Two criminals

Sermon: Sunday, 26th March, 2023
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: Luke 23:3-43

The scene before us this morning is so important that it deserves our full attention. Let’s picture together the three crosses on the hill, with Jesus at the centre and a criminal at either side of him. You are in this picture this morning. What do I mean by that? Well, these two criminals represent the whole of the human race in their response to Jesus. One of them rejects Jesus, believing that he has nothing to offer. The other, changes his mind about Jesus, turns from his sin and entrusts his eternal well-being into the hands of Jesus. Which of the criminals are you like this morning? Do you believe Jesus has nothing to offer you and that you can easily do without him? Or, like the criminal who experiences transformation whilst on the cross, have you prayed to Jesus, asking for forgiveness and entrusting your eternal destiny to him?

Ultimately, there are only two kinds of people in the world, and it’s not young and old, men and women, churchgoers and those who stay at home, or those for independence and those for the Union. This is the most important dividing line between human beings: there are those who place their faith in Jesus, and the rest who reject Jesus as their Saviour and God. You are in one of these camps this morning, and so am I. It matters more than anything else, because our eternal destinies hinge on our response to Jesus, whether we end up in Hell or in Paradise. For this reason, it is crucial that we heed the warning given through the unrepentant criminal so that we don’t make the same costly mistake. And we must home in on the response of the repentant criminal, so we can each of us examine our own hearts, and ensure that we follow his wonderful example.

1. A damning response: the response of unbelief

Let’s start with the warning, before we move onto more positive ground. Warnings are extremely important. This is the most important warning you will ever get. This criminal reminds us that many reject Jesus. You can be so near to Jesus, and yet be so far from him. This man has heard Jesus praying for his executioners and borne witness to the incredible meekness with which Jesus endures the cross. He has been so near to Jesus physically. He’s been a close eyewitness to Jesus’ love and humility.

It’s hard for those being crucified to even take a breath but he manages to hoist himself up against the nails in order to hurl abuse at Jesus. He is about to meet his Maker- to be ushered into eternity- and he’s dying right next to the only Saviour of the world. Tragically, he uses his last words to ‘hurl insults’ at Jesus. ‘Save yourself and us’. In one sense Jesus could have come down from the cross – it was not nails that held him there. But if Jesus is going to save the lost, guilty rebels like us, then Jesus cannot also save himself. He came to die as a substitute

‘For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.’ (1 Peter 3:18)

At his death, this angry thief has no sense of remorse as to how he has lived his life. There seems to be no guilt before the God he has offended again and again. No regret at those he has murdered. But the main thing about him is this: he is a man of unbelief. He is blind. He looks at Jesus and does not see who he is. He is so close to the Saviour and yet he is not saved. Perhaps he even blames God for the way things have worked out in his life. You can be so near to the Saviour, hearing the gospel preached in church.

Warning: are you like this man today? You have heard about Jesus but do not trust him? He’s nothing special to you – you are not impressed. These are the eyes of unbelief. One tragedy of the cross is that many are so near yet so far, like the soldiers who leave with Jesus’ clothes (verse 34) but not his forgiveness or peace or eternal life which only he can grant. Do you share in this tragedy? You come to this church and hear about Jesus- but you leave still in your sins. I urge you this morning, do not be like this unrepentant criminal, lest you too forfeit your soul.

2. A saving response: repentance and faith

Certainly, this criminal is an unusual but wonderful teacher for us. We don’t know about his childhood or background, but like the other criminal, he’s probably some kind of political terrorist, and there’s a good chance that both murdered for their cause. When we look at the parallel accounts Matthew and Mark’s Gospels, we see that at first, both men verbally abused Jesus: ‘Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.’ (Mark 15:32)

As Jesus hung on the cross, the whole world mocked him – the bystanders who watched on, the soldiers, and even the criminals. But here in Luke 23, we see that for one of these rebels, there is a massive change, a conversion. We can only put this down to the Holy Spirit supernaturally working in his heart. What are the signs of God being at work? The two main ingredients are these: repentance and faith. And if you want to go to Paradise, then this is the response you must have too.

Let’s first think about his repentance. This means that he does a U-turn. He changes his mind about himself and about Jesus. I think it’s likely that for most of this man’s life he justified his actions. If he did murder people for the cause of Jewish freedom, he might have seen it as a necessity for ‘the cause’. What I find so refreshing about this man is that he doesn’t make excuses and he doesn’t blame other people. He doesn’t blame the Romans, or his parents or his religious upbringing. He says quite plainly: ‘We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.’ (Luke 23:41) This is true repentance. It’s admitting that our deeds are so often black, and that if God gave us what we deserved then we’d be punished.

‘If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?’ (Psalm 130:3)

This man is now considering how he has lived his life and he knows he is guilty before God, and that if he is judged according to his deeds, he will be condemned. Usually, we are happy to tell a GP that our body has significant problems and we need help. If we’re unwilling or too proud to get help with our bodies the consequences can be serious. Are you willing to tell Jesus your spiritual problems, and that you need his help?

‘Don’t you fear God?’ (Luke 23:40) So many people think that they can take or leave God, and that it doesn’t matter all that much. They have no fear of God, or of the judgment which awaits us all. But now, this man can see the truth in sharp focus. He now has a keen sense of his accountability before God. He must give an account of his life to God, as we all must.

This criminal says in effect: ‘I have lived in the wrong way and deserve to die’. Can you say this? Or do you still think you are a good person, and don’t need forgiveness. Or maybe you see the mess in your life but blame it on other people or circumstances. Please don’t. Learn from this unusual teacher what it means to make a full and free confession. Turn away from the wrong road you have been travelling down. Take ownership of your own failures and rebellions and confess them to God. The changed criminal isn’t just the pattern for our repentance, but he is also the pattern for our faith. Becoming a Christian is all about repentance and faith in Jesus. And the Christian life as a disciple remains a life of repentance and faith in Jesus!

Remarkable faith. Imagine that you were in the crowd watching the crucifixion that day. You look up and see Jesus’ battered and bruised body nailed to the cross. He is so weak, exerting so much energy just to take each breath. You hear the jeers and taunts from others in the crowd, from the religious leaders and even from the criminals: ‘You saved others; can’t you save yourself?’ Does he look like a king? Does he look like the Messiah?

“Here was a faith able to see the glory of Jesus at its most hidden, stripped not only of divine majesty but of human dignity: helpless, battered, bloodied, mortal, derided. The cross had blown away the faith of the disciples and killed their hopes. But this man, at the lowest point of Jesus kenosis, when the veil is thickest and the messianic identity mostly obscured, proclaims him king and prays: ‘Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom’.” (Donald MacLeod)

What exactly do the eyes of faith enable this man to see? He sees that Jesus is righteous. ‘… this man has done nothing wrong.’ (Luke 23:41) Pilate said the same 3 times in Jesus’ trial, declaring his innocence again and again.

He understands that there is life after death. The criminal knows he is dying but nonetheless asks to be ‘remembered’ in the future, beyond death and into the world to come. ‘Remember me’ is an expression which asks Jesus to intervene for him in the life to come. ‘Jesus, plead my case, because I have nothing to offer’. Life after death is a note which we need to hear today in 2023. Our lives are relatively short, but afterwards comes eternity. Death is not the end. The question is, where will we spend eternity?

Amazingly, this man believes in the kingship of Jesus. ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ (Luke 23:42) When he sees the sign attached the cross ‘the king of the Jews’, he believes this to be true. It is true. Jesus’ crown might be one of thorns and his throne might be a cross, but the eyes of faith give this man deep insight.

What I find most helpful about this man’s faith is that he throws himself and his whole future on the mercy of Jesus. He seeks the protection of Jesus, and anyone who does that will find in Jesus a level of protection which suprasses our wildest dreams. What could this man do to make up for his life of crime? Nothing. He is now nailed to a cross. He couldn’t attend church, get baptised, receive the Lord’s Supper, or help the poor (like Zacchaeus). There was zero he could do to earn God’s forgiveness. But God forgives him nonetheless.

A striking reminder – none of us can earn God’s forgiveness, any more than this man could. We are in the same position as he is – we have done so many wrong things… But we can cast ourselves on Jesus and say, ‘Remember me Jesus. Save me. Help me.’ Have you done that? In short, have you turned from sin and stopped trusting yourself? Have you trusted in King Jesus?

3. Jesus wants his people to know that he accepts us forever

What does the penitent criminal ask for? To be ‘remembered’. To be saved in the life to come. And what does he get? Much more! He receives a promise of eternal life that day. Verse 43: ‘Truly…’ This implies that Jesus is about to tell us something very important. Next comes a beautiful and personal promise: ‘Today, you will be with me’. The man is going to be with Jesus.

With Jesus where? In paradise. Paradise speaks of the garden of a King. In other words, you will be with the King in his own palace gardens. Perhaps this word echoes back to the Garden of Eden and the perfection and unbroken fellowship with God enjoyed there. What happens to Christians when they die? Where to they go? Immediately, the go to be with God in Heaven.

‘I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.’ (Philippians 1:23)

‘We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.’ (2 Corinthians 5:8)

Today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23:43)

Westminster Shorter Catechism question 37:

Q: What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?
A: The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.