April 1, 2009

I Was There: The Thief on the Cross - April 1, 2009

During His ministry, Jesus spent a lot of time with open sinners. He went to supper with thieving tax collectors and spoke with prostitutes. These were the people the Son of God came to save. Jesus Himself said,

“…the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost” (Matthew 18:11 NKJV).

Even in His last hours Jesus was surrounded by sinners. While suffering on the cross, to His left and to His right were men who had been condemned to die because of their sins against society.

Tonight we hear from one of these men. Tonight we hear the testimony of the Thief on the Cross.

Luke 23:39-43 (NIV)

39One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
40But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

The Thief on the Cross:

I was there alright. I was there on the hill they call Golgotha, the “place of the skull”. I was there when the soldiers drove the nails through His hands and raised Him up to hang just a few feet off the ground. I was there, already hanging on a cross of my own.

This may sound strange to you, but that day was the best day of my life. It was the day that I met my God and King. It was the day that salvation found me.

It hadn’t started out as a very good day. That I remember clearly. The Roman government had previously condemned me and another man to die by the long and painful death of crucifixion. Now the day of our execution had come.

I was angry and bitter. Not because I thought I deserved better. I knew that I deserved this because of the things I had done. I was a lost man. Wandering through life far from God.

I think I was mostly angry because I couldn’t do anything about my fate. There was no appeal to be made. If I didn’t die today, I was at least going to start the long and painful process of dying. And there was nothing that I could do about it. Nothing at all.

And then another Man was added to our number. Jesus.

I didn’t recognize Him, because I didn’t know Him. He hadn’t been in prison with us. He had been condemned to die just moments before.

I assumed that Jesus must have done something pretty terrible to receive such a quick and merciless condemnation. But I soon learned that wasn’t the case at all.

Jesus was innocent. A guilty man doesn’t act like He did.

First of all, He was silent. Though people treated Him roughly, spit in His face and said horrible things about Him, He wouldn’t defend Himself with a single word.

After we received our crosses - they make you carry your own to the crucifixion site. After we received our crosses and had travelled part of the way, Jesus was unable to go on.

He was in rough shape after being scourged by the soldiers and by the look of it, pummeled by a good many others along the way. He just ran out of strength. Dropped His cross. They had to get some bystander to carry it the rest of the way for Him.

That was when the women of the city came forward to mourn over Him. And that was when His strength came back. At least enough to talk. He sharply told them they shouldn’t be crying over Him, but for themselves and for their children, because terrible times were coming soon.

This was Jesus’ character. As far as He was concerned, it’s wasn’t all about Him, it was all about others. Everything He did was with someone else in mind.

When we finally reached “skull hill”, we had a short reprieve. The soldiers had to get things ready for us. And as they did, we were offered a gift. No, Really. They offered us a drink that, while it wasn’t very tasty, contained something to soften our pain.

But Jesus wouldn’t take it. No matter what the chattering rabble around us said, it was Jesus’ choice to be here. And He would feel everything with clear and un-numbed senses.

And He did. I can tell you, for I was there. Already up on my own cross. Looking down as they put one iron shaft through His right, and then another through His left. And drawing Him up beside me they drove the third nail through, securing Him to the little wooden perch below His feet.

Many in the crowd must have missed His words. But I heard them. Even though my hands and feet were on fire, and my whole body was quivering with shock, I heard Him. He prayed for the people who crucified Him.

That was Jesus. Always caring for others.

On that day I came to believe that Jesus cared about me too. I came to believe that He really was a King, and one who truly cared for His people.

Pontius Pilate had put on the little sign above Jesus’ head. It was supposed to be the sign that proclaimed His crime. But since Pilate had no charge for a man he had proclaimed innocent, He had them write, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews”.

It was a cheap shot really. “Look how pathetic the Jews are, their king sits crucified on the throne of a cross”, that’s what Pilate meant.

But Pilate had unknowingly put the perfect title above Jesus. He WAS the King of the Jews, and of all people. He is the Messiah, the Savior sent from God. And He died so that sinners like me and you might be forgiven.

It took a while for the Spirit of God to get through to my sinner’s heart on that day. I’m sorry to say that before the Spirit led me to trust in Jesus, I said some nasty things to Him.

The place of crucifixion was near a major road that came into Jerusalem from the countryside. The Chief Priests and Scribes had come out to convince the people passing by that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah. They stood there at our feet yelling things like,

“42’He saved others,’ …‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, “I am the Son of God.”’” (Matthew 27:42-43 NIV).

Their hateful words spread like wildfire. The people who had stopped to see what was going on heard them and joined in.

The soldiers assigned to our crosses joined in too.

And so did we.

I jeered and mocked Jesus, just like everyone else. And that’s what makes Him all the more amazing in my eyes. I made fun of my Savior. I blasphemed God the Son, and He forgave me. Died to save me.

You might think that there’s some sin that you’ve done that Jesus can never forgive. But you’re wrong. Look at me. I was a condemned criminal with a mouth full of blasphemy, and Jesus took me and made me His own. Jesus forgave my sins. Turn from your sins, He’s waiting to forgive you.

After I had joined in with the crowd for a while I stopped. It was partly the pain of speaking, but it was something else too. Things began to click together in my mind. All I had ever heard about the Messiah. All that I had seen Jesus do and say on that day.

I became very sorry for the things I had yelled at Him. And not just sorry because it was a crummy thing, insulting a dying man. I was sorry to say these hurtful words to Jesus because I realized – He really is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

So, yes, I told the other thief to be quiet. And I asked Jesus to remember me when He came into His kingdom. But the words that really matter here are the ones He said back to me. He said,

“I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43 NIV).

From that moment on it didn’t matter if the people below made me the subject of their insults. He said I would be with Him in Paradise. Today. Today He said.

He cares for you too. He wants you in Paradise also. He wants everyone to know He is their Savior. He wants everyone to trust in Him with their whole heart and be saved.

Things got darker from then on. And I don’t just mean our suffering. The soldiers had gotten their lunches out below us when the sun’s light began to dim.

It was then that I percieved that Jesus was suffering more than I was. Sure, we were both skewered to crosses in the same way, but He was not merely bleeding out His life with each precious drop of blood. Something was being poured into His soul that none of us could imagine. Wave after wave of some unseen and scorching fire was being directed His way.

The agony on His face was so terrible that I almost wasn’t sure if this was the same Man who had been put on the cross those few hours previous. And for three whole hours, until three in the afternoon, this horror continued beside me.

At the pinnacle of His suffering I heard Him speak again. Out of the darkness I heard Him say,

“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” In your language that means,

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 NIV).

The soldiers below thought He was talking to Elijah, but I heard Him right. He was talking to God. And God wasn’t hearing Him. God had left Him.

Jesus was in Hell. Completely separated from God. All those unseen waves had buried Him in the ocean of suffering that is Hell. And part of those acid waters were from my sins. The punishment for MY SINS was on Him.

I could try to describe the pains of crucifixion to you, but I could only try. Some things have to be experienced to be truly known. But know this, you will never have to experience the pains of Hell like He did, Jesus suffered your Hell as He hung beside me.

It’s all done now. I heard Him say so myself.

It wasn’t long after that that He surfaced from the ocean of suffering. I know because He finally asked for something for Himself. He said,

“I thirst” (John 19:28 NIV).

And when the soldiers below lifted up a sponge of wine vinegar to Him, He moistened His lips and said,

“It is finished!” (John 19:30 NIV).

And with a loud and triumphant voice He cried out,

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46 NIV).

Hold onto those words, you who still have breath in your lungs. The price required to redeem you from your sins has been paid. All of it. It is finished. Recognize that your forgiveness is free, because Jesus paid for it.

Some people forget that whenever forgiveness is given, it comes at a price. When a man forgives some debt that is owed to Him, He takes the hit in His own pocketbook. When God forgave you your debt, God the Son, took the hit in His own soul. And by His hell, yours has been swallowed up. By His death, you have been given eternal life.

I know, because I was there. But more important for you, He was there. Even if they re-write all the history books, nothing can change the truth that HE WAS THERE FOR YOU. And because He was, your sins stand forgiven, now and forever.

I told you earlier that the day I was crucified was the best day of my life. Sounds strange I know, but I hope you understand why I can say that now.

But in truth, it was only the best day of my life – to that point. For that was back when I was still in the Old World.

Now I live with God, and He with me. I am His child, and He is my Father. He has wiped away all my tears and I no longer know what death and crying and pain is. For me, the old order of things is gone. Now all is newness and life. (see Revelation 21:3-5)

Now I know what Paradise means.

I was there. But because of Jesus, now I’m here.

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!” (Revelation 5:13 NIV).

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

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