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Cross Words: The Very First Christian

Luke 23:39-43

Two thieves were crucified with Jesus.

One thief cursed and railed at Christ; the other thief called and reached out to Christ. There was a world of difference between these two thieves—and they ended up worlds apart. Today I want to focus on the thief who called and reached out to Christ.

Now have you ever stopped to think that at the moment when this dying thief turned to Jesus and said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom”— that at that moment he was the only one in all the world who believed in Jesus? The disciples didn’t believe. They had run away in fear. Even John and Mary and the other women standing nearby didn’t believe Him to be the Savior of the world. We know this is true because, later on, they were completely surprised when Jesus came in the kingly power of His resurrection. They never expected that to happen. When this dying thief said, “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom”—notice he didn’t say “if’; he said “when”—he had no doubt that Jesus would be coming in power. He believed it. At that moment, he was the only person in all the world to so believe. I have often wondered if Jesus, in the horrific physical and emotional agony of the cross, prayed that someone there on Calvary might see Him for who He really was, and seeing then, believe. I have often wondered if He was astonished to discover that His prayer was being answered on the cross which was next to His own. In any case, the circumstances provoked Jesus to deliver a magnificent response to the thiefs call. Jesus said, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with Me in paradise.” What a powerful, life-changing word that is. However, before we can look closely at what Jesus said, we must look first at what the thief said.

Here are the words of the thief, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”

Now this thief was the very last person you would ever expect to turn to Jesus Christ in faith. Let’s not try to make him into something that he wasn’t. Many have tried to do that. Legends have grown up around him, all softening him, some even glorifying him. It is said, for example, that when the holy family was fleeing into Egypt after Jesus’ birth, they were saved from a band of robbers by the robber chieftain’s son. This boy pleaded with his father to spare the lives of Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus. The father agreed and, supposedly as the holy family turned to leave, the boy said to the infant in Mary’s arms, “If ever there comes a time when I am in need of Your mercy, forget not this hour.” According to the legend then, this boy thief grew up to be the thief on the cross beside Jesus—and there a dramatic debt was repaid. Well, it’s a rather lovely, little story, I suppose, but it is just a story. It is not true. No, the Bible makes absolutely clear the deep- down, bad-to-the-bone wickedness of this fellow. He was an outlaw, a ruthless back-alley killer, a first-century terrorist, if you will. There was evil in his heart, and there was blood on his hands. Therefore, his coming to Christ in true repentance is forever proof of the fact that God can send the light of faith into the very darkest of hearts.

But how did the Holy Spirit win His way into the heart of this thief on the cross? I do not know for sure. Maybe it was the agony of his dying. I have known those who, in the awesome pain, which sometimes comes before death, have found faith. I have sat at the bedside of those who, when every breath was drawn in agony, still spent those last breaths in a newfound reliance upon God. Maybe that happened to the thief—that in the midst of the hell of dying, he found the way to heaven. Or maybe it was seeing the loving sacrifice of Jesus on the cross beside him. Seeing someone else suffer for another person does possess a heart-piercing power. I remember what Albert Einstein, himself a Jew, said about the love of Christians during the Nazi persecution of the Jews. He saw the Christians suffer when, had they been silent, they would have been spared. And Einstein then said, “No argument for the Christian faith ever moved me so much as the suffering love of those Christians did.” Maybe a similar dynamic was at work in this thief. Or maybe he remembered a prayer he heard his mother utter for him when he was young. Or maybe it was some sermon he had heard Jesus preach when he was busy picking pockets in the crowd. Or maybe he saw the sign above Jesus’ head declaring Him to be “the King of the Jews,” and maybe he took the sign seriously even though the sign was meant sarcastically. But if you were to press me, if you were to say, “Alright, it could have been many things, but if you had to choose one, what would it be?”—I think that I would answer it would be when the thief heard Jesus pray, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” You see the ten words of that prayer, when thought about, are enough to melt a heart as hard as stone, enough to melt the heart of that thief, enough to melt your heart and mine. You see—and I say this out of all the years of my ministry—an encounter with the amazing, saving love and grace of Jesus Christ melts people’s hearts as nothing else I know. Yes, I think that’s the way it was for the dying thief.

So then, the thief cried, “Jesus, . .” Wait a minute! Did you know that this is the only time in all of the Bible where it is noted that someone addressed Jesus by His first name? Why the audacity of this thief—I mean, who was he to address the Lord with such familiarity? He wasn’t raised in a Christian home. He hadn’t been baptized. He hadn’t been admitted to the Lord’s Table. He never even had been to Sunday school. By what right could he say, “Jesus”? I will tell you by what right. That name “Jesus” was given to the Son of God by the angel, who announced His coming into the world. The angel said to Joseph, “You shall call His name Jesus for He will save His people from their sins.” That’s when you may call Him Jesus. That’s when you get on a first-name basis with Him. It’s when you come to Him as your Savior. That’s the way the thief came to Him. He said, “Jesus, remember me.” He didn’t come asking for a reward; he came seeking a relationship. He didn’t come asking to be rid of all his troubles; he came asking to be loved in the midst of them. He didn’t say, “Jesus, deliver me”; he simply said, “Jesus, remember me.” It was, by any standard of measurement, a modest request. But think of what he got in return!

Now here are the words of Jesus, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with Me in paradise.”

Do you realize that this thief is the only person who ever lived to whom Jesus actually guaranteed paradise? Understand please, that Jesus said less about Heaven and the life that is to come than any other single subject. He told us nothing of the geographical location or the spatial configuration of eternity. He delivered no architectural blueprints or narrative descriptions of Heaven. But what little He did tell us spells out the secret of true joy and eternal triumph. What little He did tell us forever draws the sting of death and the grave. What little He did tell us was so simple and clear that it can never be misunderstood or misinterpreted. What little He did tell us is all we ever need to know about the life that is to come. He said, “You shall be with Me.” You see, when you love a person with your whole heart the only thing you want is to be with that person forever because only in that person’s presence are you really and truly alive. Dear friends, make no mistake: Heaven will fulfill every desire our hearts could ever hold. Heaven will satisfy every need we possess. Heaven will complete every relationship we hold dear. Heaven will heal every wound. Heaven will quench every thirst. Heaven will inspire us, energize us, transform us, and transfigure us. But Heaven, above all else, above anything else, and above everything else, Heaven will be this: we shall be with Jesus! Yes, to live eternally with our beloved Christ—that is our Christian hope of paradise. That is what Jesus gave to this dying thief. What Jesus said to the dying thief conveyed to him a forgiveness which was full, free, and immediate. “Today, you shall be with Me in paradise.” That was all Christ said to him, but that was all the thief needed to hear. To be sure, the thief was still writhing in physical agony on his own cross, but the misery in his soul was now gone. For the first time in his life, he was free from the guilt and the consequences of his sin and evil. The Savior at his side was bearing it all for him, and soon the two of them would be in paradise together. The thief had Christ’s own word on it. Do you understand then what I mean when I say that this thief was the very first Christian—the very first man in history to experience the saving power of the cross? Do you understand what Bishop Fulton Sheen meant when he said, “The last thing this thief stole was Heaven”?

I love weddings. I love weddings not only because of the joy of symbolism they hold but I actually love weddings because of the hilarious things that almost always happen as a part of them. In fact, one of these days I’m going to sit down and write a book about all of the incredible crazy things that have happened in weddings where I have officiated. I remember one wedding where, well I will tell you, it’s always amazed me that groomsmen at a wedding who, under normal circumstances can be fine, upstanding, dignified men, suddenly at a wedding are transformed into mischievous, devilish, prank playing little boys. In this particular wedding, at the beginning of the wedding as the groomsmen were coming one by one down the aisle, as they approached the groom, the best man, and me, each one of the groomsmen as they passed in front of the groom, pulled back the lapel of his coat. Inside of the lapel of his coat was a large white card pinned there, and on each card in large, black, blocked letters was a word so that, as each of the groomsmen passed by in front of the groom and pulled back his lapel, by the end of the procession the message had been delivered to the groom. The message was this: it is never too late. Do you know that that’s exactly the message that Jesus was delivering to the dying thief? It is never too late. It is never too late, even at the end of the end, even at the point of the last breath. It is never too late to turn to Jesus Christ—never too late.

Now someone may be tempted to say, “O.K. then, I’ll just play it like the thief. I’ll live as I wish and then just before the midnight hour of my life I’ll cry out, ‘Jesus, remember me.’” Oh, that is such a foolish thing to do. You see, most people who plan to cry out at midnight die at eleven-thirty! Not all of those who come to those last moments are in a mood of heart or a state of mind to call forth the love, confession, and repentance that are necessary. Yes, I think Augustine was right when he said that the Bible records upon its pages the story of one man who, in the last minutes of his life, was saved—and that is recorded so that no one may ever die without hope; but the Bible records only one such instance in all of its pages so that no one might ever presume.

My beloved people, don’t ever presume. Know for sure. Know for certain. Stop living your life for yourself, or your work, or your friends. Start living your life for Jesus Christ. Then in deep sincerity cry out, “Jesus, remember me.” If you do, then you will begin to discover paradise in your life… starting today!

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