The two criminals
Luke 23.39-43

A sermon preached by David Holloway


Jesmond Parish Church
6.30 pm
29 March 1998


Luke 23:39-43

39
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!"
40 But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong."
42 Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
43 Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."

I want us to think about the Cross of Christ and what happened at Calvary. And I want us to focus on those two criminals who were crucified together with Jesus. Luke tells us about them in chapter 23, verses 39-43. And my headings are first, UNANSWERED PRAYER; secondly, TRUE FAITH; and thirdly, JESUS' POWER.

The Cross is at the heart of the Christian faith. That is why it is the symbol of the church. Buddhism has the lotus flower - a symbol of beauty and harmony. Islam has a crescent - an ancient symbol of sovereignty and power. Marxism had the hammer and sickle - a symbol of industry and agriculture. Christianity has the Cross. The bible is interested in all these other things. But more important than beauty, power or the economy is the death (and then the resurrection) of Jesus. That is at the heart of everything - the "empty" Cross of Christ.

To many in the ancient would that would have seemed unthinkable - to have the Cross as a symbol. Crucifixion was regarded with horror. Crucifixion was one of the most cruel methods of execution. The victim could suffer for days before dying. Cicero, the Roman writer, called it "a most cruel and disgusting punishment." But Jesus taught that he must suffer. He predicted his death. And the Old Testament also had predicted his death as we heard in our Old Testament reading.

The Cross divided people in the days of the early church. Paul said that the message of the Cross was a "stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles" (1 Cor 1.23). But to those who believed he said that the Cross revealed Christ as "the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor 1.24). The Cross still divides in the late 20th century.

Islam rejects the cross. The Koran sees no need for the death of a sin-bearing Saviour. In Islam there is a denial even that Jesus died on the cross. Hindus, on the other hand, believe in the fact, but reject the significance of the Cross. Gandhi once said of Jesus:

his death on the cross was a great example to the world, but that there was anything like a mysterious or miraculous virtue in it, my heart could not accept.

And modern secularism rejects the cross. At the end of the last century Nietzsche - the Darwinian, proto-Nazi German philosopher - attacked Christianity as a religion for the weak. For him the Cross of Christ proved it weak. Christ and his Cross is a divider. Jesus had no illusions. In the middle of his ministry he said this (Luke 12.51):

Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.

So don't have wrong expectations about the Christian faith.

But you say, "this all seems rather strange. At Christmas aren't we always reminded of the words of the Angels (Luke 2.14):

'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests'?'

And you say, "doesn't the Old Testament teach that one day 'the wolf will live with the lamb' and men and women will 'neither harm nor destroy ... for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea' (Isaiah 11.6,9)?" Yes! One day there will be universal peace and unity. Peace is the result of the gospel. But Jesus knew that wherever people reject him while others accept him, there will be division. His message of peace itself divides those who believe from those who don't believe. So the fault is not in the message; the fault is in the hearers. Jesus taught there will be no final peace or unity until he comes again. Until then there will be division and disunity. In the Sermon on the Mount he said people are travelling on two roads. They are not all on one road or all going in the same direction. He said (Matthew 7.13-14):

"wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction ... {14} But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life."

In his parables he taught there were wise and foolish builders; wise and foolish virgins; sheep and goats. And it was Jesus himself who taught that there is heaven but also there is hell. There is a division between those who accept him and those who reject him - between those who trust him and those who don't. This division is black and white. There are no greys! And this division is seen so clearly in the two criminals crucified together with Jesus - our subject for this sermon.

Both were near to Christ - physically; both saw what happened to Jesus; both were dying; both were guilty. Yet one died unbelieving and unrepentant and so under the judgement of God and facing a lost eternity. The other repented and received forgiveness and assurance of heaven. There is a mystery - a very solemn mystery. Why did one repent while the other did not? We do not know. All we know is that God is in control and God is fair. What we do know is that one of the men had faith in Christ and experienced salvation; so no one, however bad, need despair. But it was only one, not both; so no one, however good, who does not have faith in Christ can presume on God's mercy. The Gospel always offers great hope, but also warnings.

The challenge this Easter, then, is this: who are you like? - the first criminal who did not trust Christ or "the penitent thief" (as he often is called) who did?

Let's look now at that first man and his UNANSWERED PRAYER. Luke 23 verse 39:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!"

What can you say about this man? Three things.

First, he was just following the crowd. He wasn't alone in being cynical and aggressive towards Jesus. Luke 23.35:

The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One."

Do you just follow the crowd? Or are you willing to stand up for Christ and be in a minority of one if that is necessary? History has been made by men and women who have not followed the crowd. William Wilberforce changed the world by working for the abolition of slavery. But he was often on his own. The crowd is often wrong.

Secondly, this man prayed. "Save yourself and us" - that was a prayer. Surveys show that most people pray. Surveys show that we are not a secular society. Most people believe in a God of some sort. This criminal no doubt believed in God. But his prayer was unanswered. Today there is an interest in spirituality. The reaction to the death of Diana proved that people have deep needs and concerns. This dying man had deep needs and concerns. But they were not met.

This is so important. People today, sadly even people within the churches, talk enthusiastically about any evidence of religion or spirituality. But religion unless it is focused on Jesus Christ can be demonic. Who was it that crucified Jesus? Answer - it was not only the best of the world's political systems of those days - the government of the Roman empire; it was also the best of the world's religions of those days - Judaism. Don't misjudge the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They would have been considered good men, moral men, upright men, and certainly religious men. Prayer and religion prove nothing by themselves. Today some of the worst atrocities and crimes are committed in the name of religion - from Northern Ireland, to Serbia, to Pakistan, to the Sudan - you name it. This man prayed.

Thirdly, his prayer was totally concerned with his present physical needs and this life. He ignored his spiritual needs and eternity. He wanted immediate release. You say: "that is quite understandable." True! But this was the problem Christ had to deal with throughout his ministry. The crowds were expecting him to be a Messiah who would grant their immediate needs by granting health, wealth and political freedom. Out of compassion he did heal. But not always. He had a more important work to do. As Paul wrote to Timothy (1 Timothy 1.15):

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

Christ's primary mission was to save sinners - not to grant health, wealth and political freedom (important as those things are). He came to die on the Cross. The Cross was where sin was dealt with. On the Cross "he himself bore our sins in his body" (1 Peter 2.24). Christ died to bear the judgment you and I deserve - in our place, as our substitute. He came to solve the fundamental problem of human sin.

You say "but is sin so serious?" The Cross is the answer. That Christ had to die proves that sin is the major problem. Sin is a spiritual disease we are all born with. Fundamentally sin is putting yourself first and not God and deciding you know best. The bible uses various words for sin. The most common one means "missing the mark" or falling short. Others refer to plain evil or deliberately breaking the rules. But all refer to an objective standard, God's moral law. Sin is breaking that law - the law of his own being. It is also the law of your own true being, for we are all made in the image and likeness of God.

So sinning offends against God but also against your own best interests. You can see that so clearly in issues of marriage and sexual morality, where to obey God is good for you, your family and society at large. That is why God cannot tolerate sin and he is hostile towards sin. It is so destructive of all he has made. To ignore sin would be like ignoring anthrax. It may just seem like a bottle of perfume. But it is so deadly. And that is why the Cross is a sign of God's love. His dealing with sin is in our interests both for time and for eternity.

The dying criminal did not have his prayer answered in the way he wanted. His fundamental need was not for immediate release but for forgiveness and to be saved from a lost eternity. But by contrast, the prayer that was answered was that of the other man. He had true faith. Let's turn to him now.

Secondly, TRUE FAITH. Luke 23 verses 40-43:

But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? {41} We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." {42} Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." {43} Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."

Note five things about this man.

First, here is a man who goes against the crowd. He alone seems to show some understanding of the person of Jesus.

Secondly, his prayer is so different to the other man's. It was so different to a number of prayers or requests Jesus had received during his ministry. James and John had once wanted Jesus to let them sit on his right and left hand in heaven. Another man had wanted him to sort out a domestic squabble about an inheritance. James and John had also wanted him to send down fire on the Samaritans. He granted none of these prayers or requests. These were selfish, greedy or cruel prayers.

The prayers or requests he did answer were those of people who trusted him and came from genuine helplessness and need. The prayer of this second dying criminal was like that.

Thirdly, this man admitted his own sinfulness but Christ's sinlessness. "We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong" (verse 41).

Fourthly, he was forgiven. And in that, the dying criminal has been, ever since, an object lesson in faith and repentance. There was nothing he could do himself to please God and to make amends for his guilt. He had lost his possessions. His limbs were nailed to a cross and made impotent. He was literally naked. His strength was ebbing away. With utter sincerity he could have said the words of the hymn: "nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy Cross I cling." All he could do was rely on the mercy of Christ and the grace of God. He was at the end of himself - literally. Who is like that here tonight? Well - learn from this man.

He shows the nature of true faith. It is realising that you fall short of God's standards in some way. It is realising that you have nothing to offer at all by way of making good. If you are honest, you know there is selfishness, greed, lust, envy, coveting, wrong ambition, or a lack of love even when others think you are good. So true faith says, "God be merciful to me a sinner".

Fifthly, this man was saved and entered heaven without being baptised; and he never received Holy Communion. There is an important lesson here. The outward symbols of the Christian faith like baptism and Holy Communion are good and helpful. But they are not absolutely essential to salvation. This man proves that. He proves that what is essential is faith in Christ alone and repentance. So be careful. Do not think that because you are a member of a church and have been baptised and regularly take communion, you are right with God. The question is not, "have you been baptized or are you a regular communicant?" but "do you have faith in Jesus Christ like this penitent criminal?" Who here tonight needs to be like him and say, "Jesus, remember me; forgive me and fill me with your Holy Spirit"?

Finally, JESUS' POWER. Look at verse 43:

Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."

Jesus greatest work of power was not one of his miracles. It was to "open the kingdom of heaven to all believers" as the old Te Deum says. Here Jesus promises this man not a short reprieve for this life but heaven for all eternity. Had the man been freed from the cross, he would have lived a few more years and then died. But if he had gone to a Christless eternity, what benefit would that extra life-span have been? Jesus taught the reality of hell. But this man was not going to hell. "Today you will be with me in paradise," said Jesus.

Do you have that assurance from Jesus? Life is short. Last Sunday those school children in Jonesboro, Arkansas, were alive. This Sunday they are dead. Easter time, and especially Good Friday, makes us think about death. Are you ready for death? The litany in the Book of Common Prayer that is often said on Good Fridays includes a prayer for deliverance "from sudden death." Today a sudden passing is felt to be a good thing. Slow death is feared. Our Anglican forefathers thought otherwise. They believed it was important to prepare for death in the midst of life. How do you prepare?

Jesus alone helps you prepare for death. You prepare by trusting him and living for him. If you trust Christ, he will be with you in death and after death. The Christian hope is a wonderful thing. Jesus says to the believer today who is about to die, what he said to this man centuries ago: "I tell you the truth [he had to be emphatic, because it is not easy to understand - 'I tell you the truth'], today you will be with me in paradise."

The very moment a believer dies he or she is in the conscious presence of Christ and in safe keeping. It is a mystery. A believer's full life with Christ is not until the final resurrection. But there is no delay before being in Christ's immediate presence. In Philippians 1 verse 23 Paul describes dying as "to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far." That is the Christian hope. And Christ's power, in today's jargon, "delivers" on those promises.


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