JESUS' LAST WORDS
A Series of Seven Essays
by Timothy Cross
JESUS' LAST WORDS (II)
A Word of Promise
‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Luke 23:43).
Saved by grace alone
Christ’s cross was not the only cross at Calvary. Scripture records that ‘two robbers were crucified with Him, one on the right and one on the left’ (Matthew 27:38) with ‘Jesus between them’ (John 19:18).
One of these two criminals rejected Christ, and so is eternally lost. The other, however, was enabled to turn to Christ in faith, and so is eternally saved. Christ promised him a home in ‘Paradise’. Paradise refers to a place of bliss and rest in the nearer presence of God. This saved criminal, therefore, is a wonderful example of salvation by the sheer grace of God. In the morning he was a condemned criminal. In the afternoon He was a redeemed sinner. In the evening he was a glorified saint – with Christ, in Paradise. By merits he deserved a place in perdition, but by the mercy of God in Christ, he gained a place in Paradise. He deserved to be in hell, but Christ granted him a place in heaven. His journey from the gallows to the glory is inexplicable apart from divine grace – just as the salvation of anyone of us is inexplicable apart from the sovereign, saving grace of God – that is, the unmerited favour and kindness of God to the undeserving and ill-deserving.
Salvation by divine grace is the touchstone of authentic, Biblical Christianity. ‘By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not because of works, lest any man should boast’ (Ephesians 2:8,9).
The steps to glory
The redeemed, dying thief hails from a different background and era from ours. Yet facets of his salvation transcend the ages. There are elements in his journey to glory which are common to every instance of divine salvation.
First of all, the saved, dying thief feared God. Whereas his partner in crime railed against Christ, this man ‘rebuked him saying, ‘Do you not fear God ...’ (Luke 23:40). Scripture states that ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom ...’ (Proverbs 9:10). Impending death, the prospect of eternity and an imminent facing of divine judgement has, under God, softened many a hard heart and inculcated the fear of God in many – a fear which is the necessary prerequisite and preliminary to salvation.
Secondly, this saved, dying thief was enabled to realise both his own nature and Christ’s nature. He realised his own sinfulness and Christ’s sinless-ness: ‘We are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong’ (Luke 23:41). It was Luther who said ‘an awareness of sin is the beginning of salvation.’ Only the Holy Spirit can convict us of our personal sin and lost plight, and our deep and desperate need to be right with God. The Holy Spirit was thus evidently at work in the thief’s heart – albeit at the last hour.
The thief confessed: ‘This Man has done nothing wrong.’ The New Testament is uniform in its testimony to Christ’s absolute sinless-ness – His impeccability. The New Testament also states that ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23). Christ was thus dying not for His own sins but for the sins of others. ‘Christ also died for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God’ (1 Peter 3:18).
Thirdly, the dying thief was enabled to realise, not just Christ’s sinless-ness, but also His authority to bestow salvation. His eyes were opened to Christ’s kingdom of grace. There is a kingdom of the redeemed, which is ruled by Christ – and the dying thief wanted earnestly to be a subject of it. He thus turned to Christ and begged for mercy, saying ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (Luke 23:42).
The thief was in a state of double jeopardy. Not only was he a criminal condemned by Rome, but he was also a sinner under the condemnation of God – as indeed we all are by nature. He had no personal merit to plead. He could only plead for mercy. And so he turned to the Lord Jesus and simply asked to be remembered by Him. It was a simple request – but to be remembered by Jesus is abundantly and eternally enough.
The dying thief turned repentantly to Jesus. Whilst we are not saved by repentance – Christ alone saves – paradoxically, there is also no salvation without repentance – that is, turning in faith to Christ. ‘Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin turn from it unto God, with full purpose of and endeavour after new obedience’ (Shorter Catechism, Q. 89). Repentance has been termed ‘the tear of faith.’ Repentance is a gift of God.
Fourthly, we note the promise which Jesus made. The promise of Jesus to every sinner who turns to Him is ‘Him who comes to me I will not (lit. never, never) cast out’ (John 6:37). This then takes us to the second ‘word of Christ from the cross.’ Jesus gave the dying thief a gracious and wonderful word of promise: ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43). Jesus, as the Son of God, always keeps His word. His promises are dependable. Thus, that very day, the thief went from agony to ecstasy, from the gallows to the glory. The Bible is restrained in its description of Paradise – the place of blessedness which awaits the believer. We can though say that Paradise entails being ‘with me’, that is, with Christ our Saviour, for all eternity. Truly then, for those who belong to Jesus ‘to die is gain’(Philippians 1:21). We can say with Paul that ‘My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better’ (Philippians 1:23).
The dying thief depended - and could depend – on Christ’s word of promise. And it is the same with every believer today. Our salvation rests on the firm foundation of the Word of God Himself – that ‘God has not destined us for wrath but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Thessalonians 5:9). The Bible says ‘He who believes in the Son has eternal life’ (John 3:36).
The saved, dying thief was certainly a trophy of divine grace – a vessel of mercy. Yet every believer can relate to him. The same grace and mercy of God in Christ which saved him has also saved us. When we reach Paradise it would be wonderful to seek out the dying thief and sing a duet with him. Together, we could testify:-
Naught have I gotten, but what I received
Grace hath bestowed it and I have believed
Boasting excluded, pride I abase
I’m only a sinner saved by grace!
Only a sinner, saved by grace!
This is my story – to God be the glory
I’m only a sinner, saved by grace
(James Gray 1851-1935).