Summary: A special look at how Jesus displayed his majesty even in dying, converting one of the thieves on the cross.

November 21, 2004 Luke 23:35-43

The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”

There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Whenever my wife and I have a difficult time getting our youngest children to do something, we have a very easy method to get them to comply. We simply say, “you can’t!”, or “you better not.” Inevitably, they’ll get a big smile on their faces and immediately run as fast as their legs will take them to go and do what we told them not to do. It’s human nature. We may laugh at them, but adults do the same thing. I often hear of professional athletes who are cut from a team - and then use that as motivation to become better than they ever were. They can’t wait to play their former teammates and get revenge - to say to their former coach - “IN YOUR FACE!” That’s the pride within - that doesn’t like it when people question our abilities or tell us we can’t. We like nothing more than to prove them wrong, just for the sake of our own pride.

The devil tried the same ploy with Jesus. At the end of his forty days in the desert at the beginning of his ministry - Satan questioned whether Jesus really was the Son of God. “IF you are the Son of God - prove it to me”, Satan said. “Jump from this temple, turn these stones to bread!”, then I’ll know you are who you claim to be. Today’s Scriptures take us to the end of Jesus’ ministry, Satan put on some soldier, priest, and criminal clothes and challenged Jesus again. He said, “if you’re really the king of the Jews, then come down from that cross, then we’ll believe in you. Then we’ll know that you really are what that plaque says you are - the King of the Jews.” Jesus answer to them will clearly show us -

This is the King

I. There are no “ifs” about it

Kings are not like Presidents. President Bush needed the approval of the majority of the American people to be elected as President. He - to a point - had to tell us what we wanted to hear - things like, “I’ll protect you, lower your taxes, and protect human life.” When he had won a big majority of the votes this past election, it seemed like he then had more confidence. He then felt like he had the public behind him. That’s not the way kings are made kings. They usually are just born into it. Then, when they reach a certain age, or their father and mother dies, they are crowned as the king of the country. They don’t need the approval of the hoi polloi. They are what they are, regardless of what the people think of them and without their vote.

In the same way, Jesus didn’t need to prove Himself to anyone - especially not these thieves or Jewish leaders or soldiers. He already had royal blood. Matthew 1:18 says, This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Jesus had the blood of God in Him. His Father was God Himself - conceived by a miracle of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus came of age, He was then publicly inducted into His official office as King. Matthew 3:16-17 says, As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” This was a publicly witnessed event by all of John’s disciples and the people who were out at the Jordan River that day. The Word had spread - Jesus was the Christ - the Son of God - the Anointed King who was promised to come. He didn’t need ANYONE else’s approval at this point.

Yet Jesus did earn many people’s approval. He healed the sick. He made the lame walk. He made the deaf hear. He gave the blind their sight. He chased out demons. He even raised the dead. The other “rulers” even admitted that “He saved others.” On top of these miracles, Jesus’ teachings also reflected the authority that He had. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. (Mk 1:22) Everything about him cried - “this is the King!”

Yet none of this was enough. One more miracle would be needed - the devil’s miracle. “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” One criminal added another deed to that when he said, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” At first, the other robber also “heaped insults on Jesus.” (Mk 15:32). These men wanted a King of power - but it wasn’t a power that saved cripples and blind and poor sinners. They wanted a power that would save THEM - from the tyranny of the Romans - or in the criminal’s case - from the agony of the cross. The criminal wanted a King who would use His power to avert justice - and acquit him of a well deserved death penalty. This is the kind of King they would believe in.

There was once a young mother who had been given a beautiful and happy little boy. He was only three years old when they were driving down a crowded and busy area of town, going about forty miles an hour. As she was merging right, it just so happened a car in the far right lane was merging left. Before she knew it, her back right door and quarter panel were being pushed sideways by a car about twice the size of her Accord. Although the accident didn’t seem to look to bad on the outside, on the inside her little baby boy was sitting in the back right seat - right where the other car hit. Before she knew it she was in the ambulance with her baby boy - praying for God to spare him. By the time they arrived at the hospital, his vitals were looking bad. She prayed to the Lord like she never had before. “God, you just have to save my baby. I know you say have the power to do this - your Word says can save him. If you love me, if you love him, you just HAVE to save him. Prove to me right now that you are God - that you are in charge. Use your power, or I swear to You right now I will never enter foot in another church or ever worship you again. If you don’t prove to me that you are God by doing this - I will conclude that You are a fake.” What do you think of such a prayer? Is that a prayer of faith - or of arrogance? Telling God that He has to prove Himself with His power - in order for you to worship Him?

Whenever you put conditions on your God - and draw a line in the sand - you are running on dangerous ground. When Job drew a line in the sand - and demanded that God - the Judge - be put in the witness box to be questioned and put on trial - God refused to meet his demands. Instead, God came in a storm, picked Job up by the boils and placed him in the witness box - asked him a few questions. “Who do you think you are - questioning me? Who do you think I am? Who gives you the right to try and question my justice? You want a God of power? I’ll show you some power!” The same answer rings out when people question God on the doctrine of election. God outright answers, “who are you to question me?” If you ever put conditions on your God - draw that line in the spiritual sand - as to whether you’ll believe or not - you’ve already been defeated. You’re already approaching God with an unacceptable arrogance that thinks God must do what we want, that He is willing to do what WE want so that we’ll believe in Him.

Like it or not - this is the King - just as the plaque said. True faith accepts this without needing to see Jesus come down. Instead of being a FLASHY God , He is more than often a HIDDEN God - a God who displays Himself in whispers, plants, words, and births. When we look at Jesus, more often we see a God who is willing to serve, willing to cry, willing to work, and willing to become one of us. In Jesus, God says, “I am a God who is patient. I am merciful. Ultimately, I am a God who dies. Like it or lump it, weak as I look, powerless as I seem, I am your bloody King.” Yet we also see in this King a powerful King at that. It wasn’t the nails that kept Him on that cross. It was His powerful love and compassion for the human race that kept Him there. We see a King who is willing to sacrifice Himself in order to save the world. We see a God of justice and might and forgiveness at the same time on the cross. If you are not willing to accept this kind of King because He’s “too weak” for you, or if you would rather that He get down from that cross, (as the Muslims say He did) then you are going to have it just as bad as the malefactor. Your legs may not be broken and you may not be nailed to a tree, but you will be sent to the same pit of destruction that he was sent to - all because he wouldn’t believe that a King could hang on a cross. All because he didn’t want a King who could save him spiritually, but wouldn’t save him physically. There are no “ifs” when it comes to our King. The plaque reads as it reads - even though written by a heathen - it speaks the truth. This is the King.

II. There is only hope because of it

As the King lay dying there, a bloody, weak, tired and exhausted mess of flesh and bones - most people were not impressed. But as the night dragged on, there was at least one man - a thief - who had a change of heart. Why did this man have a change of heart? What impressed this robber was the way that Jesus responded to these insults. He didn’t return insults with more insults. He didn’t feel the need to defend Himself or prove Himself. He didn’t blurt out any curses or obscenities - even while these people were blaspheming Him to His face. Instead, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” In the midst of this humiliating death and taunting, He was still taking the high road and dying with dignity - like a King! Jesus didn’t want these very people who were crucifying him and making him suffer to burn in hell - he wanted them to be forgiven and saved!

Perhaps this man then recalled some verses that he heard when he was just a little boy - spoken from the temple. Verses like Isaiah 53:5-6, “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” This King wasn’t just about power. He was about sacrifice, love, and forgiveness. This was a truly Biblical King!

This performance of the King was so impressive to the robber, that he must have felt overwhelmed with guilt over the abuse he had heaped on Jesus - and also of his whole life. His whole life was a terrible embarrassment to himself, his family, and the LORD. So when the other robber decided to heap abuse on Jesus again, this robber had a change of heart. Instead of joining in, this time he . . .rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve, but this man has done NOTHING wrong”. The innocence of Jesus made him think twice about what he was doing. Instead of blaming his crucifixion on any one else - he realized that he was getting what he deserved. It made him fearful after he realized what he had done - that God would eternally punish him for such abuse and for the lifestyle he led.

Yet, when he heard Jesus praying for the forgiveness of those who had gone so far as to falsely accuse Him and put nails in His hands and feet, it gave him some hope. He went on to say, Jesus, remember me - when you come into your kingdom. Even though Jesus had no beauty or physical power to him - no robe, no throne, no golden crown, the thief still believed that Jesus really did rule over a kingdom - and that this kingdom was not of this world - it was after this world. This is very clearly stated in these words. They reflect a belief in heaven - and that Jesus was the King of heaven - and He was headed there soon. What faith - to believe that this dying and bloody King actually had a future kingdom!

That’s not all. He also said, “Jesus, REMEMBER ME - when you come into your kingdom.” The robber didn’t have any real reason to ask for this request - not for anything he’d done. He was just a thief. Yet he asked anyway, in the hopes that maybe Jesus would just be merciful to him. If there could be no way that God could forgive him for his messed up life, then he was even willing to accept that. All he asked was that since Jesus was the King of this Kingdom, that He would from time to time remember him - call him to mind - as He ruled in His kingdom. There’s some desperation to this request - a lot of humility - and a little hope that perhaps - if Jesus could pray for the Father to forgive those crucifying him - then Jesus would allow him into His kingdom as well. The King worked through His words and actions on the cross to convince this robber that He really was the Messiah.

A little hope was all it took. When this man was drawn to Jesus in this repentant and hopeful state, Jesus cemented the robber’s faith with a promise that all of us would love to have on our death beds. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” There was no doubt in the King’s voice. Jesus promised the thief that that very day he would be with Jesus in paradise. What a wonderful picture this was for the man. “Paradise” is originally a Persian word meaning ‘park’ or ‘garden,’ and the reference clearly is to the Garden of Eden. In the Garden of Eden, the tree of life bestowed eternal life on those who ate from it. Jesus was promising the thief that he would be with Jesus in an eternal park of bliss. This was the truth. He would die with the most powerful Gospel message right by his side - as he would personally see his sins paid for and hear Jesus declare, “it is finished.” Oh, how those words must have been sad and yet also like sweet music to his ears. How that dead body and those words of Jesus must have given him hope as his legs were being broken and he breathed his last. In spite of all of the terrible things that were happening with the darkness and the earthquake, the thief could know that Jesus was doing that FOR HIM. In the midst of death he hold to Jesus’ words. He knew where he was headed - the King had promised him a place in Paradise.

How many of us could say that we would trust in Jesus if we were in the robbers’ shoes? If we were hanging there because we were caught red handed, would we in fact try to get a trial lawyer to minimize our sentence - to pull the nails out and replace them for time served? Would we try and make excuses as to WHY we did what we did? Would we want to just get out of the punishment by telling people what they wanted to hear? Or would we struggle on our own to get our hands and feet free - to jump down from the cross and run like we’ve never run before. If we were hanging there with nails in our hands and feet, next to a man that people were spitting on, was all bloody and messy, and actually believe that this guy - who is seemingly worse off than me, is going to save me? Would we confess our sins to him and plead for His mercy? Would we actually trust that HE was going to save our souls? Or would we, like the other thief, just tell Jesus to get us out of our physical mess - to stop dying - and let us off without the punishment we deserve?

If it were up to us, we would take the road of the blasphemous robber. But by the grace of God, the Holy Spirit has placed in our hearts the same hope as the robber as we look at this bloody King. Thank God that even with the faintest hope - even like that of the robber’s, Jesus promises us salvation. Jesus says to each and every one of us, God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (Jn 3:16) You are not saved because of the amount of your faith, but because of the object of your faith - and that’s Jesus Christ. Even though this robber had a very faint hope that Jesus would only remember him, Jesus promised him salvation through it. Even with the weakest hope in Christ - we have the same salvation. What God wants you to do - is to say the same thing as the robber, “remember me Jesus.” When you are dying and feel that you are suffering because of your sins, just utter, “remember me Jesus.” When you are in prison because of a murder that you are guilty of, still pray, “remember me Jesus.” When you have nothing in your past to be proud of, just ask Jesus to “remember me.” Cling to the hope that this dying man is a King. But Jesus is saying to you this morning - don’t doubt in that promise - “I tell YOU the truth, through faith in me - today YOU will be with me in paradise.”

The advantage that we have as 21st Century Christians is that we don’t just see Jesus hanging on the cross. We see Jesus raise from the dead three days later. We see Jesus ascend into heaven. We see Jesus ruling at the right hand of God. We see the power of God. We don’t need to see Him get down from the cross, because we see Him do even something more powerful. We see Him rise from the dead. We know from Scriptures that this really is a King. There’s nothing weak about it.

Once there was a young man and woman who fell madly in love with each other. There was an instant attraction as they first laid eyes on one another. So they were about to be married. On the home from the rehearsal dinner, the woman had a little too much to drink and got in an accident. Her car burst in flames. Thankfully, her husband to be was heading home not too far behind her. Her seat belt was jammed, and she couldn’t get out. But with a super human effort he ripped the door off the car and carried her to safety. She made it out without a scratch! However, while he was lifting her out, he ended up with bad burn marks on his face - disfiguring it badly. Some women would have decided to not go through with the wedding. But out of gratitude, the wife to be said that those were the most beautiful marks her husband had - because every time she looked at them - she then knew her husband to be’s love for her.

Nobody wants a dying king - a bloody king - or a weak King. There’s no reason why a perfect King should have to die. But like the wife - we caused our King to go on a cross and die. If we don’t have this dying King - this bloody and disfigured King - then we have no King - no salvation. Those marks in his hands and His feet - to us - are His signs of strength. They show us how much he loved us. They give us confidence that we will be living with Him in paradise. They are ugly marks, but they are beautiful marks. This is the King. We can tell it by His words. We can tell it by His actions. There are no “ifs” about it. There is only paradise in it. Amen.