A number of years ago, a member of my congregation asked if I would visit a friend who was in the hospital. He explained to me that his friend, Bob, was dying and had no faith to speak of, but he was open to talking about faith. So I went to see him.
After introducing ourselves to one another and going through some small talk, I asked Bob about his spiritual history. Had he been raised in a Christian church? He said he had been baptized as an infant. However, his family was not churchgoers, so he knew basically nothing about the Christian faith. I asked him if he was interested in hearing about it now, and he said he was.
So I asked, “Suppose you were to die today, Bob. Do you think you would go to heaven?” He said he doubted it. I followed up with another question.
“Bob, if you were to stand before God and He would ask you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven,’ what would you tell Him?”
Bob said, “Well, I guess I’d tell Him I tried to do the best I could.”
I then responded, “Bob, hearing your answers to those questions, I have some really good news to share with you today!” We had a wonderful conversation about the Gospel message. I shared the Good News of what Jesus had done for him at the cross. I talked about faith and what it means to trust Jesus and turn his life over to the care of Christ. Then I asked if he’d like to do that right then, and he said he would. So we prayed together. He confessed his need for the Savior and asked Jesus to come into his life.
When we were finished, I extended my hand to him and said, “Welcome to the family!”
He smiled said “Pretty big family!”
I talked a bit more about following up with him and left him some materials to look over regarding the Gospel and following Jesus. I left that day not realizing his time on earth was shorter than we thought. Not long after that encounter, I was told Bob had died. We gave him a glorious, hope-filled sendoff at his funeral!
I tell you this story because our reading of Jesus’ encounter with the dying thief on the cross reminded me of it. Jesus had been led out of Jerusalem to a hill called The Skull where he was nailed to a cross and placed between two criminals – violent robbers – who were also hanging on their crosses. I can’t help but be reminded, as I think about this scene, of the prophecy from hundreds of years before in Isaiah chapter 53 where it says He was numbered with the transgressors. He was bearing the sins of many, though He was innocent.
We don’t have details of the crucifixion. Luke didn’t feel a need to go into details because his audience knew full well what crucifixion looked like. But we do know it was a cruel and torturous way to die. As Jesus hung there in excruciating pain, He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It takes us back to Luke chapter 6 where Jesus is teaching about the importance of loving your enemies. He now is living those words as He prays for His enemies. They don’t know the horrible evil they are doing in killing the righteous, holy One of God. (The apostle Peter would later tell them in the book of Acts chapter 3.) They were unknowingly carrying out God’s plan of salvation when they put Jesus to death. Jesus had come to die for the sins of the world.
An ugly scene was being played out below Jesus as He hung on the cross. Soldiers were casting lots, gambling, dividing up His clothes, fulfilling another prophecy from Psalm 22. Everyone was mocking and taunting Jesus – the rulers, the soldiers, some of the people in the crowd who were watching – sarcastically saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” and laughing at the same time.
A sarcastic inscription was posted above Christ written by Pontius Pilate: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. Little did Pilate know he had written a truth.
Even one of the criminals being crucified railed against Jesus, throwing insults in His direction. “Save yourself and us if you are the Christ.” Like the rest of those taunting Jesus to save Himself, this man didn’t understand. If the Messiah, the Christ, is to seek and save the lost, He can’t save Himself. He won’t save Himself. He is on the cross for a reason. It is God’s plan to save a sinful humanity from sin, death, and the devil. He is taking away the sins of the world. The nails weren’t holding Him there; love was.
Let’s take a look at the criminal on the other side of Jesus, though. Remember two thieves were hanging there – one on the left and one on the right according to Matthew and Mark. He, too, had been reviling Jesus like all the rest. But something happened over those hours of hanging next to Jesus – something totally unexpected, surprising – in the midst of all of this ugliness on Golgotha. This dying criminal was awakened to who Jesus is and his need for Him.
We don’t know what brought this about. Was it the prayer he heard Jesus say – “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing”? Was it the refusal of Jesus to fight back with sharp words against His tormentors and curse them? Was it the love he saw in the eyes of Jesus as He looked out over the crowd?
We can’t know for certain, but we do know something happened. He turned to Jesus and defended Him against the taunts of his fellow criminal. He rebuked him, put him in his place, and made a statement filled with repentance and faith.
First he said, “Do you not fear God?” I don’t know about you but those words strike me as a statement of faith. As he was looking into the face of Jesus, he saw the divine in Him. God in the flesh. He saw a God to be feared, honored, humbly addressed, and worshiped – not ridiculed and scorned, as was the case.
He goes on to say, We belong up here. We are both under the same condemnation. I am a guilty man and justly deserve this punishment for what I have done! This definitely sounds like a repentant person to me. There is contrition in these words, humility in these words. No excuses, just an admission of guilt. No pointing the finger at someone else – I had a poor upbringing. It’s my parents’ fault, or what I’ve done doesn’t merit this torturous ending. It is just a simple, I am guilty, and I deserve this.
He’s not done with his talk. “But this man,” as he nods toward Jesus, “has done nothing wrong!” He is innocent.
Interestingly, these same words were spoken by King Herod and Pontius Pilate. All three of these men are correct in their assessment of Jesus. He is innocent. He is the Righteous One. The truth is, He is the perfect God man. The spotless, unblemished Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. The perfect sacrifice for our forgiveness.
Then the dying criminal looks in the direction of Jesus and makes a surprising request, which must’ve sounded like a beautiful symphony in the ears of Jesus. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” It is a confession of faith, a humble plea of a beggar to his King.
“Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me,” like the old hymn says. I know I do not deserve it, the criminal is saying, but Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
Lo and behold, the dying man receives a remarkable promise from Jesus. “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise (the place of the righteous, the garden of the King, heaven).” Today you will be with Me, Jesus said. With Me, your King!
As a pastor, I hear all kinds of questions about death and dying. What I hear frequently is, Where will I be? What happens when I take my last breath? My response has always been, “You will be with Jesus.” This is what Scriptures say. And what joy that will be!
This promise is not only for the dying criminal, but also for my dying friend, Bob, and for you and for me. It is not because of anything we have done, but because of what Jesus has done for us – paying for our sins on the cross. The Easter resurrection will affirm the truth of Christ’s promise to the thief.
Jesus died shortly after that conversation. The criminal witnessed Him confidently pray, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” I wonder if the criminal said the same prayer for his own passing. It is a beautiful prayer of faith. It says, I know I am in My Father’s hands and nothing can snatch me from those strong, loving arms. I am His forever.
You could call this encounter of Jesus with the criminals a microcosm of the world’s response to Jesus. We see two guilty people witnessing a dying Jesus, who was nailed to a cross with a sign above His head announcing, “This is the King of the Jews.” We see two very different responses to Him, just like today.
One rejects Him,
one receives Him in repentance and faith.
One attacks Him with his words,
the other stands up for Him.
One sees a common criminal,
the other sees a crown and asks for a royal favor.
One sees an ordinary, guilty man,
another sees the perfect, innocent Son of God.
One sees a fraud,
the other sees the future he asked for.
One says “no” to Jesus,
the other says “Yes, Lord.”
Both criminals died shortly after Jesus died.
We all will die one day.
One dies without hope,
the other dies with confident hope knowing he will be with Jesus in paradise.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”
One is eternally lost,
the other is eternally found and heaven bound.
This truth remains the same today. Every last one of us needs Jesus – just like the criminals. I like this statement by Bishop J. C. Ryle. He said, “One thief on the cross was saved, that none should despair, and only one, that none should presume.”
Dear friends, we are all going to die someday – some of us sooner than expected. Are you to the place in your spiritual life where you know for certain you will be with Jesus in eternity? Because you can have the assurance, the certainty, that you will spend the rest of your days confidently knowing you belong to Him forever. “Neither life nor depth nor anything else in all creation can separate you from Him” (Romans 8:39).
By the way, Jesus’ prayer, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” reminds us that eternal life with Him can begin right now! You don’t have to wait until you die. As you place your life in His tender care, you find forgiveness for your sins and a new, fresh start with Him. A purpose-filled life is yours to enjoy today and forever as you entrust your life to Jesus Christ.
That, my dear friends, is the best news you will ever hear! Amen.
Pastor Steve Kramer