Summary: At the cross we see an intimate exchange between one criminal and his Messiah. And there we find not only how to have eternal life, but what that life is like. Jesus points us to the original garden relationship we can have with God, ours for the asking.
Seven Last Words from the Cross Part 2 * Luke 23:32-33, 39-43
We are in week two of a Lenten series called, “Seven Last Words from the Cross.” We are paying attention to Jesus’ last statements, because last words matter. And as the Son of God, Jesus’ last words reflect the very heart of God.
Last week we saw Jesus begin with forgiveness. Today we capture an equally surprising line from Jesus. In the midst of suffering an excruciatingly painful death, he took time to assure a criminal of eternal life. That makes me wonder, “What is this thing called eternal life. How does one receive it? And why does one criminal get it and one doesn’t?” Talk about a last-minute conversion!
Think about the criminals on either side of Jesus. Different Bible versions describe them as thieves, malefactors, evildoers, law breakers. It’s the same word in the Greek that John used in his gospel for Barabbas. It implies part of the criminal element, a career criminal so to speak. These two criminals actually fulfilled scripture. Isaiah prophesied some 700 years earlier that the Messiah would be “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12). Jesus had reminded his disciples about this verse the night before, just moments before his arrest, and had said to them, “I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me” (Luke 22:37).
So these criminals were there by God’s design. They highlight the disgrace of Jesus’ death, as the Son of God was treated as a common criminal, but they also contrast the difference between pride and humility, heaven and hell, eternal life and eternal damnation. You might look at these two criminals and think, “They’re exactly alike: trouble makers, law breakers, guilty as charged.” But if you look closer, they are as different as night and day. One criminal scoffs. One believes. One dies in lostness. One dies to live forever. The Apostle Paul would later write, in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” I wonder if he had these two criminals in mind as he wrote those words.
Today I want to use the conversation between the repentant criminal and Jesus to illustrate a couple of things: first, how one comes into eternal life, and secondly, what we know about eternal life. The latter might give you some assurance for those who have gone ahead of us, as well as for when your time comes to cross over.
How one comes into eternal life:
First, how do you enter what Jesus calls “paradise?” We’ll use a simple acronym: A-B-C. The “A” stands for...
1. Admit your own sinfulness (vv. 40-41a)
Matthew and Mark record that both criminals ridiculed Jesus on the cross. Yet, only Luke captures the change of heart in one, perhaps as he watched Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness for his enemies. Listen again to verses 40-41: “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.’”
To gain eternal life, you must first die to pride. You must admit that you are one messed up person. You don’t just sin; you are a “sinner,” one in rebellion against the God who made you to fellowship with himself. Every sin originates in pride. Like Adam and Eve, we think we know better than God, until we know we don’t. So you must first humbly admit that you are lost.
It reminds me of those times when I’ve been physically lost. I was trying to find a doctor’s office, or a vacation destination, or an azimuth in basic training, and I was lost. Sometimes navigators and GPS’s and—in the old days—those paper road maps that never folded back up exactly right—sometimes those tools are not enough. In those occasions when I was lost, I had to come to a realization that I wasn’t going to be able to succeed alone. I had to swallow my pride and ask for help. So it is with eternal life. We must admit our own sinfulness. We need a Savior. We cannot get there alone. Secondly, we must...
2. Believe in Jesus’ sinlessness (v. 41b)
Now that you understand your own sinfulness, you need to understand Jesus’ sinlessness. He was numbered among the transgressors, but he did nothing wrong. Everyone in prison claims to be innocent; in Jesus’ case, it was really true! Jesus never sinned! He is the only human being that has never sinned. The repentant thief said it well, at the end of verse 41, when he said, “But this man has done nothing wrong.” Hebrews 4:15 declares the same about Jesus, our High Priest, “who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet he did not sin.”