By Pastor Glenn Pease
Jonathan Swift made the well known statement, "Promises and pie crust are made to be broken." This attitude has prevailed through much of history, and the result has been that many have been rich in promises, but poor in performance. Many centuries ago Ovid suggested that men ought to supplement their promises with deeds, and so indicated that men could freely promise, and then just as freely forget. In more modern times Spurgeon complained of those who promised mountains and perform mole hills.
The promise has been used from the beginning as a weapon of deception. It was Satan's promise to Eve that she would be like God by eating the forbidden fruit. It was also by promises of great power that Satan sought to tempt Jesus to avoid the cross. The kings and lesser rulers in the days of Michelangelo were notorious for their use of promises to trick enemies into their power so as to execute or imprison them. Promises have been used by men to try and deceive even their gods.
The Persians have a fable about a peasant who saw an egg floating in the river, and when he tried to get it out he fell in. He began to get carried away by the current. He cried out, "Allah save me. I'll never eat another egg." Just then he was able to grab a low hanging branch of a tree and pull himself to shore. As he stood shaking himself off he remarked, "I suppose Allah you understood me to mean raw eggs of course." He quickly modified his promise when he was safe so as to nullify it, showing that he only promised in the first place to manipulate his god to his advantage. Peasants have not been the worst offenders, however, but rather kings and rulers who have had so much more with which to promise.
Many of the kings of England gained a reputation for breaking their promises. John Wilmot wrote this epitaph for Charles II.
Here lies our sovereign lord and king,
Whose promise none relies on.
He never said a foolish thing,
Nor ever did a wise one.
In Shakespeare's Henry VIII we read, "His promises were, as he then was, mighty, but his performance, as he now is, nothing."
It is in contrast to this dark background of deception and inconsistency that we turn our eyes upon Jesus, who is the light of the world, and the King of Kings, and whose promises all can rely on to be backed up by performance. Jesus promised that those who come to Him will in no wise be cast out, and that whosoever will call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. We see these promises being fulfilled to the thief who was dying on the cross next to Him. Jesus made the perfect promise to this dying man. It is a perfect promise for two reasons that we want to consider. First of all it is a perfect promise because-
I. IT IS PERSONAL PROMISE.
Jesus said to him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." This was a personal promise to this man that on this very day that he would die he would enter into the perfect life. The first word that Jesus spoke from the cross was a prayer of forgiveness for all who were responsible for His crucifixion. It was addressed to the Father, and not to those who were forgiven. Most of them did not even hear it, for they were so busy shouting and mocking. It was an unconscious benefit which Jesus bestowed on them. But this second word had to be very personal and direct, for it would be without meaning and effect if not consciously grasped by the one it concerned. The value of this word to the thief on the cross lies in its personal nature.
This holds a lesson for all of us who seek to communicate to others the Gospel of Christ. When we talk to an individual about the promises of God we ought not to speak in generalities that leave a person guessing, but get specific and personal. For example, imagine how less perfect this promise of Christ would have been if He had made His royal response to the rebels request something like this: "I will remember many when I enter my kingdom, and they shall join me this day in paradise." That would have given hope, but not assurance. It would have made him feel his salvation was possible, but it would have given him a sense that it was actual.
Jesus made His promise perfect by purposely making it distinctly personal so as to leave no doubt in the mind of the thief. Whatever may or may not be the experience of anyone and everyone else, you can count on it that this day you will be with me in paradise. What a joy it must have been to Christ to be able to win a soul for eternity in His dying hours. Here we see Jesus doing personal work even on Calvary's cross, and in so doing He transforms Golgotha, the hill of death into a hill of life. As Tholuck has said, "Did ever the new birth take place in so strange a cradle."
What a paradoxical picture is produced by this personal promise of a dying Savior to a dying sinner. The cross was a cruel way of bringing a man to the end of life, but it brought this thief also to an endless life. His cross began as his doom, but it ended as his deliverance, for now, though yet facing certain death, he does so with the promise of certain life. He was born again on the very day that he died. Nothing but a personal promise could satisfy in such a situation, and that is why Jesus emphasized it, and made it so personal. He was only hours away from a Christless eternity, but Jesus assured him that he was only hours away from a Christ filled eternity. Only and earnest personal promise could persuade a man so close to the gates of hell to believe that he was on his way to heaven.
What a strange day it was on that Friday we called good. Two out of the three being crucified died victorious with joy in their hearts. What promise could be more perfect than one that could redeem a crucified criminal? Let us take Christ as our example in winning the lost, and make sure we give the Gospel the personal touch by making it clear that every individual can lay claim to the promises of Christ. He not only died for all men, he died for you and me personally. His blood was shed not only for the sins of the whole world, but for your sins and mine.
The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there may I, though vile as he
Wash all my sins away.
My sins can only be forgiven by one who is my Savior. A Savior of the world does me no good if He is not my Savior, and that is why we stress that every person recognize that they must as an individual turn to Christ and request His salvation. Christ died for the other thief as well, but he was lost none the less, because he did not look to Christ, and believe, and ask. This penitent thief did these things, and ,therefore, received a perfect promise. It gave him peace and assurance because it was a personal promise. The second reason for this being a perfect promise is-
II. IT IS A PRECISE PROMISE.
It is possible to make a promise personal, but leave it so imprecise that it is far from perfect. If Jesus would have said something like, now don't you worry, or all will turn out best in the end for you, it would have been personal but shallow. What really gives this promise power is its preciseness. Jesus promised that it would be that very day that he would be in paradise. It was not some day I will remember you, or soon I will remember you, but today, this very day of your tragic exit from this world will be the day of your triumphant entrance into a new world.
The preciseness of this promise not only made it perfect for the thief in that it would give him such specific hope for that very day, but it also protects the rest of us from popular perversions. It protects us from sacramentalism that says baptism, communion, extreme unction, or some other sacrament is essential for the salvation of a soul. This most public and widely known conversion of all is all the evidence necessary to reject such ideas. It is Christ and Christ alone that saves, and we ought not to put our trust in anything or anyone else for assurance of our salvation. Baptism is an act of obedience, and not a means to salvation. Jesus alone is the Savior, and not Jesus plus something else.
It protects us from the teaching that man is not fit to enter God's presence immediately after death. This means that the concept of purgatory does not fit this picture. If anyone needed a slight delay for cleansing it would be this dying thief, but Jesus promised him prompt entrance into paradise that very day. Wild imaginations have built up quite a list of crimes that this man had committed. We do not need to speculate, however, for we have the man's own confession in verse 41. He admits that he and his companion are justly suffering crucifixion. This means that he was worthy of capital punishment, and it could very well mean he was guilty of murder.
He was, by any standard, an evil man guilty of serious crimes, and yet he was promised immediate entrance into paradise. It could well be that before his body was covered with earth his spirit was filled with mirth in paradise with Christ. This rules out such concepts as purgatory and soul sleep. Some teach that the soul sleeps until the resurrection, but this promise of Christ makes it clear that Paul spoke what is God's Word on the subject when he said, "To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord." The preciseness here helps us avoid man made opinions as to what happens at death.
This promise also reveals the perfect confidence of Christ while on the cross. He knew that before this day was over he would be back with the Father having accomplished His mission. Thirty three years was certainly not a long time to be removed from paradise for the eternal Christ, but even to deity there is no place like home, and Jesus was happy that day had arrived for Him to return home, even though the worst experience of His existence had to be endured that day. He had to become sin for us, and to be separated from the Father. The joy that was to be His before the day ended enabled Him to face even the worst in confidence, and it was the promise to the thief that enabled the thief to face his death with confidence. Because of Christ's victory that day all believers can have the assurance of following the same pattern that Jesus did. We will go immediately into His presence at the time of death.
This personal precise promise given to the thief is offered to all who will turn to Christ in faith. I do think we must recognize the experience of this man to be unique, however, and not a recommended pattern. We are not to wait until we are on our death bed to turn to Christ. We have this one example so that all may have hope even in their dying moments, but there is only one example less men presume and make it a pattern to live in sin until they come to die. Far better it is to take Christ's promise as soon as possible, and have the joy of living for Christ before you die and enter paradise.
The dying thief had a perfect and precise promise that was all he could ask for, but we who could live beyond the day of our salvation have exceeding great and precious promises in plurality. We have the privilege of growing in grace, and being used of God to carry the good news of salvation to others. The thief received the perfect promise, and all who would benefit by the unsearchable riches in Christ must also first receive this promise. They must make this promise personal, and receive Jesus as their personal Savior, for only then are they ready to die with assurance. The dying thief was delivered from the very jaws of death and hell by turning to Jesus, and this same deliverance is freely offered to all who will respond to His promise: "He that comes to me I will in no wise cast out."