A Hill With A View
A Criminal’s View of Calvary
It’s appropriate in the weeks leading up to Easter that we devote extra attention to the story of Calvary. The preaching of the cross is central to Christianity...there can be no Christianity without the cross. The idea of subsitutionary atonement...that Christ died in our place for our sins...is the painful and magnificent centre of our faith. We as Apostolic Pentcostals can place so great an emphasis on the experience we have in God that we forget to place any emphasis on the experience of the cross that made ours available. So, in the weeks leading to Easter we are taking another look at Calvary.
However, our viewpoint in these messages isn’t the deep spiritual and theological significance of Christ’s sacrifice. While it’s important that we believe and understand the theology of the cross, in this series we’re looking at Calvary through human eyes. We’re trying to understand how the message of the cross is redemptive in our day to day living. To do that, we’re exploring how five different people present at Christ’s death may have looked at Calvary. And in their stories we learn how the cross brings the power of redemption to work in our daily lives.
Last week we looked at Mary’s view of Calvary. As the mother of our Saviour she was in a unique position to interpret the events that occurred there. As a parent, Mary no doubt suffered an intense feeling of loss as she watched her son die. Yet, though she was helpless to interfere or intervene, she stayed there at the foot of the cross...just as close as she could. And, in spite of all of her own heartbreak, she managed to keep her heart open to another who needed her.
We learned from this that the Cross brings a redemptive message to all parents who in the course of raising children begin to experience the loss of connection, influence, and power that naturally occurs as kids begin to build their own lives. While the message of the cross won’t relieve the pain of feeling your kids drift away, or lessen the agony of watching them make poor choices that you can do nothing about, it does put you in a position to be there if they ever look to you for help. The message of Calvary is, “Stay as close as you can!” And, while it won’t ease a parent’s sorrow, the message of the cross tells you to, “Stay open...someone else may need you!” Through this the cross teaches you that your life is about more than your pain.
Today we move on to look at Calvary through the eyes of yet another...this time a man who was dying there too. The Scripture says that Jesus didn’t die alone; there were two others who were crucificed with him. Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that there were three crosses at Calvary; on each side of Jesus stood another. Matthew and Mark call those who hung on them, “thieves”...Luke calls them malefactors. And one of those two criminals had a view of Calvary that is redemptive in the most hopeless of circumstances.
Our text today is found in Luke 23:32-33, and verses 39-43
32-Two other men, both of them criminals, were also led out to be put to death with Jesus.
33-When they came to the place called "The Skull," they crucified Jesus there, and the two criminals, one on his right and the other on his left.
34-One of the criminals hanging there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!"
40-The other one, however, rebuked him, saying, "Don't you fear God? You received the same sentence he did.
41- Ours, however, is only right, because we are getting what we deserve for what we did; but he has done no wrong."
42- And he said to Jesus, "Remember me, Jesus, when you come as King!"
43- Jesus said to him, "I promise you that today you will be in Paradise with me."
Let’s take a look at this man now, and what we can learn from his experience that can impact our lives today. When know a few things about him. First of all...
We know he was a thief.
But he wasn’t a thief in the contemporary definition; someone who merely stole something from another was not remotely likely to be crucified. Crucifixion was reserved for the worst offences, which to the ancient Romans usually meant things like arson, rape, murder, and insurrection. For a thief to be crucified meant that other violent crimes were committed in the course of thievery. Remember, Barabbas had been the one scheduled to occupy the centre cross at Calvary. There is a possibility that these two men were accomplices of Barabbas, and had participated in his crimes.
We know he was a certain kind of man.
Two types of men were crucified with Jesus that day. Both were criminals, but each had a very different mindset. One, filled with rage and bitterness, was hardened to the last...scorning the innocent man dying with him. The other, while just as guilty, opened his heart to the possibility of something beyond this life.
What had brought him to this point? What made him what he was? I don’t know. There are many theories of how criminals are formed. Some say that they start out young, and that there are certain psychological, behavioural, and environmental markers that indicate a strong likelihood that a child will become a criminal. Others say that criminality is more about the choices that people make on the path of life, and that absolutely anyone could be criminal given the wrong choices and wrong circumstances.
But in any case, this man wasn’t dying on a cross because he had stolen a candy bar from a convenience store. He had reached the ultimate end of a long series of bad choices; bad choices about his activities, and bad choices about his associations. His life had proven to be one of complete and utter failure.
Yet with all this, there was something in him open to eternity.
We know his mind.
In his last hours, while enduring a horrible, agonizing death, the core of his character is seen. In his final hours, when all else is stripped away, this criminal is shown to have a very remarkable view of eternal things. We learn from his exchanges with the other thief and with Jesus that he feared God...and his last hours found him in true humility before God. We learn that he accepted responsibility for his actions...that he actually saw himself as worthy of his sentance. And we learn that somehow recognized Jesus as Christ, the Messianic King.
These conditions are evident in his words while hanging on his cross, and these conditions touched the heart of Jesus. While all he asked of Jesus was for the Lord to remember him, Jesus offered him so much more. “Remember you? No...not just remember you; you’re coming with me.”
You are here, and this moment is for you the culmination of a long path of questionable choices. Maybe you’re a product of your environment. Maybe you think your life was marked for failure. Maybe others have told you that there’s not much you could have done, and there’s not much that can be done for you. Your life is what it is, and that’s the way it’ll always be. And you tend to believe it.
Failure and despair can cloud the mind and darken the heart, but I stand here to tell you about the redemptive message of Calvary. I stand here to tell you that the rest of your life can be different from the life you’ve lived to this point. I stand here to tell you that the Cross has power over your past, over your environment, over your mind, and over your sin.
Today Christ declares His intention to take you on a transformative journey, a journey that will step by step allow you to enter a new way of living. On this journey a new nature, a new character, a new heart, a new spirit, a new outlook, and a new hope all will be imparted to you. Day by day you will learn to make good choices and form good associations that will take you farther and farther from the life you’ve always lived. And it all starts right here, available to begin right now.
There are just three questions posed of you...and they’re not questions of your background, what you’ve done, or what you bring with you. They’re questions that determine if you’re ready to begin the journey to the new life that Jesus offers. They’re the characteristics of the thief whose story is brings hope to every life of failure.
First, can you humble yourself?
Can you allow your hardness and defensiveness to slip away in the presence of the Lord? Can you let go of your pride that has been your substitute for success? Can you discover, buried way down within your soul, the fear of God and the desire for His mercy?
All new life, all grace, all redemption available for you in the cross of Christ begins with the recognition that the life you’re living needs redeeming...and that takes humility. The Bible teaches that the path to redemption begins with repentance, and repentance requires a change of mind about your present life that leads to a change of direction and lifestyle. This requires the humility to admit, to confess, that you’ve not done so well to this point...and that you want something different for the rest of your life.
Next, do you accept responsibility for your choices and actions?
Can you stop blaming mom and dad, family, environment, school, teachers, this one, that one, for who you are? Can you admit that you are who you are largely because of the choices you’ve made? Can you face the fact that your actions have brought consequences into your life, and that no one else is at fault for them?
This is far more challenging to you than humility. Its one thing to admit you need redeeming, but its quite another to accept responsibility for the life you’ve lived and the things you’ve done. It’s so much easier to blame circumstances, to blame others...to convince yourself that you’ve simply had a passive role in the life and not been an active player.
But redemption requires that you accept your sin as your sin. You sinned, you made your choices, and you chose the wrong path. As difficult as this acceptance of responsibility is, it makes you a candidate for a new life. You see, if you own it then you can lay it down.
Finally, will you recognize Christ as your King?
Will you place your life...whatever is left of it, whatever condition it is in, however darkened, however hopeless, however scarred...utterly under His control? Will you submit yourself to His direction, yield to His purpose, and obey His instruction? Will you acknowledge that He alone is your sovereign, and that your life is His to command?
Part and parcel of the redemptive process at work in your life is the act of following Jesus, of being His disciple, of accepting His discipline and walking in His ways. He doesn’t just wave a magic wand over your head, grant mysterious absolution, so that you can walk off on your own; not at all! He calls you, He commands you, to follow Him. The transformational life is impossible without your surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
If you will be redeemed, you must follow Him. You’ve got to follow Him through the waters of baptism, where your sins are forgiven and cleansed and your old life is separated from you. In baptism you take on His name, and declare for all of world to know that you are His and His alone...and that you will endeavour to live according to His character and example.
So the questions are: can you humble yourself, do you accept responsibility, and will you acknowledge Christ as your King? And the answer to these three must be “Yes!” And if you can answer, “Yes!” then you can take your first steps to paradise. A brand new life, as different from the old one as you can imagine, can begin today! Your new journey, your fresh start, can be now.