The best news ever
Calvary, two thousand years ago, what an awesome scene!
Three people were taken to that hill outside Jerusalem to be crucified. One died in sin. One died to sin. One died for sin. Two were guilty. One was innocent. Two were paying their debt to society. One was paying our debt of sin. Consider, for a moment, the one who died to sin: the repentant thief. He made some remarkable observations. His was a remarkable conversion. Of all the conversions among the rich, the religious and the rejected, his is the most amazing. Both of these men asked Jesus to save them. One of the men being crucified said, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ (Luke 23:39). His words were sarcastic and sneering. The other man said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (v.42). His words were simple and sincere. Hear the response of Christ: ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’ (v.43). The repentant thief rebukes the other criminal. He recognises his own guilt and admits that he and the other man both fully deserve death, ‘we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong’ (v.41). Pilate and Herod said this but did not respond appropriately to that knowledge. There was one essential difference between these two convicted criminals. One sought to be saved from his situation. The other sought to be saved from his sin and he would hear the best news ever, ‘…today you will be with me in Paradise’.
Notice how conviction comes before conversion. The repentant thief says, ‘…we are receiving the due reward of our deeds’ (v.41). What was happening in this man’s life? Was he afraid of falling into the hands of the living God? The Bible says, ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ (Heb. 10:31). He understood what was happening. He sensed the eternal significance of the occasion. Scripture also says, ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight’ (Prov. 9:10). Here in this unfolding drama there are two very different attitudes to Christ. The repentant thief admits his own sinfulness. What led to his conviction and conversion? Was it fear or was it that he heard Jesus say, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (v.34). Was it the fact that Jesus forgave his tormentors? Maybe he had heard about Jesus. God was certainly working in his heart. Not only did he rebuke the other thief. Not only did he admit his guilt. But he confessed Jesus as the innocent one. But he did one more thing for which he will always be remembered. He said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (v.42). He looked at the battered and bruised body of Jesus and saw a king! What a remarkable insight! He didn’t ask for a place of honour. All he dared to ask was to be remembered. But he was speaking to the one who is able to do immeasurably more than we can imagine. In all his agony and anguish Jesus had time to win one more soul. The promise of paradise is great news.
The great exchange
There is much we don’t know about this man. But we do know that at this point in his life he knew he was a sinner and that Jesus could help him. That is all he needed to know. Astonishingly, he anticipates the resurrection. This is evident when he asks Jesus to remember him. Here is a man who was saved in his dying hour, probably after a life of wrongdoing. A very important question was answered that day, it is this: can a person be sure of heaven after death? The answer is ‘yes’. Jesus said, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’. He did not deserve a place in Paradise. He could not earn it. Yet the promise was extended to him on the same basis that it is extended to all who will believe: by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Salvation is not secured by good deeds or religious rites, rituals and ceremonies. Both men faced eternity. One turned to Christ. His prayer was answered. He had the assurance of sins forgiven and the promise of eternal life from the Lord. It was a personal word from Jesus (‘with me’). This man cried out for personal help. Christ’s promise to this man casts light on some important issues. First, eternity is just a step away. It is not several steps away. There is no reincarnation. The issue of our spiritual condition needs to be sorted out now. Second, salvation is not by works or religious acts. Third, believers are going to a better place. Heaven and hell met at Calvary. There was a great exchange: the prince of heaven for the prisoner of hell. Surely this adds up to the best news ever!
We all tend to have our personal prejudices and perhaps we even write people off as ‘not salvageable’. Perhaps we have our petty excuses for not reaching others. But in all the discomfort of the cross Jesus reaches out to this undeserving man. This shows the selfless nature of Christ. It makes our excuses, for not reaching out to others, seem petty. We should never give up on sinners. The paths of three men met in death. Much of humanity is represented in these two responses to Christ and the cross. The cross is not good news for everybody. One of the dying men mocked Christ.
The Commonwealth of Christ
This repentant thief looked at Jesus and saw himself as he really was. When we look to Jesus we too see ourselves as we really are. This thief was deemed unfit to live in the Roman Empire but God gave him a place in his empire, in the Commonwealth of Christ. Remarkably, the man who asked to be remembered expects Jesus to complete his work. All those who trust in the completed work of Christ can have the same assurance, ‘…today you will be with me in Paradise’. This passage of scripture shows us that it is possible to have (in this life) the assurance of sins forgiven and that we can be sure of heaven after death. This must be the best news ever!
The words of the psalmist seem apt: ‘What shall I render to the LORD for all his benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD, I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people’ (Ps. 116:12-14). We can give nothing in payment for our salvation. To try to do so would be an offence to Christ. He offers us the free gift of eternal life, in his presence both now and hereafter, forever. Those who scoff and sneer at what they think is a pathetic figure and spent force will have to face him in the final judgment. The cross divides. Which side are you on? Those who look to him in faith will inherit the promise of paradise.
Kieran Beville is a Baptist pastor in Ireland and visiting professor of Intercultural Studies and Practical Ministry at Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam.