Harbor Lights Sermon  Feb, 2011

The Two Criminals

When Jesus was crucified, it was recorded that  "Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed." Luke 23:32 Today I would like for us to consider the fate of these two criminals.

Now while they were being crucified, one of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "If You are 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." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." Luke 23:39-43

Consider this first criminal it is written, that he hurled insults at Christ and said, "If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us." And while this statement may not seem like an insult, given that the other man responded saying, "Don't you fear God", it would seem to have been said in a derogatory manner much as others were likewise insulting Christ. Examples are given in Matthew 27:39-43 "And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, "You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross." Likewise the chief priests also, mocking with the scribes and elders, said, "He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him.  He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’"

Notice all the "ifs".
If You are the Christ
If You are the Son of God
If He is the King of Israel

The devil did the same thing when he tempted Jesus, saying things like, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." Mt 4:3 One of the things Jesus said to the devil was, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’"

Contrast this with the other man who didn't say "if" but rather said "when".
Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom

That was a man of faith. But the others, despite all the public mircales Jesus did for three years among them, miracles which validated his claims, they wouldn't believe him.

And what was the problem with these other people? Remember the righteous man said, "Don't you fear God?". They had no fear of God. It's written in Ps 36:1,2 "An oracle is within my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked: There is no fear of God before his eyes. For in his own eyes he flatters himself too much to detect or hate his sin."

The wicked criminal, despite being crucified was too proud to detect or hate his own sin. He was just thinking about a way to escape his circumstances. Notice he says, "Save yourself and us". It seems to me that that man held out some hope that Jesus could save him from his circumstances. But it wasn't the quality of faith Jesus required. And there are people who pray to Jesus, not about their sin, their eternal destiny, but simply for Jesus to save them from their circumstances. After feeding the 5000 miraculously multiplying 5 loaves of bread and two fish, the crowd followed Jesus. But he said to them, "I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill." John 6:26 God's primary concern is not about our circumstnaces but our sin and our eternal destiny.

Sometimes the difficult circumstances we find ourselves in, the kind of circumstances we want to be saved out of, are good for us. But it's not so much important what we are going through as how we respond to our circumstances. Here two criminals were being justly punished for the crimes they committed. One accepts that fact seeking reconciliation with God, the other complains, seeking only to escape the circumstances, too proud to detect or hate his sin.

Suffering can invoke the most essential of character qualities, namely humilty, or can invoke bitterness. And such is the case not only for justified suffering, but also for unjustified suffering. For example God helped the apostle Paul maintain a proper level of humility by allowing him to be subjected to suffering. Paul writes, "To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong." 2Cor 12:7-10

Now consider this second criminal, how he viewed what was happening to him. He gave no excuse for his crime. He didn't complain about the injustices of society or the cruelty of the Roman practice of crucifying criminals. Rather he embraced the fact that he and the other criminal were being punished justly, getting what their deeds deserved. He said, "We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." What upset him was not his circumstances, but the fact the Jesus was being subject to injustice as an innocent victim. Notice his primary focus was about justice.

This kind of mindset is prerequisite for a person to believe the gospel. Because the gospel is firstly not about saving people from their circumstances. It's not firstly about healing people or making people feel better. Rather the gospel is firstly about satisfying God's demand for justice. It's firstly about sinners being reconciled to God, becoming righeous in God's sight on God's terms. And yes, while there are those who understand that we need to be righteous in God's sight, many such people reckoned such righteousness to be on their own terms.

Some reckon themselves good people, that they've never sinned, or they bring God's standards of holiness down to their own level, or reckoned that God doesn't take sin seriously. But most commonly are those who feel that their good deeds outweigh their bad deeds. That is not God's concept of justice. A person cannot bring God's scales of justice into balance by being good, since you're supposed to be good all the time. A person who lies one day cannot balance God's scale of justice by not lying the next day. A person who commits murder one day cannot balance it off by not committing murder the next day. Rather God's judical concept is that every particular sin has to be recompensed.

Concerning God's scale of justice, one side are our sins. The other sides is not our good deeds, but rather the blood of Christ. It's written in Romans 3 that "no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus." Rom 3:20-26

And this is one of the distinguishing features of the gospel in contrast to other religions. The gospel of Christ was intended for those who are judicially minded - those who reckon God to be holy and just and themselves sinners and who want to be reconciled with God on His terms. Such was the attitude of this second criminal.

Secondly note that he says, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." What is he saying about Jesus? He's not simply saying that Jesus was a good man, a good teacher, an innocent victim of circumstances. He's saying that Jesus is Lord. Part of saving faith is pledging allegiance to Jesus as Lord with the intention of obeying him. It's written in Romans 10:9 "that if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." Not to say that there is some vain words, some incantation that one may say and they will be saved. For Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." Mt 7:21 Calling Jesus Lord is not a technique, but rather a pledge of allegiance to Him as the Lord.

The man believed in Jesus Christ, acknowledged him as Lord, and didn't even ask to be saved from his circumstances, knowing that what was far more important was awaiting him beyond the grave. To that man Jesus said, "Today you will be with me in Paradise." Elsewhere Jesus said, "The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life." John 12:25

Like a River Glorious
When I survey the wondrous cross
I love to tell the story

Jul 29,2015