Jesus’ last words while dying are your first words for living. The words that Jesus spoke from the cross while He was dying in your place are the very words that will bring you the real and eternal life that you are searching for if you will receive them and believe them. When Jesus hung on the cross it was a great dividing line in eternity. Just like the two thieves we will all end up falling on opposite sides of this line and end up forever separated in eternities apart.
32 Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. 35 And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” (Luke 23:32-38).
When it says these men were “criminals” these guys were most likely insurrectionists which meant they wanted to overthrow the Roman government. They were most likely very violent and desperate men who wanted to get out from under the power of Rome and were trying to start an uprising against Rome.
When you think about it, this was the defining moment of God’s work in human history. And when it takes place He is between two random, unnamed criminals. Does that sound like the way you would want your defining moment to be remembered? Well, God did because that was what His greatest moment was really about! These three crosses are within themselves a microcosm of human history that tell the entire story of the human race.
If we were to label these three crosses they would be called . . . the cross of redemption . . . the cross of rejection . . . the cross of repentance. Jesus’s cross represented the cross of redemption in the middle. One thief represented the cross of rejection and the other thief represented the cross of repentance. When you and I look at the cross maybe we understand why Jesus was there and maybe we don’t. God had His own purpose for Jesus going to the cross.
From the beginning God had told His people He would send a Savior to take their place when it came to the curse of spiritual death. He promised a Savior who would come and die in their place. God told Adam and Eve when they sinned in the garden that a deliver would come. From that moment on, the entire sacrificial system in the Old Testament was a foreshadowing of Jesus. It was all predicated on the concept of an innocent substitute taking the place of the guilty. Once a year they would bring a perfect, unblemished lamb to lay on the altar and place their hand on the lamb to cast their sin upon the lamb and then sacrifice the lamb for that sin.
Jesus would become the immoral person, the drug addict, the spouse who has been unfaithful and run out on the family, the rebellious teenager, the hypocrite, the proud person, the selfish person, etc. Jesus becoming all of our sin and so much more enabled Him to look at all of us in our rejection of Him and failure to live a righteous life and pray those words, 34 Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34). Jesus could extend forgiveness to them because He was being punished for them.
Anytime you forgive somebody you are absorbing the consequences for their actions in yourself. When you totally and truly forgive somebody for what they have done to you, you are letting the sting of that person’s sin end in you. This is the very definition of the gospel . . . Jesus just didn’t die for you but He died in your place! He took your place on the cross! Jesus didn’t just die for us; He died instead of us!
So there is Jesus as the spiritual divide for all mankind and on each side is a thief that has been sentenced to die. Both of them were equally bad. When it came to their crime and their guilt they were equal. As a matter of fact Matthew says that both of them joined in with the crowds and cursed Jesus in the beginning. And both of them would have been extremely happy for Jesus to save them from death. Both of them had the same offer from Jesus. One of the thieves began to understand the things that are necessary for true conversion.
True conversion happens when you realize . . . Jesus is all you want or need. I’m sure the repentant thief would have been very happy if Jesus had offered to deliver him from the cross but he didn’t ask for it. You see that he even rebukes his buddy for asking. All he is concerned about is seeking God and being right with Jesus. 42 Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. (Luke 23:42). Another major part of this story is when he realized what he needed he also realized . . . He didn’t deserve it. He has realized that what he needs is not a change of circumstance but a change in direction of his life. He didn’t want God for what God could give. But he simply wanted God Himself and nothing else.
What this repentant thief had to come to grips with was, “I want Jesus and nothing else. Even if it means that I stay on this cross I know I need Jesus and He is all I want.” If your cancer is not healed, do you still want Jesus? . . . If your job situation stays the same, do you still want Jesus? . . . If your marriage doesn’t improve, do you still want Jesus? . . . etc. Do you want Jesus simply for what He can give you or do you simply want Jesus? Have you truly repented? Have you ever surrendered yourself to Jesus to follow Him with all your heart? Are you more serious about your soul or your skin?
There are several indicators that will tell you whether or not you have done this:
You have a growing relationship with Jesus. You are spending time with Him daily and constantly growing to be more like Him. You are totally surrendered to Him in all areas of your life. There are no areas of compromise. Jesus is both Savior and Lord of your life because you know it is impossible to separate the two. You are faithful and active in church and serving in His mission to proclaim the gospel to others.
Have you come to the place in your life where you want Jesus and nothing else or no one else? True conversion happens when . . . You understand your guilt before God. Look again at how he responds to his buddy on the other side Jesus. 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong. (Luke 23:41). Think about this for a minute. We said earlier that he is most likely an insurrectionist. He hated Rome and his crime was attempting to overthrow the Roman government. When he said they were being punished justly and were receiving due reward, he was not talking about Rome. He felt like what he was trying to do against Rome was totally justified.
He was referencing their spiritual sentence before God. Just before that statement he said something very intriguing. 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? (Luke 23:40). He saw the three of them before God dealing with a sentence of condemnation. He finally realized his sin was totally against God. Just like when David committed adultery with Bathsheba, murdered Urriah, lied about all of it and tried to cover it up. When David was confronted by Nathan and God brought him to repentance, he finally realized that his sin was against God and God only. That is when David wrote Psalm 51. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight (Psalm 51:4).
Repentance has to be vertical first before it is horizontal. Repentance to God for your sin will produce remorse for what your sin has caused. But it is possible to feel remorse over what your sin has caused and not feel repentant towards God for your sin. There is a big difference between just feeling remorse for what your sin has done and not being repentant to God about it. 10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. (2 Corinthians 7:10). Are you truly sorry to God for your sin or are you sorry for what your sin has caused in your life?
A common way we say this is . . . Are you sorry for what you have done or sorry you got caught? Are you genuinely sorry for how your sin hurts God because you first and foremost know your sin is against only God? Repentance is about your heart change towards God because of your sin. And if your heart has never changed towards God that most likely means you have never repented.
The most amazing thing about this whole story is the repentant thief asked Jesus to remember him and Jesus honored his request. Jesus looks at him and says, 43 “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43). Now that he has understood that Jesus is dying in his place, repented of his sin and placed his trust and belief in Jesus he can now rest in the fact that Jesus said he would be with Him. Jesus immediately forgives him and extends to him grace and mercy.
Salvation, coming to know Christ as your Savior and Lord is at it’s very core is a change of position and status. Salvation is not essentially a change of circumstance. Salvation is not essentially a change of behavior. When you come to know Jesus as your Savior and Lord your position and status change and that change brings with it a change of behavior and circumstances.