Unsung Heroes: The Thief on the Cross

Derek Wells, Speaker

Luke 23:32-33, 39-43 | August 7 - Sunday Morning,

Sunday Morning,
August 7
Unsung Heroes: The Thief on the Cross | Luke 23:32-33, 39-43
Derek Wells, Speaker

Let’s go to the Lord in prayer.

So Lord Jesus, we come to you now. We long to hear from You. We pray that You would glorify Yourself, even as You have already glorified Yourself through the singing of Your Word. Lord, we pray that You would glorify Yourself through the preaching of Your Word. Lord, we pray that You would glorify Yourself through the administration of the sacraments. Lord, we pray that You would glorify Yourself in our hearts, for our good, and for Your great glory, for we make this prayer in Jesus’ name. Amen.

You can be turning in your Bibles to Luke, chapter 23. We’ll be looking at verse 32 and then skipping down to verses 39 through 43. It will be different than the sermon text printed in your bulletin, Isaiah 53 is our accompanying text, but our sermon text will actually be from the Gospel of Luke.

It was a couple of Sunday mornings ago and Michelle and I were enjoying a leisurely Sunday morning, no Sunday School, so we were sitting there on the sofa and I was reading something, she was reading a devotional. She suddenly looked up at me and I thought, “Oh, what’s she going to do? Is she going to share a word of Scripture or some word of encouragement for me?” But she didn’t do that. She just looked at me and she said, “So here’s something that’s gonna stress you out.”

And as you might imagine, all the tranquility of that Sunday morning just evaporated with that statement. She said, “You know, I was thinking, you know, Mike Kruger preached a great sermon on the thief on the cross just last year.” And I thought, “Oh, wow.” We try not to repeat topics or texts around here, but hopefully it won’t be too laborious for you to hear another sermon on this passage.

But if you were looking at your sermon bookmark on unsung heroes, you probably scrolled down and you saw all the names and I would bet that most of them made some sense on some level, until you got to this morning. Chances are you might have thought, “Thief on the cross, well, that’s a fine topic, but unsung hero?” Certainly seems like an odd choice for an unsung hero. If anything, the thief on the cross might be an anti-hero.

He’s not a model of Christian virtue or behavior that we can look to. In fact, his life is more of an example of what not to do. We never actually hear about him until the end of his life when he is suffering the consequences for criminal actions. Moreover, he’s not even mentioned in the Bible. We don’t have a name for him. So how can we hold him out as a hero? We have this nameless hero.

Well, when you think about a hero, you might begin by thinking of someone who serves as an example, but ultimately I think a heroic life is one that serves as a testimony of something higher than themselves, an idea or a principle. Something that points beyond them to something greater, even something transcendent, and the thief on the cross, the story of his life, certainly does that because it’s a story about the grace and mercy of God, and would that the story of our lives be about the grace and mercy of God.

So his life points us to God’s mercy and grace, and within that is a lesson about saving faith. So this is going to unapologetically be a Gospel sermon, so this is a sermon for those with no faith. So if you’re here this morning and perhaps a friend brought you or family member persuaded you to come, this sermon is for you.

But it’s also a sermon for those with nominal faith. Maybe you’re here this morning and perhaps you’ve been here many years and you’ve heard the Gospel, but it hasn’t really changed you. It hasn’t really changed the way you see yourself. It hasn’t really changed where you place your hope. It hasn’t really changed what you love. This sermon is for you.

But it’s also a sermon for those with growing faith, because this is a story that leads us to marvel at the simplicity and the beauty of the Gospel and hopefully we’ll see that afresh this morning and grow deeper in our love for God, even as we come to the table.

So I want us to see three things in this thief this morning.

Number one, an unlikely convert. Number two, an untimely convert. And then finally number three, an understanding convert. An unlikely convert, an untimely convert, and an understanding convert.

With that, let’s read from Luke 23, verse 32 and then moving down 39 through 43.

“Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with Him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on His right and one on His left.”

Skipping down to verse 39.

“One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And He said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise.””

Well, we find this story in three of the four Gospels, but it’s really Luke here who takes us into the details of this narrative of this man. We might wonder, well, who was this man? Who was this thief? Well, obviously we can see from the context that he was a thief. He was a robber. We don’t know much beyond that, but during these periods often what thieves would do is they would wait outside the city. They would wait outside the city for a well-worn path of travelers, and when the travelers would leave the city, they would ambush them, they would mug them and they would take all their possessions, and often in the context of doing that, they would murder them.

So many believe that this man was not only a thief, he was a murderer as well. So we’re not talking about someone being guilty of petty crimes. He didn’t go into a convenience store and lift a Snickers bar. No, we are talking about a violent man, this man on the cross beside Jesus. He’s someone that we would deem a violent offender, a danger to society. We know his crimes are notorious because he’s receiving the maximum sentence under Roman law – he’s being crucified. There he is, being crucified. He’s a public advertisement from the government of Rome saying, “Do not become like this man. You do not want to be like him.”

The point is he’s not the kind of guy that you and I would look at maybe and say, “You know, he would make such a great Christian. Or, “You know what? I’ve been watching his life and I can see just signs of life bubbling up in him. I’ll tell you this. He’s not that far from the kingdom. Let’s just kind of pray him right over just that last little piece there. He’s not that far from the kingdom.”

No, by any standard we would use, this man is way off. His sin has caught up with him. It has marked him, thief, murderer. It has named him, and now it condemns him, and deservingly so. So seemingly this man is about as far from mercy as you can get.

In giving us a glimpse of this man’s present condition, here’s what I want us to see. God gives us a picture. He gives us a picture of a guilty and helpless man. He’s guilty and he’s helpless. He can’t escape his past. He can’t erase what he’s done. He can’t escape the situation. Here he is, he’s hanging on a cross, which confirms his condemnation and his guilt and there’s nothing that he can do to save himself. Nothing.

So we see in him this helpless and seemingly hopeless condition. Everything about his past and everything about his present says he’s not only unlovable but he’s un-saveable. But if we know the end of the story, we know the opposite is true.

Now there’s a point in placing such an extreme example before us this morning, because in this unlikely convert, we see something about God’s grace, namely it is for the guilty and it is for the helpless. It speaks to those who might see themselves in this man. You might be here and you look at the story of your life and you look at your past and the things that you’ve done and you’re ashamed, you’re guilty over them. If we would put them on the screen behind us, you might search for the nearest exit doors quickly as you can. You might think that your sins are too many. You might think that they’re too egregious. You might think that they’re too heinous. This story is for you.

Or you might be here this morning and feel totally helpless and burdened. No matter how much you pray, no matter how hard you try, you cannot remove your guilt. You find yourself in this helpless condition. If I were to ask you how would you describe your condition, you would say, “Yes, that fits me. Helpless.” This story is for you.

You see, the Lord takes us to the extreme of this unlikely convert to show us that the very things that we think disqualify us from God’s saving love and mercy are actually the very reasons to come to Him. We see an unlikely convert.

Number two, we see an untimely convert. This is a deathbed conversion. Often deathbed conversions are met with some degree of skepticism. We might wonder is it really sincere. It might be difficult for us to process, and especially this man’s deathbed conversion. Other accounts tell us that just moments before this man was mocking Jesus as well.

Matthew, chapter 27, verse 38 and 44: “Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left, and the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.”

Mark 15:32 – “Those who were crucified with Him also reviled Him.”

So these men were part of the crowd mocking Jesus, “Save yourself, come down from there.” Insulting Him. You can take all of his sins and stack them up and you can add blasphemy to that as well. All of this, all of this in his dying moments. The question is, “Is it too late?” Has he crossed some precipice? Has he sinned away his day of grace? You see, beyond God’s mercy, that’s the question this passage provokes us to ask. It seems once again that thinking about this man’s condition should lead us to think about our condition as well.

You might be here and you think you’ve gone on too long in sin. You’ve provoked Christ too many times and maybe you’ve been in church year after year after year and you’ve never responded and you think you’re beyond the mercy of God for that reason. But this story serves as a testimony that the mercy, the door of mercy, is still open to you. If we are still breathing even our last breath, Christ in His mercy can meet us if we turn to Him.

We see a great example in this untimely convert. It gives hope to those we might be praying for. Maybe you’re here this morning and you’ve prayed for a loved one for years. You’ve prayed for them and you’ve looked for a sign of life, anything, any kind of sign of spiritual life and it’s not there. You can’t see any change and they seem so far away from God’s mercy. Maybe you’re beginning to give up hope. Well, this story is for you.

This made me think of Bob Lack, one of our members here at Christ Covenant. I had the privilege of visiting Bob a few weeks before he died last year. Bob was a member of ours in Pastor Bruce’s community. He was converted at the age of 90. I heard his story. Bruce was on vacation and they wanted a pastor to go visit Bob so I jumped on it because I wanted to talk to him, I wanted to hear his story, converted at the age of 90. When I got there in the room with him he couldn’t really converse with me, but his sister Maxine was there. Many of you know Maxine, she’s a member as well. Maxine told me Bob’s story, said he was a World War II veteran, was a good man, was a decent man, was an honorable man. But he was indifferent to the Gospel.

She told me how she had been praying for him for years, for decades, and Bob finally came to faith in this congregation at the age of 90 and he lives 10 years as a faithful Christian and died last August at the age of 100. His untimely conversion story is a testimony to God’s grace.

So we have an unlikely convert, we have an untimely convert, we also have an understanding convert.

In this man we see that God works a profound change, all by way of simple faith. In these final moments, we see God softening this man’s heart and in doing so He brings understanding into his life. You say what kind of understanding. This. He begins to see himself rightly and then he begins to see Christ rightly.

We see this change first in the separation between the two criminals. They end up processing things very differently. Now notice the other thief, the hardened thief. He is approaching death and he’s not worried about God, not worried about eternity, not worried about his soul. He’s still fixated on himself. He’s still reviling, he’s still hardened. The hardened thief serves as a bit of a warning, does it not? To those who might say, “Well, I will wait for a deathbed conversion.” My friends, you cannot anticipate the hour of your death and neither do you know that your heart will be softened toward the Lord in that hour.

Death is no guarantee that it will soften you. In fact, it could harden you. If you look at this thief, you might be so angry about the circumstances of your life or the circumstances of your death, that you find yourself, maybe even much to your surprise, cursing God, as this man was.

One thing this teaches us is that the fear of death does not convert anyone. It takes something more than the fear of death, and we see that in the penitent thief, we see the fear of God. That’s the beginning step of saving faith we can see in him. He admonishes the hardened thief, “Do you not fear God?” We see a turn from hostility over his temporal circumstances, as bad as they are, to his eternal state. He’s got a bigger problem than facing death – he’s about to face God and his mind is taken up with that.

So he makes this double confession. If you look at what he says here, “Do you not fear God? You are under the same sentence of condemnation. We, indeed, justly for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”

We see a double confession from this man. His guilt on the one end and Christ’s innocence on the other. It’s a confession of sin, a confession of faith of sorts. Now he might not understand everything about Christ and His perfect righteousness. If you went up to him in this moment and said, “Excuse me, sir, but I’m wondering if you might parse the theological distinction between the active and passive righteousness of Jesus.” I don’t think he would give you much help. I don’t know that he would sit very well for an ordination exam or an elder exam. But when he looks at himself, he sees guilt. When he looks at Christ, he sees innocence.

We see a kind of double knowledge working in this man. There’s a difference between him and Christ and he’s come to see it, he’s come to know it, and that brings him to a place of humility. He doesn’t blame his situation on something else. He doesn’t seek to minimize his crimes. No, he affirms that he justly deserves this sentence.

So we see something profound here in coming to grips with his guilt, this man begins to see himself for who he really is. That’s the second step of saving faith we can see here. Conversion begins with the fear of God. It continues in seeing yourself for who you really are. Seeing yourself for who you really are.

Just a word to those who might be here this morning with what I describe as nominal faith. You’ve been in church for a long time, you’ve heard many sermons, you’ve heard the Gospel preached many times. It hasn’t changed you. Let me suggest that the reason that you can sit in church relatively unaffected week after week and the reason that you can sit in church unchanged is because you have yet to see yourself rightly. You’ve yet to see yourself rightly. You might think, “Well, I’m not guilty like this man is guilty. I’ve not stolen, I’ve not murdered. I might do a few things wrong, but I’m not guilty in the truest sense of that word guilt.”

If that’s where you are, you haven’t gotten it yet. Because sin is not just about what you do. Sin is about who you are. Sin is about what resides in your heart, what resides in my heart. That’s what makes us guilty. Listen to Jesus in Matthew chapter 15 in verse 19. Here’s what He says: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, and slander.”

I want you to note that this man’s crimes are listed in these sins, but he doesn’t have a behavior problem, he has a heart problem. He’s got a bigger problem than his criminal actions, and that’s his criminal heart. That’s the same for you and for me. Jesus is in effect saying, “It’s not that we are sinners because we sin. No, we sin because we are sinners.” The difference between Jesus and you and me is the same difference between this man and Christ. This man has come to see himself rightly. He’s gotten a glimpse of that.

There’s a third step we can see in uncovering saving faith here. He comes to see Christ rightly. His righteousness, His innocence. Perhaps only in a small way, or in a glimpse, but he apprehends it on a saving level. He proclaims Christ’s innocence by defending Jesus, but he goes a step further. This is what we must do. You see, it’s not enough just to see ourselves as guilty – that’s self-loathing. It’s not enough to just passively know that Christ was innocent – that’s empty affirmation. Herod knew Jesus was innocent, Pilate knew Jesus was innocent. But the knowledge of these two things, our guilt and Christ’s innocence, they must intersect.

This man begins to see his guilt in relation to Christ and His innocence. That leads him to turn to Christ. So he turns to Jesus and he makes a simple request, and here’s where we see the beautiful simplicity of faith. What does he say to Jesus? “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” It’s simple but it’s profound. In this request we see faith coming into full flower. This is not a last second plea for mercy regarding getting his sentence relieved or escaping death. No. Neither is he making some defense of his case, trying to hold onto his innocence. He’s lost all notion of being able to save himself.

Listen, he’s gloriously past all that. He can’t save himself. He can’t claim innocence. All he can do, all he can do is appeal to the mercy of Christ. So he looks to Christ as his Savior and his king – “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” In an instant, he makes a decisive break. He breaks with the crowd, he breaks with the mockery, he breaks with his past life. He knows it’s too late to follow Christ in full in this earthly life, but he discerns that it’s not too late to follow Him into glory.

So this request is a remarkable statement of faith. There can be no doubt that he’s referring to the great consummation that comes with the Messiah, “When You come into Your kingdom.” So he’s referring to Christ’s resurrection. Think about this. It’s remarkable because he sees Christ being put to death, and that wouldn’t go in line with the thinking of the day of the Messiah. How could the Messiah be helpless and about to die?

Yet this man does not see Christ as helpless, but he sees Him as able to save, and that’s faith in full flower. He doesn’t see Christ as helpless on the cross, he sees Him as able to save, to save him. He fears God. He sees himself rightly. He sees Christ rightly. All of that is a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. He simply turns to Jesus.

There’s one more thing that he needs to see, and that is the mercy of Jesus. This, this is the critical moment, brothers and sisters. We might think the suspense of this story, that it hangs on whether this man is going to turn to Christ or not, but that’s not the real suspense of the story. The real suspense of the story hangs on Christ’s response to him. Will He have mercy? Think about it. All of the things that we’ve said about this man could be true, or they are true, and yet his whole salvation hinges on Christ’s response to him. So does yours, and so does mine.

Jesus could have said, “That’s it? Remember me? That’s all you’ve got? You’re going to have to do a little bit better than that. You think you can wait this long, your whole life, and you can turn to Me at the end? Besides, you were just mocking Me. Besides, I know all about your sins. They’re too heinous, they’re too great, they’re too many. Could you stack up some good works alongside this request?”

No, Christ does not do that. Christ does not hold this man’s sins against him but stands ready to forgive him, and that’s the key. You see, his salvation is not dependent upon his ability to repent. His salvation is not even dependent on his ability to believe, though those things are present. No, his salvation is dependent upon Christ’s ability to save. From the cross, we see a little glimpse of Christ’s victory in the salvation of this man, and it’s a foretaste of Christ’s heavenly ministry.

Hebrews 7:25 says He is able to save to the uttermost, those who draw near to God through Him since He always lives to make intercession for them.

This man draws near to Christ. He draws near to Him and in a moment Jesus saves him, just like that. Today you will be with Me in paradise.

So in conclusion I would ask you, why is this story here? Ask yourself that. The other Gospel writers record Christ was crucified between two thieves, that’s a fulfillment of prophecy. Luke could have stopped there. But no, he goes into this narrative. Why is this story here?

Alistair Begg has a famous sermon called “The Man in the Middle.” This is a sermon about Christ, but in that he speaks a little about the thief on the cross. He gets at hit by asking the Evangelism Explosion question. You all know it. Why should God let you into heaven?

How would you answer that question? You might think you know the answer, but just pause for a second. How would you begin your answer? How would you begin your answer? Because how you begin your answer to that question, it gets to the foundation of hope, it gets to the foundation of assurance, it gets to the foundation of faith, it gets to the foundation of salvation itself.

Begg says if you begin your answer to that question with “because I,” you’ve gone totally wrong. “Because I believe, because I repented, because I did this and because I did that.” No, Begg says the only right answer begins with the third person, “Because He.” He pictures this man at the doorway of heaven, answering similar questions. Someone says, “Sir, what are you doing here?” and the man says, “I don’t know.” He proceeds to ask him a list of questions and he’s just clueless, he can’t answer them. “Have you been baptized?” “No.” Finally the man, in exhaustion, he looks and he says, “Look, if you’re looking for an answer for why I’m here, I only have one answer and that’s Jesus. He’s the only reason that I’m here. He’s my answer. He told me I could come.”

That’s great story from Begg. This man could say, “I can’t tell you anything more than that. I can only tell you Isaiah 53. This is my answer. He poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors, yet He bore the sin of many and makes intercession for the transgressors, and I am a transgressor. That’s me. I’m only here because of the mercy and grace of Jesus that was poured out on the cross for me.”

That’s wonderful grace, brothers and sisters.

So here’s the ultimate question. Do you see yourself in this thief? Do you see yourself in this thief?

The story is here for those with no faith. You might think because of your past and everything that you’ve done and your present state of helplessness, you might think that disqualifies you from God’s saving love and mercy, and nothing could be further from the truth.

This story is here for those with nominal faith, presumption, and you’ve yet to see yourself rightly. You’ve yet to see your guilt. You’ve yet to see your heart problem. You’ve yet to see your helplessness before God. You’ve yet to see your need for Christ and you’ve yet to see His willingness to save you.

The story is here for those with growing faith, that we might reflect on and marvel at the remarkable saving love and mercy of our great God. The wonderful thing about this is this same Christ, this same Christ who suffered and died, this same Christ who forgave this thief, is risen and He is here with us today. We cannot see Him in His body, but we can come to Him by faith.

Brothers and sisters, when we come to this table in a few moments, we are in effect saying with the thief, “Lord, remember me.” Remember us. The response of Christ to us is, “Remember Me.” Remember what I’ve done for you, remember Me.

So as the elements are passed and we receive them, we see Christ’s response to us, “This is My body broken for you. This is My blood shed for you.”

Let’s pray as we come to the table. Father in heaven, we come before You now. We lift ourselves to You or Jesus and say, “Remember me.” We come to You with small faith, weak faith, but You, Lord Jesus, as our object is able to save us to the uttermost, as the One who intercedes for us. We come to You as our risen Christ, who feeds us and nourishes us by faith. Lord, we come to You and we thank You for Your great grace and Your mercy that You gave to us in giving Your life for our sins and being raised for our justification. We thank You for this in Jesus’ name. Amen.