Today we are going to look at the words of Jesus on the cross; to a criminal, a condemned man, a robber on the cross next to him. You’ve probably seen pictures of the three crosses side-by-side. The bigger, larger, taller cross in the center representing the one upon which our Savior Jesus Christ died. The two smaller, one on his right and one on his left, carried the weight of two thieves or criminals. We don’t know much about them, but I pray that these words of Jesus that we’re going to read this morning would minister to you in a profound and life-changing way. Because the Bible says, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Because the Bible says that God loved you and he has gone to prepare a place for you (John 14:2). We know that, right? We’ve heard that, but how do we get to the point where we can say beyond the shadow of a doubt that we’re right with God? How do we get to that place, that position, where we can as the writer of Hebrews says, “approach the throne of grace with confidence” (Hebrews 4:16). The question I would like us all to consider today is this, “If something were to happen to you and this was your last moment on earth, what would happen to you? Are you in a right relationship with God?”
Let’s get started and read together these words of Jesus from the cross…
Luke 23:39-43… “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 fear 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."
Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." NIV
As I prepared for this message, I Googled “The Three Crosses” to discover a famous etching by Rembrandt. When looking at this etching of The Three Crosses, your eyes are first drawn to the cross on which Jesus died, then your eyes wander to the crowd gathered at the foot of the cross. You begin to notice the facial expressions and the actions of the people involved in the crucifixion. Finally your eyes drift to the edge of the painting to those figures on the outside, on the periphery, almost hidden in the shadows. Some art critics suggest that maybe one of these is a representation of Rembrandt himself, as he recognized his part… he recognized it was his sins that helped nail Jesus to the cross.
You see, it’s an easy thing to say that Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world, but it’s quite another thing when it becomes personal. When you’re willing to admit that it was for your sins that Jesus died on the cross. And that we can be just as uncaring as Pilate, as unsympathetic as the soldiers, as merciless as the crowds, or as cowardly as the disciples. You see, it wasn’t just them, it was each one of us who nailed him to the cross. I crucified the Christ. I was part of the mocking crowd. And today, I’d like you to place yourself in the shadows of this portrait, because you too were standing there, but remember those three powerful words we overheard two weeks ago as we leaned in to the cross… “Father, forgive them.”
The Bible teaches us that Jesus Christ, the innocent Lamb of God, gave His life for us in a cruel death upon that cross. And on the third day after His death, God caused the stone to be rolled away and the grave was empty. The Bible records the eye-witness testimony that Jesus Christ has indeed risen from the grave, defeating death, hell, and sin. And that as many who will make his death their own, personally identifying with Christ in his death and in his resurrection, will know the forgiveness of sin and the promise of an eternity in the presence of our good God.
So today, would you admit that you need forgiveness of our Savior or maybe you feel a bit deserving of God’s grace? You know, kind of like trying to find a parking space at the mall the morning after Thanksgiving? You know, on one of those famous, busiest shopping days of the year, where you've probably eyed up some of those handicapped parking places with a little envy. You know the ones that are right up front, close to the door? Maybe you've been tempted to park in one of those spots, even though you're not handicapped. Even though you don't have one of those tags to hang on your mirror. But you don’t park there, even though you need a parking spot, you deserve a parking spot… I mean come on, you’ve been circling the lot for fifteen minutes, you have a very real need, but you don’t take that spot, that handicapped spot right there in front… because there’s a law, an enforcer of the law, and a judge who will hand down a sentence upon those who selfishly disobey.
On the cross there were two criminals, two thieves, both of whom were guilty, and in a very real sense, either one or the other of those two represents each one of us. One criminal arrogantly hurled insults at Jesus, but the other, the other criminal rebuked him saying, “We are punished justly for we are getting what our deeds deserve” (Luke 23:41). In other words, he says, “We’re guilty and we deserve this punishment.” What about you? Do you see your need? Or do you feel that you are deserving of that special spot, that grace, that parking spot, right in front of the store?
Today there’s a lot of conversation about what God is like and where we stand with Him. But the only one who can tell us the truth about that is God Himself; and of course He has in the Bible. Listen to what God says in Romans chapter 3, beginning with verse 23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). You see, that is what God says, there’s no way to God without pleading “guilty as charged.” Guilty of violating the Law of God. Guilty of sinning against God, because every time we covet what someone else has, every time we say something that is not quite the truth, every time we think or act immorally, every time we let someone or something become more important to us than God is… we sin. You see, the Bible says, “For all have sinned.” Every one of us is a rebel against God. And I know it’s hard to plead guilty to being the sinner that God says you are, but until you agree with God about your guilt, there’s no hope. And sin carries a serious penalty… eternal separation from God. The Bible has a name for that and it’s called hell.
Of course, nobody wants to talk about hell, unless they’re using it in vain, as an exclamation, and diminishing its meaning, because hell is bad news, but here is the good news... "God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood.” (Romans 3:24-25, NLT). And that promise right there, is your “Get Out Of Jail Free Card,” God has declared you righteous, not guilty, even though you are, because he gave his only Son to lay down his life and pay the death penalty that you deserve. God loved you so much that he gave his only Son so you could be free from the guilt of every wrong thing you’ve ever done. God loved you so much that he gave his Son to cancel your reservation in hell… and make your appointment in heaven. But you’ve got to accept that gift, receive that appointment, and tell God the Father that you’re depending upon his Son Jesus Christ as your only hope. You see, the Bible says, “We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:22). At that moment of total dependence, the One who would’ve been your Judge, becomes your Savior.
So the big question we must address is who will you identify with… which criminal are you like? The one in verse 39, who thought he was deserving of salvation, thought he was deserving of God’s grace, and insulted Christ saying, “Save yourself and us!" (Luke 23:39). Or are you more like the other criminal, recognizing who Christ was, recognizing their just judgment, and rebuked the other saying, “Don’t you fear God… We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve” (vs. 40, 41).
It is incredibly important that we recognize who Jesus is. The repentant criminal said, “This man has done nothing wrong.” Even suffering on the cross he realized there was something different about Jesus. He had heard the accusations and charges against him, yet he had noticed the lack of cursing, complaining, and general godliness of our Lord Jesus Christ. He was sinless. He’d done nothing wrong. And maybe he’d even heard of him? Maybe he’d heard of the reputation of this great teacher. Maybe he’d heard of this guy that had the power to raise the dead, to heal the sick, to cast out demons, to open blind eyes, and open deaf ears? Whatever it was, there was something that he recognized in Jesus Christ as they hung there side-by-side each on their own cross.
But honestly, the most important question, is who do you say He is? Obviously, Jesus Christ was a real person who lived and walked the earth. Historians document his life, other religions acknowledge him, and history reveals that time was split in two by his life, his death, and his resurrection. Was he simply a man or was he the sinless Son of God? Was he the innocent Lamb of God, who gave his life in our place, for us and for our sins, and on the third day, God rolled away the stone to reveal an empty tomb, that he was risen from the grave. Who do you say he is? Not what your mother or your father said, not your grandmother or Sunday school teacher said, but who do you say Christ is?
One time Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets." "But what about you?" Jesus asked. "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:13-16).
It’s very interesting to see what others say about who Jesus was. Such as, when Jesus was baptized, heaven was opened, and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). When Judas betrayed Jesus, he said, “I have betrayed innocent blood” (Matthew 27:4). Pilate condemned Jesus to death on a cross, but he said, "I find no basis for a charge against him” (John 18:38). Pilate’s wife warned him because of a dream, “Don't have anything to do with that innocent man” (Matthew 27:19).
The Scriptures themselves have much to say about who he is. In Philippians chapter 2, the Bible tells us, “That Christ Jesus, who being in the very nature of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant… humbled himself and became obedient to death… even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). When Jesus was born, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords was born in a humble stable, not surrounded by servants, but surrounded by animals (Luke 2:7). When Jesus died it wasn’t on a throne, but while hanging on a cross (John 19:30). He wasn’t wearing a crown of gold, but a crown of thorns (John 19:2). He wasn’t surrounded by worshipers or servants, but was numbered with the transgressors (Luke 22:37).
In death, He was surrounded by thieves. When men did their worst, Jesus looked up to heaven and prayed, “Father, forgive them for they don’t even know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34). On the cross, so that all would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty” (John 19:28) and they gave Him vinegar to drink, fulfilling the last of dozens of prophecies that were all perfectly fulfilled on the cross (Matthew 27:48). Jesus looked up to His Father and said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). His great work had been done just as he said, “No one takes my life, but I lay it down on my own accord.” (John 10:18). Again looking up to heaven, he said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46) and with that He gave up His life. Three days later, the Bible tells us that God proved that the work was perfect, that death, hell, and the grave were defeated, when he rolled the stone away, the tomb was empty, and Jesus had risen (Mark 16:4).
Who do you say that He is? Will you be like the repentant criminal, admitting that you’re getting what your deeds deserve, and recognizing the Christ of God? Like him, will you cry out, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Will you prepare your heart to experience his grace this morning? You see, when that criminal cried out to Jesus, he responded with the most powerful, with the most gracious, and the most pardoning words ever spoken. To a man who could do no good, who could perform no religious acts, who would never attend church, who could never return the favor, who only could believe that Jesus Christ was who he said he was. Remember me he pleaded… and Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). This dying man, realized what he deserved, recognized his Savior, and experienced Christ’s pardoning grace.
This morning do you see your need? Who do you say he is? And like this criminal, have you experienced God’s grace? Three very important questions, because the truth of the matter is that you are one of those two criminals hanging on the crosses. The Bible is very consistent in its testimony of your positioning, that you fall into one of two places, and that you have two choices. In the very beginning, in the book of Genesis, we find in the Garden of Eden, there was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. Mankind was given two choices. To eat of the tree of knowledge was to choose to die. To partake of the tree of life was to live.
And in the same way, the Bible shows that you are in one of two places, representative of one of two people. In first Corinthians chapter 15 we are told that we are either in Adam or in Christ. Galatians chapter 5 says it this way, we either live to gratify the desires of the sinful nature or we live according to the Spirit (16-17). These two places, these two people, are in conflict with each other. And “as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). The choice is ours, Jesus said, when he returns you may be in one of two places. You may be in a field… He says, “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left” (Matthew 24:40). If you know him, you’ll be taken up. If you don’t, Jesus says you’ll be left behind.
On the cross, one to the left and one to the right, two criminals, both wanted to be saved. One said, “You saved others! Why don’t you save yourself and us?” The other criminal said, “Don’t you fear God? This man’s done nothing wrong. Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Are you right with God this morning? Have you acknowledged that your sin has separated you from God? Have you confessed that Jesus Christ is the Son of God? Have you experience the grace of God? You know, like that criminal on the cross who was forgiven, he could do no good, couldn’t be baptized, couldn’t turn over new leaf, couldn’t even join a church, all he could do was throw himself upon the grace of God. As the Bible says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith… And this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God… Not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). The Bible says, salvation is only by grace… it’s by grace!
Which one of those two criminals hanging on the crosses are you? One rejected Christ and the other threw himself upon his mercy and said, “Jesus, remember me.” And Jesus says to those who trust Him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
As we close and we’re reflecting on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, I wonder how many of you have struggled with feeling guilty. You understand that God would forgive you, but his forgiveness is just somehow surreal, and you don’t feel secure. You don’t have a sense of peace or assurance. How many of you would be honest enough to say that’s been a struggle for you? You feel unworthy and maybe you’re still carrying the guilt from your past. I want to pray today, as you’re being honest before God, that he would break through that lie of the evil one and that you would experience his goodness and his grace.
As we look at the cross, think of what it must have felt like for God to have seen His Son dying like that. That’s how much God loves you. You can never be made right with God by your good works. It’s completely impossible. It’s only by grace through faith. That’s why it’s called the good news.
And today, there are some of you here that God’s been trying to get through to you for a long time. Don’t settle for religion. Enter into a relationship with God through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Today is the day, even before you were born, God knew that this would be the day that you would settle the issue. You’ve been unsure. You don’t know where you stand. And today by faith, you’re driving a stake into the ground and trusting in the perfect work of God’s Son, that through Jesus Christ your sins are completely forgiven. The burden is lifted, your guilt has been removed, you’re right in the eyes of God, and at this moment you are being flooded with the joy and the peace that comes from knowing what it means to be in a relationship with God.
Let us by faith join our voices together as we close in worship, let’s celebrate the new life we have through the resurrected Christ. Would you pray with me?
Pastor John Talcott
Christ's Community Church
303 West Lincoln Avenue
Emmitsburg, MD 21727
March 29, 2015