The Lessons Of A Thief (Luke 23: 33-42)
We can sit in front of some of the greatest teachers and thinkers of or time, we can read the works of our greatest authors and still miss some of the most important lessons in life. Often they come from the humble, the quiet, the less learned among us. I put before you one of those individuals and the important life saving lessons to be learned from him.
33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”[a] And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”38 There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? 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.[b]”43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:33-43 New International Version (NIV)
Note with me the words spoken in verse 42, “Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’” The man who made this request was a highway robber, an ordinary thief of the road. Now he is dying the death of a rebel and of a murderer, and yet I believe you will agree with me that this thief is no ordinary man. I believe when you take into consideration the circumstances under which he made this request, you will be convinced that he is one of the most daring thinkers and one of the most heroic men of which history ever gives an account of.
Let’s look at the situation. It is a holiday in Jerusalem some twenty centuries ago. Great numbers of out of towners fill the streets of the city. Rome is going to execute three prisoners today. Rome has chosen this day because she desires the largest number of witnesses as possible. Rome will let her subjects see what it means to rebel. In this way Rome will make the rebellion tremble and hide its face even in the most distant parts of the Empire. And the crowd is hideously eager to witness this bloody show.
We, especially men, have always liked the gruesome and I suppose in one measure or another they always will. Even today we like to see things that are dangerous. We like to watch people flirt with death. If there is a daring stunt, some kind of dangerous feat to be performed thousands will gather and millions more will watch on tv. Remember we are still blood brothers of those who used to watch the gladiators in the arena years ago. We are still kin to those who witness the bull fight of the Spanish countries to this day. Everyone gathers when some poor sole threatens to jump from their balcony. Be honest, don’t you slow down to get a good look at the traffic accident. We love things that are bloody, gruesome, and horrible.
The crowd is more eager to see this show because the three men who are to die are well known. Two of them are wondering travelers, perhaps not much different from a lot of today’s homeless. They were men who had begun possibly by being zealous patriots, but being unable to gather an army and fight in the open, they had banded together to form an ambushing gang. They hid out in the mountains and they would prey on the passersby as ruthlessly as they felt that Rome had preyed upon them. They were not unpopular men, however. On the contrary, they were possibly very popular. They were looked upon almost as heroes.
After all they had risked all and were plagues upon the common enemy, Rome. We are not entirely successful in holding back our admiration of men of the Jesse James type in our own day. Bonny and Clyde, and other gangsters of the twenties and thirties were worshiped and even helped by common people along their way. Today we make movies of serial killers and criminals then spend millions of dollars watching them as entertainment.
But the third man who is to die has come into prominence in an altogether different way. He has preached in their synagogues, taught in their Temple. He has touched lepers into purity. He has opened the eyes of the blind, He has raised the dead. He has shown himself a religious leader and teacher of marvelous power. For this reason some have loved him with a love stronger than death. For this reason also others have hated Him with a hatred that will not endure His being on this earth.
As the procession moves out into the narrow streets, there is much more in the appearance of the thieves to appeal to the vulgar crowd than in the appearance of Jesus. The thieves walk up straight even under the weight of their wooden crosses. They seem unafraid. Like men they have fought. Like men they are determined to die. The other man seems almost utterly spent. His cross is more that He can bear. He has just passed through a horrible night. He has been crowned with thorns and His back has been split open from the whips of the Roman soldiers. He has lost much blood and is weak, so weak that before the end of the journey another has to carry His cross.
They arrive at the skull-shaped hill outside the city gates, the four soldiers in charge of each prisoner perform the work of execution. The victims are stripped bare. A vessel of highly medicated wine is passed among them to deaden the pain. For even in that Iron Age when the heart of the world was far from being tender, this small relief was not denied even the worst of criminals. The thieves drink, but Jesus refuses. He will meet death fully awake.
Then the victims are stretched prone upon the cross, spikes are driven into their palms and insteps and the crosses are lifted and dropped into the holes that have been dug for them. There is a spray of blood, the tearing of flesh, the straining of tendons, and then these three trees so lately planted stand with their fruit of infinite pain. The soldiers now make themselves as comfortable as possible at the foot of the cross and begin dice throwing and drinking. For death by crucifixion is such a slow, monstrous death that they need to amuse themselves while their victims die.
Now the jeers and the scorn of the crowd breaks out in it’s most blasphemous intensity. I can well imagine that the thieves, to whom little of it was directed, would not have replied in words I could use publicly. They had nothing to fear. Rome had already done its worst. They had reached the end of the line. But to the amazement of at least one of these thieves, the one who is the butt of the bitterest mocking does not reply at all except to throw around the shoulders of those who are mocking him the sheltering folds of this little protecting prayer, “God, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Now, a scene that will soften one man will often harden another. Two men attend the same service and hear the same sermon. One man has his heart broken by it. Under the prodding of the Holy Spirit he finds his way to the cross. The other is only made all the more hard, the more stubborn, the more bitter, the more indifferent. This was the case with these two thieves. The attitude of Jesus seems to have maddened the lesser thief beyond endurance. I think he would have liked to hit Jesus in the face. As it was, He insulted Him.
But on the greater thief the impression was exactly the opposite. As he had watched Jesus on His way to the cross and upon the cross he had become impressed that He was an innocent man. He had been impressed by His perfection. So deep and genuine is this impression that he howls at the mob and taunts of the churchmen and the reviling of his companion are becoming almost unbearable. They pain him, I think, more than the nails upon which he hangs. At last he can contain himself no longer, but turning as best he can to his companion, he says, “Don’t you fear God, 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.”
Look at the insight of it, and the daring. Rome has declared Jesus guilty. The religious leaders of His day have declared Him guilty. The mob has declared Him guilty. The gray beards of the church have declared Him guilty. But these jeers and howls and false sentences cannot disguise from this discerning man the truth. There steals into his heart an absolute conviction of the snow-whiteness of this man who is dying at his side.
Then you will notice that which always happens when a man comes to realize the presence of Jesus. When this thief had realized the spotlessness of the man at his side he became conscious at once of his own dirtyness, of his own guilt, of the stains upon his soul. Against that white background he sees himself in all his moral ugliness. And he cries, as he endures the very pains of hell, “Justly I am suffering, but I deserve every pain that I suffer, I am guilty”
This man is on the way to victory. He dares face his own sin. Now, he might have taken another course. He might have nodded his head at his companion over there and said, “I am a sinner, it’s true, but I am no worse than that man. He has been my companion in crime.” He might have pointed out distinguished churchmen in the crows and have said, “I am a saint next to that old hypocrite with his soul mummified and his heart dead.” But men never get far in that way. It is only as we face our own sin and hate it and forsake it that we find salvation.
One of the dangers of this day is a lost sense of sin. We have lost our sense of sin because we have lost our sense of God. The man who sees God sees himself as one guilty and defiled. Isaiah was one of the best men of his day, but when he caught a vision of his Lord he put his lips in the dust and cried, “Unclean! Unclean!” Job was a high toned and moral man. But at the vision of his holy Lord he threw himself in the dust and ashes.
There is no surer rebuke than the rebuke of a stainless life. Many a men and women who will never be convinced by mans preaching might be convinced by mans living. Sam Hadley met a beautiful woman of the street one night. She said, “Go home with me.” He said, “No, you go home with me.” She went, and to her amazement he carried her and introduced her to his wife. They talked together a while. She was very restless and soon declared that she must go. Mrs. Hadley got her coat for her, put it on her, then wrapped snuggly a homemade scarf around her neck, and kissed her. And the woman of sin sobbed, but she never left. Her heart had been broken at the revelation of her own self that had come to her in the light of this good woman’s life.
This thief saw himself. He saw himself as a man in need, as a man sin-stained and hastening on to the second death. And he reached out his hand for help in this wonderful request: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It was not a coward’s request. It was not the request of one who has insulted a million chances and who now calls on God not because he loves goodness, but because he wants to dodge a penalty.
There are people like that. This smaller thief was on that order. He said, “If you be the Christ, save yourself and us.” He is only interested is escaping the penalty. He is only pleading as some pray when they think they are going to die. He is only calling on God as some reading this call on Him only during the storms of their life. That sort of praying is not born of goodness or love for God. It is born simply of slavish fear. It is the prayer of a coward. But whatever else this man was, I say, he was no coward. Will you notice this, he dared stand up for Jesus before he took up for himself. Before he asked Jesus to help him, he did all that was in his power to help Jesus. He tried to defend Him from the screaming mob. He did the best that he could to put his torn and tortured body between Jesus and those who were tormenting Him.
Do you think that this was easy? It was not easy. When the thief did that, he put himself in a crowd absolutely by himself. He stood utterly alone. There was not another man or woman, in all the wide world that dared speak for Jesus and defend Him at that moment. Every disciple had forsaken Him. The women stand in the distance and sob in silence. The churchmen throw insults at Him. And Rome crucifies Him. Only one man dares to defend Him, dares to speak for Him. Millions will rally to Him in future years, I know, but let us honor this man who dared befriend his Lord when all others had forsaken Him. Let us honor the courage and devotion of him, him who spoke the last kindly and tender words that ever gladdened the ear of the Son of God on this side of the grave.
Then let’s look at the faith of this man. Most translations tell us he called him Lord. Did ever a man exercise such marvelous faith? Some have never called him Lord, in spite of the fact that He came to us as the Christ who has been the maker of history. Many have never called him Lord, even know they were brought up in a Christian home. Many have never called him Lord, even though a godly mother and father have called him that for years. This man called him “Lord.”
He called Him Lord in the most trying of all possible circumstance. Peter called Him Lord when he had witnessed His miraculous power in the lack of fishes. Thomas called Him Lord when he had shown him the hands that had throttled death and hell and the grave. Paul called him Lord when he had seen Him risen with glory that had smitten him blind. But this man called Him Lord when to the crowd He seemed even less lordly than the hideous thief by whom He hung.
There was a sign above His head, “Jesus, the King of the Jews.” That was the joke of the day. Nothing was a matter of deeper scorn then those words. This dying man a king! But to this cleared-eyed thief the inscription was not fiction. He saw in the man the King Eternal. Hear what he said, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” How sure was he of his kingship? He doesn’t say, “Remember me IF you come.” We might at least have expected him to put it that way if he had considered Him a king at all. But his faith goes far beyond that. He said, “WHEN you come.” Not “IF you happen to outride this storm, remember me,” but “I know, Lord that your victory is sure. So when you come into your kingdom remember this poor thief who hung with you on the nails.”
Was ever a faith so wonderful? There is the King and He has no throne but a cross. He has no crown but the thorns marks. He has no scepter except the nails driven through His hands. He has no followers but a jeering and howling mob. His royal wardrobe is in the hands of the Roman crap shooters. And yet this man penetrates the disguise of nakedness and the disguise of shame, and even the dusky disguise of death itself, and sees in Him the King Eternal, whose head is to be crowned with many crowns.
Notice too, that he believe this King is able to grant favors beyond death. He believes that this dying Lord is the very Lord of Life. Think of it, this thief is dying. He knows it. He is fighting now with the last grim enemy. The man at his side is dying quicker than he. He knows that too. And in the glooming of the night of death he lays plans with Him for eternity. I tell you the faith that sent martyrs to the stake, the faith that moves mountains into the depths of the sea is but child’s’ play in comparison with the faith of this man.
“Lord, remember me”, mark you that he does not ask for a throne. He does not ask, as the sons of Zebedee, for a place on His right hand or His left. He somehow feels that one thought of this dying man will be enough for him for all time and for eternity. And so he says, “Lord remember me.”
Did Christ hear that heroic request? Did He listen to this dying man who appealed to Him in the hour of His worst agony? Yes. He heard him. He heard him and gave him an answer. And there is no sweeter word that ever fell from His lips, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
We would be much poorer in every way if we did not have these word. Hear what a marvelous light it throws on the immediacy of salvation. How long does it take Christ to save a man? How long does it take Him to break his chains? How long does it take Jesus to make the worst of men clean and unspotted is His sight? How much time is required before this sinful human heart of mine can become a sharer in the divine nature? Answer, it may be done instantly. In the quickness of the lightning’s flash I may be reborn. I, you may this instant become a new creature in Christ Jesus.
Some people may laugh at instantaneous conversion. They want to save the world by a process of evolution, but evolution would have been a poor remedy for this dying man. He needs salvation now. And that is just the salvation that Christ had and has to offer. “Now is the accepted time and today is the day of salvation.” “Today you will be with me,” He says. And that was his birthday. And this may be yours, however far in sin you may have gone. Today you may be with Jesus. Today you may be in the sweetness of His fellowship.
This answer of our Lord also throws a flood of light upon the grounds upon which we may hope to meet Jesus in peace by and by. “Today you shall be with me in Paradise.” Why? For the simple reason that this dying thief has begun by being with Jesus in the here and now an eternal relationship. He has just claimed a present salvation. Therefore it is perfectly reasonable for him to expect a future salvation. He has come to know Jesus personally here, therefore he has sure grounds for hoping to meet Him and know Him yonder.
And there is no other sure basis of hope. Do not, I beg you, expect salvation at the hands of the cemetery. Do not hope for redemption through the power of the coffin and the shroud. There is one, and only one who saves, “There is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.” And if this Jesus cannot save you in the here and now, then He cannot save you at all. But if He can and does save you now, He can and will save you forever.
“Today you will be with me in paradise.” Where is that? I do not know. What it is? It is the abode of Jesus and those who have trusted in Him. I take it, it is Heaven. And He makes this place very sure to us. He asserts upon His very oath that this dying thief is going to be with Him in Paradise. Then, there is a Heaven. There is a place where love shall find its own. There is a land where God shall take upon His great mother lap and wipe away all tears from our eyes.
“You shall be with me”, this man had become a sharer in the nature of Christ. As best he could, he had shared in His shame, and how he is going to share in His glory. He is going immediately. He is going today. He is with Christ now. He will be with Him forever more.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.”
“For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers of things present, nor things to come, “Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is the Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The classroom won’t always give you the life lessons you really need. Don’t forget the lessons of this thief. Like him show courage in your walk with Jesus, like him show faith in your walk with Jesus, like him share in the blessing of your walk with Jesus. I beg you to take hold of Jesus today, that you may claim Him for your Savior now and forever more.