Summary: Easter sermon
It was no accident that the Lord of glory was crucified between two thieves. There are no accidents in a world ruled by God. Certainly there can be no accident on that day and with that event which lies at the center of world history. No. God was in charge. From eternity He had decreed when and where and how and with who His Son would die. Nothing was left to chance or the whim and fancy of man. All that God had eternally decided came to pass exactly as He had ordained, and nothing happened except that which He had eternally purposed. Everything man did, God’s "power and will had decided beforehand should happen" (Acts 4:28).
Our Lord was crucified with two thieves in order to demonstrate, as the Lord’s Supper reminds us, the full extent of His humiliation. At His birth He was surrounded by the animals of the stable and placed in a manger. Now, at His death, He is numbered with criminals. As the early Christian song tells us, He "made himself nothing" and "humbled himself" (Phil 2:7, 8).
Our Lord — though sinless, holy, and perfect — was crucified between two criminals, He was "numbered with the transgressors" (Is 53:12).
Jesus hung between the two thieves. God used those two men to dramatize the only two possible responses to the Christ: belief and unbelief, acceptance and rejection, repentance and impenitence.
A very important lesson we learn at the cross concerns the sovereign grace of God. The two criminals were crucified together. They were equally near to Christ. Both of them saw and heard all that happened those six hours Jesus hung on the cross. Both were wicked, both were dying, both urgently needed forgiveness. Yet, one of them died in his sins; he died as he had lived — hardened and impenitent. While the other, he repented of his wickedness, believed in Jesus, called on Him for mercy, and went to Paradise. Only the sovereign grace of God can account for this difference in response.
Don’t we see exactly the same thing happening today? Under exactly the same circumstances and conditions, one is melted and another remains unmoved. Under the same sermon one man will listen with indifference, while another will have his eyes opened to see his need and his will moved to seek God’s offer of mercy. To one the Gospel is revealed, to another it is "hidden."
In the salvation of the dying thief we have a clear picture of victorious grace. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith," says the Apostle Paul (Eph 2:8). God is the God of all grace and salvation is entirely by His grace from beginning to end.
Grace begins, grace continues, and grace consummates our salvation.
Salvation by grace — sovereign, irresistible, free grace — is nowhere illustrated in Scripture as well as in the case of the forgiven thief on the cross. Consider that this thief had no "good works," no high standard of morality, and no self-righteousness before his conversion. Rather, he was a vile and wicked man; he respected neither the law of God nor the law of man. There is no way that either he or anyone else could say that he had earned his salvation. And, after his conversion, this thief had no life of service, no grateful response, no fruits of salvation — for his conversion took place just before his death. Yet, he was still saved. In other words, his salvation was by sovereign grace. And that too is the message of the Lord’s Supper.
I am always comforted when I think of that thief. He is proof-positive that I don’t have to reach a certain standard or level of holiness before God will accept me as His child. That thief is proof-positive that I don’t have to get my wayward life under control in order to claim the promises of God for myself. That thief is proof-positive that salvation is not conditional upon a life of good works. That thief reminds us that salvation is totally by grace; that it is free, unmerited, unearned, and totally dependent upon God and His mercy.
God designed to save the thief under the most unfavorable of circumstances to show that it is only by sovereign grace that the thief is saved. God shows us that salvation is only of the Lord.
To get to the heart of the word salvation we must also realize that the penitent thief is a symbol or representative of sinners everywhere.
The thief on the cross is not only a sinner; he is also a converted sinner. He rebuked the other thief for his mockery of the Lord Jesus: "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" (vs. 40, 41). We see that the thief repents of his sin and evil. He acknowledges his guilt and the judgment of God upon his sin.