“The Second Word: With Me In Paradise”
Luke 23:32-43 March 8, 2009
SI: Easter is six Sundays away.
We’re preparing for the celebration of our Lord’s resurrection,
by looking at a special portion of the Gospels.
We’re meditating on the words Jesus spoke as he was dying on the cross.
These are often called the Seven Last Words or the Seven Words of the Cross,
because Jesus spoke seven times.
All of Jesus’ words are important,
but isn’t often the case that we place great stock in a person’s last words,
and we especially cherish the last words of people we love.
So it’s wonderful that we have the last words of our Savior recorded for all time.
I told the big crowd that was here last Sunday that I preached on the
Seven Last Words seven years ago.
And I was so blessed by my study that I told myself I would have to
preach them again some day.
It seems like enough time has passed—seven years for seven words.
We looked at the first word last week—
“Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
Let’s read those verses again because they set the stage for Christ’s second word.
INTRO: Out on I-40 in the Texas panhandle there is a huge cross, 200 feet tall.
You can see from miles away.
It’s just standing there in the middle of nowhere.
We saw it several years ago when we were driving to Colorado.
It’s owned by a Catholic ministry and there is a sculpture garden under
it with life-size bronze statues of the Stations of the Cross.
They are interesting but the cross is the star of the show.
It’s so dramatic and solitary out there on the Texas plains.
When we think of the cross, we usually do think of it standing alone.
It’s easy to forget that there were actually three crosses.
It might have been more dramatic if the cross of Jesus had stood all alone
on the hill outside Jerusalem, the Place of the Skull—but it didn’t stand alone.
It was one of three as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.
Prophecy that the Messiah, in his death, would be numbered with transgressors.
The holy, sinless Lord Jesus was crucified between two criminals
as part of his humiliation. He was born with animals, died with criminals.
So the three crosses remind us of the depths of Christ’s humiliation.
But there is another reason God orchestrated history so that there were 3 crosses.
Picture the three crosses—on the middle cross, the cross—Jesus Christ
Giving his life to atone for the sins of the world. Bringing salvation.
On the right and left crosses hang the two criminals.
What do the two criminals represent? What truth do they proclaim?
They represent the two destinies of every person in the human race.
Heaven or hell, the grace of God or the wrath of God,
repentance or rebellion, turning toward Christ or turning away from him.
In many ways these two men were exactly alike.
They were both criminals (Matthew tells us robbers, thieves, insurrectionists).
They had spent their lives living in rebellion against laws of God and men.
And they were both dying. Crucifixion was irreversible.
They had a few painful hours left.
But one turned to Jesus in faith and received eternal life—
and the other remained in his sin and died unforgiven.
One is an example for all time of the grace of God,
the other a warning for all time of the hardening of sin.
So if these two thieves represent all people the question is:
Which dying thief are you?
Because you are dying.
Your death is just as certain as if you had been nailed to a cross.
Your death is drawing closer every hour.
The time will come when you will pass through that door into the next world.
It might be tonight. It might be when you are 90 years old.
It might be a sudden accident or heart attack, or a long illness.
You are dying. Do you think of that? You should. You must.
And not only are you dying, you are a thief.
In a sense, all sin is robbery.
You take what does not belong to you in your coveting, gossip, selfishness.
You rob God of the glory and honor and obedience you owe him as your Creator.
Bible says that if you break the law at one point, have broken it all.
Jesus says if you lust, you commit adultery. If you hate, you murder.
Have not loved God with all heart, soul, strength, mind—and neighbor as self.
So the question is not: Am I dying? Or am I a thief and lawbreaker?
But which one?
Are you the one on Jesus’ right? One saved by grace of God.
Or are you the one on Jesus’ left? One hardened in sin going to hell?
His word forces you to take stock of yourself and ask—Which dying thief am I?
In this passage three men speak: First thief, second thief, then Jesus.
Look at their words in order and under three headings for note-takers.
1. The easiest mistake
2. The hardest admission
3. The greatest gift
Credit where credit due. Outline from a great sermon by Dr. Timothy Keller.
MP#1 The easiest mistake
The easiest mistake you can make is to miss God’s grace.
That’s what happened to the first thief.
There was Jesus Christ giving grace and salvation and he missed it.
But don’t look down on this thief because the same reasons
that led him to miss God’s grace are at work in you.
And if you let them take control, you will miss God’s grace too.
How did this man respond to Jesus?
He wanted Jesus to deal with his urgent, immediate need.
He said: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
In other words: I’ll believe in you and I’ll follow you
but you have to do something for me first. You have to get me off this cross.
Prove to me that you are God.
Prove to me you are worth following by giving me what I know I need.
But Jesus had already proven himself through his miracles and his teaching.
And Jesus had already made it clear what he came to do.
He came to deal with our real needs.
He came to deal with our problem of sin and guilt.
He came to make a way for us to be reconciled to God.
But this man just wanted Jesus to be his own personal assistant.
And when Jesus didn’t fill that role, answer that prayer—
he pushed him away and missed the grace of God.
Have you ever noticed that everybody turns to God when they are desperate.
Everybody prays. Everybody asks the Lord to help them.
But most people are not changed by that encounter with God.
Years ago a young man I didn’t know came to see me several times.
He was in trouble with the law and was out on bail awaiting trial.
He was very fearful about what might happen.
When we would meet he prayed, oh he prayed that God would get him off hook.
He made great promises to do this and that for God.
It seemed like he was having a real encounter with the Lord—
but when it was all over he lost interest in spiritual things.
He missed God’s grace.
He was like the first thief, he missed Jesus and eternal life.
There are lots people like that. They come to the Lord for help.
But they don’t see that the he has something bigger for them
than saving their marriage or healing their child or keeping them out of trouble.
They don’t see that he wants to forgive them and make them new people.
And when he doesn’t answer—or maybe even if he does—
they lose interest and turn away until the next crisis.
We all have that tendency. Fight it. Don’t be like that.
Don’t miss the grace of God by treating Jesus like your personal assistant.
Don’t miss the grace of God by thinking it’s all about getting your needs met.
Of course He cares about your suffering.
He cares about your felt needs, urgent concerns.
But he also sees the big picture.
He wants your greatest blessing. And he went to the cross to get it for you.
Grace comes through the cross. Grace comes through suffering.
Jesus himself prayed before the crucifixion:
“Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.”
He didn’t want to suffer. He said, Father, if there is any other way. Please.
But then he said: “Yet not my will, but yours be done.”
And he went to the cross and experienced the greatest suffering
so that you could be forgiven and have eternal life.
Is it going to be any different in your life?
If the greatest grace and blessing came through the greatest suffering—
then it will often be through your suffering that God’s grace comes.
But you can miss it if you get mad or bitter at God for not answering your
prayers or by not giving you the life you wanted.
You’ll miss the important things:
You’ll miss the forgiveness of your sins,
and a relationship with your heavenly Father,
and life in Christ’s eternal kingdom.
The first thief did. But the second thief didn’t.
He turned to Jesus in a totally different way—
not with a demand that Jesus fix his life,
but with an admission about himself.
brings us to the second point . . .
MP#2 The hardest admission
We could make a list of all kinds of shameful things that would be hard to admit.
But the hardest thing to admit is that you are a sinner—as the Bible defines it.
People will admit to doing all sorts of bad things.
They will admit to being drunkards and wife beaters.
They will admit to having bad tempers and a foul mouths.
They will admit to doing all sorts of sins—but they won’t admit they are sinners.
This is the difference: To admit that you are a sinner is to say that deep down,
in my heart I’m spiritually bankrupt and I just care about myself.
I am unable to do anything by myself that will please God.
That’s the hardest thing to admit.
People will say things like: I’m not perfect. I’ve made a lot of mistakes.
But deep down, I’m a good person.
Yeah, I’ve done some bad things, but that’s not the real me.
The hardest thing to admit is—that is the real me.
I sin because I am a sinner. That’s my heart.
So even the good things I’ve done are nothing to be proud of
because they have flowed from corrupt motives.
Even my religion. Even my morality is a way to manipulate God
so that he owes me, so that he has to answer my prayers.
That’s what this thief was admitting about himself.
He was making the hardest admission of all—that he was a sinner.
He said to the first man:
“Don’t you fear God since you are under the same sentence?
We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.”
He was saying: It’s not Rome that is judging me.
I’m not on this cross just for breaking the laws of men.
I’m here because I’m under God’s judgment. His judgment is right.
He was repenting. Repentance is saying: God, you’re right.
I’ve sinned and I’m a sinner.
My bad deeds come from a bad heart. I’ve done bad things because
in my heart I wanted to live my own life and be my own god and not give you
the obedience and honor that is due to you.
And Lord, my good deeds come from a bad heart. I’ve done good things
because in my heart I wanted to be my own savior. I wanted to build a record
of good deeds and morality so that I could say, “God, you owe me.”
When you repent that thoroughly, does it lead you to depression and gloom?
No. Look where it led this man—straight to Jesus!
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
He didn’t say: Jesus, get me off this cross and I’ll follow you.
He said: I’ll stay here on the cross if you will just remember me,
and let me be with you in your coming kingdom.
One of the most vivid descriptions of repentance is in Chuck Colson’s spiritual
autobiography, Born Again. Book over 30 years old, still in print.
As Watergate was breaking open, Colson went to visit a friend named Tom Phillips.
Phillips was a Christian, Colson wasn’t.
Tom Phillips began gently but firmly telling Colson—Can’t you see it’s your
pride that has gotten you in this mess. Your pride has kept you from God.
Your pride has driven all the decisions of your life, even this one.
Another way of saying—You’re a sinner. Problem is in your heart.
Colson tells how he resisted, but the reality of his sinfulness began to overwhelm
him. The highpoints of life began to flash through his mind, accomplishments.
Tried to defend myself but saw pride that had propelled through life.
He managed to tell his friend goodbye, got into car and began driving away
but then he had to pull over in the darkness, because he was blinded by tears.
And this is where that repentance led him—not to despair:
“Then I prayed my first real prayer. ‘God, I don’t know how to find you, but I’m going to try. I’m not much the way I am now, but somehow I want to give myself to you.’ I didn’t know how to say more, so I repeated over and over the words: Take me.”
Isn’t that interesting where repentance led him—same place it led the thief.
Not—Lord, get me out of this Watergate trouble. Lord, take me.
And the door was opened to the greatest blessings.
Have you made the hardest admission of all? Have you repented?
Repentance is impossible without the Holy Spirit.
But this is how you know the Holy Spirit has helped you
and your repentance is real—if you to turn to Jesus for mercy,
and want his blessing more than anything else in life.
And you don’t just repent once—you live a life of repentance.
Constantly admitting sin to God, and turning to Jesus in faith,
and saying—Jesus, remember me, have mercy on me.
Have you done that? If you haven’t, ask for God’s help.
Ask him to send the Holy Spirit to give you repentance and faith.
When you do, you can enjoy . . .
MP#3 The greatest gift
Now we come to the word of Jesus.
“I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
What’s the greatest gift that Jesus gave this man?
When you first hear Jesus’ words it’s easy to think that the greatest gift is Paradise.
The greatest gift is going to heaven when you die.
But Paradise isn’t the emphasis. The emphasis is: You will be with me.
In John 17, the prayer of Jesus called the High Priestly prayer,
Jesus was praying to the Father about his ascension into heaven.
“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory.
Did he mean just mean, I want them to be with me when they die,
with me in heaven. No, he wanted them to be with him now.
In Ephesians 2, Paul says this about the Christian life:
“God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus”
Did Paul make a mistake? Did he mean to say God will raise us up
and will seat us with Christ in the heavenly realms?
Is he talking about the future, Paradise after we die?
No, Paul is talking about the Christian life right now.
Right now you are with Christ in the heavenly realms.
Right now you are with Jesus, just as he asked the Father, and promised thief.
So what does that mean to be with Jesus, seated with him in heaven
even as you are living your life here on earth?
It means you have a position. It means you have a standing.
Your position with Christ is so secure that you can understand your life here
and now as being with him in Paradise, and seated with him in heavenly realms.
To the degree you understand that, nothing can shake you.
Suppose you were a billionaire. And you stuck a $100 bill in pocket and ran
out to the grocery store. And then when you got to the store, couldn’t find it.
Would you panic? Get down on your hands and knees and search the gutters for it?
Of course not—you’re a billionaire. Well listen—You’re a Christian.
You’re with Christ in the heavenly realms, and to the degree you believe
his words from the cross, you will be unshakable. Three applications.
1. If you know that Jesus is with you and you are with him—
then you won’t be shaken by the judgments of other people.
Does criticism devastate you?
Do you sink into self-pity or become furious when you are snubbed?
Does your sense of self-worthy crumble when you gain weight?
It’s the judgments of other people that are dominating you.
You must believe Jesus when he says: You are with me.
His eyes are the only ones that matter.
Crucified men were mocked and shamed—but Jesus embraced this man
and promised his constant presence.
2. If you know that Jesus is with you and you are with him—
then you won’t be shaken by your sins and failures and terrible record.
Matthew tells us that at first both men hurled insults at Jesus.
Maybe it was when the second thief heard Jesus say: Father, forgive them—
that his heart began to change.
But this is the point. This man had a terrible record.
He had sold his soul to violence. He had mocked the Son of God.
Then at the 11th hour, the 59th minute—He said, I’m guilty, Jesus remember me.
And Jesus said: Amen. Truly. This day and always you will be with me.
If you’ve fallen into a terrible sin, or if you look back on wasted years—
remember that Jesus can break through any sin, and any bad record
to be with his people. He’s never going to say—too bad, too little, too late.
Repent, and then move ahead with him.
3. If you know that Jesus is with you and you are with him—
then you have no reason to be afraid of death.
This is the drama of this word from the cross. Here are two dying men
on either side of Jesus—which dying man are you?
Do you have what it takes so that you can look death in the eye and say:
Death, where is your sting? Grave, where is your victory?
You can say that if you’ve already been in Paradise.
That’s what Jesus gives you when you trust him.
CONC: Remember there were three crosses on the hill outside Jerusalem.
Jesus in the middle, and a dying thief on his right and on his left.
Which dying thief are you?
Don’t miss God’s grace to you in Christ by focusing on this life only.
Don’t turn to Jesus as your assistant and helper to get you out of trouble,
and give you the things you want.
If that’s all, then you will not be changed by your encounter with him—
and like the first thief, you will one day turn away—
either in bitterness and anger when things don’t work out—
or out of a lack of interest when more important things get your attention.
Jesus died to give you so much more.
Admit your sins and your sinfulness to him—repent, and tell him
that you want him to remember you and be merciful to you—and he will.
He’ll do more, he will be with you and give you a great standing
in his kingdom that will carry you through all the struggles
of this life, until you are brought safely home.