Dear Radio Friends,
We take our text today from Luke 23:43, “And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.”
These are the greatest words that Jesus ever spoke. They are the words of God’s grace to pardon from all evil in the blood of His Son, and to earn the right of eternal life in glory. There is really only one question above all others. That question is this: Am I one who belongs to Jesus Christ? That is the only important question at death. Then to hear Jesus say, “Verily I say unto you, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” Then all is well, no matter what.
We must hear Him say that to us today. It is not enough simply to know that Jesus said these words to the repentant thief upon the cross. It is not enough simply to stand in awe at the absolute wonder of His grace to save this man from the brink of hell and take him to the gates of heaven. We must hear Him say this to us in the gospel. He must give us grace and faith to see ourselves as represented in that thief, to understand the hopelessness of our own sin and acknowledge our own just condemnation before God. He must work faith in our heart that we see Christ and His cross as the only way of salvation and cry out: “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom.” And we must hear Him, by that same faith, speak the most wonderful and precious words to our hearts: “Verily I say unto you, Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise.”
These words are the second time that Jesus spoke from the cross. The first word He spoke was, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” It was about an hour or so after that that Jesus speaks the second time. During that time He was subjected to the most cruel ridicule against Him. There is a very close relationship between these two words from the cross. When Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them,” He was praying for His church and for His people. Now the Father gives to Him an answer, an answer in this repentant thief who cries out for Christ to remember him when He comes into His kingdom. He speaks the words: “Thou shalt be with Me in paradise.” You can search the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation and you will not find such a wonderful word of God, a word of such mercy as this word. Jesus is proclaiming the greatest possible good to the most ill-deserving of all sinners. “Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise.”
Jesus is speaking to a thief, to a malefactor, to a murderer who was being crucified at that moment upon the cross. Jesus was crucified between two malefactors. The very positioning of His cross speaks to us of the fulfillment of Scripture when in Isaiah 53 it was said, “He was numbered with the transgressors.” This thief was, evidently, a Jewish man. He therefore knew, externally at least, of God, of the promise of the Messiah, of the kingdom of God. Growing up in Israel, he most likely had received thorough instruction in all of the promises that God had made to His children in the Old Testament. But he grew up to despise it, and he led a life of evil. He was a thief. He was a highwayman and a murderer.
This thief, along with his companion who was crucified on the other side of Jesus, had witnessed all that had transpired and all that had taken place upon Jesus. In verse 22 of the chapter, we read that these two thieves were led with Jesus to be put to death. They saw what the Lord’s enemies were doing to Him. They saw the Lord’s friends forsake Him. And, at the very beginning, this thief who now cried out for mercy had also joined in the mocking of Christ. We read in Matthew 27:44, “The thieves (plural) also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth.” On the very brink of eternity, as he was being crucified, he united, at first, with the enemies of Jesus Christ. In his dying hour he derided and mocked the suffering Savior.
Jesus says to such, “Thou shalt be with Me in paradise.” That is the promise of the gospel to all those for whom Jesus died. “Thou shalt be with Me in paradise,” the highest degree of glory, a place where no sin or death can exist. “Thou shalt be with Me” – that is paradise, to be with Christ and to enjoy perfect fellowship with God.
When Jesus spoke these words, the soul of the malefactor was poised over the pit of hell. Both thieves were dying an awful death. Both, at the beginning, lashed out against Christ. But somewhere in that time, God was pleased to snatch one and to bring this man to faith and repentance in Jesus Christ and to deliver him from the destruction of hell.
Those who are not in Christ by grace, those who are not given faith and repentance in Christ do not go to paradise. They go to hell. The Bible is very plain. Our sins deserve eternal punishment. Jesus Christ was on the cross to bear away that punishment for all those who were given to Him of the Father. There is no hope apart from this Jesus Christ. The cross was this: Jesus Christ was there to earn for His people paradise. Jesus Christ is there to deliver from hell by dying for His own and enduring the hell that His own deserve, and to draw them to Him in faith and repentance.
Jesus speaks a word of sheer mercy to a man who, by the love and power of God, has been brought to repentance, who cried out: “Lord, remember me.” He speaks a word of wonderful mercy.
There were two malefactors. Both were equally near to Christ externally. Both heard and saw all that was done to Him. Both were dying in acute torment. Both were alike sinners. But one died in his sins. He died as he had lived – hardened and impenitent and unbelieving. The other cried to Jesus, “Lord, remember me,” and he was saved.
Why? Why one? Why not the other? The answer is: God’s grace. Ephesians 2:4, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” You say, “Yes, but this man repented. He is called the repentant malefactor.” That is true. He repented. But he repented because God worked it in him. Some time after he first had cursed and ridiculed Christ with everyone there, some time after that, God touched his heart, God softened his heart.
More, the man’s repentance did not save him. Yes, the grace of God in him caused him to repent and to confess the Lord Jesus Christ. The grace of God in him made him put the last hours of his life to good use. But still, his repentance did not save him from hell. His repentance did not earn his salvation. If his repentance delivered him from hell, then why is Jesus dying upon the cross? If it is repentance that saves a person, that is, is the reason and the ground for eternal joy, then why does Jesus suffer upon a cross so?
No, it was mercy, mercy alone that saved him. Jesus brought him to repentance in order that through faith he might enjoy and receive the assurance of his salvation. But it was grace and mercy. It was Jesus who saved him by dying for him upon the cross.
God stripped away all human instruments to show that salvation is of grace. Jesus did not die for good men and women who deserved in return a good turn from God. But He died for malefactors, for evildoers. That is the name of this man – malefactor, evil-doer. And that is all that can be said of all those whom Jesus has saved. They are malefactors, evildoers.
Do you know that about yourself? When that word of the cross comes home to your heart, you will know that about yourself. That will be the way whereby you know the grace of God working within you. You will confess before a holy God: “My name is malefactor, evildoer. There is nothing of myself,” you will say, “that separates me from those who are lost except the amazing grace of God.” You will say, “My nature is evil – I am evil, born in sin.” That will be your confession. And you will know that it was God alone who of sheer mercy saved you and turned you and gave you to repent so that now you hate that evil and you repent and turn from your evil and bring forth glory to God in your life.
Jesus said unto him, “You shall be with Me in paradise.” Jesus was proclaiming a very personal promise. “I say unto you, to you!” That must be spoken by Jesus personally, by the Spirit of Jesus Christ in our hearts. More than anything else in the whole world, we must know that Jesus speaks this to us. That, of course, comes in the way of faith and repentance, faith and repentance being worked of the mighty God in our hearts. You cannot hear the word of Jesus Christ in your heart in any other way than in the way of faith and repentance. There were other people at the cross that day who heard these words of Jesus. But they took no comfort from them. They still derided Him as a dreamer. The other thief found no comfort in these words. He continued to ridicule the Christ. God must open the heart through faith and repentance. God must infuse a knowledge of ourselves as sinners and Christ as Lord and Savior and give to us to trust in this mercy of God.
God does this always at the foot of the cross. It was the cross of Christ which God used to open the thief’s heart. That is how He saved him. How did this happen, we ask, this man coming to confess Christ at such an hour and at such a moment? He has no one there to expound to him the holy Scriptures. He has no preacher, he has no instruction. How did he come to this? The answer is: the very power of God is there. The power of Christ crucified. That is the power of God unto salvation, says the Scriptures. Before the cross he came to know his wretched state. In the cross he was given hope of life eternal and he was brought to the assurance of his salvation. He cried out, “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom.” By the cross of Jesus Christ God works confession of sin, repentance, and faith in Jesus Christ.
There was a great change that came over this man. Just before the words that Jesus spoke to him, this man had spoken to the other malefactor who was being crucified with him. That other malefactor, I said, had continued to deride and blaspheme the Christ. The repentant malefactor said, “Dost thou not fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation. And we, indeed, justly. But this man hath done nothing amiss.” What a change came over this man. He took God’s side over against himself. And he justified God before all. He justified God in his own condemnation. “We indeed justly. We deserve what we are getting.” That is the grace of personal repentance. Personal repentance is to say this: “Should God condemn me, it is only justice.” True repentance has no self-justifications. It does not add the word “but” or “if.”
Is this repentance the gift of God to you today? Do you condemn what you find within yourself? Do you refuse to justify what you have done before God? Do you say the proud words, “I don’t want to believe in a holy God who damns men.” Is that the thought of your heart? Or do you justify God and say, “Let God be just and holy, and before Him I see that of myself I only merit and deserve condemnation.” That is the evidence of God’s grace. That is the power of the cross in you. And to you He says, “Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise.”
The man rebuked the other thief: Dost thou not fear God? Do you not know the reality that in a few moments we must appear before God? God is the One we must fear. You will stand before Him. What will you say then? Don’t you fear God, he says? He was given faith in Jesus Christ. He looked upon the Lord. He saw the Lord establishing His kingdom. Notice his words: “When Thou comest into Thy kingdom, remember me.” He saw that Jesus Christ upon the cross was not simply another individual. He was not even a man who was dying for His principles. But he saw Christ as the head of the church of God, the One who, through His suffering, would establish the kingdom of God. He said of Him, “This man hath done nothing amiss.” He confessed Him as the sinless Son of God who was establishing an eternal kingdom through His suffering and death.
And he trusted in Him. “Remember me.” He did not ask for a high position in the kingdom. He simply said, “Remember me. Bear me in Thy thoughts. Hold me in love in Thy heart. Recall Thy tender mercy. Don’t forget me.” Without a plea he cast himself upon Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. This crucified Jesus, he says, is my Lord, establishing a kingdom. He is my only hope of salvation. In Him there is forgiveness, even for me. For me, who has lived such a life, there is redemption. He trusted in Christ.
Is that true of you, by the wonderful love of God? To those who now by the grace of God say the same as this man, confess Christ before the world, confess Christ as the way of salvation, believe in this Jesus, to them, as surely, Jesus says, “Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise.”
Still more. This man brought forth the fruit of repentance. There are some who say the repentant malefactor upon the cross did no good works before he was taken to heaven. He did the greatest of the good works that the Holy Spirit ever produces in the life of a child of God. He confessed Christ before men. “Lord, remember me.” Everybody around the foot of the cross was blaspheming Jesus Christ. They were all mocking Him. The disciples had even forsaken Him. None stood there to confess the Lord. But this man, who himself had at first joined the jeers and mockery against Christ, now, by grace, confesses Christ.
Do you? Is that your confession as you stand before the cross? Do you say, “I am an evildoer. Yet, by the grace of God and from my heart I confess that this despised Jesus, despised by the world, is my Lord and Savior who, through His suffering, has established the everlasting kingdom of God. Then you may know also that the word of Christ comes to you personally: “Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise.”
The Lord gave him much more than he asked for. He said, “Remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom.” Perhaps he was thinking of some future day of a royal coming of Jesus Christ into His kingdom. But Jesus said, “Today. You have it. Guilt removed. Perfect righteousness for you so that you can stand before God.”
Those who die in Christ do not go to purgatory. There is no purgatory.
Those who die in Jesus Christ do not die with a big question mark hanging over them. But those who die in Jesus Christ immediately are with Jesus in glory. Today, today shalt thou be with Me in paradise.
The malefactor, the repentant thief, began to enjoy the blessedness of paradise immediately when Jesus spoke the word to him. Yes, it would be about four or five hours before the man would actually die. And those four or five hours would be filled with twisting and writhing in agony. But he had Jesus. He had the word of pardon and promise. When Jesus spoke these words as the crucified Savior, peace and joy flooded this sinner’s soul. A greater power than even the nails that held him to the cross, a greater power now surged through his heart and mind. Even though he was coming before the horrible reality of death, yet all was well with him, all was well in his heart.
You see, this man, this despised thief whom God had brought to repentance, hanging upon a cross, this man was rich, oh, so rich. His cross was to be preferred to all those who stood at the bottom of the cross deriding Jesus. For he had the victory. Jesus spoke it to him.
In the midst of all the ridicule that was taking place, and it seemed as if all hell had broken loose at the foot of the cross, with men and devils assailing the Lord Jesus Christ, yet Christ spoke the word of life eternal unto one of His own. He lays down His life for this man and He speaks to this man a victorious word. And this man had peace, perfect peace.
The malefactor was not left in doubt. He was at death’s door. He was at death’s door when he knew that he had lived a life of sin. It all stared out at him right now. It was then that the mighty grace of God spoke to him through Jesus Christ and assured him of a miracle – the miracle of God’s grace, the miracle of salvation.
You shall be with Me in paradise. Verily, verily, I say it unto you.
Do you hear those words? By the grace of God do you confess that you are worthy of condemnation before God? And by the grace of God do you trust in this Lord Jesus Christ and cry out: Lord, remember me? Hear Him say the most wonderful words He ever spoke, words which He spoke while He offered Himself in our place upon the cross, words spoken to an evildoer, saved by His cross. The greatest words you can ever hear: “Verily, verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise.”
Let us pray.
Father, we thank Thee for our Lord Jesus Christ. God forbid that we should glory, save in the cross of our Savior. Amen.