Last-second Salvation

Luke 23:39-43

March 8, 2014 | Brian Bill

I’m normally fine with just letting my birthday slide by, especially now that they seem to come more quickly each year.  I’m pretty content if I get a confetti angel food cake with heath bar pieces blended into a cool whip topping.  One year Beth subsitituted another kind of cake and I pouted for a few days.

I’m not sure why I don’t really like my birthday.  It might go back to having four sisters and the cards they send me.  My oldest sister Cathy sent me one this week that reads: “Brother, celebrate your birthday like you’re a kid again!”  Here’s the inside: “Alone in your room.   No supper.  No TV.  Just sitting and thinking about what you’ve done.”

This has been quite the birthday week for me – there’s no way I can keep this one off the radar.  I received around 80 Facebook greetings on Wednesday, which was really nice, except it was not my birthday on Wednesday.  

Most of the shout-outs built me up except for one from a guy from a previous church.  Here’s what he posted: “Happy Birthday!  I enjoy getting your messages each week.  Still get a good nap listening to them.”  I think I’m going to “de-friend” him.

While many didn’t see any discrepancy with the date of my big day, one sharp Edgewood member posted this: “Okay I’m really confused…Everyone is telling you happy birthday, however Facebook says your birthday is Friday but today is Wednesday?  So is Facebook lying to me? Should I tell you happy birthday today or Friday?

Here’s how I answered: “Both days are fine with me.  Two gifts are better than one.”  Just so you know I like garlic and dill cheese curds.

Someone else chimed in: “You give him a present today and cash on Friday.”  I’m still waiting for both of those things.  I’m fine if they come belatedly.

I got a bunch of other birthday greetings on Thursday.  My dear wife Beth tried to clear things up so this is what she posted: “He started the week at 53, but if he keeps celebrating with Facebook, he’ll be 56 by his real birthday on Friday.”

While we celebrate the birthday of Christ on Christmas, on Easter we celebrate an epic event, when Jesus was raised from the dead.  In the days leading up to Easter we’re focusing on the seven shouts from the Savior as He hung on the cross.  Last weekend we listened to these penetrating words of grace, “Father, forgive them, for they do not kow what they do.”  

We pointed out that the Savior’s first shout is a precise prophetic fulfillment of Isaiah 53:12: “…For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”  The second cry comes from Luke 23:43: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”  When Jesus reaches out to this sinner, He fulfills another prophecy from this same verse in Isaiah: “And He was numbered with the transgressors, and He bore the sin of many.”

A Terrorist Finds Peace

Follow along as I retell the story from Luke 23:32-43 through the eyes of the criminal’s father.

My son was convicted and crucified for his crime of treason.  His claim to fame was that he was one of the thieves executed next to Jesus on the Cross.  That description is actually quite generous because my son was a cold-blooded terrorist who had murdered many people.  He was impossible to control and his pores poured profanity even as a young boy.  That’s why I started calling him ‘Mara,’ which means bitterness.  He brought nothing but disgrace to me and my family.

Mara had thick skin and was numb to life.  He had learned how to take care of himself and take advantage of others.  I knew all about crucifixions.  I had watched the procedure many times before…but this was my son.  The soldiers seemed in a hurry that day.  The guards grabbed my boy and threw a 100-pound beam across his shoulders and shouted, “Carry it.”  Mara staggered under the weight.  His buddy was given a piece of timber as well.  Together they stumbled for two blocks, with virtually no one around.  I looked into my son’s eyes but didn’t know what to say.  

When we turned the corner we came upon a chanting crowd filled with wailing women and shouting soldiers.  Everyone seemed to be fixated on the one bearing the cross at the front of the procession.  Mara shouted out, “Who’s that?”  A spear was pushed against his bruised back and a soldier gruffly replied, “They say He’s the king of the Jews.  His name is Jesus.” 

The parade now started moving faster until we reached the place of the skull.  Jesus was thrown to the ground on top of his crossbeam; the nails and hammer were ready.  Mara struggled and tried to get away but he was nailed to the cross with a brutal precision.  He screamed and cursed every time the hammer struck the spikes.  In between him and his bandit buddy was the one called Jesus.  Unlike the two terrorists, Jesus uttered not a word of complaint.

My bitter boy then unleashed a stream of speech that made me both blush and blubber.  I moved away because I didn’t want anyone to turn against me.  And yet, I wanted to take in everything that was happening.  His fatal friend joined him as they both cursed and yelled at Jesus.  The soldiers sneered.  The people passed by and hurled insults.  

Jesus then shouted something in a hoarse whisper that I will never forget.  I couldn’t believe what I heard: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”  I was stunned.  Mara’s mouth fell open and just stared at the middle cross.  I could tell something had jarred him.  The criminal was now curious.  I saw him look up to read the words posted above Jesus’ head, “This is the king of the Jews.

Their eyes met.  Mara saw something he had never seen before.  Those eyes had no anger, no bitterness and yet, they shared his pain. Just then, his partner in crime broke the holy silence with a shout of sarcasm, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.”

I couldn’t believe what my boy did next!  He turned to his buddy and rebuked him, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation?  And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” My son had never talked like this before!  He not only stood up to his friend, but he in essence told all the religious leaders and soldiers that they were executing an innocent man.

But he wasn’t finished.  He pushed down on the spike in his feet so he could take a big breath and then turned toward those loving eyes and blurted out, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”  This was the first time my son had ever expressed any faith.  He seemed convinced that Jesus was a king and that He could help him.  Jesus answered with a promise mingled with love: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”  My son, a sin-soaked criminal, was received by a bloodstained Savior that day.  I hope I’ll see him again.

Freeze Frames

Let’s go back now and take a closer look.  Imagine that we had video footage of everything that happened.  Let’s look now at four clips.

1. A condemned man. 

The first clip shows Mara and his buddy as condemned men.  It’s very likely that they were in the terrorist cell of Barabbas, the notorious criminal, like Osama bin Laden, who was the leader of a band of murderers.  Unbelievably, the people demanded that Barabbas Bin Laden be set free instead of Jesus and then we don’t hear about Barabbas again. Two of his cohorts are not so fortunate and are destined to be publicly executed, next to the one who took their leader’s place.

Mara was a condemned man and he deserved to die for what he had done.  His rap sheet was as long as his arm.  He was an assassin who had killed for fun and for profit.  He was probably on Jerusalem’s Most Wanted posters.  It was quite a coup for the authorities to have him and his buddy strapped to crosses on execution hill.

As bad as this guy was, he represents each of us.  We’ve all robbed God and live in rebellion.  The criminal was condemned not just because he had broken the laws of the land, but because he had ignored God and broken His laws.  He was self-centered, just like we are.  While we might not be in a terrorist cell, we have all transgressed against God.  

We have dissed the demands of God, and like the thief on the cross; God’s commands have broken us

Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Because we have fallen short and missed the mark of God’s perfection, we are all condemned before God.  We have dissed the demands of God, and like the thief on the cross; God’s commands have broken us.  No matter how hard we try, we cannot meet His standards or expectations.

When we come to grips with our sinful condition, we become candidates for salvation.  If we don’t recognize our own depravity, we’ll go to our graves shaking our fist at God, just like the other criminal on the cross did.

2. A caustic man. 

As we come to the next scene and hit “pause,” we see a caustic man.  We know from Matthew 27:44 that both of the criminals started out the day hurling insults and casting blasphemies at Jesus. 

It doesn’t seem right that these two would taunt and mock the one on the middle cross.  Jesus was not responsible for what they were going through.  And yet, we often do the same, don’t we?  When we allow bitterness to take root in our lives, we lash out at God, thinking that He’s to blame.  I love the contrast in this picture.  While the two terrorists lash out at the Lord, Jesus did not yell at them or scold them.  He just took it.  

Are you in pain right now?  Do you feel like God doesn’t understand?  Are you mad at Him?  Do you find yourself being caustic with others?  If so, tune into this clip from the cross.  There is no loneliness, no anxiety, no rejection, no betrayal, no stress, no physical pain that you will ever go through that Jesus hasn’t already experienced.  Listen to Hebrews 4:15“For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.”

3. A changed man. 

This is my favorite part.  The condemned and caustic criminal, who had committed cosmic crimes against a holy God, is changed!  I love this about Christianity.  Jesus changes lives.  One of the things that trips my trigger is to see life change take place. 

To see someone take the steps to restore a marriage, to listen to a man reclaim his purity, to see someone freed from substance abuse through Celebrate Recovery, to observe a peaceful spirit where there was once anxiety and stress, to celebrate joy where there was despair, to see financial needs met in a miraculous way, to watch wandering kids come back to Christ, to see Christ-followers living on mission in their neighborhoods and workplace, to know that teams are going to Burkina Faso and San Jose on mission trips this summer, to realize that there are many reading through the entire Bible this year, and to partner with sold-out servants who look for ways to use their time, talents, and treasures.  

You can’t beat it!  I don’t know of anything other than a relationship with Jesus Christ that can cause such wholesale changes in heart, thought, character, words, and behavior!

Let’s think about what this criminal saw in Christ:

  • He watched how Jesus faced death.  He wasn’t cursing and complaining like they were because He was ready to die.  
  • He wondered why the priests would be at the bloody crucifixion site.  He knew enough about religion to know that this would have made them unclean.  If they would risk their own ability to worship for the sake of witnessing an execution, then Jesus must be someone pretty important. 
  • He heard Jesus request forgiveness for the unforgivable.  This prayer pierced his conscience because he knew he needed to be forgiven.  This short sentence became a saving sermon.
  • He heard the inadvertent testimony of the crowd in Matthew 27:42: “He saved others…but He can’t save Himself!”  Even though these words were shouted with derision, he may have meditated on the phrase, “He saved others.”  He sure knew he needed saving.  
  • He read the gospel tract that was nailed above Jesus’ head, “The King of the Jews.”  He knew He needed someone to reign supreme in His life.

He eventually came to realize that he was in the presence of a King who was also the Savior.

Let’s see what we can learn from this freedom fighter’s faith development in Luke 23:39-42.  Listen carefully to the profound, yet simple way to salvation.

1. Revere God. 

When he heard his friend utter those ugly words, dripping with sarcasm, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us,” he stood up to him for maybe the first, and certainly the last, time.  His partner in crime just wanted to be freed so he could sin some more.  Some of us do the same.  We call out for help and ask God to take away our pain and suffering and then we live the way we want.  Look at verse 40: “But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation?’”   We must always start with God by recognizing that He is holy and just.  We must fear Him and give Him first place in our lives.

2. Admit guilt. 

Not wanting to be self-righteous, because he knew he had no leg to stand on (literally), he immediately admits his guilt in the first part of verse 41: “And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds…” He didn’t gloss over, excuse, or rationalize his behavior.  He came right out and said, “We’re busted.  We’re wrong.  We’re getting what we deserve.”  We can’t be saved until we first admit that we are as lost and condemned as these criminals were

3. Confess Jesus. 

This man knew that Jesus was sinless when he cried out in the last part of verse 41: “…But this man has done nothing wrong.”  Even Judas said in Matthew 27:4, “I have sinned for I have betrayed innocent blood.”  Pilate testified in Luke 23:23, “What crime has this man committed?”  And, in Matthew 27:19, Pilate’s wife said, “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man.”  Jesus is the sinless substitute, the Lamb of God who took our sins with Him to the cross.  The two criminals were getting what they deserved and the Lamb who had done nothing wrong was paying the price to redeem sinners from the penalty and power of sin.

4. Request salvation. 

This man not only showed reverence for God, admitted his sin, and confessed Christ, he did something more: he requested salvation. Look at verse 42: “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”  Salvation is not automatic.  It’s a pardon that must be received if you want it activated in your life.  John 1:12: “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

5. A converted man. 

The condemned, caustic and changed man was finally converted because he revered God, admitted his guilt, confessed Christ, and requested salvation.  We see this in verse 43: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”  In the midst of Jesus’ final hours, He answered a sinner’s prayer, just like He does today.

I love how Jesus fulfilled the man’s simple request.  He went way beyond what He was asked to do.  Divine grace always exceeds human expectations.  It reminds me of Ephesians 3:20: “Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine…” 

  • The man was hopeful, but probably not certain.  Jesus said, Assuredly, I say to you.”  This is the word “amen” and means “to be firm and steady.”   It was also used as an oath or a binding promise.
  • The man was looking to the future.  Jesus said, Today.”  In the original the word “today” is the first word in the sentence to show that this very day, the day of his crucifixion, he would be with Jesus.  Would you notice that there’s no mention of a place called purgartory in this passage?
  • The man just wanted to be remembered.  Jesus declared, “You will be with me.”  We could translate the thought this way: “You will be with me in a very personal way.”  At its heart, Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship with the living Lord.
  • The man wanted a destination.  Jesus promised a place “in paradise.”  This was the same promise He had given to His disciples in John 14:2.  Scholars tell us that paradise originally referred to the walled gardens of Persian kings.  When a king would want to honor his subjects, he would invite them to walk with him in his garden.  This same word is used in Genesis 2 to describe the Garden of Eden and in Revelation 2:7 to refer to heaven.

Lessons Learned

I see five lessons that we can learn about salvation from this second shout from the Savior.

  • Jesus alone has the authority to save.  He is the sinless Son, the Lamb of God, who died as our substitute.
  • No one is beyond His reach.  This terrorist had lived a terrible life and was saved at the very last second.  Who is that one person you think of who seems so far from God right now?  Change how you talk about him or her.  Instead of saying, “‘He is not saved,’ say something like this, ‘He is not saved…yet.’”  Start thinking about how you can invite this person to one of our four “Epic Easter” services.  Did you know Easter is the number one time people will consider going to church?  Researcher Thom Ranier has discovered eight of ten unchurched people would attend a service if they were invited.  That’s the good news.  The not-so-good news is according to his research, only two percent of church members ever invite an unchurched person to church.
  • Salvation is not by good works.  Being saved has nothing to do with joining a church or even following a set of religious rules.  The guy on the cross couldn’t do any of that.  He could not walk in paths of righteousness because there was a nail through his feet.  He could not perform any good deeds because there was a nail through both of his hands.  He couldn’t clean himself up.  He was saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The thief on the cross had just one chance and he took it
  • If you’re alive it’s not too late to turn to Christ.  A rabbi was walking with some of his disciples when one of them asked, “Rabbi, when should a man repent?”  The teacher calmly replied, “You should be sure you repent on the last day of your life.”  But, protested several of his students, “We can never be sure which day will be the last day of our life.”  The rabbi smiled and said, “The answer to that problem is very simple.  Repent now.”  The thief on the cross had just one chance and he took it.  This may be your last chance as well.
  • Salvation is a choice.  There are only two options – you can be pardoned, or you will be punished.  The two freedom fighters represent the divine drama of salvation.  The dividing line of humanity is not geography, race, economics, or political affiliation.  The line of division is the cross.  Those who repent and receive will enjoy eternity with Christ.  Those who revile and reject will spend eternity in the never-ending fires of Hell.

I can never contemplate this cry from the cross without remembering what happened with one of our neighbors when we lived in Pontiac.  He had been fighting some serious health problems and he knew that he was at the end of his life so he asked me to come and visit him in the hospital.  He was kind of cranky and cantekerous so I was a bit nerous to chat with him.  

As I sat next to him I shared the story of the two terrorists on the cross.  I focused on this sweet shout from the Savior, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”  I told Bob that it didn’t matter how he had been living.  It didn’t matter how many times he had been to church (he hadn’t been going).  What mattered was what he was going to do with Jesus.  I then explained how I became a Christian and then walked him through what he needed to do if he wanted to be with Jesus in paradise for eternity.  I urged Him to revere God, to admit his guilt, to confess Jesus and to request salvation.

With tears in his eyes he prayed and asked Jesus to save him from his sins as he put his faith and trust in Him for salvation.  By the time he was done, we were both crying.  His wife Rita was crying as well (she got saved a few weeks later).  I’ll never forget what happened next.  After I shared some Scripture with him to let him know that he was now ready to die and gave him assurance that he would be in Heaven, I went out into the hallway to talk to his daughter Brenda.

While we were talking a lullaby starting playing over the hospital sound system.  They do that whenever a baby is born to let everyone know that a new life has come into the world.  I turned to Brenda and said, “They’re playing that song for your dad in celebration of his new birth!  Today’s his birthday!”  

Are you ready to do the same thing?  Do you want to be with Jesus in paradise when you die?  If so, you need more than one birthday.  First, you need to be born physically.  It looks like you all handled that one pretty well.  But Jesus says that you need a spiritual birthday: “Unless you are born again you cannot see the kingdom of heaven.”   Have you been born again?  If not, why not?  Why not now?

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?