It’s not uncommon for a person who have been opposed to Christ for his entire life to come to faith near the end. We even have a term for it, a “death-bed confession.” Through these events we see that some people try to conceal thoughts about God and Jesus, yet they really think about them personally. We also see that sometimes it takes the lifelong persistence of the Holy Spirit to crack the hard exterior of the sinful heart. As Christians, we rejoice to hear about moments like these, and we remind ourselves that one can never measure the impact of a “word fitly spoken,” as Solomon called it. There is no more famous death-bed confession than that of the repentant thief in Luke’s Gospel. This evening, we are privileged to study this account as we look at his witness on the cross.
Luke 23:39-43 Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, "If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us." 40 But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, "Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? 41 "And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong." 42 Then he said to Jesus, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom." 43 And Jesus said to him, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise."
“I was there!” That’s the name of your sermon series, correct? I suppose you could say that applies to me better than anyone else. I was truly there with Jesus in the closest way humanly possible. I was on the cross next to Him. I heard His final words. I listened to Him breathe His final breath. I experienced a similar pain as He did. I could certainly relate with what He was going through, to a point.
I was there with Jesus, just as the other characters in your series. But, in reality, no one was with Him. What He did had to be done alone. No one else could experience what He did. As you know well from the Bible, Jesus was the Son of God and the righteous sacrifice for sinful humanity. There was no one else like Him, and no one else who could have been with Him on the fateful Friday outside of Jerusalem.
I could sense the isolation when He cried out in agony, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?”. Here was a Man that had truly been forsaken by all, even His own Father. But it was at that very moment of intense suffering, of severe loneliness, that I felt for the first time as if I had been found. I knew what it was like to be lonely. In life, I was a nobody. My parents never cared enough to raise me the right way. In turn, I was disobedient and rebellious toward them and all other authorities. I knew what being forsaken was like. I was an outcast of society. It didn’t help that, in general, most people were suffering. It was hard to make a decent living in Israel at that time. We were a nation in disarray and heavily taxed by our occupiers.
But it was also easy to fall through the cracks. I became adept at staying in the shadows and playing on the fears of others. At first, I entered thievery because I had nothing else. I justified stealing from others by telling myself it was the only way I could survive. But like all wickedness, it grew. Evil does not hold itself in check because of clever excuses. It grows as rapidly as it can. Before long I was involved in heavy crime on a regular basis. It was no longer a way to survive but a way to thrive. As you can imagine, they don’t crucify thieves for small time efforts. What I did doesn’t matter; but coming to grips with why I did it is much more important.
Anger and bitterness filled my life. Just like in my daily activities, so also in my mind I had become proficient at hiding from the truth. I wanted to blame my parents, my fellow countrymen, the rules of society, and even God for all my problems. I always had an answer to every question. If my conscience condemned me I would tell myself that I was just following human nature. I was programmed to serve myself above all. If society criticized me I would tell myself that they were stuck up and selfish, that if they helped those like me more I wouldn’t have to steal. If whatever little notion I knew of God showed I was wrong, I would retort that He was just made up and that He didn’t care what happened in the world. I had answers for everything. I was an expert thief, both in body and in mind.
I made up excuses because it was the easy thing to do. Deep in my heart I knew that I was responsible, even if some of things I said made sense. I was like a fish in your hands, I could wriggle and slip out of just about anything. Eventually, my life caught up with me. But even as I awaited execution in prison, I still fumed with anger and resentment. Not for my decisions but in defiance to others. I held to that bitterness right up to the end, even on the cross I spoke as an ignorant fool when I first blasphemed Jesus. But, it was also the cross that finally broke me. I can’t say for sure what it was, perhaps a combination of the hunger, fatigue, pain, and impending knowledge of death, but it was if I finally had woken up. For the first time, I saw my life in total honesty. I had no one to blame for my position but myself. For the first time I was literally pinned down. I had nowhere to go. No escape plan, no more excuses, and no other alternatives.
Sometimes God uses the ways we corner ourselves with our actions to help us focus on His power. He did this for me on the cross. Some might pity me or shed tears over my death, but it was truly the best thing that happened in my life. It was on the cross that I finally became someone. I had always been on my own but now I had a Friend. As the cross broke my will, my excuses, and eventually my life, Jesus filled in the void. For the first time I was special to someone. And that most precious gift came at the price of God forsaking His own Son.
In my mind it was as if Jesus and I were walked toward one another on a path. He toward the punishment I earned with my own actions and I toward the righteous life He earned with His. We walked past one another that day on the cross, as Jesus finished His journey for you and me, and I was welcomed into God’s eternal kingdom. As I slowly died on the cross that day, my mortal body writing in pain and discomfort, a joy came over my heart that I had never felt before. Here I was, helpless and about to die, and yet I was as complete as I had ever been in life. To this day, how amazing it was! I, the thief, stood before God with all my debts fully paid. Me, the one who spent his entire life evading what was right and good, was allowed to take one more gift; but this one was not stolen, it was purchased. Purchased by Jesus, my loving Lord and Savior, the One who cared enough for a worthless thief whom the world cared nothing for. Jesus loved me so much, that He bought life for me, so I wouldn’t have to steal anymore.
Dear Christian, it is never too late. It took that final moment for me to see my Savior. I had always tried to dodge the truth, always run from one answer to the next. I had to be pinned to a cross, unable to run in body or soul, for me to confront the truth. What might God be trying to tell you? How might you be trying to evade Him?
You may think there isn’t much to be learned from my life, especially for an experienced Christian like you. But take a moment and consider my story in more detail. It’s only four verses in the Bible, but they contain a complete expression of the Christian faith. In fact, perhaps these verses would appeal best to your own culture, with its fast-paced, soundbite environment. Consider what you would want in a confession of the Christian faith. What are the pillars of your faith? Repentance of sins, Confession of the truth, trust in gospel promise of forgiveness, prayer, and even a defense of the faith amid scoffers. I was able to do all of those things in my limited time on the cross, and they’re recorded for you in the Word of God.
You see, I wasn’t much different than other Christians. And in way, all people can find themselves at the cross. Ultimately we all fall into one of two categories; those who believe and those who reject. A repentant or unrepentant thief. And Jesus makes the difference. Jesus takes our worthlessness, the sins that have turned us into nobodies, and removes it. For those who will but listen, as I did, His words contain all that is needed for salvation and eternal life. I didn’t do anything. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. All I did was listen, and that’s all you need to do.
Yes, in my short life and through my even shorter story in the Bible, you are given everything you need in order to be a Christian. Use me as an example; God does not make the way to heaven difficult. Only we do, when we try to steal His rightful glory and hide from the clear truth of His Word.
I know that my story is a source of hope and inspiration for many. Perhaps I’m even revered among churches and Christians. But the truth is, I am no hero, no champion of faith. Of all the things in my life that caused me to find Jesus, the greatest was that I was simply a sinner. A sinner who lived a life a loneliness. A sinner who was forgotten by the world. A sinner who lost everything in life. If I wasn’t a sinner, I never would have found Jesus. I don’t boast about my former ways, nor am I proud of the wickedness of my life. But, I also appreciate the simple truth that God receives sinners, even those like me. It took me to the point that I had nothing left, before I believed that.
You may never lose everything as I did. You may have many more blessings and comforts in this world. You may never reach the point of desperation that I was at. But, you don’t have to either. You are just as lost and lonely in heart and soul as I was. And you have Jesus as close to you as I did to me. His words still beckon to your heart as they did to mine. He extends the same gift of paradise to you as to me. You need not lose everything to have it. It is yours today as it was the day I first heard and believed it.
Sometimes the pain and agony of life is a blessing in disguise. Do you know that now? Do you trust that God guides your life for the best? You should. It took my far longer than it should have to realize that. But, all the same, God led me through each up and down, through each moment of foolish sin, and through my own death on the cross. It’s all there, in my short story. There you have the fullest expression of Christ’s love for you and for me. There you see His promises fulfilled. He said that He came to seek and save the lost; that He came to call sinners to repentance, and that He desired mercy above our own humble offerings. There at the cross, He kept His Word. He lived up to the expectation that His Father set. You have it there just as I did. Now it’s your turn to listen, not just to hear. It’s your turn to trust and to believe. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.