Apostle Barbara Childress
Christ loving sinners
Jesus was a man of two constant, unyielding principles. The first is conveyed to us by the word 'Father'. He loved the Father, submitted to him and communed with him. That principle was in place in eternity past and continued to be in place until the work of redemption was done. There was not so much as a single wavering or let-up in it.
For the second of these principles, we must return to the first words he spoke from the cross and go beyond them to include the second time he spoke. Each of these sayings reveals Christ's love for sinners. Just as the Son's submissiveness to the Father was in place before the world began, so was his love for sinners. The Father's gift of love to the Son consisted of a humanity that lay in the dunghill of sin, a humanity the Son would have to redeem before it could be his. The Son could have refused such a gift, but he did not. His heart went out in love for those ruined and devastated by sin. There in eternity - astonishing thought - he set his heart upon guilty sinners.
The flame of that eternal love burned brightly and undiminished through all those centuries in which the Son's redeeming work was anticipated and throughout his public ministry. But it was never more apparent than when Jesus was on the cross. There he prayed for sinners, and there he made a promise to a sinner and, in doing so, left us two of the most cheering words in all of history.
The first words of Jesus from the cross were a prayer. We might expect to read that he prayed, 'Father, help me.' Many people enter the dark recesses of death with this petition upon their lips, but not Jesus.
Given the cruel circumstances of his death, we might have expected him to pray, 'Father, consume these people who are crucifying me.' But neither did he ask for that. Instead he prayed, 'Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.'
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had said to his disciples, 'Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you' (Matthew 5:44). These first words from the cross reveal that our Lord Jesus practised the very same thing he had preached.
For whom was he praying? The ones around the cross of whom it could most truly be said that they did not know what they were doing were the Roman soldiers. Caught up in the business at hand, they were completely oblivious to the eternal realities being played out before their very eyes. They were truly ignorant of what they were doing. The religious leaders, on the other hand, had brazenly turned their backs on a massive amount of evidence that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, evidence the poor soldiers were blissfully unaware of.
By asking God to forgive these people, Jesus was saying, in the words of William Hendriksen, 'Blot out their transgression completely. In thy sovereign grace cause them to repent truly, so that they can be and will be pardoned fully.'
No, Jesus was not excusing their sin. Ignorance does not excuse us for breaking God's law. But Jesus was describing their condition. Sin does indeed blind us. It had blinded these soldiers to the person of Christ and to the enormity of their sin, and it does the same for us. But, thank God, Jesus cares for poor, blind, ignorant sinners! He takes no delight in sinners perishing. He came to seek and to save sinners (Luke 19:10).
This prayer was abundantly answered. Even before the body of Jesus was removed from the cross, this prayer began to be answered. The centurion witnessed Jesus take his last breath and exclaimed, 'Truly this man was the Son of God!' (Mark 15:39). The Gospel of Matthew tells us the soldiers who were with him joined in this assessment (Matthew 27:54). Some argue that this was not a full-fledged confession of faith, that the centurion and his soldiers were only convinced that Jesus was an unusual man - indeed, a man of God. I cannot help but think, however, that the death of Christ, which was for the express purpose of redeeming lost souls, should have immediately had that effect.
Even many of the religious leaders themselves came to embrace Jesus as the Christ. Fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus, the apostle Peter stood to preach in Jerusalem. Many in his audience that day had witnessed the crucifixion, and Peter did not hesitate to confront them with the wickedness of it all and to call them to repentance. Many of them did not realize until that moment that they had actually been a party to crucifying the very Son of God. But as Peter preached their hearts were pierced with the truth. On that day alone, many of the people responsible for crucifying the Lord Jesus repented of their sins and received him as their Lord and Saviour (Acts 2:26-37).
The great preacher of the nineteenth century, Charles Spurgeon, looks at Jesus' Prayer for forgiveness in a slightly different way. He says, 'I love this prayer...because of the indistinctness of it. It is "Father, forgive them." He does not say, "Father, forgive the soldiers who have nailed me here." He includes them. Neither does he say, "Father, forgive the people who are beholding me." He means them. Neither does he say, "Father, forgive sinners in ages to come who will sin against me." But he means them. Jesus does not mention them by any accusing name: "Father, forgive my enemies. Father, forgive my murders." No, there is no word of accusation upon those dear lips. "Father, forgive them." Now into that pronoun "them" I feel that I can crawl. Can you get in there? Oh, by a humble faith, appropriate the cross of Christ by trusting in it; and get into the big little word "them"! It seems like a chariot of mercy that has come down to earth, into which a man may step and it shall bear him up to heaven.
Spurgeon's words remind me of the story of the little boy who was angry with his mother. When he knelt beside his bed for his bedtime prayer, he asked God to bless every member of his family except his mother. When he crawled into bed, he looked at his mother and said, 'I suppose you noticed you were not in it.' Thank God, as Spurgeon points out, that 'them' in Jesus' prayer is large enough to include all who want God's forgiveness.
'Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?' That was the question put to Jesus by a lawyer just a few days before the crucifixion. Jesus responded, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself'" (Matthew 22:36-39).
In saying 'Father', Jesus showed he was keeping the first and greatest commandment. In saying 'forgive them', he showed he was keeping the second greatest commandment. In other words, Jesus died as he lived - with a heart filled with devotion to God and love for his fellow man.
'Today you will be with me in paradise'
Jesus was crucified between two thieves. The religious leaders of the day probably derived no small delight from this. To them it was the ultimate insult to the one they despised so much. The self-proclaimed Messiah dying with common criminals - what more proof could there be that he was an impostor? But what they regarded as proof of their position was just the opposite. The prophet Isaiah had predicted that the Messiah would be 'numbered with the transgressors' in his death (Isaiah 53:12).
The first time Jesus spoke on the cross, he prayed. The second time he answered the prayer of one of the thieves. After initially joining in the mockery and ridicule that others were heaping upon Jesus, this one thief suddenly stopped and offered this prayer: 'Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' Jesus answered that prayer by assuring this thief that the two of them would be together in paradise that very day.
The words Jesus spoke to this thief have consoled and comforted countless numbers down through the course of the centuries. The dying words of Jesus have proved to be undying.
The man to whom these words were spoken
Consider the man to whom these words were spoken. It should be apparent to us that he was a very wicked man. By his own admission (verse 41), he was a malefactor, a criminal. He was a thief and, according to some a murderer.
The Lord Jesus Christ was dying the death of a criminal, but he was innocent. This man was dying the death of a criminal because he was a criminal. The fact that Jesus spoke so kindly and generously to such a man ought to fill our hearts with joy. No matter how great our wickedness, we can come to Christ and find mercy and grace.
We must also remember that this man was dying. His wasted life was quickly drawing to a close. His life's blood was rapidly seeping out of his tortured body and falling to the ground beneath. Hell's mouth was yawning to receive his soul.
We have in this man an accurate description of ourselves. We are all wicked and we are all dying. Do you object to this? Many do. They protest in words like these: 'Hold on a minute! I'm not perfect, but I'm certainly not like this thief. I have never stolen anything. I am a respectable, law-abiding citizen.' They fail to realize that it is entirely possible to be perfectly respectable in their own eyes and in the eyes of those around them. But what about God's eyes? Those prying eyes see every crevice, every nook and cranny of your heart. They never close in sleep, and they are never diverted by distractions. Those eyes can see stealing when no one else can. God demands that we love him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. Have we given this to God, or have we taken it from him and give it to another? Alas, we are all thieves after all. And this one who can see stealing when we can't also sees every other form of sin in our hearts and lives. This great, all-seeing one says of us, 'There is none righteous, no, not one' (Romans 3:10).
The wickedness of man is written so large and so clearly in our society and in our own lives that one can only be amazed that any should dispute it. However, it is beyond dispute that we are dying. The grim reaper steadily swings his scythe and all die, whether they be rich or poor, educated or illiterate, powerful or weak.
Why is it so important for us to take our place alongside this thief as wicked, dying people? Because it is only as we occupy his place that we are in a position to receive his blessing. What was his blessing? Hearing the words of Jesus: 'Today you will be with me in paradise.' Those words were spoken to a wicked, dying man, and we may take them for ourselves if we will admit that we are wicked, dying people.
The truths these words unveil
That brings us to consider what these words tell us.
1. A glorious place. First, they tell us there is a glorious state, a glorious condition, beyond this life. Jesus here calls it 'paradise'. What was he referring to? Only on two other occasions do we find this word used in Scripture (II Corinthians 12:4; Revelation 2:7), and in each case it is used as a synonym for heaven.
Jesus was, therefore, promising life in heaven to this thief, and this promise was going to be fulfilled that very day. The moment that the thief died his soul went immediately into the presence of God. His body was, of course, taken down from the cross and, we presume, buried. When the Lord Jesus Christ comes again, that body will be raised from the grave and will be reunited with his soul, but his soul joined God in heaven on the day he died. It remains in heaven today, and it will remain there until the day of the resurrection.
What a glorious thought is heaven! And we may rest assured that our highest flights of imagination fall far short of the reality. It is the place of no tears, no sorrow, no pain, no death and no parting. Isn't it amazing that so few are interested in this place and how to get there?
2. The one who has the keys. The second thing the words of Jesus tell us is that he is the one who has the keys to heaven.
The thief called him 'Lord'. Here was Jesus, dying on a cross, and this man called him 'Lord'. He did not look like God in human flesh at that point, but the Spirit of God had so worked faith in the heart of this dying thief that he was able to look beyond outward appearances to see the reality of who Jesus was. So it is today. When the Spirit of God works faith In a person's heart he enables that person to see what others cannot see.
Notice that Jesus did not dispute what the man had said, or correct him. When this man called him 'Lord', Jesus simply responded in lordly fashion by saying, 'I say to you...' In other words, he accepted the title the thief used for him.
Now the point is that if Jesus is Lord, he has supreme authority over all, including entrance to paradise.
3. How heaven's door swings open. The third thing the words of Jesus tell us is what we must do if we want the Lord to open heaven's door to us.
Let's not forget that Jesus spoke these words in response to what this thief had prayed. And what did this thief's prayer include? It contains, in the words of one commentator, 'a very large and long creed'. In effect, the thief said the following in his prayer: 'I am a sinful man. I deserve the punishment placed upon me. This man, on the other hand, is pure and righteous. I will, therefore, trust him and him alone for my salvation.'
If we would have heaven's door swing open to us so that we may enter paradise, we must make the prayer of this thief ours. We must stop arguing with God and start agreeing with him. We must say the same thing about ourselves that he says about us - namely, that we are indeed sinners and deserve only his eternal wrath. We must further recognize that we can do no more to help ourselves than this thief could do. We must see that Jesus Christ is our only hope for salvation and cast ourselves entirely on his mercy and grace.
4. A sombre reality. The final thing the words of the Lord tell us is very sombre indeed - all will not make it to heaven.
Jesus spoke these words to one thief, and to one thief alone. The other thief refused to cast himself upon the mercy of the Lord. His prayer was, 'Save yourself and us.' He was concerned only with what Jesus could do for him in this life. He could not see as far as the life beyond. How many today are like him! Their only interest is in a God who helps them with this short span. Speak to them about a God who will help them for eternity, and they turn quickly away.
It was no accident that Jesus' cross was placed between the two thieves. He is the great divider of men. Those who receive him are saved; those who reject him are lost for ever. Those two thieves, one on Jesus' right and the other on his left, are not only fitting symbols for all humanity this very day, but they are also fitting symbols for that future Day of Judgement when his sheep will be placed on his right and the goats will be placed on his left and driven away for ever. Those who go through life on the wrong side of Christ will certainly find themselves on the wrong side of him in eternity.
JOURNEY TO THE CROSS, by Roger Ellsworth, Copyright 1997, EVANGELICAL PRESS.