Last night at Southern Calvert Baptist Church, one of our worship leaders preached a powerful message about the crucifixion. The focus was not on Jesus but, on the two criminals who were crucified with Him. In this story, we get to associate ourselves with one of the three main characters. There is the rebellious sinner, the repentant sinner, and Jesus Christ. As the late Wayne Barber used to say, “there is no vacancy in the Holy Trinity” so, you are not allowed to associate with Jesus in the story. You and I either associate with the rebellious sinner or the repentant sinner. That is why the Apostle Paul quoted from the Psalmist when explaining the state of all mankind:
10 as it is written, “THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE;
11 THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS, THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD;
12 ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS; THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD, THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE.” (Romans 3)
All of us, no matter what our language, country of origin, religious heritage etc., we are all born with a sin nature that separates us from God and causes us to associate with the criminals on the cross. Take a moment to read the story of Jesus’ interaction with the two criminals in Luke 23.
I. Rebellious Criminal
Let us begin with the rebellious sinner. This man deserved what he was getting. He was a sinner just like all of us. He did wrong and was caught. Now, he must face punishment and then eternal judgment. This man has caught a major break in life. He is being crucified right beside God in the flesh. He has one final moment to escape the eternal judgment to come. Let’s take a look at how this man responds to God in the flesh.
35 And the people stood by, looking on. And even the rulers were sneering at Him, saying, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One.”
36 The soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine
37 and saying, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!”
38 Now there was also an inscription above Him, “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
39 One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” (Luke 23)
As we see, this rebellious criminal went right along with the crowds. The soldiers were mocking Jesus. The crowds were mocking Jesus and this common soldier joined right in with them. The taunt is very similar to the temptation of Christ found in Matthew 4. The devil kept in demanding of Jesus, “IF you are God then prove it on my terms”. Jesus did prove that He is God but, He did it on His own terms, no on the devil’s terms. The rebellious criminal makes the same claim, “IF you are God then prove it on my terms! Get off the cross and save me too.” Jesus proves that He is God by staying on the cross and bearing the sins of all mankind for all eternity. Only God would be able to do this. This rebellious sinner would not surrender to the Lordship of Jesus even when he had nothing to lose. This is how rebellious and wicked our sinful hearts are. Rightly did Jeremiah the prophet write about our stubborn hearts when he wrote:
“The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)
Our hearts are so bad that they deceive us into thinking that things are not as bad as they really are. You are just as bad as that criminal on the cross. I am just as bad as that criminal on the cross. We are desperately wicked. In order to understand the beauty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we must see ourselves for who we really are. This rebellious sinner died a horrible death that he deserved yet, he also experienced eternal punishment that was being paid on his behalf. All he had to do was turn to Jesus as the beggar that he really was and ask for mercy and grace. Jesus was ready and willing to offer it to him. What about you my dear friend, you may not be on a cross but, do you realize that you are just one heartbeat away from standing before God? We deserve judgment but, Jesus took our punishment and offers eternal life to us. He will represent us before the judgment seat of God. Don’t be like the rebellious criminal and remain defiant until the end.
II. Repentant Criminal
This man was born a sinner like his counterpart in the previous section. He lived as a sinner and was caught. Now he has to pay for his crimes. Eternal condemnation now awaits him too. When we look to the Apostle Matthew’s account of the crucifixion, we discover and interesting detail that Luke leaves out of his account.
38 At that time two robbers were crucified with Him, one on the right and one on the left.
44 The robbers who had been crucified with Him were also insulting Him with the same words. (Matthew 27)
As the agony of the crucifixion progressed, Matthew lets us know that BOTH criminals were mocking and insulting Jesus. The repentant criminal was not any better than the rebellious criminal in the beginning. Something happened along the way. As people insulted Jesus, taunting Him to prove that He is God by saving Himself, Jesus pronounced forgiveness instead. This repentant criminal realized that Jesus was proving that He is God on His own terms and not on the terms of the people. This man has a change of mind that leads to a change of heart. This is exactly what repentance is.
40 But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?
41 “And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23)
This repentant criminal makes a confession and profession of faith. He came to understand that Jesus is God and he accepted reality for the first time in his life.This is very similar to the confession and profession of faith that Saint Peter made:
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16)
Then, the repentant criminal goes on to appeal to the mercy and grace of God.
And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” (Luke 23:42)
This is the equivalent of the tax collector’s plea in the temple, “Lord, be merciful to me, the sinner”. In other words, I know who I am and I know what I deserve, my only plea is please don’t give me what I deserve. This repentant sinner does not ask to join Jesus in His Kingdom. He simply acknowledges that Jesus will reign in His kingdom and asks that He remember the man. Not only does this man receive mercy by not being punished eternally for his sins, he also experiences grace.
And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Jesus grants this man access to Paradise. This is a beautiful picture of the mercy and grace of God. We see that picture in God’s treatment of the harlot Rahab in the book of Joshua and we see this picture in the way Jesus deals with a repentant criminal on the cross. The mercy and grace of God are for all to experience. The question is, are we going to respond to Jesus like the rebellious criminal or like the repentant criminal?
There He hangs on the cross for all to see. How will you respond to Jesus Christ? Will you remain rebellious and mock Him or, will you surrender your pride and accept Him as God? Don’t miss eternity in Paradise because of foolish pride. Ignorance is no longer a plea because you now know. Please don’t continue to be the rebellious sinner. Choose to be the repentant sinner today. It will make all the difference this Easter season. May the Lord help us choose to be the repentant sinner now and forever!