaited Messiah? Did He claim this for Himself? Could He really be?” Others were saying to Jesus, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!” (v37). Indeed, Pilate had ordered the inscription to be hung over Jesus’ head, “This is the King of the Jews.” These were words of mockery and derision, but there was truth in the words. This truly was the King of the Jews. And perhaps the sight of that inscription and the sound of those words began to spark an interest in the heart of the criminal as he considered, “What if this really is our King? What might that mean for us?” So we have this somewhat accidental witness of the people around the cross. They were not intent on testifying for Christ, but even in their mockery, they were saying truthful things about Him. And God was using the kernels of truth in their words to begin a process of change in the heart of this criminal. That should encourage us in our witness, for if God could use even kernels of truth in the words of these mockers to touch the heart of this thief, what could He do with our witness for Christ?

In addition to the words of human witness that the criminal heard, he also was presented with the Word of God. Jesus is the Living Word of God, as John’s Gospel tells us, and anytime someone beheld Jesus with their eyes, they were confronted with the very word of God. The criminal was witnessing the Living Word fulfilling the written Word that had been recorded by the prophet Isaiah centuries earlier. Here was this Suffering Servant of the Lord, who was led to slaughter like a lamb, and who spoke not a word in His own defense (Isaiah 53:7). Here was a righteous man being numbered among the transgressors (Isaiah 53:12), as the Scriptures had foretold. And then the Lord Jesus began to utter His spoken Word. While others spoke words of venomous hatred from their crosses, here this One who is called King and Christ opens His lips to say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This must have surely been an alarming surprise to the criminal. In the midst of His agony, Jesus cries out to God as His Father, and He cries out to Him for mercy to be showered on His murderers. The Bible says that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ. And here the Living Word, fulfilling the written Word, proclaiming the spoken Word, begins to awaken faith in the heart of this sinful thief on the cross. So often we wonder, what should we say as we witness to our lost friends? Friends, we do not need to find words. We have the Word of God. Our witness is best when it is saturated with God’s written Word, about the Living Word, who declared the spoken words of truth about sin, salvation, and eternity.

Then we also must recognize, as in all true spiritual conversions, the power at work is the Holy Spirit. He is the one who works through human witness and through the Word of God to produce conversion in human hearts. He brings us conviction of our sin and awareness of our need for a Savior. We see His convicting power at work in the heart of this criminal as he sees his own sinfulness and accepts the penalty of his sins as a just judgment. As the other thief continues to hurl abuse at Jesus, this one turns to him and says, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” These words indicate that the criminal has come to see himself as a sinner. No more excuses, and no more attempts at justifying himself – he simply says, “We are getting what we deserve for what we have done.” He recognizes that the God-ordained power of the governing authorities has done right to put him to death as he says, “We are suffering justly.” But he is also beginning to awaken to the reality that the court which sentenced him and his compatriot to death is not the final judgment they will face. He says to the other criminal, “Do you not even fear God?” In other words, “Have you given no thought to the fact that in moments we are going to stand face to face with our Creator and Judge! Our guilt before Him will be evident soon enough! And what if the things they are saying about this Man are true? Then you are only adding to your guilt before God by mocking His Son, the King, our Christ!” This criminal has come, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to the place we all must be brought to if we would be saved. He recognizes himself as a sinner who is fully deserving of punishment, and whose most severe penalty is yet to come at the hands of a holy God.

Have you come to this realization yet? Or are you still saying, “OK, I’m not perfect, but I’m not so bad. I don’t really deserve for any bad things to happen to me, and I especially don’t deserve to be condemned under the judgment of God.” You see, those are the words of the other criminal. Those are the words of an arrogant and hard heart. When he says, “Are you not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” he seems to imply that he deserves something from Jesus. He seems to think that what he has done is not deserving of what he is experiencing. And if he really wants salvation at all, he only wants it from the harsh circumstances he finds himself in at the present. He has given no thought to the guilt of his sins before God, and no thought of the judgment and the penalty that is to come. So many people are like this unrepentant criminal. If we have any use for God at all, it is only that He might make our lives here and now more comfortable and pleasant. In a sense, this man is like the hordes of people who flock after the so-called prosperity Gospel in our day. “Let’s don’t deal with our sins and the reality of hell. Let’s deal with the fact that I’m not experiencing my best life now. If God is really there, and if Jesus is really the Christ, let’s have a little more health, wealth, prosperity, and comfort, and let’s have it now.” That is not the Gospel. That is a satanic distortion of Christianity. Only one of these men is even beginning to comprehend the good news of Jesus, because only one is aware of the guilt of his own sin, and the justness of the penalty he is bearing now, and the greater penalty to come. When the Holy Spirit begins to work in our hearts, we will become convicted of these truths as well.

This conviction of the Holy Spirit is a blessed gift of God, for through it we come to see our need of a Savior. You see, it is only at this point in the narrative, after having become convicted of his sin, that the criminal turns to Jesus and says, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.” Notice he calls him by name, “Jesus.” Now, I’m taking the statement of Philip Ryken at face value, I haven’t fact checked him on this; but Ryken says that no one else in the Gospels spoke to Jesus calling Him by His name.[5] Think about it. Most of the time, when people speak to Jesus, they call Him Master, Rabbi, Teacher, even Lord, and all of those titles are appropriate for Him. But if Ryken is correct, then this man on the cross who ever looked upon Him and began speaking by addressing Him by name, “Jesus.” What is the significance of this? You recall that when the angel announced to Joseph that Jesus was to be born to the virgin Mary, he said, “you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). His very name means, “The Lord (YHWH) is salvation.” Might it be that this crucified criminal is the first person who ever truly understood the mission of Jesus? Might it be that he was the first one to ever recognize that in the death of Jesus, this man whom the criminal recognizes is suffering unjustly (he says, “this man has done nothing wrong”, v41), and in Him alone salvation from sin is found? It is obvious that he is not thinking about salvation in terms of the here and now. He is thinking about a salvation that is yet future. He is not asking for temporal relief from his misery, as the other thief is asking. He is asking Jesus, the Lord of salvation, to remember him at some point yet future, when after His death He enters into His Kingdom. Though his knowledge of Christ is limited here, it seems that he understands more about the saving mission of Jesus than even any of the Twelve apostles at that point. He is able to look with the eye of faith to a future in which Jesus conquers death and inherits a Kingdom prepared for Him by the Father, and to request a place in that Kingdom.

His is not the request made by James and John. They asked Jesus if they might be granted to sit His right and left hand, the places of supreme honor, when He came into His Kingdom (Mark 10:37). No, this man is not asking for a place of honor. He is simply asking to be remembered. It’s a humble prayer. And his faith in Christ is a confident one, for he does not say, “Jesus, remember me if you ever come into Your Kingdom.” He says, not if, but when. His prayer reminds me of Joseph’s request when he was in prison in Egypt. After interpreting the dream of the cupbearer, Joseph said, “keep me in mind when it goes well with you, and please do me a kindness by mentioning me to Pharaoh and get me out of this house” (Genesis 40:14). But the cupbearer did not follow through. The Bible says that he “did not remember Joseph, but forgot him” (Gen 40:23). You and I have been asked numerous times by people enduring hardships that we might remember them when we speak to the King in prayer, and like the cupbearer, we so often forget them and their concerns. But Jesus is not a fickle human as we are. He does not promise one thing and deliver another. No in response to this humble request of faith, Jesus speaks with assurance a promise of Paradise.

 II. Hear the Promise of Paradise

It is often the case, and we might say always the case, that when we pray to the Lord, He grants us far more than we ask. His answers are not always what we have asked for, but they are always far better, even if we do not understand it here and now. But the dying criminal surely understood that what Jesus was promising him in response to his request was “exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20). His request was to be remembered at some indistinct point in the future when Jesus came into His Kingdom. The reply was “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” These words assure us that it truly is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, that we are saved. Jesus did not say to Him, “Well, first there are some things you need to do.” No, there could be no doing. The man’s hands were nailed to his cross. Jesus did not say, “You must first go participate in some ritual or observance.” No, there could be no going, for the man’s feet were nailed in place. Jesus did not say, “First you must turn over a new leaf and live a different way.” There was no time for better living. This man was dying. The only thing he could do was to believe upon the Lord Jesus and receive the gift of eternal life. And this, he did. He had placed his faith upon Christ and testified publicly to that.

Salvation by works is nowhere to be found in the Bible. The words of Jesus here assure us that there is nothing we can do to earn eternal life. But Jesus also assures us here of the truth that salvation is instantaneous and immediate. There are some who believe that there is a process involved, and some who believe that after this life there is a period of suffering in a mythical place called purgatory where we endure affliction to purge the sin from our lives before we can enter heaven. No, this is not to be found in Scripture. The Lord Jesus says to this man, whose sins are so evident, “Today you shall be with me in paradise.” There is no process, no purgatory, no period of waiting. Salvation has come to him instantaneously and immediately. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” This man who is on the cross in the morning shall be in Paradise by nightfall. What a glorious promise this is for us. Richard Baxter, the great Puritan pastor, said that we must preach as a dying man to dying men. And such we are. But when death draws near, the true child of God who has trusted in Christ can know that when our eyes close on this world they will only blink, and open immediately to Paradise. Our last exhale of this world’s air, will be followed by the deep inbreathing of the air of Paradise.

But I confess to you that in most of our thinking about Paradise, about heaven, we have really missed the point. You see the point of heaven is not that you will be free from hardships, in a beautiful place, surrounded by your friends and loved ones. The most important aspect of heaven is that you will be with Christ. Hear the Lord Jesus as He says to this dying criminal, “Today, you will be with Me in Paradise.” The emphasis is on those two words, with Me. This is more than was asked for! He merely asked to be remembered. Jesus says, “I’ll do better than that. I will take you with me, and we’ll go today.” There was much that this criminal did not understand about heaven, Paradise, the Kingdom of Christ. But this much was made clear to him: whatever that place is and whatever it is like, the most glorious aspect of it is that we will be with Jesus there. Hear the longing of the Psalmist as he cries out, “Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth” (Psalm 73:25). Why do you long most for heaven? Is it so that your aches and pains will pass away? Is it so that you can be reunited with Grandma or Dad? Is it so that you can behold the streets of gold? Or is it so that you can be with Jesus? John Piper has said it so well: “The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?”[6] For the Christian, the answer to that question must be a resounding, “No!” Our hopes and our longings are not satisfied in a place, with certain particulars and people. Our hope and our longing is satisfied in a singular person – the Lord Jesus! And for those who believe upon Him and call out to Him in saving faith, we have this precious promise, “You shall be with Me in Paradise.” For the thief, the promise was that it was even to be experienced that very day, Today. Now this brings us to the scandal of grace.

III. Embrace the Scandal of Grace

I stood in the driveway of a man named Al just days after I preached his wife’s funeral. She was a Christian, he was not. As we stood there, I talked to him about heaven, about God, and about the Gospel which promises us eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. Al said, “Preacher, I’m a good man. I help my neighbors when they need a hand. I do good things for people. I took care of my wife every day while she was dying of cancer. Do you mean to tell me that when I die I will go to hell, but a man on death row can just suddenly believe in Jesus and pray a prayer and be forgiven and go to heaven?” I said, “Al, that is exactly what I mean.” He said, “I cannot believe that.” And he turned away and walked into his house and closed the door. It is scandalous, isn’t it? It doesn’t seem fair, does it? And in fact it is not. But, when this life is over, and we set foot into eternity, the only person who will be able to rightly accuse God of being unfair is the person in heaven. The person in hell will realize at that moment that they are receiving exactly what they deserve. The person in heaven will realize that they have received nothing of what they deserved. They will realize just how infinite and amazing God’s saving grace is. It is downright scandalous. And we must embrace it as such.

Two men met Jesus at the cross on that day. Both of them called out to Him and asked for salvation. One said, “Are You not the Christ?” That implies that he thought there might be some truth to that claim. He said, “Save Yourself and us!” But he was asking for a salvation that God will not deliver. For Jesus to answer that man’s prayer would be for Him to remove Himself from the cross, undoing the purpose of God for Him to redeem the entire race of fallen humanity through His death. And for what? So that He and these two men could enjoy life here on earth for, at best, several more years. That man died that day, and he died unsaved. He would not be with Christ in Paradise. He would be separated from Christ in hell. But the other man said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.” He was asking for the salvation which God provides. He was asking for the salvation that comes through the death of Jesus on the cross. He recognized that the glory of Christ’s crown is gained through the suffering of Christ’s cross. He recognized that salvation is not about increasing one’s creaturely comforts here on earth. It is about reckoning with the problem of human sin, and gaining entrance through the death and resurrection of Jesus into eternal life with Him in Paradise. And that man was saved. Was it fair that one was saved and the other wasn’t? No, because neither of them deserved to be saved. None of us do either. Grace invalidates all notions of fairness. It is a scandal. And it is a scandal that we must embrace.

I think that true, genuine, deathbed conversions are rare. I don’t think there are many. But I wouldn’t say that there aren’t any. One of the Puritans said, “There is one such case recorded that none need despair, but only one, in Scripture, that none might presume.”[7] Do you have a friend or loved one who is drawing near to death and is yet unsaved? Do not despair! It is not too late. It takes only a moment for them to believe and call upon Christ and to receive that precious promise, “Today, you shall be with Me in Paradise.” I think of my last visit with Tom Dixon. I went to visit him and I sat in the car praying, “Lord, I do not know if Tom is saved, but I am not leaving this hospital today until I know.” After we visited a while, Tom said, “Preacher, I was sitting out in the carport the other day wondering how I could have my sins forgiven.” And what a privilege it was for me to lead Tom to Jesus just days before he died. Don’t despair. We have this example in the thief on the cross. As long as there is life, there is hope. But we have only this singular example in scripture, so neither must we presume. We must not be like the teenage boy who told me one night down at Ardmore Park, “I am going to get saved one day. Maybe when I’m old, like 30 or something. Because first I want to have some fun.” I said to him, “You know what Jesus says? He says, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you!” (Luke 12:20). Why would you presume that you have years left to give your life to Jesus? You may not have months, weeks, or days left. You may not even have hours. Death is not obligated to give us a warning. It will come whether we are ready or not. Hebrews 4:7 says that God “fixes a certain day, ‘Today,’ saying, ‘Today, if you hear His voice do not harden your hearts.” In 2 Corinthians 6:2, Paul says, “Behold, now is the acceptable time, behold now is the day of salvation.” To put it off is to presume. Believe today and hear the words of Jesus, “Today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” If you turn away, you do not know but that you may hear Him say, “You fool, this very night your soul is required of you.”   

Whenever I go away on a trip, when I return, my kids love to come sit down with me and see what I brought them back from my journey. I like to envision Jesus coming home to His Father, and maybe, just maybe His Father says, “Son, did you bring Me anything?” And I envision Jesus introducing this criminal to the Father and saying, “I brought this one.” And every time any one of us who has trusted in Christ passes through the valley of the shadow of death, the Lord Jesus stands to receive us and says to His Father, “Here, here is another one!” William Cowper was a man whose soul was afflicted throughout his life with debilitating depression. He was suicidal at times, and often at the end of his rope. But he held steadfastly to Jesus, and in moments of brilliant clarity, he wrote some of our greatest hymns. One of them says, “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.”

[1] Herschel H. Hobbs, The Crucial Words From Calvary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958), 5.
[2] Charles Erdman, quoted in Russell Bradley Jones, Gold from Golgotha (Chicago: Moody, 1945), 29.
[3] Jones, 31.
[4] John Macarthur, The Murder of Jesus (Nashville: Word, 2000), 213.
[5] James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken, The Heart of the Cross (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1999), 25.
[6] John Piper, God is the Gospel (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2005), 15.
[7] Quoted in Arthur W. Pink, The Seven Sayings of the Saviour on the Cross (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958), 42. 

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