Not all people die the same way. Some fight and struggle; others simply drift off to eternity. Some become contrite, some are filled with hope, yet others are defiant. However, no has ever died like Jesus. He was an innocent man who had come to save the very people who executed Him. He went through a Kangaroo court, was beaten without cause and sentenced to die the tortuous death on a cross. Crucifixion was painful but not painful enough to kill you by itself.
One commentator writes,
Among the horrors which one suffered while thus suspended were the following: severe inflammation, the swelling of the wounds in the region of the nails, unbearable pain from torn tendons, fearful discomfort from the strained position of the body, throbbing headache, and burning thirst
Jesus was hung on the cross for six hours (a relatively short time for those crucified)! However, we must never forget that Jesus not only endured the torturous physical pain, He also faced the wrath of God on our behalf. Only the damned in Hell have any idea of the horror Jesus faced as our substitute. Even they will not understand completely because they have never known the sweetness of Heaven. Jesus traded perfect fellowship with the Father for His wrath. It would be worse than having a close and great relationship with your parents and have them suddenly disown you.
As we look at the account as recorded by Luke we see the character and love of Jesus. Hopefully, this glimpse of the Master will change us as completely as it changed one of the men who was crucified with Jesus.
The Bible tells us that Jesus was crucified outside the city between two thieves who were apparently also sentenced on this day. Shortly after Jesus was hung on the cross (which would likely have been around 9:00 a.m.) He cried out,
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Put yourself in the scene. Jesus is in physical agony. He is exhausted from the brutality extended to Him by the very people He came to save. He is convicted of crimes He did not commit; the pawn in a game being played between the Jewish leaders and the Roman governor. Standing around Him are people who continue to hurl abuse at Him. Ask yourself what your state of mind would be in this situation.
I am sure that if I was praying in this circumstance I would not be asking God to show forgiveness to my enemies. I suspect I would be frustrated and angry. I would continue to protest my innocence and likely speak sharp words to those who stood around the cross. Perhaps I’d say things like, “If there is any justice in the world someday you will be tortured in Hell for your actions.” Any prayers I prayed would not be for God to be merciful on those who put me on the cross.
This is the first thing to notice. Notice what Jesus does NOT do. In 1 Peter 2:23 we read,
23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
Jesus did not do what would come naturally to us. He did not retaliate, and He made no threats. Instead he rested in the wisdom of God.
Wow! Those words are easy to say when all is going well but not so easy to apply when things get tense or difficult. If someone cuts me off in traffic I can’t help but speak unkind words! If someone takes too long in the checkout line I am muttering under my breath. I am ashamed to say that I find it hard to entrust myself to the Lord in even these minor situations! Jesus learned to trust God in the frustrations of life and because of that He was able to trust Him in the time of crisis. The same will be true for us: we must learn to rest in Him in the everyday irritations so we will know how to rest in Him in the big stuff.
Notice however that Jesus not only does not retaliate or threaten . . . He actually interceded for those who have caused His pain! He said, “Father, forgive them!!! Because they do not know what they are doing!” Jesus knew these people thought they were eliminating a trouble-maker and keeping their faith pure. They had no idea they were executing the very One they had been waiting for over the centuries. Claiming to be wise they were actually fools.
Do you understand that we really aren’t any different? The Bible says we are “lost”. It’s a good picture. When we are lost we find ourselves wandering or driving aimlessly. We get frustrated and in that frustration we often strike out at others. The lat thing we want to be told is that we are lost. Being lost is a helpless feeling.
On the cross we see the incredible reality that God understands the confusion of our hearts and extends love rather than anger. He offers us what we cannot earn and do not even understand. He gives what we could never deserve. He offers to forgive us; to wipe the slate clean.
This is certainly good news for our own situation. But it is also great instruction for how we are to deal with each other. Even when we think we understand why someone hurt us . . . the truth is the person doing the hurting doesn’t even fully understand. If we can relate to people with this kind of insight – then we might be able to forgive as well.
The Promise (35-43)
And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
35 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.”
36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
38 There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.
39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43 Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
There are three groups of people mentioned at the cross. First, there were the mockers. What we see at the cross is exactly what we expect to see at the cross. The kind of people that would go out to watch a public execution would either be family members of those who are being killed or they would be calloused people who seem to revel in (or are at least are hardened to) the pain of others.
These people do not feel the horror of what is taking place. They mock Jesus like the kids in the playground who join in to the taunting of a particular child. For some reason it seems like the “fun” or reasonable thing to do. They “pile on” and increase an already bad situation.
The second group was the soldiers. Like those who deal with pain and death all the time, they have become so “used to” the execution that they are immune to feeling. It is necessary “numbing” that goes with the job.
The gospel writers tell us the soldiers divided up his clothes between them and gambled for his coat. They treated Jesus as a commodity! It would be like having your family come into your home and dividing up all your earthly possessions as if you weren’t sitting there!
The third group is the criminals who were next to Jesus. If we compare the gospels it seems that both criminals taunted Jesus at first. As the old saying goes, “Misery loves company”. Perhaps they figured if everyone was taunting Jesus, they would leave them to die in peace.
Somewhere along the line it appears one of the robbers suddenly got quiet. He went from taunting Jesus to believing in Him. We don’t know what happened. Perhaps as he heard Jesus speak from the cross he realized that there was something different about this man. Did he see a peace in the face of Jesus that revealed that Jesus knew something (or someone) that he did not know? All we know for sure is that the Holy Spirit brought about a change in this man’s heart. Notice the nature of the change.
First, He recognized that he deserved punishment but Jesus did not. The man spoke to his antagonistic friend saying,
“Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
He recognizes both the innocence of Christ and the justice of his own punishment. Every one of us must reach this same point at some time in our life. We deserve judgment for our sin . . . Jesus did not. We are guilty; He is innocent.
Second, He turned to Jesus for Help. The man looked at Jesus and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” In this simple statement the man recognizes that Jesus was indeed a King and that His Kingdom was beyond this world. Instead of railing at Jesus He adopted a position of humility and sought that which He did not deserve. He cried out for mercy from the only One who could grant it.
We likewise must acknowledge the Kingship of Christ. We must acknowledge that He is Lord and we are not. We cannot earn His favor based on our imagined goodness; instead we cry out for mercy as one drowning calls out for help.
Jesus welcomed the man into His Kingdom. The man asked to be “remembered”. He didn’t ask for special privileges. All he wanted was a measure of leniency and mercy. He believed that Jesus would one day be King and on that future day He hoped the Lord would be merciful to him. What Jesus gave him in return was much more than he asked for. “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
- Rather than some day . . . it would be TODAY. This is a verse that asserts that true followers will go immediately to Heaven when they die.
- Rather than simply be remembered . . . he would be with Jesus…He would walk with Him like a friend.
- He would actually be part of Paradise.
Jesus extends an astounding grace. We have here the classic example of a “death bed conversion”. This man lived the life of a criminal. There is every reason to believe society felt he was beyond reformation. Yet, when He cried out to Jesus He not only received grace; he was granted everlasting life in Heaven and an intimate relationship with the Lord.
Some might conclude from this that they just need to “wait to the last minute” cry out to Jesus, and then they will go to Heaven while still enjoying all the so-called pleasures of life. Though there are some who have deathbed conversions it is a bad plan for at least three reasons.
- It shows a misunderstanding of the nature of the salvation Jesus offers. Following Jesus does not cause us to “miss out” on life, but to find life. Jesus did not come to earth simply so we could go to Heaven when we die. He came to teach us how to enjoy the presence of God now. I cannot fathom why anyone would pass up the opportunity to “walk with God” and forego the joy, peace, strength, and fullness of life that comes from knowing God….just so you could sin more fully for a while longer? It would be like saying I am going to put off having a Doctor set my broken leg so I can continue to walk! Why would you choose the pain, limitations, and further damage to your leg when you could get it fixed! Why would you choose to continue to oppose God when you could walk with Him? Such thinking also misunderstands the nature of confession. It is not saying, “I guess I’ve had enough fun now, so please let me go to Heaven.” True confession is anchored to repentance; a recognition that previous choices had been wrong.
- You don’t know when you are going to die. You may not have any advance warning. Do not delay in the presumption that you will “always have time to repent.”
- Such thinking severely underestimates the degree of hardening that can take place in a human heart. Continued sin makes us as numb. We can become so skilled at justifying ourselves that we see no need to cry out for the Savior.
The good news is this: We do learn from this thief that as long as you have life, it is not too late to run to His embrace. It is not too late to ask Him to remember you. Only one thief ended up in Heaven. Which thief will come to represent your life? Will it be the one who taunted, rebelled and refused or will it be of the one who confessed, believed, and received?
In conclusion notice two things. We notice first the magnificence of Christ – We should serve Him. Though we can picture (though not experience) the horror of His physical suffering, we cannot begin to comprehend the depth of His spiritual suffering. What we do see is that He suffered in this way for us. He sought to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves: satisfy the demands of a Holy God. Jesus suffered the wrath of God so that we do not have to do so.
This love is so staggering that we can barely comprehend it. The more we grasp His love, the more we will serve Him. We serve Him not out of obligation or out of some desire to earn favor. We serve Him out of gratitude and love. When someone loves us this much we know we can trust them with our lives.
There is a second lesson. As we look at Jesus we see that He was different in attitude from everyone else. True Followers of Christ should likewise show markedly different attitudes and behavior from the world around us. We should be different,
- In our compassion. Jesus prayed for those who mistreated Him and was gracious in his response to the thief next to Him. Instead of getting angry at others for their sin, we must act toward them understanding that they “don’t know what they are doing”. Even the meanest person we know has no clue that they are rebelling against a child of the King and against the King Himself. We should relate to people as the truly lost people that they are.
- In our forgiveness. There is no grace that is more astounding than for one wronged to release the one who perpetrated the wrong. Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman Emperor and Stoic saint, used to say to himself every morning, “To-day you will meet all kinds of unpleasant people; they will hurt you, and injure you, and insult you; but you cannot live like that; you know better, for you are a man in whom the spirit of God dwells.” We who have been greatly forgiven should be willing to forgive.
- In our evangelism. Jesus understood that the most important thing in life was “being with Him in paradise”. Every action was designed to point people to God. Even in His time of agony He reached out to others. The task of sharing the gospel with others is so great that we must never EVER stop. There is too much at stake for us to treat this responsibility indifferently. People are headed to eternal punishment! Only a calloused person would be indifferent. It doesn’t matter what you say, you don’t really love someone if stand by and say nothing while they head toward Hell.
- In our response to the trials of life. Jesus turned to the Father in His time of greatest anguish. In unbearable pain the world watched as He drew amazing strength from His Father in Heaven. We too must show the world that in our times of greatest weakness we trust Christ and discover our greatest strength.
My prayer this morning is that you would turn to this Jesus. If you have not sincerely and fully trusted Him, I encourage you to do so today. He is willing to extend His forgiveness even to you. When you are lost in your car you may summon OnStar to help you find your way. In much the same way, if you will call on Jesus in your spiritual lost-ness, He will lead you to His Kingdom. The Lord will walk with you every day, and eventually He will even lead you to Paradise and your eternal home. Do not delay beginning this new and wonderful relationship with Jesus Christ.
I pray that we might live in such a way as to reflect the Lord in the way we live our lives. May we be empowered to live with His compassion, forgiveness, love and strength. May we truly allow God’s Spirit to work in our hearts and lives.
I hope we never have to face the kind of pain and martyrdom that some have faced over the centuries. But, no matter what comes our way I pray that we might face death with the calm confidence that comes from learning to walk with Jesus in this life. May we face death as He did . . . as one about to enter into the richness of paradise.