One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ (Luke 23:39)
Here is a man in the last hours of his life. He is completely lost, he is completely helpless, and he is still angry with God.
Suffering doesn’t always make people more tender. It can bring out the worst in us. Sometimes pain intensifies a sinner’s hatred towards God. You can feel this man’s hostility towards the Son of God: “If you’re God, why don’t you do something?”
Do not underestimate how much the human heart hates God. The Scriptures tell us about the last day when God’s judgments are poured out. What do we find on that day? Do we find sinners repenting? No, the Bible tells us that people will call on the rocks to fall on them (Revelation 6:16), “We’d rather die than bow before you!”
Sin is a mighty power that grips the human soul. Apart from the grace of Christ, none of us will ever get free from it. This man was just hours away from eternity. Having given himself to a life of crime, he was now under the judgment of the law. Soon he would face the judgment of God and still he is raging against God. It is the story of his life.
Then something changed
His partner is crime is on the other side of Jesus in exactly the same position. This man also pours out insults on Jesus, but then something changes. A silence comes over his soul, and perhaps for the first time in his life, he really thinks about his own position.
He had skimmed through life, lived by his wits, drifted from one thing to another, but now his life is slipping away. Earth is receding and eternity is beginning to loom large. It’s right on the horizon. He had not planned on this and he had not prepared for it either.
As a Jew, he’d always believed in God, but it never made any difference to his life. Now he sees with awesome clarity that before the day is done, he’ll stand in the presence of the God he is cursing, and he’ll be held accountable for the stewardship of his whole life.
As these thoughts run through his mind, he hears the distant voice of his friend, still cursing and hurling abuse at Jesus and he says, “Don’t you fear God?” (Luke 23:40).
Can you imagine this moment? Then he says to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42). And Jesus said to him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
It’s an extraordinary story—a man who’s destined for hell and right on the brink of eternal destruction is given full access to the joys and privileges of eternal life with Jesus Christ. Our aim in the series is to explore the full extent of Christ’s love. John Owen says,
Having a loving fellowship with the Father is very much neglected by Christians… This makes Christian sad when they might be rejoicing. It makes them weak when they could be strong. How few Christians are actually acquainted with this great privilege of having a loving fellowship with the Father…
We desperately need to grasp the extent of Christ’s love, because without this you’ll be sad when you could be rejoicing, without this you’ll be weak when you could be strong.
How is God’s love made known to us and lavished upon us? In Jesus Christ, and that’s why we’re giving ourselves to this sustained meditation on the extent of his love. The more you see of God’s love for you, the more you will grow in your own love for him. Today I want to offer, from this story in Luke 23…
Seven Glimpses of the Love of Christ
1. Christ chooses the company of undeserving sinners
Who would you like to have beside you in the last moments of your life? I would like to think that my wife, Karen, would be there, my two sons and my two daughters-in-law. I’d like to have people who love me around at the last moments of my life.
These are the last moments of Jesus’ life on earth. He’s about to go into death and eternity. We know that Mary the mother of Jesus stood at the cross, with John the apostle and some other women. But the people who are closest to Jesus in these last hours of agony are two men who hate him. They are hurling abuse at him.
Christ is in the company of sinners again. They called him the “friend of sinners.” This was meant as a slur, but it is a glorious title, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32). One of the sinners has a change of heart, and right there on the cross Christ saves him.
Spurgeon says this man was our Lord’s last companion on earth and his first companion in heaven.  Jesus chooses surprising friends, doesn’t he? “When the Lord Jesus made a friend of me,” Spurgeon says, “He certainly did not make a choice that brought him credit.” Don’t you feel that way too?
Christ is ministering, even in his agony, to this wretched man who’d wasted his life and only moments ago was abusing him. Now Christ makes this man his friend! He says to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise. I’m going to make you my friend.” Do you see the love of Christ here? Spurgeon pictures Christ entering the glory of heaven,
Who is this that enters the pearly gate at the same moment as the King of glory? Who is this favored companion of the Redeemer? Is it some honored martyr? Is it a faithful apostle? Is it a patriarch like Abraham or a prince like David? It is none of these. Behold and be amazed at sovereign grace…
A notorious sinner on the brink of hell is swept into the glory of heaven. We might ask, “Lord, why him? Isn’t there someone better suited to be your first companion in heaven?” This man is a sample of what Christ can do. The first man in heaven has absolutely nothing to commend him.
Christ is glorified by saving this man in this way because it’s clear that his salvation is through Christ alone. His salvation opens the door of hope for all of us, because if this man can become the companion of Christ in heaven, then there’s hope for you and for every person you’ll ever meet. Do you see the love of Christ in this?
2. Christ accepts the simplest faith
Here is a man who has pursued a life of crime. He is full of cursing and anger against God, but then something changes in his soul. What happens?
a. He begins to fear God
“Don’t you fear God?” (Luke 23:40), he said to his friend.
b. He recognizes his sinful condition
We are punished justly, for “we are getting what our deeds deserve” (Luke 23:41). There are no more evasions, no more excuses.
c. He believed in the Lord Jesus Christ
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). He sees in Christ the authority of a king. How did he come to that? The sign above Jesus head said, “This is the King of the Jews.” And the crowd was saying, “He saved others…” Perhaps he thought, “This man saved others? Maybe he can save me.”
d. He asked Jesus to save him
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Was there ever anything simpler than that? He believed Jesus with the least bit of revelation and then asked him to save him…
“I am tired of the wreckage I have made of my life and my terrible end. If there is any possibility of something better beyond this life then, please, in your mercy, let me be part of it.” And Jesus saves this man on the spot, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” You really cannot get a simpler faith than that.
We live in a skeptical age when questioning shows that you are sophisticated, and clarity suggests that you must be naïve. In that environment, the world wants to present to us a faith that is a long and complex journey. But listen to these words of Jesus, “I praise you, Father… because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children” (Matt. 11:25).
You can pursue spirituality all your life, but apart from Jesus Christ, you will never come to know God. All things have been committed by the Father to the Son. Jesus does not say, “Go on a long search.” He says, “Come to me…” (Matt. 11:27-28), “and I will give you rest for your soul.” Do you see the love of Christ in this? If it took a PhD to work out faith, the vast majority of us would be excluded.
3. Christ saves by grace, through faith and without works
The story of the thief on the cross makes God’s grace in salvation crystal clear—this man had no works to offer, either before or after his salvation. A. W. Pink asks,
What could [the thief] do? He could not walk in the paths of righteousness for there was a nail through either foot. He could not perform any good works for there was a nail through either hand. He could not turn over a new leaf and live a better life for he was dying.
Truth can always be twisted by perverse people. The wonderful truth that God saves by grace, through faith and without works is no exception. A man said to Spurgeon, “If I believed that, I would carry on in a life of sin,” to which he replied, “Yes, you would!” 
But the redeemed heart loves Christ. The forgiven sinner has a desire to please his Lord. If the thief had been rescued from the cross and lived another 30 years, he would have lived a new and different life, but he did not have that opportunity. The fact that he entered paradise shows us with great clarity where our salvation lies.
Our salvation in Christ involves three marvelous gifts—justification, sanctification and glorification. Justification is the gift by which our sins are forgiven, sanctification is the gift by which we grow in the likeness of Christ and glorification is the gift by which we enter into the everlasting joy of heaven. If you get that, you get the Christian life.
Now think about what happened to this man. He was justified and glorified on the same day! He completely bypassed sanctification! This man missed out on the entire Christian life—no battles with temptation, no struggles with prayer. He was not baptized, he never received communion and he did not become a member of any church.
Here’s what that tells us: Entrance to heaven comes through justification, not through sanctification. You enter heaven by forgiveness and through the righteousness that Jesus gives you. You do not enter into heaven by the Christian life.
The New Testament repeats this theme again and again…
A man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. (Galatians 2:16)
He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. (Titus 3:5)
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
It is always true that where faith is birthed works will follow, but salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. This is the good news that your acceptance with God does not depend on your performance in the Christian life.
Where would you be if Christ said, “I forgive you, but I’ll be watching to see how you do from now on.” What kind of love is that? “I forgive you, but make sure you don’t mess up again.” When you read the words “not by works,” rejoice. If it wasn’t for this you’d be sunk because your Christian life is not what you want it to be and neither is mine.
4. Christ gives complete assurance
Today, you will be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43)
Don’t you just hate the business of waiting for exam results? You do the test, hand in your paper and then you have to wait. Can you imagine living your whole life waiting for the results? Imagine praying every day, serving every week and then wondering, “Will I make it into heaven? Or will I spend eternity in hell?”
When the man says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Christ does not say, “We’ll have to wait and see.” He doesn’t say, “It’s rather late in the day for you to think about repentance now. Look at all the years you’ve wasted!” No, Jesus says, “Today, you will be with me in paradise!”
The Son of God brings the declaration of the last day forward for all who put their trust in him. Do you see how the gift of assurance flows from Christ saving us by grace, through faith and without works? If our works were in any way involved in our gaining entrance into heaven, assurance would be impossible. We could never know if we had done them.
If salvation rested on our works in any way, all assurance would be arrogance, because it would be saying “I’ve done the necessary works.” Salvation depends, not on your works for Christ, but on Christ’s work for you. His work is finished. It’s perfect and complete. You can rest your life, death and eternity on him with complete confidence.
Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Christ is the Lord of paradise. He holds its keys. There can be no higher assurance than his promise. That’s why the apostle Paul says, “It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns?” (Romans 8:33-34)
Christ does not want you to spend the rest of your life worrying about the final outcome of your life. This is the root of all worship. You can begin rejoicing in all that he has in store for you. That’s why joy comes, not sadness, strength rather than weakness, when we grasp the love of Christ. We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:2).
5. Christ has great joy in redeeming sinners
I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43)
The phrase that’s translated, “I tell you the truth,” comes from the single word, “Amen.” When the man says, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus replies, “Amen, today you will be with me in paradise!” Do you see the joy in that? Here’s the “Amen!” to the word of faith. This is why he came. This is why he is suffering. There is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. Do you see the love of Christ here?
Don’t ever imagine that Christ is reluctant to save you. Christ says “Amen” to the simplest faith. He is not looking to keep you out. He is looking to bring you in!
6. Christ promises a life of indescribable joy
Today you will be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43)
Can you imagine anything further from this man’s experience? He’s a criminal and he’s on a cross. He feels he is in hell already and the worst is still to come. He’s absolutely hopeless and powerless, and in the middle of all this pain and guilt, Christ says to him, “You will be with me in paradise, today!” To paraphrase Spurgeon, this man had breakfast with the devil, met Christ before noon and then had supper in paradise.
The thief thought that Christ’s kingdom would come some time in the distant future. He says, “Remember me.” But Jesus is saying to him, “You don’t need to worry about me remembering you. We’re going to be there today—you and me! You will savor all of the joys of paradise before this day, in which you’re experiencing so much pain, is done.”
Death does not lead to a long period of unconsciousness. Nor does it lead, for the believer, to a long process of being prepared. For a Christian believer, death is an immediate translation into the joys of life at the right hand of God. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Today you will be with me in paradise.
Christian, heaven is much nearer than you think. I love the way C. S. Lewis pictures that in the Narnia novels, where the children slip into a glorious world that is just on the other side of the wardrobe.
Your life is like a mist, like steam or a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Everything that’s burdening you and consuming you now is like breath on a window on a cold day. When you’ve been in the presence of Christ for a hundred thousand years you’ll be saying, “Why was I so consumed, so worried about that?”
7. Christ is with his people now and always
Today, you will be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43)
Paradise is heaven and the greatest joy of heaven is the presence of Jesus. The lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd. He will lead them to springs of living water (Revelation 7:17). Christ himself will lead you into all the joys of heaven.
The thief on the cross went from nature to grace and from grace to glory in one day. He bypassed the entire Christian life. Christ could do this for every Christian if he wanted to. Imagine what that would be like—every conversion on a Sunday would lead to a funeral on a Monday. You put your trust in Christ in the service, “Have a nice dinner!”
Why doesn’t Christ do that? Four out of five Christians will say, “He is leaving us here to get us better prepared for heaven.” No! You’re as ready for heaven on the day you commit to Christ as you will ever be! You get to heaven on the basis of your justification, not your sanctification.
So, why does he leave you here? Do you see that the only reason you are not in heaven, if you are a Christian believer, is that he has work for you to do? Are you doing it?
To those who die, Christ says, “You will be with me,” and to those who live, Christ says, “I will be with you.” I’ll never leave you, I’ll never forsake you. On that basis, go into all the world and I’ll make you a light to the nations. Do you see the love of Christ here?
I want you to look at this love of Christ until it becomes irresistible to you. Look at the love of Christ. If you are not a Christian you will say, “Why am I holding back from this Savior? What is the value of all my arguments and objections?” Keep looking at the love of Christ until you come to the place where you say, “I must have this Christ and He must have me.” May the Lord bring all of us there today.
 John Owen, Communion with God, Banner of Truth, 1991, 27.
 C. H. Spurgeon sermon, The Believing Thief, April 7th, 1899.
 A. W. Pink, The Seven Sayings of the Savior from the Cross, Baker, 2005, 34.
 C. H. Spurgeon sermon, Election and Holiness, March 11, 1860
© Colin S. Smith
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