In this second-to-last installment of our series, Hard Sayings, we wrestled with the power of the cross. Just how big is the grace Jesus won for us there? It can save a normal sinner, sure, but can it save the worst of them? We’re actually faced with a harder question here: Do we want it to? Is Jesus’ offer of life to anyone fair? Keep reading to see the answer.
The Man Who Got It
Do you remember your parents ever doing something for your brother or sister that they did not do for you? What was your immediate complaint? That’s not fair! Actually, you probably said it with a bit more…emotion in your voice. That’s not faaaaaaiiiir!!! Worse yet, do you remember your brother or sister or cousin or a friend or, really, just about anyone, getting something you were convinced in your heart of hearts they didn’t deserve? What did you say then? About the same thing: “That’s not fair!”
Why do we do that? It’s because our right and wrong meter has ticked over to wrong and we’re reacting to it. Because we are made in the image of the God who is just, we have an internal sense and longing for justice. When we think justice hasn’t been served, something in us reacts strongly. If we have the power to do something about it, we move to fix the problem. Even if we only think we have the power to do something about it, we move to reconcile the matter. When we are sure we don’t have such an ability, we still react, our reactions just tend to remain in the realm of whining. Jealousy plays a roll here too. When we see someone get something we want either as well or instead, we react. The point here is this: Whatever the precise reason for it, when we see someone get something either we don’t get as well, or that we want only for ourselves, or even that we simply think they shouldn’t get it, we’re not happy.
Well, this morning, we’re going to continue in our series Hard Sayings. We have been looking at different hard sayings of Jesus for over a month now. While these sayings have all been hard to grapple with, they have not all been hard in the same way. Some of them have been hard interpretively: they didn’t make any sense at first read. For instance, without the proper background of understanding, Jesus’ calls to hate our family don’t make any sense. Other sayings of Jesus, like His assurance that we will face persecution if we try to faithfully follow Him are not hard to understand. In fact, as we said a few weeks ago, it was very clear what Jesus meant when He told us that the world would hate us. What was hard about that saying was whether or not we actually believed it. What we looked at last Sunday in Jesus’ declaration that there will be people before the throne of judgment who are boasting about their great religious deeds, but who Jesus will turn away with the explanation that He doesn’t know them, was hard for yet another reason. This one was hard because it goes against our normal modes of thinking. We naturally assume that people who are talking big talk about Jesus and who seem to be walking the walk really do have the faith thing down. Because we look to folks who seem to have it altogether as our models, many of us feel we need to pad our spiritual résumés in order to be good enough for the kingdom. The trick is that such a practice can set us down the path of thinking our padded résumés are enough to get us into heaven. But, as we saw, serving Jesus is not the same as knowing Jesus. And unless we know Jesus, there is no entrance into Heaven.
This morning, we are going to encounter yet another hard saying. And as is the trend, this one is hard for yet another reason. Let me see if I can set up why this is and then we’ll get into the text. There are some people in human history who pretty much everyone recognizes as a villain. I’m talking about folks like Hitler or Stalin or Charles Manson. In our minds these kinds of folks are either already rotting in torment while awaiting their final judgment and punishment or else they’re on the fast track to get there. Let’s not go quite so grand as this, though. Take your average death row inmate. Most of us would consider them hardened criminals who are on the short bus to Hell. And so we’re clear: this isn’t without due warrant. Yes, we are not the final arbiters in these kinds of cases, but judging by their fruit, we don’t have any good reasons to think they are going to receive any rewards from God, at least not at the point they’re given the death penalty.
Let’s get even more personal. Imagine if you or one of your loved ones were the victim of a violent crime. I suspect it wouldn’t take much to convince you that the criminal in this case was living far from the grace of God and did not have heaven on his future résumé. All of this is to make the point that there are people who we simply don’t believe are destined for heaven. In fact, there are some people we want to be on the road to Hell. We don’t want them in the kingdom. Some folks might even go the extra mental step of concluding that if God’s kingdom can take in someone like that, then they don’t want any part of it. An acquaintance of mine in college was abused by her dad and other men in her family when she was little. Her biggest struggle in wrestling with whether or not to submit her life to Christ in college was her accurate understanding that if God could forgive her than He could feasibly forgive them, and that wasn’t something she wanted to happen.
With all of this in mind, how would you handle it if Jesus came to someone who fit in this “not fit for heaven” category and made them fit for heaven? What if He gave them a personal invitation, and worse, what if they accepted? What if we suddenly found ourselves united to them in spiritual kinship? The hard saying of Jesus we are going to wrestle with this morning brings us to the point of having to grapple with just how big grace is. How all-encompassing is what Jesus accomplished on the cross? Because in order to understand Jesus, in order to get what He did and why it’s so incredible, we have to get this. But when we do, when we get who Jesus is, life is our reward regardless of who we are, where we’ve been, or what we’ve done. When we get who Jesus is, life is our reward.
Grab your Bibles and let’s take a look at this hard saying together. You’ll find it near the end of the Gospel of Luke. Open to Luke 23. We are going to focus our attention on verses 39-43, but let me start reading a bit before that in order to give us the proper context. Follow along with me in Luke’s narrative of the crucifixion starting in v. 26: “And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus. And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. But turning to them Jesus said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!” Then they will begin to say to the mountains, “Fall on us,” and to the hills, “Cover us.” For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?’ Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’ One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’”
The scene, then, is Jesus’ crucifixion. We have talked before about what that gruesome scene would have been like. I don’t need to tell you any more about that this morning. Although I believe there is a time and a place for us to take in just what Jesus went through in order to purchase us from the slavery of sin so that we can understand how utterly inappropriate sin is in the life of a follower of Jesus, this morning we will follow the lead of the Gospel writers who consistently presented the crucifixion itself in four words or less. Jesus was crucified. That wasn’t terribly unusual in His day. Lots of people were crucified by Rome in that day. What wasn’t normal were some of the events surrounding it. I don’t believe it would be too much of a stretch to say that the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion were downright weird as far as they went.
Now, things started out normal enough. Jesus being made to carry His cross was normal. Conscripting a Jew into helping when He faltered was normal. The group of mourners following Him was very much normal. The mocking from the religious leaders and the soldiers? Normal. Being crucified with a couple of other criminals? Normal. As the three men hanging on crosses began to speak to each other, though, things started jumping the shark.
One of the two men starts to lay into Jesus: “If you really are who you say you are, why don’t you save the three of us?” He undoubtedly understood that Jesus was being put to death as a messiah pretender. He had probably even heard rumors that this particular messiah claimant might be the real guy. Well, everybody knew that when the real Messiah showed up he was going to do a number on Rome. Men like this criminal, who was probably a Jewish revolutionary, were proudly trying to grease the wheels for him ahead of time. Well, the way the people knew someone claiming to be the messiah wasn’t really was when he ended up like Jesus was now. The frustrating part for revolutionaries like the man next to Jesus was that the fake ones were just making things harder for the real one when he finally arrived because they were enabling Rome to prepare more effectively. How dare Jesus interfere with God’s work in this way! So yes, he lambasted Jesus out of what he thought was a righteous anger. Because he didn’t get Jesus.
But then something really interesting happens; something even more unusual. The other criminal speaks up. But, instead of joining in the fun, he defends Jesus. What’s more, his defense doesn’t seem to be motivated by a basic honor among thieves. Well, it does at first, but it quickly becomes more than that. He recognizes, apparently in earnest, that Jesus really hadn’t done anything wrong. And then the biggest shocker: he asks Jesus to remember him when He comes into His kingdom. This is unexpected. Remember: Jesus is hanging on the cross dying. What kind of a physical kingdom was He going to come into in His current state? Answer: None. The only possible kingdom Jesus was going to inherit at this point was something more heavenly in scope. Now, if you’re sitting there wondering what all of this means let me tell you: This guy got it. He got who Jesus was. And life was his reward. When we get who Jesus is, life is our reward.
This brings us down to the hard part here. The criminal seems to get an assurance of life after death from Jesus Himself on his deathbed…rather…his death tree. Now, our tendency is to downplay this. This was a special, one-time circumstance. Jesus was acting as God to do something for this guy that He doesn’t normally do for people. Or perhaps, this guy’s crimes couldn’t have been that bad for Jesus to take him like this. But let’s not sugarcoat things needlessly here. This guy was a revolutionary. That very likely meant he had killed some Roman citizens—probably soldiers—in his quest to bring back the glory of Israel. He very well may have murdered someone’s daddy or husband or son or brother. Put yourself in that other person’s shoes. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be all that thrilled with Jesus offering life to someone who killed my dad. This guy had committed what most of us consider to be a terrible, unforgivable, no-good, very bad sin. It takes a special kind of person to offer personal forgiveness in the face of such an offense. How dare Jesus be so presumptuous to think He can offer it for us! And yet, the evidence of this passage is that no matter who we are or what we’ve done, when we get who Jesus is, life is our reward.
What I want to do as we draw near the time of celebrating the Lord’s Supper together is to ponder some of the implications of this passage. I think there are two things we need to come away seeing here. First, the power of the cross goes far deeper than many of us imagine. It is a natural thing for us to make categories in our minds of people who are fit for the kingdom and people who are not. Usually we make these categories based on our assessment of where we fall personally. We come up with a mental line which when crossed renders people unable to gain entrance into the kingdom because their sins are so heinous. Now, we’ll all express our theologically correct belief that all sin is the same in God’s eyes, but most of us live by the more practically relevant belief that some sins really are worse than others. And the thought that Jesus might forgive someone who has crossed “the line” doesn’t really sit well with us. We think of someone like Charles Manson and process the thought: Well he’ll never get into heaven. And based on his fruit, in all probability he won’t.
But, the power of the cross is that Jesus endured the absolute worst of this world in order that the absolute worst parts of it can be redeemed. The power of the cross is that if someone as obviously, disgustingly broken as Charles Manson finally gets who Jesus is, life is the reward. Let’s be honest: this is really hard. Forget about Charles Manson. We don’t want to think about our own personal enemies getting into the kingdom. These people have hurt us and therefore they shouldn’t have any place in our spiritual family. I don’t care if they get it at age forty or age ninety. We don’t want them in. We will never accept that they really get Jesus. How could they if they did that? And yet, the power of the cross is such that when we get who Jesus is, life is our reward. Our past no longer makes any difference. It matters in the sense of shaping what our journeys will look like, but in terms of impacting our ability to be good kingdom citizens it matters not at all. When we get who Jesus is like this second criminal did, life is our reward. This is not an easy truth, but it is an important one. We must guard our hearts from trying to step into the place of Jesus as judge. Who gets in and who doesn’t is entirely up to Him. As we talked about this past Sunday, He knows when people get Him right. And He knows when they don’t. When we get who Jesus is, life is our reward.
This brings us to the second important takeaway here. Anyone can come to the cross for any reason at any time and receive life. Do me a favor and make this personal. I’ve led you on thinking about other people all morning, but think about you now. Think about who you are. Think about where you’ve been. Think about what you’ve done. You know what your junk is. While there are times when you are pretty confident that the rest of the world needs to start living up to the awesome standards you are setting, in your most honest moments you wonder how God could possibly bear with you another minute. You are pretty sure that your ongoing struggles with sin disqualify you from ever being an effective follower of Jesus. I mean, you’ll keep doing the church thing because that’s what everybody expects from you—and you appreciate the community—but your insufficiencies will keep you from ever being like those super Christians in the community who seem to have it all together. Meanwhile, of course, they’re thinking the same thing about you.
And so you play the game of the Pharisee. You look the part and fit in pretty well, but you don’t really have anything like a deep and growing relationship with Jesus. Do you know where this whole line of thinking comes from? It comes from not getting who Jesus is and the power of the cross. It comes from misunderstanding exactly what Jesus accomplished on the cross on our behalf. And, because of how broken we are by sin and the twisted view of ourselves this causes, we’re not going to get it from a simple presentation. We need to be shocked into the truth. This is why working through this hard saying of Jesus is so important. When we see that even a murderer in his final living moments can gain the reward of life when he grasped who Jesus was, all of a sudden, we can start to see that we too can step into life when we come to understand who Jesus is. All of the brokenness that seems to constantly threaten to derail us from being productive members of the kingdom of God does not pose a threat to our Savior because of the power of the cross. When we go to the cross and grasp who Jesus is, we too can experience the reward of life. When we get who Jesus is, life is our reward.
Let’s face it: we rank sins. I know the Bible seems to suggest not to, but we do. As a result, God in His wisdom has given us a powerful example of someone who had committed one of the worst on our list receiving the reward of life when he got who Jesus is. If the power of the cross and a proper understanding of Jesus enabled a rightly condemned murderer to receive life, by what logic do we believe such a combination wouldn’t effect the same thing in our lives? By what logic do we think our struggles with gossip or lying or gluttony or selfishness or any other not-so-bad-on-our-list sin issue could possibly keep us from receiving life when we humbly come to the cross with a recognition of who Jesus is? The answer: only a logic twisted by pride. We don’t really want to come and submit ourselves to the kingdom and so we make excuses. They look like excuses generated by our deep humility (and thus we look more spiritual), but really, they come from our deep pride and they’re all distortions of the truth whether intentional or not. I’m too broken. I struggle with this or that sin, so God can’t really use me. I fail all the time, so I’ll just stay on the sidelines. I’ve done my time and I want to let others have a chance. You know what all that is? Garbage. Because the power of the cross renders it all moot. When we get who Jesus is, life is our reward. Period. When we come humbly to the cross and know Jesus for who He is, we will hear the sweet words spoken to the criminal on the cross: “You will be with Me in Paradise.” We become citizens of the kingdom and are able—and expected—to live like it.
Listen: this morning, I confess, I don’t know where you are. I know some of your junk because I’m the pastor and I’m supposed to know that kind of thing, but transparency isn’t one of the chief cultural traits of established churches like this one and so I’m pretty sure there’s a lot that neither me nor anyone else knows about. But here’s the important thing: you know what it is. And if you’ve been around the church for very long you probably (hopefully) feel pretty guilty about it. You feel like you can’t possibly be of much use to God because you are too broken a vessel. The expressed picture of Scripture, however, is that this is simply not true. When we get who Jesus is—our Savior and Lord—life is our reward. When you come to the cross and recognize humbly who Jesus is, life is there waiting.