The Good Thief

Title: The Good Thief

Text: Luke 23:39-43

Time: April 9th, 2006

Next Sunday is Easter Sunday 2006. Easter is very symbolic because it comes after the cold winter, which symbolizes death, that is when there is mostly darkness and cold and the green plants have died and the animals have gone underground in hibernation. Then, spring comes and the plants start growing and the birds return and signs of life appear, that’s when we celebrate Easter, the raising of the dead from the grave by Jesus. But before we can get to Easter, in order, we must face Friday, Christ on the Cross, or as it’s called in Christianity, Good Friday. Why is it called Good Friday, when it seems it’s such a bad Friday, when Christ died? Because when Christ died, that’s when our sins were atoned for, that’s when our sin debt was paid, that’s when the long over-due bill of humanity’s sin, past, present, and future, was finally settled. And it’s good for us because we find our salvation in the cross, an instrument of death. Ok, so if Good Friday really provides for our salvation, why then do we celebrate Sunday, Easter morning? Because that was when Christ presented himself alive with our salvation. Now he won salvation for us who trust him on Good Friday, but he came back a victor over sin and death on Sunday. That’s why we celebrate Sunday more than Friday. But by calling it Good Friday, we do celebrate it somewhat even though we save the real celebration until Sunday. On Friday, we are still reflecting on the death of Jesus, and we are trying to appreciate all that he did for us in living, suffering, and dying for us. So today, which is Palm Sunday because of the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem on the donkey when the people broke off the palm branches and laid them at his feet as he went by. I could talk about that too today, because there are so many things to say during what is called Holy Week. But today I want to focus on the cross, and particularly the good thief of the cross. There were two thieves crucified with Jesus. You may wonder why I call the one a good thief? It’s because there was another thief, a bad thief, as I’ll explain. This story is found in Luke 23:39-43, let me read it. (read). I’d like to talk about these three men on crosses that day, the bad thief, the good thief, and of course, the holy Lord Jesus. Because in these three persons represent the whole mix of human history. There is the holy, perfect God in the form of Jesus Christ. There is sinful humanity — in the form of either humble faith or prideful rejection of God. Everything is contained in this little scene on Good Friday. Let us pray that God speaks to us this morning and shows us himself and his message for us. (pray).

First, there is the holy, perfect lamb of God Jesus Christ. V. 39, “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us.’” I’ll talk more about this bad thief next, but what he said as a mock of Jesus was actually true, although he and others didn’t believe it. He calls Jesus the Christ. Now that word means Messiah or Deliverer or Savior. Now the Jews were looking for a political savior to lead them against the Romans, free the nation, and establish Israel as an independent country, like it is now. Think about that, what the Jews during the time of Jesus wanted was a leader to establish a nation of Israel and it finally happened in 1948. That’s what they wanted Jesus to do, but he wouldn’t lead them in politics. He had a bigger, more important job to do: be their savior from sin, die for their sins upon the cross. Now he could have been their political savior, freed the Jews from under the Romans, and established Israel as a nation, but that wouldn’t have solved the sin problem. And it would have only helped one small group of people, the Jews. What Jesus was really doing was dying for all people, in order that all might be saved through faith in him, not just Jews, but everyone else: Chinese, Japanese, Arabs, Africans, Spanish people, English speaking, everyone, the whole world. So Jesus was a savior, a savior saving us from our sins, saving us from Judgment Day, saving us from eternal punishment of separation from God. People don’t realize that this – eternal punishment — is something to fear. Jesus says elsewhere in the Bible, “Don’t fear those who can kill the body, but not the soul. But rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell.” Adam and Eve, the very first humans a long time ago, started all of us humans down the long road of sin by disobeying God. That disobedience and sin passed down from generation to generation until it gets to us today. We face a judgment for our sins just as Adam and Eve did, unless we somehow get out of it by some means. Well, Jesus is the only means out of Judgment Day, so by faith we trust in his life, death, burial, and resurrection, and we are saved from sin and judgment. Instead of eternal punishment in hell, we receive eternal life in heaven. Now this bad thief on the cross said next, “Save yourself and us.” Again, he was right that Jesus was the Christ or Messiah, he was also right that Jesus can save. Only he was thinking of saved from the cross, saved from death that day. And yes, Jesus could have saved himself and those thieves from death that day, but that wasn’t his plan. He says elsewhere that he only needed to call out to God the Father who would send legions of angels to rescue him. Thank God he didn’t save himself from the cross, because through the cross we are saved. Again, that’s why we call it Good Friday, because our sins were atoned, or our sin debt was paid at that time. So Jesus the Savior – the One who saves us from our sins — was on the cross that day.

Second, there is the bad thief on the cross that day. V. 39, again, “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us.’” Now this bad thief it says was a criminal. We don’t know exactly that he was a thief but it was thought historically that he, along with the other man on the other side of Jesus, were thieves, but that is only a guess. The word just means “wrong-doer” so it’s hard to know exactly what this man, or the other man did in order to be crucified. I guess it really doesn’t matter what these two men did, all we know is that they were guilty of something, enough to be punished by death. It seems the Bible leaves it uncertain, their sins are left undefined. It does that because these two criminals represent the two kinds of people in the world today: the unrepentant sinners and the repentant sinners. I hope to God that you are the repentant sinner this morning. But this bad thief or criminal was unrepentant towards Jesus. It says that he hurled insults at Jesus; that shows he wasn’t a believer, he didn’t really trust Jesus, he didn’t have faith. There are people like that today, openly hostile to Jesus, but most people who don’t have faith, don’t even bother to say anything good or bad about the Lord. If they see you reading the Bible, going to church, praying, trying to do the right thing, they say, “O that’s nice that you have your religion, if you think you need it. I’m happy that you’ve found something that meets your needs. I think it’s great that you have something that gives you comfort, just don’t expect me to believe it, and don’t preach it to me.” Most people who don’t trust Jesus don’t even bother to give him any of their time, even to argue against him. That’s the way most people are, they neither dislike Jesus nor follow him. So this thief represents the vast majority of people in the world, in our country, in our city here of Jamestown, who reject Jesus as their savior. They may not be as rude as this man on the cross, but their heart doesn’t repent before him, nor does their heart embrace him by faith for the salvation of their sins. We see this kind of person all over the place, and all of us were this kind of person at one time, a person who didn’t believe, or rebelled against Jesus. Some of these people are in churches, they go, but they don’t believe, don’t trust, don’t follow Jesus, because they go for social reasons. We don’t know what else this bad thief said to Jesus but you can bet it probably isn’t fit to repeat. He probably joined the unbelieving crowd in repeating the mocks and jeers and insults the Jewish rulers were giving Jesus. Maybe some of you can think back before you dedicated your life to Jesus, how you joined in with others in your unbelief and sin against God. If so, thank the Lord right now that he got you on the right path and caused you to repent and believe. We need to pray for those who don’t trust Jesus. They are headed for Judgment Day and then after that condemnation and God’s wrath. We need to witness to them, in the hopes that they might repent. But that’s not all.

Third, there is the good thief on the cross that day. Vv. 40-43, “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.’” This man was saved at the final hour, at the last possible moment. His life up to that final point had ended in tragedy. Again, we don’t know what his crimes were. We don’t know even if he was a Jew or Gentile, although I’m guessing he was a Jew. We don’t know what he did only we know that he concluded that he deserved it. He could have been a thief like we call him, having stolen something from the Romans. Or he could have been a zealot, a Jewish political fanatic who tried to lead a revolution against Rome, kill Roman soldiers, and do anything to change things politically. Rome caught him and sentenced him to death that day. We don’t know, but we do know that his life was ending in the tragedy of the cross. He just happened to be dying on the same day as the Savior Jesus. Now this man somehow, someway had faith, he believed. There wasn’t a lot of time for him to show it, but in just a few words he demonstrated it by showing great respect for Jesus, confessing his own sins, and asking Jesus for spiritual salvation. Different from the other thief, he wasn’t asking for deliverance from physical death, but he was asking for deliverance from Judgment of sin, and asking for eternal life. He had it right. He cried out in his final hours to Jesus to save his soul. He represents everyone who trusts Jesus for salvation. Now most people don’t trust Jesus for salvation, that’s why Jesus says, “Wide is the road that leads to destruction and many are on it, but narrow is the road that leads to eternal life and few are on it.” Most of the people of the world, of this country, of this city, of this place, are taking the wide road to Judgment, only a few are taking the narrow road to eternal life. I hope and pray that you are one of those on the narrow road, the way of faith. This good thief did everything one needs to in order to be saved. He repented and he believed. First, he repented. It’s pretty clear because he confesses that he’s a sinner, and he shows sorrow for it. And he agrees that he deserves the punishment for his crimes. For saving faith a person must admit that they have sinned and be sorrowful for it. Now this thief repented too, but he couldn’t bear fruit with his life because he was dying, but normally we need to show that our heart is sincere in repenting. Next, he trusted in Christ, or else he wouldn’t have wasted his breath. Repentance and faith, it got him saved. It still saves everyone who will repent of sin and believe in Jesus today. Have you repented of your sins, and believed in Jesus? I pray you have. If you haven’t, what better time during the Easter season to do so.

All of us start out in life like the bad thief on the cross. We are guilty of rebellion against God yet we resist confessing and repenting because of our pride. But we don’t have to stay that way. If we repent and believe, we can end like the good thief on the cross. Jesus gave the man what he asked for, he saved the man’s soul saying, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” I think the man began to breath easy, even though in great pain, because he had found rest for his soul even as his body was dying. Even though this man’s life was scheduled to end in a terrible and tragic way, it actually ended in a glorious way, he receive the greatest thing of all – eternal life with God. It just shows that it doesn’t matter how bad your life has been, whether through your own wrong doings or someone or something else. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done bad or what sin you’ve committed. The good thief on the cross, we don’t know his sin, but it doesn’t matter because whatever it was, Jesus died for it and saved the man’s soul. And it doesn’t matter what sin you’ve done, big or small or medium sized. If you repent of your sins, and trust in Jesus to save your soul, he will, no matter what it is that you’ve done. Now we don’t know if this man had lived a lifetime of crime or just made one bad choice in life. But whether he was a lifelong criminal or just took it up, it doesn’t matter because he was going to die. And that’s the same with our sins in respect to God. It doesn’t matter if we are a really bad sinner or if we are a “pretty good person” who sins a little, sin is sin, and it will bring us to Judgment Day and it will get us separated in hell for all eternity. But just as it doesn’t matter if this man was a lifelong crook or just made one big, bad decision, his humble repentance and humble faith at the end was enough to save him. That’s why we shouldn’t ever give up on anybody no matter how bad they are. I know I’m tempted to give up on some people because it seems so hopeless for them to come around to repent of their sins and trust Jesus with sincere faith. But I must remember the good thief on the cross who changed at the last possible second. It also means we are never beyond the grace of God ourselves. Whether you are a big-time sinner, a medium, average sinner, or a little sinner, your sin will get you to Judgment Day and condemn you. But also, whether you are a big sinner, medium or small you need to repent and put your trust in Jesus and his atoning death on that cross. I pray that each and every one of you has done just that. Make sure you have. Then you can really celebrate this Easter with true Easter faith.

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