Journey Toward Easter: Today, Paradise
This morning begins week two of our seven week Journey Toward Easter. Our text this morning relates the second word from the cross uttered by Jesus. It is commonly referred to as The Word of Salvation. The second of Christ’s cross-utterances was spoken in response to the request of the dying thief. It was no accident that the Lord of glory was crucified between two thieves. There are no accidents in a world that is governed by God. Much less could there have been any accident on that day of days, or in connection with that event of all events—a day and an event which lie at the very center of the world’s history. God was presiding over that scene. From all eternity he had decreed when and where and how and with whom his Son should die. Nothing was left to chance or the caprice of man. God, through the Prophet Isaiah, had announced the event 700 years before it took place:
“Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:12, NIV84)
Luke’s gospel, more than any other, proclaimed good news to the despised of his era. In his gospel, Samaritans—half-bred neighbors despised by the Jews—had a prominent place in the kingdom. Lower than the Samaritans, Tax Collectors like Zacchaeus could be redeemed. Even lower than Tax Collectors, Women had a prominent role as followers of Jesus. And in Luke’s gospel, even Gentiles like the thief on the cross, had opportunity to accept the good news of the Kingdom. In the spirit of Luke's appeal to the down-and-out, Jesus remembered one of the world's despised as He was dying.
A condemned criminal saw in Jesus more than a dying revolutionary and asked to be remembered in His coming kingdom. As he was dying, Jesus promised him a place in paradise. Someone listening to this back-and-forth conversation would think that these two men are psychotic. But in this conversation between two dying men, Luke shares the true picture.
I. GOD'S KINGDOM HAS NO REGARD FOR THE BOUNDARIES OF OUR WORLD
- why did God ordain that his beloved Son should be crucified between two criminals?
- certainly God had a reason; a good one, a manifold one, whether we can discern it or not
- God never acts arbitrarily
- He has a good purpose for everything he does, for all his works are ordered by infinite wisdom
- when Jesus was crucified between two thieves, God illustrated His contempt for the artificial boundaries men establish between themselves, and between who they think should and should not go to heaven
- the love of God is for whosoever responds to the irresistible drawing of the Holy Spirit
- we all know the most famous “whosoever” verse:
- “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NIV84)
- this verse, and others like it, remind us that God's love is measureless and it is limitless
- God’s love knows no bounds because it is not an emotion subject to the whims of feeling, but a facet of His essential nature
- Jesus touched the lepers and the “unclean” of his society
- he ate with tax collectors and prostitutes and other sinners of his day
- he associated with half-breed Samaritans and women, and other outcasts
- and while dying on the cross, he promises eternal life to a thief
A. OUR WORLD IS FULL OF BOUNDARIES
- those boundaries are meant to keep others out or at a safe distance
- we establish boundaries between ourselves and others in all sorts of ways
- through race . . .
- through religion . . .
- through economics . . .
- through the “haves” and “have nots” of technologies . . .
- through geography and many other ways
- Jesus came to break the boundaries that exist between men and God and between men and men
- ILLUS. Many of you know the story found in the Book of Acts where Peter is sent by God to witness to a Gentile named Cornelius. Cornelius is a Roman centurion—which means he is the military leader of a 100-man company. Cornelius is also a “god-fearer” which means he was a Gentile who worshiped the one, true God. He has a vision, and in that vision he is instructed to send for the Apostle Peter who will preach to him words of life. Meantime, Peter is in Joppa, and he is also having a vision. Three times Peter dreams of a great table cloth let down from heaven with all kinds of food on it. Some of the food was “clean” according to Jewish custom and therefore edible. Some of it was “unclean” food—that is kinds of food that orthodox Jews were not supposed to eat for religious purposes. In each vision Peter hears a voice commanding him to eat even the unclean food and three times Peter refuses, saying, “Surely not, Lord! . . . I have never eaten anything impure or unclean,“ Acts 10:14 NIV The dream disturbs Peter and while he is contemplating its meaning, three of Cornelius’ servants have come to fetch Peter back to their master.Now Peter, being a Jew, was not supposed to enter Cornelius’ home because Cornelius is a Gentile, and everyone knows there is this ethnic, and social, and religious boundary that must observed. But Peter enters the home telling Cornelius, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.” Acts 10:28 NIV Peter proceeds to preach the good news of Jesus Christ and guess what? Not only does Cornelius get saved, his whole family gets saved. Then Peter makes one of the classic statements of evangelistic surprise, “Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons:” Acts 10:34 KJV
- “As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him,” (Romans 10:11–12, NIV84)
- ILLUS. Ski trip to Utah with John Stowe.
B. THE PENITENT THIEF ON THE CROSS WAS A WHOSOEVER
- the scene appeared utterly hopeless as Jesus is dying on the cross
- as he hangs there, Jesus certainly did not appear to be a king
- no one standing before the cross that day, believes that the kingdom of God could be ushered in with such tragedy'
- the few disciples at the cross certainly had their last hopes in the Messiah dashed at Calvary
- but Luke adds a new wrinkle to the scene
- in the midst of pain and death, a thief who was also crucified that day, asks Jesus to remember him when He came into His kingly power
- who would imagine such a profession coming from the lips of a dying criminal?
- especially one who earlier in the day had also been hurling insults at Jesus
- through this picture, Luke remained consistent with one of the themes of his gospel—the good news is also for the despised
- it is for Shepherds . . .
- it is for Samaritans . . .
- it is for Tax collectors . . .
- it is for Loose Women . . .
- it is for Even a Dying Thief
C. JESUS KEPT THE SAME COMPANY IN DEATH AS HE DID IN LIFE
- the religious community of our Lord’s day constantly ragged on him about the company he kept
- “But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2, NIV84)
- Jesus is the friend of sinners
- and sinners need a friend like Jesus because Jesus came to destroy the boundary that sin erects between sinners and God
II. GOD'S KINGDOM WILL NOT BE OVERCOME BY EVIL
- the hope Jesus offers the dying thief is immediate and personal
- Jesus told the man, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
- although the prospects of Jesus’ kingdom looked grim, the power of God was certain
- the very instrument of humanity’s rejection of God would become the means of giving hope and salvation to sinners
- ILLUS. In one of his commentaries, Matthew Henry has this to say: “The line of our duty is clearly marked out—our enemies should be melted by our persevering kindness. We are not to seek vengeance; [for] they will be consumed by the fiery wrath of that God to whom vengeance belongeth.”
- I like Henry’s use of the term “persevering kindness“
- it speaks of our Lord’s response to his enemies
- Jesus did not cry out for vengeance
- He asked the Heavenly Father to forgive his oppressors and offered mercy to the one person at Calvary who asked for it
A. GOD TRANSFORMED AN OLD RUGGED CROSS INTO A SYMBOL OF HIS POWER OVER EVIL AND SIN
- the hope Jesus gives to the dying thief is substantial: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
- paradise was a word borrowed from the Persians which meant beautiful garden
- the word is used only two other times in the New Testament
- one is found in the Book of Revelation
- “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” (Revelation 2:7, NIV84)
- “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.” (2 Corinthians 12:2–4, NIV84)
- in other words, heaven is like a paradise
- ILLUS. In Jewish thought of that era, heaven as we call it, was paradise restored. Jewish Rabbis looked back to the time where Adam and Eve walked in perfect harmony and fellowship with the Creator of Heaven and Earth. Eternal life in such a place, they thought, could not be improved upon. If man walked with God in a paradise before the fall, then surely God’s coming Kingdom must be that original paradise restored. Paradise in the Jewish mind was a place of total blessedness. This must have been a great comfort to the penitent thief.
- and wherever that is, I’m not too concerned about it, because Jesus will be there, too
- notice he tells the thief you will be with me
- folks, that’s all that matters, Amen?
- “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:22–24, NIV84)
- it’s a place where evil will not be known
- for Christians the terror of physical death is abolished, though the unpleasantness of dying remains
- Christians should view their own death as an appointment in Jesus’ calendar, which he will faithfully keep
- every believer here this morning ought to be able to testify with the Apostle Paul,
- “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. ... I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Phil. 1:21, 23)
B THE PROMISE THAT JESUS MAKES TO THE THIEF ON THE CROSS IS THE SAME PROMISE TO ALL PENITENT SINNERS
- the thief who would spend eternity with Jesus in heaven is a lesson to all who want to have a personal relationship with God
- FIRST, he recognizes, confesses, and repents of his sin
- “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “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.” (Luke 23:39–41, NIV84)
- his repentance is seen in that he knows he deserves his punishment
- he testifies that Jesus has done nothing amiss
- literally that means, he has done nothing outside of his character
- and he calls Jesus Lord
- he recognizes Jesus’ divine character and nature
- “Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42, NIV84)
Some of you here this morning may be saying to yourself, “But I don’t understand all of this.” “How can committing myself to Jesus really make a difference in my life and in my eternity?”
I don’t understand electricity, but I’m no fool—I’m not going to sit around in the dark till I do. I don’t understand the thermodynamics of internal combustion and the hydraulics of an automatic transmission either, but I’m no fool—I’m not going to stay in one place until I do. The truth is that I don’t understand a great deal of the things that are part of my everyday life, but I make them a part of my life anyway.
The same is true of salvation. No one will fully understand how God could become man, how he could die, how his death could be the basis for our forgiveness, how he could give you and me a new life and eternal life, and all of the other aspects of salvation. But only a fool would ignore such a great opportunity just because he didn’t understand it.