Encounters

The World Today

Have you ever wondered about the significance of the dying words of an individual? It’s been said that they oftentimes offer a window to their souls. Todd Beamer, a passenger aboard the ill-fated United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001, sd, “Let’s roll” as they rushed the cockpit. H.G. Wells, author of War of the Worlds, said, “Go away. . . I’m alright!” Dr. S.B. Thompson, a family friend and former McMurry professor, said in the presence of those with him that day, “I’m going home!” This morning, I want to consider the famous last words of the Thief on the Cross in the story of Christ’s crucifixion. Those were literally the last words of the last man that Jesus met. All the Gospel writers mention him, but it is only Luke who records his conversation with Jesus and those last words. Jesus was not alone at the peak of Golgatha –

“Two others, both criminals, were led out to be executed with him. When they came to a place called The Skull, they nailed him to the cross. And the criminals were also crucified—one on his right and one on his left” (Luke 23:32-33, NLT).

The Word Revealed

The two criminals were crucified on either side of Jesus. They were possibly friends, but no doubt they were strangers to the Savior. Matthew is the only the Gospel writer who describes who they are. Depending upon your translation, you will read of them being described as revolutionaries, rebels, criminals, or thieves. Our focus this morning is that Thief on the Cross who took the initiative to initiate a conversation with Jesus. The first insight we can recognize from his story in that –

  1. The thief connected with Jesus.

These weren’t petty thieves or minor villains. Roman authorities in Jerusalem crucified only those who were revolutionaries or rebels against Rome. Is it possible that they might have had a connection with Barabbas? Was it upon the cross intended for Barabbas that Jesus was crucified? Was the Thief on the Cross part of a movement which had right motives and right hearts? To all of these questions, I believe the answer is yes. They were very likely part of an opposition movement whose intent was to honor God by liberating their country and protecting their families from Rome. But it was also a movement that had taken a wrong turn in carrying out its mission. They were robbing the coffers of the Jewish religious leaders to finance the overthrow of Roman rule, to establish a new government called by many the “Kingdom of God.” Yes, their motives were pure, but their methods were wrong. It’s possible that these were radical followers of Jesus who took things to an extreme and, for that, they were crucified alongside Him.

Maybe that explains the cry of the other criminal to save the three of them and the scoff of the Thief on the Cross at the other’s ridiculous request. For the Thief on the Cross realized that he had more than just a connection with Jesus as literally –

He shared Jesus’ pain.

Like Jesus, he was crucified. But he was spared of the scourging, the crown of thorns, and the beatings that Jesus endured before the 5” nails were driven through his hands and feet. Throughout the centuries, a perpetual question has arisen as to whether the nails were driven through His hands or His wrists. Regardless of which is accurate, the bottom line is that Jesus and the criminals experienced excruciating pain from the nails and the body position on the cross that either created. It was during his own pain that the Thief on the Cross was watching the way Jesus was dealing with pain. Much like he and the other criminal, as they avoided those who sought them and the consequences they would receive for their wrongdoings –

Our instinct is to avoid pain.

As they pursued their unlawful activities, the criminals avoided pain by hiding in caves, ducking into alleys and out of the way places in order to protect their identity and hide from authorities. Jesus, in stark contrast, rode from the hilltop of the Mount of Olives into the jaws of those who wished to kill Him, knowing the consequences, knowing He would die. Meanwhile, it was likely that Jesus and the thieves were within the same prison walls where they witnessed Him being brutalized physically and suffering willingly. It was obvious to them, as they looked on that –

Jesus suffered deliberately.

          “. . . Jesus did this once for all when he offered himself as the sacrifice for the people’s sins” (Hebrews 7:27c).

Not only did the Thief on the Cross share the pain Jesus experienced,

He shared Jesus’ shame.

“. . . And the soldiers gambled for his clothes by throwing dice” (Luke 23:34b).

Jesus and the criminals on either side of Him were stripped to the loincloth, a cloth worn around the hips as the sole article of clothing in warm climates. It’s likely that they may have even been stripped of that as well. Such would be shameful for us amongst strangers but would have been devastating to a conservative Jewish male. On the ground nearby lay the garments of Jesus. All but the inner tunic, a solid piece of cloth, were divided up among the soldiers. Lots were cast among the soldiers to determine who would claim the prize of His inner tunic. Such fulfilled the prophecy of the Psalmist –

They divide my garments among themselves and throw dice for my clothing” (Psalm 22:18).

It’s interesting that Psalm 22 is the most accurate description of the crucifixion in the literature of its time. What’s fascinating is that it was written more than 600 years prior to the advent of the practice of crucifixion and more than 1,000 years before the crucifixion of Jesus. In addition to offering startling details of the events of that day, it opens with His words from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me” (Psalm 22:18a, NLT). The events foretold in the words of the Psalmist were happening to all of them that day, but the Thief on the Cross couldn’t ignore the marked difference in the reaction of Jesus as He hung on the cross. Unlike Jesus, for those crucified alongside Him and us in our human nature –

Our instinct is to protect our reputations.

Contrary to our instincts –

Jesus humbled Himself.

It’s easy to imagine that, if the thieves were zealous Jewish followers of Jesus, they knew the Scriptures and would have recognized the words from the 22nd Psalm. In the face of shared humiliation, the Thief on the Cross saw the words of the Psalm coming to life, recognized that God orchestrated what was happening, and that Jesus, the man in the middle, was fulfilling those words. I can imagine it causing him to ask how God’s Son could humble Himself to die in the same manner as a person like him. It was a thought that Paul would share some 30 years later in his letter to the church at Philippi, “he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). Not only did the Thief on the Cross share the pain and the shame of Jesus, –

He shared Jesus’ rejection.

In the crucifixion story recorded in Luke 23, in verses 35-39 can be found a virtual litany of those who mocked Jesus – the crowd, the soldiers, and the other thief. For the Jews of Jesus’ day, the Messiah was not a suffering servant, but a valiant, violent warrior who would destroy their enemies and liberate the people. The arrest and crucifixion of Jesus turned the everyday Jew against Him for they understood the Messiah to be nothing less than victorious. For the revolutionaries, the Messiah was the one for whom they fought their entire adult lives. For someone to step forward and claim to be the Messiah, their logical expectation was for Him to prove it! Meanwhile, the soldiers offered an ultimatum – either save yourself, encouraging those who see you as an earthly King, or remain on the cross, dying for the sins of the world. His decision was not made at that moment, for He had made it the night before in the Garden of Gethsemane when He cried out, “Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine” (Luke 22:42, NLT).

The Thief on the Cross recognizes how differently Jesus is dying. The other criminal lashes out, shouting for Jesus to save Himself and them. The insults he hurled at Jesus were likely in response to the sign above His head that read, “King of the Jews.” In response to “the King” whom he had fought for and was willing to die for, “the King” who was now dying, he lashed out, yelling, “Save us!” It was then that the Thief on the Cross spoke for the first time, saying, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom” (Luke 23:42, NLT). Much like the criminal who lashed out at Jesus –

Our instinct is to announce our innocence,

much like the other criminal who refused to accept that he deserved to die like that. To the contrary –

Jesus suffered in silence.

He doesn’t say a word to the other criminal, He doesn’t say a word to the crowd, He doesn’t say a word to the soldiers or to the chief priests. The only words Jesus spoke were to the Thief on the Cross and to God. The Thief on the Cross recognizes the options before him. He can live like his friend and die like his friend or he can live like Jesus and die like Jesus. It’s at this point that we see a transition where The Thief on the Cross not only connects with Jesus, but –

  1. The thief connects with us.

What he says is an extraordinary testimony and what he might say to us concerning Jesus, here and now –

“Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong” (Luke 23:40-41, NLT).

In our own lives today, we come to the point where we recognize that we might have had right motives, but we’ve made a lot of mistakes, and we deserve the consequences that are ours. We come to understand our sin before God, and we are overwhelmed. We can’t imagine how God would send His Son to die for us! For the Thief on the Cross, his new awareness and consciousness was triggered by the words of Jesus, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23 34, NLT). He must have thought that if the Messiah forgives my enemies, then maybe there is hope for me. If he could stand here today, his message for you and me would be –

You’re never too bad to recover from your past.

All of us in the course of our lives have made tragic mistakes. The Thief on the Cross would tell us not to live in the moment of those mistakes. How long has it been since you committed a sin against another person and God? How long did you live in that moment with guilt and shame? How many times have you replayed the voices that condemn you? The Thief on the Cross was a man who in his own eyes was doing a right thing but was actually doing a wrong thing. He was trying to protect his country, honor God, and create a space and a place for his family. He thought he was doing right. At some point, he had to come face to face with his sin.

I’m sure that you’ve never stood at the altar, gazing into the eyes of your true love, and thought to yourself, “I want a divorce.” I’m sure that you’ve never held a newborn infant and considered the fact that one day you would abandon or hurt that child. I’m sure that you’ve never been on the first day of a new job, thinking that you were going to break the law and go to prison. When you want to do the right thing but choose the wrong methods, you can find yourself in a place where you feel your life is over, that it’s ended. In that situation, hear the words of The Thief on the Cross. Hanging on the cross, looking at the religious leaders, the ones who thought themselves “righteous,” the ones looking down their noses at him – prideful of their attendance, prayers, and tithes – he wants to say to them and to you, “You don’t get it!” The point he wants to make to you and me today is –

You’re never good enough to secure your future.

You’re never good enough to earn the grace of Jesus Christ.

“Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom” (Luke 23:42, NLT).

What an extraordinary statement of one who is dying, especially one who for years had fought for the King of Israel to come, for the Messiah to show Himself. This valiant, violent warrior whose only desire was to liberate his people from Roman rule was suddenly realizing that he was wrong – not about the Messiah, but about his methods. Recognizing that the right method is not to destroy his enemies, but to forgive and love them. It was in that moment that his worldview changed – even death for Jesus couldn’t change Him. For Jesus, death was not the end of anything, but the inauguration of His Kingdom. For the Thief on the Cross, his hands were tied and for him Christ’s declaration was enough for him to experience the gift of eternal life. For those of us whose hands are not bound, who aren’t hanging from a cross, our confession that Jesus is King also comes with demands and expectations upon our daily lives if we expect to hear His declaration. The final point that the story of the Thief on the Cross offers us is –

You’re never too late to respond in the present.

With his dying breath, the Thief on the Cross declared that Jesus was King of his life. We can never overlook the reality that his declaration could have been the culmination of a lifetime of preparation leading up to that moment. For Einstein’s discovery of the theory of relativity, for Newton’s discovery of the principle of gravity, for Galileo’s discovery that the world is round – each of their discoveries were the result of a lifetime of preparation for that moment. While it may take you a lifetime to prepare you for your moment, it only takes a moment to prepare you for eternity. It may take a lifetime to bring you to right now, right here, this very moment, but this is the moment when you can prepare for eternity with your confession that Jesus Christ is the Messiah and your declaration that He is your Savior, the Lord of Lords, and the King of Kings.

Take Away: Write a declaration. Like Pilate, who wrote on a piece of wood who Jesus was (or, at least who he thought or was supposed to think He was), write your declaration on the insert. Come to think of it, if Pilate had really believed, would he have released Jesus to be crucified? Put away your false declarations that you don’t believe in and for which your actions don’t testify. Write down what your actions are really saying about who Jesus Christ is in your life, keeping in mind that that declaration will lead to Jesus’ declaration of you – for better or worse. Take a moment to consider who you say Jesus of Nazareth is in your life? That moment, that answer, will determine your eternity – just like it did for the thief on the Cross.