Luke's gospel chapter 23 and verse 39. These verses that we're thinking about tonight are in the series of verses that describe the death, the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ. So if you're not familiar with these verses that's where they are - when Jesus is on the cross.
"And one of the malefactors", that's one of the thieves, "which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst".
Turning over for a moment to Matthew's gospel. Matthew's gospel chapter 27, and just reading one verse. Matthew's gospel chapter 27, where he accounts the same event and in verse 44 we read: "The thieves", that's the malefactor's of Luke's gospel, "The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth".
Let us come before the Lord in a word of prayer, asking His help. Our Father, we thank Thee for this time where we can come around Thy word and around Thy gospel and we can proclaim it. Lord, we haven't made it up ourselves. It's not our word. It's not our story, but it's Thy story. Our Father, we have only to relay it to these people in the way that Thou hast given it to us. We seek now Lord that, as it's Thy word, that our Father, Thou wouldst apply the Spirit of God to people's hearts to receive the word of God, that fruit may be increased in this place tonight. Lord, I need the filling of the Holy Spirit of God and I pray that Thou wilt give it to me now. In Jesus' name I pray. Amen.
Luke chapter 23, Luke chapter 23 - and excuse me for drinking so much, I don't usually, but I've a bit of a funny throat, so if there's a few strange noises coming from the pulpit it's nothing to do with me! Luke chapter 23 and verses 39 to 45. I wonder have you ever felt in a fix? You've got to a situation or you've got to a stage where you forgot to do something. Now, if any of you know me quite well you'll know that that is a problem that I have. I tend to get things mixed up. You get to a stage and you suddenly find a cold sweat upon you. You find the butterflies in your tummy. You have forgotten to do something, and it is too late to do anything about it. It's a terrible feeling, isn't it? It's a terrible feeling when it's even the most trivial of things, but we are here tonight not to think of trivial things. If you've come here this evening thinking that going to church, or talking about God, is something trivial - banish the thought from your mind, because we are here this evening to consider something that is all important. It is not something that can be laughed at. It is not something that can be mocked. It is not something that can be treated lightly. It is the most serious thing in God's earth.
We read a story tonight and it is a true story, and in verse 39 of our passage we see that Luke writes of one of the malefactors, one of the thieves. Simply speaking, a malefactor was a thief or a robber, probably a murderer - a robber of life. He had taken someone's life. He had touched another man's possession. He was a thief and a robber. This man, as we read in this gospel, is hanging on a cross and he is being punished for his sin. He deserves it! He's there! The state has proclaimed that his act was a crime, and for that crime there is a penalty. That penalty is punishment, and the punishment is by death, and he is hanging upon a cross - crucifixion.
These were vile people. We think the criminals about today are bad - these men were as bad, if not worse. They were vile human beings. They were men who lived in sin. They were men who got their living from sin. They thrived financially from robbing, from stealing, from murdering. Many of them would have had contracts out on people to murder them. These men were vile.
Do you know something? I want to be as simple as I can this evening. You might say: 'That's not too hard for you!'. But I'm going to try to be simple in presenting the gospel to you tonight. It's simply this, and it's the message of Christmas. In fact, it's the whole 'Christian' message that we have to proclaim. It's the whole message of the Bible, and it's this - listen, please, to me tonight - it's that Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners.
You know, this is a holy book that we have before us, isn't it? It's the Bible. You might think it's the most holy book that you know of, and you would be right. But imagine to open the pages of the word of God, to open the pages of the sacred gospel of Luke, and to find within it a thief, a robber, a vile person. You think: 'Why would a holy man give him the time of day to write about him? Why is it in the Bible? Why is he there? Why, in such a sacred passage about the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, do we find Luke writing about a vile man like this?'.
Do you know why? Because Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Have you got that? He didn't come into the world to save righteous people, because righteous people are people who think they can get to heaven themselves. They think they'll get there on their own ticket. They think they'll get there on their own righteousness. They think they'll get there on their own religion, and therefore they don't see any need for themselves to be saved, or for someone else to save them. But Christ didn't come to save those people. Of course, He's willing to save them if they're willing to let Him - but many of them are not willing to let Him, so He comes and do you know what He does? He goes to the greatest sinners, He goes to the down-and-outs, He goes to the ones who feel that they're beyond redemption, that God couldn't do anything with them - [that] even if He cleansed them, they're useless - Jesus Christ goes to them! That's the wonder of the gospel, isn't it? That "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners", sinful people: murderers, adulterers, pornographers, abusers, wife-beaters, terrorists, alcoholics, drug-abusers, prostitutes, homosexuals - the whole lot! Christ came to save them! Isn't that amazing? Even criminals!
It's amazing, I believe, when I read this passage to see a man like this - a malefactor, a criminal. In the passage that we read in Matthew chapter 27 we see that both of these thieves - you remember there were two thieves on either side of the Lord Jesus - but both of these thieves, mind, both of them 'flung the same in His teeth', it says. They both mocked Him. So the thief that we read about in Luke 23, He was one of the mockers as well. Think of it! He's hanging there in agony, the blood is dripping from him, the sweat is running down his brow. He is being crucified for his crimes. He deserves it. He is just about to step onto the threshold of eternity without Christ - and he goes out mocking Him.
It is a criminal, mind - it's not a saint. It's not a theologian. It's not one of the Pharisees this time. It's not a church leader. It's not an apostate. It's a criminal - a man who couldn't even lace the shoelaces of the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet he stands in condemnation, and he mocks the Lord Jesus Christ at His death. 'He's saved others. He walked around talking about saving others, didn't He? It's a laugh now - look at Him! He could do so much. He said 'I am the way, the truth and the life. If you want to get to the Father, if you want to get to heaven, come by me'. Look! He's dying; He's hanging on a cross! What use is He?'. A criminal - a man who didn't even try to get to heaven through his works - he mocks the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ who knew no sin, who did no sin, who couldn't sin, who was 'of purer eyes than to behold iniquity', who is God, very God and very man, He is holy, He could not touch sin - yet a criminal, a man from the gutter, mocks the Lord Jesus Christ.
Do you know what we can learn from this man tonight? There's a few things that we can learn, but the first thing is this: that you cannot ever have salvation by works. How do we know that? It's very simple. You can't work your way to heaven. You can't climb your way to heaven. You can't do enough to get into heaven. You can't say a little prayer simply to rush you into heaven - it's not all about that. It's not about reading your Bible. It's not about being holy. That all comes after - but you can't get there; you can't be saved. No matter how much, my friend, in your life, you look introvertedly in yourself for salvation, for something good that will just reach God's standards - listen - you're wasting your time!
What about this man? The poor creature, he's hanging on a cross. He's wasted his life away. We don't know what age he was, but he was probably quite young, and he's hanging there on that cross and he's made a mess of everything. No education probably, spent a life of crime - [and he's] hanging there not just in the judgement of God, but the judgement of society. He's hanging there with no hope. What would you tell him tonight? What would some of the churches in Northern Ireland tell him? 'Well, he needs to be baptised. Was he baptised as a baby?', 'Does he try his best?'. Well, this man couldn't try his best. This man couldn't pull the nails out of his hands and get down and go into the Jordan and be baptised. He couldn't do that. This man couldn't join a church. The Mormons say: 'As long as you're in our church', or the JWs, or the Church of Rome, 'As long as you're in their number, you'll get to heaven'. This man couldn't do it. This man couldn't write his name on a membership form. He was crucified to a cross. This man was without hope. He couldn't go and help old ladies across the road. He couldn't go and do charity work. He couldn't raise money for famines. He couldn't clothe the poor, he couldn't feed the hungry, he couldn't bring balm to the sick. This man couldn't do it. This man, in the eyes of some religions and some churches today, was without hope. Why? Because he was incapacitated. He couldn't do anything for himself. But, listen my friend, this is the essence of salvation and it's this: even if you could do something for yourself it's useless, because you can't get to heaven, you can't have salvation, you cannot be saved by your works!
There's two religions in the world. You say: 'David, there's a lot more than two religions'. No, there's only two really. When you break it down in simple terms there's two. There's those who want to get heaven by themselves, and there are those who will get to heaven by someone else. Now, you've got to make a decision here tonight my friend. You've got to make the decision of whether you are determined to try and go it alone, whether you want to try it yourself, and see if you can live a good life and be your best. But listen! I want to tell you tonight, you will try your whole life long and you will fail!
A very famous verse in the word of God is found in the book of Ephesians [chapter 2] and verses 8 and 9. It simply says this: "By grace are ye saved through faith" - it's very complicated, isn't it? What's this word 'grace'? What's 'faith'? Listen! "By grace" - do you know what grace is? An old man was once asked what grace was and he answered like this: 'It's something for nothing'. Something for nothing! Another old man beside him who was an old Christian turned to him and said: 'That's good my friend, but it's much more than that. It's not just something for nothing, it's everything for nothing!'.
You don't deserve really anything from God. I don't deserve anything from God. 'Why?', you might say. Well, because we've offended God, because God is holy. God is perfect and we can't even approach God; not because He wants to destroy us, but because of His very nature He would destroy us. His holiness would terminate us! Therefore we can't do anything for ourselves, it's our condition, it's our nature, it's our state. God must do something for us, He must give us something, He must lavish His grace on us. Grace: something, everything for nothing!
The Bible also says this: that our righteousnesses - if you like, our good works - the things that we try to do perhaps to get to heaven, the things that we try to do to look good in the eyes of others - those things, God says, in His sight are like 'filthy rags'. Filthy rags! It's like a do-gooder, a charity worker going around the town to the homeless people and giving out lovely new clothes that had been donated. Can you imagine the offence that would be taken and the turmoil in that person's mind if they were giving out these new trousers and dresses and jumpers, and the people who were tramps, in clothes that were stinking, smelly and torn would hand those clothes back to that charity worker and say: 'No thanks, I'm happy enough with what I've got'? I wonder, could you be doing that with God tonight? You see, do you know what God wants to do for you? Listen! He's saying: 'Look, I know you can't get to Heaven by yourself. I know you can't be holy (the way you're trying to be perhaps) and what I want to do for you is this: I want to take all those dirty old clothes of sin and self-righteousness and 'trying to get it alone'. I want to take them all off you and I want to give you a new set of clothes'. Would you not be a fool if you said: 'No thanks, God. I want this set I'm quite happy, I've got quite attached to this set and I want to keep them'?
There was once a mission, and during this mission a man got saved - a gospel mission. That man, after he got saved, testified that it took him 42 years to figure out three biblical truths. The first was this: that he could do nothing for his salvation. The second was this: that God did not require him to do anything for his salvation. The third was this: that God had done everything for his salvation! I wonder, could you be here tonight and it's taken you longer than 42 years to work that out? You can't do anything, but God doesn't want you to do anything because God has done everything! What He wants you to do is He wants you to come to Him and let Him do everything. Just like that thief on the cross who couldn't do anything, come to Him and let Him do everything!
When one of these thieves was railing an accusation against the Lord, one of them changed his mind and decided: 'I've made a mistake here, calling Him names and accusing Him'. He said, in verse 40: 'But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?'. You see, this man was mocking the Christ. He was mocking the Son of God. Can you believe it? If you were standing before Christ tonight, can you imagine mocking Him? Can you imagine blaspheming Him, calling Him names?
He said: 'Dost thou not fear God?'. Can I ask you tonight, do you not fear God? Banish the thought that God is some Santa Claus that sits up there; that God is some Moses figure with a long beard down to His toes like a grandfather! Listen! God is almighty, tonight! God is sovereign, God is holy, God is angry against sin. He's angry against this sinful world tonight. He's angry against sinful individuals. He is angry against us! If you're not saved tonight, He is angry against you! Do you not fear that? Do you not fear, when you reject Christ and when you walk out the building after a gospel meeting, and say: 'Not tonight, maybe again, I'm not ready'? Do you not fear God? Do you not fear what He can do, and what He will do, if you reject Him?
I want you to see tonight the sinner's cry in verse 42, for it says that that man repented. How did he repent? Well, he repented because one minute he was cursing the Christ and the next minute he turned round and he said: 'I've made a mistake! Don't curse Him? Do you not fear God? We're in the same condemnation as the Son of God. Don't do it! It was wrong' - and he turned from his sin. Listen my friend tonight, you have that choice. You have a choice to turn from your sin. You have a choice to forsake it, to leave it, to cut off and sever that life of sin that you have been following, and follow after Christ and God. You have a choice to make. You must make that choice alone.
Many people make bad choices, you know. On one occasion a Sunday School teacher was telling a story about bad choices, and she outlined some biblical characters, and one of them was Esau. You remember Esau in the Old Testament, what bad choice did he make? Well, Esau sold his birthright to his brother for a bowl of soup. Now, mind you, he was hungry. He would have needed to be to do such a thing, but yet he sold his birthright for it. That was a bad choice, wasn't it? In later days and years he was to suffer for that choice because he forfeited the blessing of God, so Esau made a bad choice.
We read again, in the New Testament, of a man called Judas who made a bad choice. He was given money. He was given money to betray the Son of God, to sell Him to die. We know that he made a bad choice, for he hung himself. Then there was Ananias and Sapphira. They were Christians, mind, and they made a bad choice because they told a lie. They said that they were giving all their money that they had received from selling a field, they said they were going to give it all to the church but they held a little bit back for themselves and pocketed it - and God struck them dead! They were Christians, my friend! God struck them because they made a bad choice.
You know what the Lord Jesus says tonight? The Lord Jesus Christ says that he who gains the whole world, yet loses his own soul, has made a bad choice. You could be rich tonight. You could long to be rich. Imagine if you had all the money in the world. I know that's impossible, but can you imagine it? Imagine if you had all the women in the world, all the drink in the world, all the popularity, the fame, all the sporting achievements in the world, all the business transactions in the world. Can you imagine it? All the intellect in the world, yet Jesus Christ when He was on the earth said: 'If you've all that and lose your soul, you've nothing!' Oh, some of us would stand look and watch our souls slip through our fingers, and we wouldn't turn to God.
Now, I want you to see quickly the Saviour's cry. We've seen salvation is not by works, and we see the sinner's cry because this man repented and he turned, and what did he say? He asked Christ that Christ would remember him, that Christ would look after him as he was standing on the threshold of eternity. As his foot was about to fall into hell, he cried to Christ: 'Remember me!'. A couple of minutes before he was cursing Christ, and now from that unredemptive state, as we would say today and the world would say, that man cried out in repentance and penitence.
Then the Saviour cried to him, what did the Saviour say? Well, listen to this my friend! Listen! If you come to Christ tonight, if you do what he did, if you ask God to remember you, to save you, to take control of you, to have you, He will say the same words to you. Listen! He said: 'Today!'. What's that? That's instant! He didn't say: 'Next week!', He didn't say: 'Try your best and clean yourself up a little'. He didn't say that. Why? Because it was impossible for this man. He said: 'Young man' - this is in essence what He said - He says, 'As soon as the last breath leaves your body, as soon as you can't lift yourself up any more to take another breath, as soon as your eyelids close, my friend, you, today, will be safe!'
It was instant: 'Today thou shalt' - it was definite! 'You shall' - He didn't say: 'Maybe. We'll have to go up there, and in the courts of God we'll have to open up the books and we'll have to weigh up on one side of the graph your good deeds and on the other side your bad deeds. And if one outweighs the other - well, you might just get in!'. No! He said: 'Thou shalt!' No doubt about it! 'You shall be with me in paradise'.
He said 'in paradise'. It's resident - it's not soul sleep, my friend. Some cults and some churches would say that once you die you're done for, and you die like a dog and your life's blown out like a candle and that's the end, there's no more! It's not like that! It's paradise! It's not universalism. It's not 'everybody's saved'. It's not purgatory. It's not that you have to burn for a while, and you have to earn to get out of hell, and a few candles will have to be lit for you on Earth. It's not like that at all! 'Today thou shalt be with me in paradise'! My friend, you can't get any simpler than that. It's not just the simplicity of it; it's the fact of the person that said it!
It's interesting that that man on the cross, that thief, he didn't ask Christ to save him from death. Isn't that strange? If you were dying you might cry out to Christ to save you from death. This was a Man who this man maybe saw heal thousands. Yet this man didn't ask Him to heal him from death. He asked Him to heal him from sin, because this man knew that sin was his ultimate problem.
It says in the last verse of our reading that the sun was darkened and the veil of the temple was rent in two. Why was there darkness? Why was there darkness? Do you know why there was darkness? Because Christ Jesus was dying, Christ Jesus was dying. In Aberfan there was a disaster several years ago, and many children were killed as that coal mound fell on top of a little school. The TV cameras went to follow the aftermath of the disaster and they followed the Queen around, the monarch, as she visited the families and visited the distressed and the bereaved. Just as she neared the end of her journey, a man came up to the camera and pushed it away and said: 'That's enough!'. The question was asked: 'Why?'. The reply was given: 'The monarch is weeping'. My friend, when God put darkness upon Christ and upon the crucifix there at the cross, you know why? It was simply because to look upon it was too horrific. Do you know why? Because He was bleeding, He was dying, He was suffering, He was enduring the flames of God's hell, God's holiness, God's punishment against the world of sin and vileness and crime. The Lord Jesus Christ was aflame, being exhausted for sin!
Listen tonight! Morality - morality, and doing good, and being good - listen - it may keep you out of jail, my friend, but it takes the blood of Christ to keep you out of hell! You need Christ! Do you know that tonight? You need Him! Without Him you'll die in your sin, and without Him you'll go to hell, and without Him there'll be no hope. One day you'll lift up your eyes and you'll wish you'd trusted Him; you'll wish you didn't trust yourself, and you'll wish you'd clung to Him and took Him at His word and said: 'Lord, remember me!'.
Oh, this is terrible preaching, isn't it? All about blood and hell and judgement and sin. It's like a man who once said to a preacher at the door: 'Why do you have to preach such a gospel? Do you not prefer to preach Christ as the example?'. The wise preacher just turned to him and said: 'Well sir, say I did preach Him as the example. Would you follow Him? Would you follow Jesus Christ every step, in the same perfection, the same holiness as He walked?'. He says: 'Now, don't be silly! Of course I couldn't'. That old preacher simply said: 'Well, listen my friend, if you can't walk in perfection like Him you do not need Him as your example. You need Him as your Saviour'.
The veil was ripped. There was a veil between God and man because of his sin. There was a barrier, but the veil was ripped - and now, my friend, because of the death of Christ there is a way back to God from the dark paths of sin. There is a door that is open that all may go in. It's at Calvary's cross, that's where you begin when you come as a sinner to Jesus.
I finish with this thought: the best preacher in the world could paint you a picture of Calvary. The best preacher and orator and writer in the world could paint you a picture of that awesome, gruesome figurine of Christ on the cross, and what He suffered. But listen, my friend, tonight: there were two men beside Christ at the cross and one of them cried to Him, and the other beside Him, when Christ was dying for him - he rejected Him! The tragedy tonight is this: that you could see Christ in all His agony for you and in all His love for you - and you, like a man who was lying beside Him in condemnation, you could reject Him. What will you do with Jesus tonight?
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at Portadown Baptist Church in Portadown, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the tape, titled "Thief On A Cross" - Transcribed by Trevor Veale, Preach The Word.
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