Sermon on Luke 23:39-43
6th Wednesday in Lent
The Son of Man Came to Seek . . . A Thief
The Jewish historian Josephus called it “the most pitiable of deaths.” The Roman orator Cicero said that it was “the worst extreme of torture inflicted on slaves.” The Latin word the Romans used for it was crucifixus. One English derivative from that Latin is the word excruciating. Appropriately so. The experience was every bit of excruciating.
First usually came a flogging for the condemned. Flagellation often involved a multi-threaded whip that had little pieces of bone or metal on the tips so as to create extra pain and perhaps even rip full chunks of flesh off the body. From the place of torture the condemned would then carry his 300 pound cross on his raw back to the place of execution.
But that was when the pain really began to start. The criminal would be stretched out and the Roman soldiers would affix him to the cross. Sometimes they were tied to the cross, most often they were nailed, as was Jesus. It is possible that the spikes would be driven through the palms of the hands. It has been proven that the flesh there could be able to support the weight. Perhaps more likely was that the spikes were pounded through between the radial and ulna bones in the wrist. The Greek word for hand means everything from forearm to the finger tip, so hand here could mean wrist. This location would probably support the weight better. Also, we do know that Jesus had no bones in his body broken which might also indicate nails driven through his wrists.
The death was meant to be a slow and agonizing one. Previously it had been thought that often the criminal would die from asphyxiation, suffocating from hanging while being stretched out. It appears though, that this would not usually be the case as it has been proven that the 90 degree arm angle would not necessarily asphyxiation. More likely is that the person would die from one of three things—either dehydration, blood loss, or from shock. Depending on how long those symptoms took to set in, the execution could last anywhere form hours to days. And if you didn’t die then, they would break the legs to cause one of those three symptoms faster, as they did with the two criminals on the sides of Jesus.
Further, it was meant to be emotionally painful. After being tortured within an inch of his life, the criminal would be humiliated as he carried his own cross through the city to the place of execution. Golgotha was carefully chosen by the Romans. It was on a hill that could be seen by most of the city. Thus, all passersby and most citizens would see exactly who was being punished and exactly what the consequences were for breaking the law. There was hardly a worse way to die. The combination of public spectacle and embarrassment with excruciating pain that dragged on for hours made this one of the worst deaths invented by human beings.
If at all a consolation, crucifixion was reserved for the real “bad guys” of society. Only slaves, rebels, pirates, and vile criminals received this punishment. If you were on the cross, then you certainly did something horrible in the eyes of the Roman government.
Yet there was Jesus, the innocent Son of God, hanging on a cross. He was flanked by two men that apparently did deserve such a punishment. The two criminals are simply described as being robbers or thieves. They obviously didn’t stuff their pockets with chewing gum at the grocery store. We aren’t sure if they were the ancient equivalents of John Dillinger and Babyface Nelson. But they must have done quite a bit of robbing, or tried to rob something or someone important.
The one showed just how callous his heart was. Luke records: “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’” Perhaps he was simply echoing the taunts of the soldiers and the Jews below him. Perhaps he had heard about Jesus before this and never believed his claims either. Regardless, the thief took advantage of the moment to add insult to injury and flex his evil muscles one last time before he died.
Most of the gospel accounts tell us that both criminals were hurling insults at Jesus. But at some point there must have been a change of heart. Here’s what happened next: “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.’”
Did a dying man finally come to grips with what was most important in life? Did he finally put two and two together in his head when heard the words “Christ” and “Son of God” being used to describe Jesus? Did Jesus’ first words from the cross—“Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”—have an affect on him? All of the above? Again, we don’t know.
What we do know is that this formerly vile criminal now spoke the strongest of words with the strongest of faiths. Examine carefully what he said and did. First he defends Jesus. He had no worldly reason to. He wasn’t going to be taken off the cross because he was suddenly a nice guy. He didn’t have to worry about making friends or enemies since soon he would be dead. But he still thought it important to rebuke the other for his shameful words.
Next he identifies who Jesus really is: “Don’t you fear God? . . . This man has done nothing wrong.” The question might be about fearing God in general, but then again, it would appear from his other words that criminal understands that Jesus is God. He speaks of Jesus as being innocent and not deserving of punishment. He shows his understanding that Jesus has a different kingdom that is not of this world. This thief truly understood that Jesus is the promised Christ, the Son of God.
His other words prove the same. Look once more at verse 41: “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.” Those are the words of a repentant heart. Those are the words of a man who understands he has disobeyed the Lord. Those are the words of a man who recognizes his sin and knows he is receiving the punishment his sins deserve.
Finally, he pleads in verse 42: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Knowing his sinful heart, knowing the wrongs he has committed, and knowing his guilt, he turns to Jesus. He turns to Jesus with the hope that he alone might allow him to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus responds with words of forgiveness, promise, and assurance: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” He was not going to purgatory first. He did not have to do good deeds to pay for his wrongs. He would not wait until Jesus returned on Judgment Day. That very day the man enter the joys of paradise. This formerly wicked and vile thief was now a repentant believer with saving faith in Jesus.
God grant us that same simple and strong faith during this season of Lent, and always! We may not have broken laws in the same way as the two thieves. We may not have done enough to deserve the death penalty at the hands of our government. Yet we are every bit as wicked and vile as those two hanging next to Jesus.
We have broken God’s laws. We have strayed from his commands. Whether it’s robbing a bank, taking a pack of gum, lying about the value of our car, or cheating on our taxes—it is still stealing in God’s sight. Whether it’s shooting another with a gun, punching someone’s lights out, speaking words of hate, or just wishing someone was dead—it is still murder in God’s sight. Whether it is committing the act, watching it on a TV or computer, or fantasizing about it—it is still adultery in God’s sight. Whether it is bowing down to Buddha or Allah, spending time with our kids and family first, or just loving worldly possessions—it is still idolatry in God’s sight.
We are every bit as sinful as those two thieves and deserve every ounce of suffering they endured. Worse, we deserve an eternity of punishment in hell. The one hanging between them should be me, not Jesus.
Yet there he was—the innocent Son of God who had done no wrongs and committed no sins. He was the one punished. He was the one suffering. He was the one carrying sin and bearing guilt. But that is why he came. Jesus Came to Seek the Lost. He came to be the sacrifice and substitute for all. Jesus came to be the payment for sins. Jesus came to win forgiveness. Jesus came to open the doors to paradise. And he did!
Therefore, like the reformed thief, we turn to Jesus. Knowing our sinful hearts, knowing the wrongs we have committed, and knowing our guilt, we turn to Jesus. We repent of our sins and we look to him, pleading for his mercy and forgiveness. He alone is the one who might allow us to enter his kingdom.
And with loving words—words of forgiveness, promise, and assurance—he looks straight at us through the pages of Scripture and answers, “Friends, I tell you the truth, you will be with me in paradise.” For that is why Jesus came. Jesus Came to Seek and Save the Lost. And if Jesus came even to seek this vile criminal, and if even this thief was forgiven, then most certainly we too are forgiven. Jesus came to seek and to save us. We will one day join the thief. We will be with Jesus in paradise.
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