Luke 23:39-43

I have read this passage because it illustrates the wonder of the Gospel. It is one the most wonderful demonstrations of the grace of God that you get in the whole of the Scriptures.

Very early in the Lord’s public ministry He came to Nazareth and He spoke in the synagogue there and persons wondered at the words of grace that were coming out of His mouth. There had never been anything like it before. God acted in grace before but His grace was not really known. Grace and truth subsist (that is they exist and continue) through Jesus Christ; something completely new came in with the Lord Jesus.

When He spoke in Nazareth He drew attention to two incidents of divine grace from the Old Testament. The stories of Naaman and of the widow of Sarepta are perhaps some of the most important parts of the Old Testament because those were the two illustrations of divine grace that He selected there in the synagogue at Nazareth  – the story of a widow who, because of famine, was about to have, with her son, their last meal and then die and the account of a man called Naaman, who although very great, honourable and important, was a leper. Neither the woman nor Naaman could do anything to help themselves.

The widow had nothing before her but to eat a last meal from that tiny bit of meal that she had in the barrel and oil from the cruse. And Naaman had nothing before him but for the leprosy to go on developing until it resulted in his death. Neither of them could help themselves, yet the grace of God came into both those people’s lives and the Lord spoke about it.

That was the beginning of His ministry and here in the verses we have read in Luke’s Gospel you come to the end of that public ministry and you find another demonstration of God’s grace in all its extraordinary character. Again, we have a man who could do nothing to help himself. He was at an extremity; he was going to be dead within six hours. He was on the edge of eternity and there was nothing at all that could meet his need other than the Person of the Lord Jesus.

There is nothing at all that can meet your need and mine as sinners apart from the Person of the Lord Jesus – nothing at all. It was brought home to Naaman and it was brought home to that woman, that without God’s intervention there could be no hope. For this man it was very obvious. There was no hope for him apart from his trust in the Lord Jesus.

Myriads of people do not see it like that but there really is no hope for anyone apart from Christ.

I may have told you before about a story I once read in a daily newspaper about a journalist who was about to go to sea in a submarine.  Before he went he had to do a practice escape. In the survival tower at a Submarine School he thought he was going to drown. What came back into his mind at that moment of extremity was something he said he had heard at a Band of Hope meeting on Portsmouth seafront. The words that came back into his mind were, ‘Jesus alone can save you’. I do not know whether he came to Christ but what I do know is that when he started his article those were the words that he put right at the front of it. And I suppose that everybody that read the daily newspaper that weekend would have read those words, ‘Jesus alone can save you’. That is just as true today as it was for the thief on the cross. Thank God it is so – His grace has not changed.  “The grace of God which carries with it salvation for all men has appeared” (Titus 2:11). It appeared in Christ and it is still going on. It will not go on for ever; there comes a time when the day of grace will come to an end but that is not yet.

This man that we read of in Luke, this dying robber, is an interesting character because he had nothing to commend himself at all – there was no question of his guilt. He even admitted the condition that he was in. He said “We receive the just recompense of what we have done” (v.41).  It seems from Matthew’s gospel that at first both the malefactors cast reproaches on Jesus saying, “Art not thou the Christ? Save thyself and us” (Matthew 27:44).  It goes to show how desperate this man’s case was.

This man had nothing to commend himself to God but he is the very kind of person that God commends His love to. “God commends his love to us, in that, we being still sinners, Christ has died for us” (Romans 5:8). This man is a proof of it. When we get to glory he will be a most wonderful proof of the incredible grace of God which carries with it salvation for all men. Here it was in operation because here was a man who could do nothing for himself. He could not turn over a new leaf; he could not do any of the things that people sometimes say they will do to improve themselves. If he was going to come into life there was only one way: he had to rely on Christ.

Christ was there for him. It is a wonderful thing that the Lord Jesus was there for this man who was on the edge of eternity.

A short time ago a brother who used to come to some of the meetings in Sevenoaks was suddenly taken to be with the Lord. His youngest son, who was  converted only few months ago, said that one of the things that he had learned through his father’s sudden death was that we all stand on the edge of eternity.  His father had been apparently well and going about the normal things that he did on the Lord’s Day and then he was with the Lord on Monday. He was a man on the edge of eternity.

We all stand on the edge of eternity. This thief was very obviously on the edge of eternity and how was he going to face what was before him? What could he do? Jesus was there for him. I love to think of the Lord as being in the middle, between both these men, because He was equally available to them both. He is available tonight to whosoever will.

What grace shone in Jesus. It is a grace that shines in Him still. What Jesus was, here on earth, is what He is in heaven. What He is in heaven is what He will be eternally. That is what Hebrews means when it says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and to-day, and to the ages to come” (Hebrews 13:8). What Jesus is in His grace shines in Him still as Man in heaven and it is going to shine eternally. There is going to be a great display of it in heaven.

This robber will be there as one of the great trophies of divine grace. Let us see what happened to him. Matthew tells us that he cast the same kind of reproaches as the other malefactor. I am glad Matthew tells us that. It shows us that however far we may have got away from God we cannot put ourselves outside the reach of God’s grace.  I remember a street preaching once and as a bus went by a woman on the top deck opened the window and shouted something about Jesus that I have no intention of repeating to you. People may say things like that, just the same as this malefactor. It does not put somebody outside the grace of God. The grace of God carries with it salvation for all men, for whosoever will.

It does not mean that everybody is saved, but it does mean that no one by their activities or their actions puts themselves outside the reach of that grace. This man did not. We find grace so difficult because it is so contrary to what we are as natural men and women. We so easily get offended, we so easily hold grudges, we so easily say, “We saw it coming to them all along”.  God is not like that. God is looking at us with compassion and feeling. He is a God who, as we said in prayer, wants all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, to come to the knowledge of Himself in the Person of Jesus.

Jesus is the Truth. You may find things that are true, in that sense, in the scriptures and so on, but there is One in whom the truth is absolutely expressed, and He is Truth. He says, “I am the way and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6). Every one who trusts in Him comes to find Him in those three ways: to find Him as the way to God, to find Him as the truth of God and to find Him as One in whom there is life everlasting.

And so this man was changed. What changed him? We know one thing for certain and that is that the Holy Spirit was working in his heart. No one can ever come to Christ unless the Father draw him, and God the Holy Spirit has to begin that first work in our hearts. Without it nothing can happen. I am not preaching predestination, but it is a wonderful truth that the Holy Spirit works through the preaching of the gospel, through personal testimonies, through persons who give out tracts or stand outside giving out Bibles and things like that; He works through those means. He sees what is going on and He begins a work in the heart. A person could be the greatest preacher ever but without the Holy Spirit’s work nothing would be accomplished at all – but the Spirit delights to join His help to our weakness.

So I think the Holy Spirit had begun a work in this man and I think what began to change him was when he heard the Lord’s prayer from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). It was so different from anything else that had ever been uttered in such circumstances. The Lord meant it; He really meant it, He really wanted that for those persons. It was a true prayer. It was a prayer the Father heard and answered: you find that answer on the day of Pentecost when Peter began to preach and 3000 people got converted. Many of those people must have been those who had demanded Christ’s death. From the way that Peter preaches you know that that was so. A little while later you get another 5000 converted.  Why is it? It is an answer to the Lord’s prayer, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”.

Peter and the other apostles could tell the persons who made that crown of thorns for the Lord that there was a crown of glory for them if they would believe on the One that they had crowned with thorns. The man who put a spear into the Lord’s side and “there came out blood and water”, could be told that that very blood had been shed so that there might be a way of forgiveness. Such was the grace of God. Such was the wonderful prayer of the Lord Jesus, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

I think that was what began to move this man. When a person was crucified I have no doubt there was a great deal of bad language, blasphemy and so forth. The Lord Jesus was different from that: “as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7 KJV). It was not only that there was a silence, an impressive silence, before men like Pilate and Herod, but there was the silence of the suffering Lamb of God as He went to Calvary’s cross. It was something so different.

Look at Jesus tonight, if you will, taking the place of the sinner. The work of atonement was just about to be accomplished. After this man had spoken to Him it says, “it was about the sixth hour, and there came darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour”. That was when Jesus bore the awfulness of God’s wrath and when He knew the awfulness of being forsaken.

Up to this moment the Father had been with the Lord Jesus. He says that in the garden of Gethsemane, “yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me” (John 16:32). There in Caiaphas’ court, reviled and despised, in some mysterious way the Father was with Him. Before Pilate, before Herod, on that awful walk to Calvary, the Father was with Him. Even here, at this moment, speaking to the malefactor the Father was with Him. Then the Lord Jesus knew what it was to be absolutely forsaken.

Why was that? It is because God is righteous and the Lord Jesus was made sin. “Christ died for our sins” Paul says to the Corinthians. The Lord Jesus was made sin and bore God’s judgment against sin and dealt with the whole root principle and He bore the sins of everyone who trusts in Him.

He died for the sins of this repentant malefactor. He died for the sins of every one who has come to trust in Him. Today there is a wonderful way of blessing because the Lord Jesus took responsibility for my sins, for my wrongdoing. He was just about to bear the penalty for this thief’s sins, this man who said, “We indeed justly, for we receive the just recompense of what we have done”.

The fact that the Lord Jesus has taken responsibility for what I have done gives me confidence before God. Those sins of mine can never be resurrected again. Those sins, also, that I may commit after conversion are dealt with completely and forever.

When Mr Darby was asked about forgiveness for his future sins he said, “All my sins were future when Christ died for them.” There is a great, wonderful confidence that every believer in Jesus has as knowing that “Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). No one can ever raise those sins again. There can never be any challenge to that work of the Lord Jesus. He took responsibility and dealt with it completely before God. What a Saviour He is. How safely we may trust Him. How impossible it is to think that there is anything that can come into our lives, either before we are converted or after, that the sacrifice of Christ cannot meet.

People who have been in conditions of great and sudden danger often say that at that moment the whole of their life has flashed before them. Maybe something like that  happened to this malefactor on the cross but as trusting in Jesus he knew One who was the answer to it all.

Think of Christ, think of that great love wherewith He loved us, that He was prepared to endure God’s wrath, endure what it was to be forsaken, endure what it was to bear the sins of many, that there might be a way of blessing for you and me.

This malefactor comes into it. He says, “Remember me, Lord”. He owns up to the fact that he is a sinner. He owns up to his need of a Saviour and he says, “Remember me, Lord, when thou comest in thy kingdom.” What an answer he got! “Today, thou shalt be with me in paradise.”  He did not have to wait for the kingdom – there was something much more immediate than that. I believe that there was a peace that came into his soul there and then that nothing could take away. He had peace with God as you and I can have through our Lord Jesus Christ.

It is a peace that is absolute and certain. We may fall into sin after we have come to Christ. Alas, we often do. Some of us who were converted early on in our lives probably have a far greater history of sin after we were converted than we had before. Yet we can have absolute peace with God in relation to everything because the Lord Jesus’ work is complete and perfect.

He suffered, the Just for the unjust. Here was a man who was unjust and admitted it. The Lord Jesus suffered for him. He suffered, the Just for the unjust: what for? That He might bring us to God. He is the Mediator. He is the One who in wonderful grace came to reveal God to man. But what was the purpose of that? That man might be brought to God, that you and I might be brought to God, and brought to God not as pardoned criminals but as persons who are cleansed completely and totally from what we were, changed and transformed from the authority of darkness. This thief had been under the authority of darkness, under the authority of Satan all his life. He was transferred from the authority of Satan into the kingdom of the Son of God’s love (Colossians 1:13). What a transformation, brought about by the Lord Jesus and by this man trusting in Him.

It is wonderful to trust in Jesus, wonderful to call out to Him. Think of all those persons in the gospels who called out to Him, “Jesus, Lord, have mercy on me.” And immediately, whatever their problem was, when they came to Christ they found it was resolved. That is what this man did; he called out to Jesus, “Remember me, have mercy on me.”   Everything was met completely and perfectly by the sacrifice of Christ.

What a sacrifice it was! What a way He went! What an appreciation this man would have had of the Lord Jesus! When the Lord Jesus was on earth, twice the Father spoke from heaven to draw attention to Him, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I have found my delight”. “This is my beloved Son: hear him” (Matthew 3:17; Mark 9:7). What is God saying there? He is saying, “In this Man is all I want.” That is what God is saying.

What is this repentant malefactor saying? He is looking at Christ and he is saying, “In this Man is all I want, every thing that I need is in Him.” See how the sinner is brought to have something of the same appreciation of Christ as God has. Wonderful thing! That is what the Lord talked about when He said, “On this account the Father loves me, because I lay down my life” (John 10:17). Every believer, every one who has ever trusted in Christ, has something of love for Jesus for exactly the same reason—because He laid down His life.

This man was really saying of Jesus, `In this Man is everything that I want’.  And it was quite true; that was what he needed, a Saviour, somebody to help him. On the edge of eternity, he had nothing to commend himself at all except the fact that he was a sinner.

It tells us in Romans that Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6) and a great servant of God said, “The more ungodly you are the more it proves that Jesus is for you, because He died for the ungodly.” This man was a living proof of it. He had lived an ungodly life. There was nothing that he could do in terms of improvement or anything like that. If he was going to be saved it was on the grounds of pure grace. And tonight, that is the ground we have to come to.

People sometimes think they can do something: I saw a sad letter recently in a newspaper about Dr Johnson, the man who put together the first English dictionary. He was a great conversationalist and a very religious man. He said towards the end of his life that he was not sure that he had done enough to merit entry to heaven. I am sure I have not done enough! I never could do enough to merit entry to heaven. Just like this dying thief my only hope is what Jesus has done. It is the only title that anyone can ever have.

People struggle sometimes and try all kinds of things they think they need to do. This man is the answer to all that. Here he was on the edge of eternity and he trusted in Christ. He saw the Lord Jesus as wonderful. He saw the Lord Jesus as the One who could meet his need. He saw the Lord Jesus as God sees Him, at least in measure. God saw the Lord Jesus and said  that He was absolutely perfect. This man saw the Lord and said, “He has done nothing amiss.” And he trusted in Him and you see the kind of transformation that comes to the sinner as coming to Christ. We come to Christ in our need, come just as we are, come with nothing to commend ourselves at all except the invitation that comes from God –  as it says in John’s Gospel, that well known passage, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes on him may not perish, but have life eternal” (John 3:16).

Remember, He is the Way, He is the Truth and He is the Life. There was a way of life for this man. He was on the edge of death but there was a way of life and I have no doubt in the last few hours of his life he had a peace and a joy that even being on the cross did not take away;  he knew that he was going to be with Jesus, with the blessed Person who had given Himself for him, with the blessed One who saw his need and came to meet it, at all cost to Himself. How safely we can trust Him. What a wonderful Saviour He is!

Mark Lemon, Gospel, Sherwood Road, 18 July 2010.