Luke 23:32-43

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Last Lord’s Day we left the Lord being escorted from the palace of the governor to the place of his execution and considered the brief exchange that he had with some of the women who were mourning as the procession made its way to Calvary.

“Criminals” is a general term. Matthew tells us they were robbers or bandits.
Isaiah had prophesied centuries before that the servant of the Lord would be numbered with the transgressors in his death. [53:12] There are, of course, different kinds of criminals. There are those who, even in our day, perhaps especially in our day, are criminals simply because they run afoul of the authorities for some reason. Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Jesus were such criminals: innocent of any real wrong-doing but punished nevertheless.  Francis Cardinal George, the archbishop of the diocese of Chicago said recently, apropos the growing hostility of the American government to historical Christian convictions, that he expects to die in his bed, he expects his successor to die in prison, and he expects his successor to die as a martyr. The state can call anyone it likes a criminal. It hardly makes him so. Then there are the other sort — thieves, murderers and the like — and such were the two crucified with Jesus on his right and left.

It is surprising perhaps, but no one knows why the place was called “the skull.” It has long been supposed that the name was derived from the shape of the hill on which Jesus was crucified, but, as a matter of fact, none of the four evangelists, or Gospel writers, says anything about the Lord being crucified on a hill. However, all the evidence taken together, suggests that the place of crucifixion was actually where it is nowadays said to have been, a rocky outcrop that now forms a shrine within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, somewhat of a monstrosity of a church. One would expect that the Christian faith’s most holy shrine would stand out in splendid isolation, like a Gothic cathedral or St. Peter’s in Rome, but it is jammed into too small a space, anonymous buildings clinging to it like barnacles, and it invisible from almost any direction until one turns a corner and finds oneself standing in the small courtyard in front of the unimpressive main door. [J. Murphy-O’Connor, The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, 49] Calvary was, it seems, situated on the site of a disused quarry and tombs had been cut into the west wall left by the quarrymen. That is how it is that the sites of Calvary and the tomb were in such close proximity that they are today both covered by the roof of a single church.

We read in John that the Lord’s hands were nailed to the cross. We assume that his feet were as well, as is suggested by the Lord showing his hands and feet to his disciples that following Sunday evening to prove that he was the self-same Jesus who had been crucified, dead, and buried.

It was the custom that the clothing of the condemned man would be claimed by his executioners.

In regard to Jesus’ prayer for those who were murdering him out of jealousy and spite, we need observe only that in many ways the cross is a pulpit and the message preached from it was love.

Luke divides the people who witnessed the crucifixion into two groups: those who were there to watch and those who were there to mock. [Bock, ii, 1851-1852]

The mockery of the religious leadership bears an unwitting but eloquent witness to the reality of Jesus’ astonishing ministry. They admit that he performed miracles to deliver others — but they use that fact against him. No statement like that would have been made, particularly by the Lord’s enemies, unless it was common knowledge that he had healed the sick, granted sight to the blind and so on. He saved others but can’t save himself. They admit that it was precisely his claim and that of his followers that he was the Messiah, but with sneering tone they declare that they have finally put paid to this troublemaker.

The soldiers, encouraged by the mockery they hear from the clerics, join in with taunts of their own. The offer of wine was apparently a joke since it was accompanied by a challenge. [Bock, ii, 1852]
A placard over the cross typically identified the crime for which the man was being executed. It was a way of heightening the deterrent effect of execution. In this case Pilate used it to get his revenge on the Jewish leadership who had hounded him into doing something he hadn’t wanted to do. [Morris, 345] The fact that what was said about Jesus was absolutely true was lost on everyone.
The thief probably picked up his taunt from what he heard the clerics say. The tone is bitter and does not reflect any real belief on his part that Jesus is able to save them. He’s angry and is lashing out at the nearest target. In the other Gospels both criminals are said to have taunted the Lord, suggesting that over time, as events unfolded, as he observed the Lord, as he heard his few remarks, and as he saw the unusual and forbidding sky, the  one thief realized that Jesus was what others had claimed that he was, the Messiah and the King of the Jews.
In a sudden burst of moral clarity the one thief realized the callous hypocrisy latent in the other fellow’s taunt. He readily admits — as penitent men will — that he is getting precisely what he deserves, but obviously Jesus is not. This is the third time in the narrative of the crucifixion that someone has acknowledged that Jesus was in fact innocent of any wrongdoing: first Pilate, then Herod, and now this thief. [Bock, ii, 1856]
Faith grasps a great deal all at once! The thief realized that Jesus had authority to bring him to glory. The irony is great. Some saw Jesus raising the dead and didn’t believe. This man saw Jesus himself dying and believed. Such is the power of God over the heart and mind of a man! [cf. Plummer, 535] On the other hand, how much did this man really understand about the forgiveness of his sins, the way of salvation, about what Jesus was doing there on the cross, and so on? We will never know how little someone must believe to be saved. What matters is that he or she grasp that Jesus can do what must be done and plead with him for life.
In reply the Lord offers the man more than he could have dared hope for: entrance into Paradise immediately upon his death. Not simply forgiveness by some far distant tribunal but immediate reconciliation to God and immediate pleasure in a place of perfect peace and joy. Paradise is originally a Persian word for a garden or a park, but taken over into Greek and Hebrew came to be used to refer to the Garden of Eden and then to the final place of bliss. [Caird, 252] In Alexander Whyte’s beautiful summary: “The thief ‘took heaven,’ so to speak, at a leap that day.” [Bible Characters, iv, 156] John Donne has a sermon on this text in which he speaks of “the dispatch of the grace of God in the case of the penitent thief.” Grace can move slowly or very quickly depending on the need of the hour.

It has long been observed that there is an astonishing restraint in the Gospel narratives of the crucifixion. As harrowing as death by crucifixion was, there is almost no effort to describe what Jesus must have endured. Instead we have simply “they crucified him.” Nothing of the searing pain of the nails, of the hanging of the body from them, of the terrible pain of the cramps and the protesting muscles as the body hung hour after hour unable to change its position, nothing of the terrible thirst, nothing of the humiliation of being naked in front of a crowd of mockers. As John Calvin wrote long ago,

“…these matters call for secret meditation, rather than for the ornament of words.”

On the other hand, there can be no doubt that we have reached the very center of biblical revelation. Everything before it looked toward to this moment; everything after it looks back to it. The Gospel narrative is the story of the pilgrimage of Jesus to the cross. We learned that at the very outset of the story of his life. The cross was the fulfillment of the elaborate system of sacrificial worship that had dominated Israel’s religious life for two thousand years, so much so that in the providence of God once the crucifixion had occurred there was no longer any reason for such sacrifices. Accordingly, soon thereafter and without further explanation the entire system of animal sacrifice was brought to an end with the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. It is fascinating to me, that fundamental to Judaism as animal sacrifice had always been and was still in the first century, it has featured not at all in Judaism ever since. All other biblical doctrines converge here: from the nature of God as both just and loving, to his triple personality, to man’s sin and guilt, to death as the punishment of sin, to the nature of that atonement sufficient to reconcile sinners to God, and all the rest.

The cross is the watershed of humanity. And the account of the two thieves is a supreme illustration of this most fundamental fact. You know what a watershed is: a region, usually of heavy snows, where rivers originate, and, again ordinarily, where water is divided to drain in one direction or another. Florence and I drove home from St. Louis this past week and, along the way, crossed the continental divide. That divide is the watershed of the entire continent of North America. The snows at the top of that divide melt and the water on one side of the divide flows away to the Atlantic Ocean and the water on the other side to the Pacific. Water that in the watershed was, in some cases, just inches apart, ends up thousands of miles apart. In that way the term “watershed” came to mean any crucial dividing line or factor; that is, anything that makes a great and crucial separation.

Well the cross is such a watershed and makes such a crucial separation within humanity. As so often in the Bible, events in history are made to reveal great truth. Whether we think of Adam and Eve as the prototype of every husband and wife, or the exodus from Egypt as a demonstration of the way of salvation, again and again the nature of reality is woven into the history of mankind and especially of the people of God. We call this “typology, “revelation in history; truth made visible in human life.” Well so here. Who is to say how it came about that Jesus was hung up between these two thieves? Perhaps Pilate was still tweaking the noses of the religious leaders who had given him such a bad day. “Let the ‘King of the Jews’ be executed between two common thugs,” he may have told his soldiers, “That will serve them right!” Or perhaps it was simply the way the schedule of executions fell that particular day. In any case, whether from the human point of view by happenstance or design, it was surely the will of God that saw to it that the lives of these three men would converge on that rocky outcrop outside of Jerusalem that spring day. 

With these two thieves, crucified and dying on either side of Jesus Christ, all humanity was divided into the two great streams that move inexorably toward heaven or hell. One of these men mocks, the other believes: and so one goes to Paradise and the other does not.

There is so much reality compressed in this brief narrative of these two men and we are made to see it so clearly.

  1. The sinfulness of man is here. These men were thieves. They had made a living of blighting the lives of others. They were mockers; there was in their heart a spirit of spite, of anger, of selfish disdain, of pride. In other words, these two thieves are every man and every woman. They are the Jewish clerics, the Roman soldiers, and all the rest. They are you and I.
  2. There is the compassion of God here, a readiness to forgive, a willingness to save, even to go to terrible lengths to accomplish that salvation. Even on the cross we have him praying for others who were so cruelly and unjustly putting him to death. He came into the world to suffer this death to save his people from their sins.
  3. There is the reality of eternal life in that word “Paradise.” Can you think of a more important thing to know than that it is possible for human beings to go to Paradise when they die; not inevitable, but possible?
  4. There is the power of faith to obtain that eternal life in the Lord’s reply to the thief and especially in the word “Today.” Here is one of the most powerful and timeless pictures of the power of faith in Jesus Christ that we have anywhere in the Word of God. The one man believed; the other did not. Therein lay the difference between them and therein the difference between their destinies.
  5. There is the fact of conversion, of fundamental transformation of human life by the power of God, in this instance of a thief suddenly seeing himself and Jesus Christ as they actually are which he had not just moments before. Here is the same great reversal we are taught to expect in every one who is saved whenever that reversal takes place: a truly bad man becoming a truly good man. What had been utterly dark and opaque to both men became as clear to one of them as the noonday sun. That is what Jesus called the new birth; that is what Paul called the new creation.
  6. There is the reality of divine grace, of salvation as a gift of God to the unworthy. The thief had just about finished his life. He had lived it badly. He was a hard man and cruel man. We know that because he had begun mocking Jesus just as the other fellow had. He was the sort of man who could in his private agony, as he hung there dying, the very end of his conscience existence upon him, I say he could find time and breath to make life still more miserable for someone else. Who does that? We all do that. There was no time or opportunity to make amends to those he had hurt. But here, at the very end, all the evil of his life was swept away and he would find himself among the righteous in heaven. Salvation for him had to be a free gift. And it was. We have domesticated grace but in fact it is a very controversial idea. Do you think this man’s victims would have been happy to learn that he went straight from his punishment to Paradise? That he was doing to be happy forever after living the life he had lived? But that is the nature of salvation for everyone; it must be because we all are like that thief in many more ways than we realize or are willing to admit. No sinner has ever been saved in any other way than that his or her lifetime of sins against God and man are swept away by the grace of God.
  7. There is the reality of unbelief impervious to change in the thief who remained impenitent, the same hypocrite he had always been before; he saw the same things his fellows saw but he didn’t find Paradise that day.
  8. And, supremely, there is Jesus Christ himself, the Savior of the world, the person who alone can bring us to God and to heaven. Is there a more remarkable thing you have ever seen in your mind’s eye than this thief turning to Jesus and asking for help and Jesus promising the thief everlasting life that very day? No one else can do that. It was the penitent’s confession of Jesus Christ that brought him to Paradise. No other name; just that one!

Take those truths together; do they not add up to the biblical philosophy of life? Are they not the facts that everyone must learn but so many refuse to learn? And so they separate human beings into two groups: those who embrace the cross as the salvation of the world and those who do not, whether the naysayers remain merely indifferent or overtly hostile. There were those who merely witnessed the crucifixion and then went on their way and those who mocked, but they are lumped together here as those who never saw the cross of Jesus for what it was, the gateway to heaven.

After all, what we Christians understand to be the central event of human history was so insignificant to the world of that day that the Roman historian Tacitus, in his review of the enduring strife in Judea, commented, “Under Tiberius nothing much happened.” Nothing much except the cruel and unjust murder of the Creator of heaven and earth; nothing much except the salvation of the world; nothing much besides the opening of the way to eternal life. Such is the vast chasm that separates the two groups of human beings that reside in this world. However close they may be, however they may jostle with one another in their daily lives, like the snow at the summit of the watershed, they move inexorably in different directions, the one group heading to heaven, the other to hell. At the summit stands the cross, and all mankind falls away to one side or the other.

And as it was then, so it remains today. While some find themselves and their life at the cross, others think nothing of it or have contempt for its message. It has always been and it is today as it was that day with the two thieves: one mocked the other believed; one found eternal life at the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, the other had it in his hand, as it were, but let it slip from his grasp.

How similar these two men were, or so we are tempted to think. They were both thieves, both had lived lives of crime, both had been caught, both were being punished, both would soon be dead. But at the very last one grasped that Jesus Christ held the key to the door of life eternal and the other never did and so while still hanging on their respective crosses they begin moving apart until they are separated by a chasm that no man can cross.

One of the Presbyterian Church’s greatest women was the 17th century Scot, Lady Jane Campbell, the Viscountess of Kenmure. For the godliness of her character, for her public-spirit and her devotion to the cause of the Reformation, for her intellectual and spiritual gifts, her intelligence and her deep feeling, she was a remarkable Christian woman.

No wonder that she should have been one of Samuel Rutherford’s favorite correspondents. If you have at home Andrew Bonar’s edition of Rutherford’s immortal Letters, go home this afternoon and see how many of those letters the great man wrote to her — Bonar’s index lists some forty-two that have survived — and sample some of them to see both how much he thought of her and how keen her mind must have been to be thought worthy of such letters as those. It is no small compliment that Rutherford, one of the 17th century’s greatest men, should have dedicated his little masterpiece, The Trial and Triumph of Faith, to Lady Kenmure. She came from a distinguished family; her father was an earl. It was also a devout family. Her brother, Archibald, who would become a leader of the covenanting party in the Scottish church, was beheaded for his faith in 1661.

But Jane Campbell was a woman with crosses to bear. She wasn’t healthy; a condition shared by a great many people in the 17th century. She had three children, two little girls who died in infancy and a son who died in his youth. But in addition to these was her marriage to John Gordon, the Viscount of Kenmure. Viscounts in the order of nobility stand between earls and barons. Gordon had got his peerage by kissing up to Charles Stuart, Charles the first, as foolish and unworthy a king as Britain ever had.

Here is Alexander Whyte, in his own inimitable way, describing Lady Kenmure’s pathetic excuse of a husband.

“It is not that he was a man of no mind; he was a man of no worth or interest of any kind. He was a rake…the very last man in Scotland for Jane Campbell to throw herself away upon. And she was too clever and too good a woman not to make a speedy and heart-breaking discovery of the fatal mistake she had committed. Poor Jane Campbell soon wakened up to the discovery that she had exchanged the name and the family of a brave and noble house for the name and house of a [coward]. No wonder that Rutherford’s letters to her are so often headed: ‘To Lady Kenmure, under illness and depression of mind.’ Could you have kept quite well had you been a Campbell with John Gordon for a husband? Think of having to nurse your humbug of a husband through a shammed illness. Think of having to take a hand in sending in a shammed doctor’s certificate because your husband was too much of a time-server to go to Edinburgh to give his vote for a persecuted church. Think of having to wear the title and decoration your husband had purchased for you — from the villainous King Charles I — at the cost of his truth and honor and manhood.” [Samuel Rutherford, 30-31]

All his life a profane, empty, useless, and cowardly man, happy to sell his soul for worldly advancement and his wife all the while a principled, godly, bright, and thoughtful woman who, because of him could only be and do part of what was in her heart to be and do for Christ’s sake.

And then in late August and early September of 1634 Viscount Kenmure lay on his deathbed, just 35 years of age. And there, at the very end of his useless life, he found Christ and salvation and the door to Paradise. In conversations with his wife and Rutherford and others, which, when written down became a classic of the spiritual literature of Scotland — Samuel Rutherford’s The Last Heavenly Speeches, and Glorious Departure, of John, Viscount Kenmure — this bad man’s sins found him out and he forsook them and found mercy in Christ.

Ministers in those days were men of steel and they demanded that Kenmure face up to his sins, all of them, and to acknowledge them and repent of them. “Dig deeper,” Rutherford told him, after he had confessed many of his sins but not all of them, and repent he did, thoroughly and humbly, and looked to Christ and found forgiveness, there at the eleventh hour. And the change in him was as great as it could have been in a man confined to his bed and suffering his final illness, in a day before pain killers. If you read those conversations you will accept that this man, like the thief on the cross next to the Lord’s, got heaven just as he was leaving this world.

We may be tempted to think, “But what of the years of Lady Jane’s misery, married to that small man?” What of the damage he had done to his fellow countryman? But she would have been the first, Christian that she was, forgiven sinner that she knew herself to be, to say that she and her husband were the same and that salvation had come to both of them in the same way. It was just the more obvious and more unmistakable — and for that reason more wonderful — in her husband’s case.

No, brothers and sisters, we are that thief, taking heaven in the nick of time and by a divine grace so great that our entire lives of sin and moral failure are swept away in a moment because, and only because, we saw that Jesus Christ on the cross was there for us.

For any of you who are not yet sure that you will be in Paradise at the end of the day, look again at that thief who by faith in Christ on the cross, stepped directly from the instrument of his execution to the Right Hand of God. Make haste; call upon the Lord as he did, while he may be found. A few hours later it would have been too late. The cross is the watershed of humanity. Yesterday morning Florence’s mother died, in her 97th year. That generation of our respective families is now gone. A few days before our 10th grandchild, and the first Rayburn grandchild, was born in Munich, Germany. Think of them, two lives in that long line of humanity heading toward the cross of Christ, one at the very head of the line and one far, far back at its very beginning, and there at the cross the line divides, some to the left, some to the right. We have the two thieves to thank for that picture of what is happening in our world. Which direction for you, my friends, when you walk by the cross?

“Have you a present sense of God’s love?” Rutherford asked the dying Viscount Kenmure. “I have, I have,” he replied.