Summary: In 13 words, Jesus reveals the only way a person can get to heaven and how the worst person can get there apart from “religion.”
Everyone enjoys a good scandal. It makes for great headlines, website views, and magazine sales. The famous last words of Jesus that we’ll focus on this weekend are the most scandalous last words in history. His 13 words to a dying criminal confronts all religions, spirituality, belief systems, and religious views about who gets to go to heaven and who doesn’t, and what makes you right with God and what doesn’t. Just 13 words (with all the rest of the Bible to back it up). But that’s not all…
His last 13 words to a dying criminal brings scandalous hope to the very worst of us who have lived lives, and have pasts, or committed sin, and made mistakes that some of our family and friends will never forgive us for, and that we cannot find it within us to even forgive ourselves for. Perhaps the guilt you carry sucks the air out of your life. There’s scandalous hope, spectacular hope, for you today.
But it is scandalous. How so? Because in 13 words, Jesus reveals the only way a person can get to heaven, and how the worst person can get there apart from “religion.” Stay with me. Let’s read the text.
Three men were on crosses. Sinless Jesus was on the center cross. This revealed that he was considered THE WORST of the three! The other men were called “criminals,” which translated simply means “doer of evil things.” We don’t know details of exactly what these men did to deserve the cruel and unusual punishment of crucifixion. Speculation has it that they were thieves to the degree that their thievery involved murder and rape. Scholars also hold that they were mainly insurrectionists, rebels, against the Roman government, who supported themselves through thievery.
But we find they were also rebellious against God. Luke, the Historian, tells us one of the criminals “railed” or “hurled abuse” (lit. “Blasphemed”) at Jesus (vs. 39: “Are you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” ). But we learn in Matthew that BOTH thieves were guilty of railing and hurling abuse at Jesus (Matt. 27:44).
In addition, we rebel with our thinking, behaving, believing, speaking, and relationships. We want his gifts, but we don’t want Him. We don’t’ care for Him, except when the lights go out in our lives, and then we blame Him.
John Piper once said (my summary), “Thousands of airplanes fly across the globe and we don’t give God a thought. But when one crashes, all humanity cries, “WHERE WERE YOU GOD!?”
So, again, BOTH criminals were railing against God at one time (Matt. 27:44). The drumbeat refrain against Jesus: “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” But then… something changed in one of the criminals….
Luke 23:40: “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.”
What happened? Confession and repentance. Note how his words connect their crimes (and sin) to God: “Do you not fear God…”. In the midst of his sin and rebellion, he came to his senses and confessed that he was in fact a sinner against God’s holiness, truth, and love.
How do we discover repentance? Well, his words are exactly what you rarely here from American lips: “You and I are getting what we deserve. You and I are to blame. You and I are guilty.”
In the middle of his sin, rebellion, and the consequences of it, he stopped his blaming, he confessed he was getting what he deserved, he owned his guilt, and there encountered the grace of God. Who might I be talking to? You are in the middle of your sin, rebellion, secrets, guilt, or even consequences of your actions, and love and forgiveness and new life are offered to you lavishly. How so? By owning your rebellion. Stopping your blame. Owning your sin. Owning your guilt. When you have emptied yourself to the place of humility and abandonment of self and rights before the holy God, you are free now to cast yourself wholly, purely, and only upon the grace of God.
How do you cast yourself wholly and only upon God’s grace for sin and rebellion and the consequences of it all, even while in the middle of it? You cry out for Jesus as your only hope and Savior.
Luke 23:42: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Wow. In a word full of liars and speculators about God and heaven, and after a lifetime of lying and being lied to, hurting and being hurt, the criminal tore himself free from the beliefs and opinions of others (the other criminal) and shook loose from the popular belief of the population (mob), and took the step of faith. And note His words of faith: “Jesus, remember me WHEN…” Not “IF”.