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Execution at Calvary
Luke 23:39 to 43
The witnesses couldn’t take their eyes off the electric chair. They took it in piece by piece as they filed into the witness room–the leather restraints on the giant oak armrests, a long electrical cord coiling from the bottom across the slate gray death chamber floor. The clock’s second hand swept over the 12–it was 9 PM. Time for the execution to begin.
Later they would remember how the air in the room seemed to compress at that moment, how the electric chair seemed to dwarf everything else, how the condemned man, one of the rare few to choose electrocution, looked right through them before he died. But at that moment all they could think was that they were about to watch a man die.
One witness had seen other men put to death, but they had been flat on their backs, feet facing her, arms splayed on a gurney waiting for the needle. But this man stared her down as he walked to the electric chair. “He’s staring at me–he’s looking right at me.”
Witnesses aren’t paid. No special skills are needed. The death house doesn’t require much from volunteers beyond state residency, a basic criminal background check, and an ability to sum up in a written application why they want to watch convicted killers die. Some say it’s their civic duty to watch, that it’s no different than sitting on a jury or voting. Others say they’re just curious to see whether death equals justice. Victims go for closure.
“It takes a lot of courage to watch people die,” one witness said. “It’s not for the weak of heart. It takes a lot of courage to actually go and keep your eyes open the whole time.” This morning we are going to witness the execution of three who were put to death 2,000 years ago at a place called Calvary. I want you to keep your eyes open the whole time as we come to one of the most incredible stories in all of the Bible. This is a story of hope, a story of mercy, and a story of sovereign grace–one that reminds us that no one is beyond forgiveness and no one is past the point of salvation. The story of the penitent thief shows us that God is in the business of saving lost sinners. If you listen closely enough, you will find yourself in this story. You will be encouraged, challenged, and called into action to worship Christ as Savior and Lord. If I could sum up this whole message in one simple phrase, it would be “Jesus Christ is mighty to save sinners.”
Open your Bibles to Luke 23, and take out your Mueller-approved outlines. Our text is verses 39 to 43, but let’s back up and read together starting in verse 32. “Two others also, who were criminals, were being led away to be put to death with Him. 33 When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. 34 But Jesus was saying, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves. 35 And the people stood by, looking on. And even the rulers were sneering at Him, saying, ‘He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One.’ 36 The soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, 37 and saying, ‘If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!’ 38 Now there was also an inscription above Him, ‘THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.’ One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, ’Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!’ 40 But the other answered, and rebuking him said, ‘Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ 42 And he was saying, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!’ 43 And He said to him, ‘Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.’”
As we work our way through this text, I would like to take an in-depth look at each of the three men who were being executed. We will in a sense witness their execution. Let’s look at the first man . . .
#1 The Man on the Left–the Humble Repenter
The text describes him as a criminal or a robber. The Greek word means “one who uses violence to rob openly.” This is not the cat burglar who sneaks into your house while you are away on vacation, steals all your stuff, and is gone before you come home. This is the thief who comes into your house, violently assaults you, takes what he wants, and kills anyone who gets in his way. The Bible doesn’t record his crime, but we do know his sentence. What is it? Execution–and so we know it was serious.
The death penalty was established by God in Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.” This law has consequently been adopted by virtually every civilization and society, even to the present day. And although it has taken many forms in terms of the specifics, there remains a single common denominator. The death penalty is reserved for the worst possible crimes and the worst possible criminals.
It was just over three weeks ago when two brothers detonated a pair of bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. A massive manhunt that shut down Boston yielded one dead suspect and another that was captured and is now incarcerated. The victims and their families are now calling for justice, many demanding the death penalty. The rationale they are using is actually from Genesis 9–he has taken the lives of others, so he should forfeit his own life. This young man concocted, schemed, and accomplished a horrific act of murder and destruction. He is a dangerous, hate-filled extremist who most people would rather see dead than alive. The court of public opinion has already dismissed him as guilty, and is ready to see him face the consequences for his actions. He is hated and despised, and most will be satisfied only when his memory has been wiped from the earth.
The thief in Luke 23 was no different. This man too had perpetrated crimes against the innocent. He too had been caught, tried, and sentenced. They were ready to permanently eliminate this piece of garbage from society. The court ruled that the only punishment that fit this man’s crime was to nail him to a cross so that he could no longer hurt others.
And so this wretched sinner hangs there, dying. But he is not content to die quietly. Instead he decides to open his mouth and join in on the mockery of Jesus. Everyone else at the scene is having fun at Jesus’ expense–the soldiers, the chief priests, even the people passing by on the road. They are sneering at him in verse 35, saying, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One.”
Matthew tells us in 27:44, “The robbers who had been crucified with Him were also insulting Him with the same words.” Even in death he is defiant. Seemingly this man would enter eternity with his fist in God’s face, a rebel to the end. There is nothing special about this story so far. This man is getting what he deserved. He is facing the music. The end has come for him and it is not pretty. This is where his sin has taken him.
Some of you know the price of sin. You have felt its bitter sting. You have suffered the consequences of bad choices and wasted opportunities. While none of us is facing the death penalty this morning, each one of us has felt the effects of sin in our lives. It is deceitful. It promises pleasure and excitement and satisfaction, but its end is misery and death.
A few years ago I was in a hospital out in Brawley waiting for surgery to start, and they brought in a 21-year-old young man who had gotten his leg caught in an auger. An auger looks like a large drill bit that includes a rotating helical screw blade, and is used to move the grain up into the silo. He tripped into the device, and his foot was caught. As it continued to rotate, it pulled more and more of his foot and his leg in. By the time someone hit the off button, his entire leg had been mangled. His foot was 10 feet away from his body, and was still attached through shredded muscle and crushed bone.
They sent out an emergency crew to the scene, put him to sleep, and then cut him free from the auger. They rushed him into surgery to complete the amputation, and to stop him from bleeding to death. I stood there in unbelief as they wheeled him past me, this poor guy whose life would never be the same again. I was outside talking with the ambulance driver when a sheriff pulled up, grabbed a box from the back seat, and ran into the hospital. I asked him, “What’s in the box?” and he said, “The rest of his leg.”
That auger is a good illustration of sin–its power is deceptive. We think we can walk around it without being caught in its grip, but all sin needs is a little opportunity and it will destroy you. Such was the plight of this man–he was ruined by sin, and now nailed to a cross from which he would never come down alive. His hours were numbered, and there was but a step between him and eternity.
If ever there was a soul teetering on the brink of hell, it was this man. If ever there was a helpless, hopeless case, one that seemed a lost cause, it was this man. This man could no sooner get to Heaven on his own than he could come down off that cross. He had no power to save himself.
Guess what? You and I are no different. We have no more chance of getting to Heaven on our own than this man did. Each of us has sinned. Each of us has fallen short of the glory of God. Romans 3 tells us that we are not good, we are not acceptable. On the contrary, we are under the same sentence of condemnation as this man.
What happens next in this story is supernatural. He grows quiet and no longer casts insults at Jesus. Something is happening internally. His heart changes. I will tell you exactly what happened in two words–sovereign grace. And the story of his conversion in these next verses is no different from any other person who becomes a Christian. Let me show you three elements that are a part of every conversion.
The sinner recognizes his state before God Verse 40
“Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?” All of a sudden, he is struck with the fear of God. He senses his own wretched sin in light of the holiness of God, and he knows that judgment is coming. “And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” Hebrews 9:27
“It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Hebrews 10:31 “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:28
This man knows that eternal Hell is just around the corner and it is exactly what he deserves. He passes sentence upon himself. Then in verse 41, “And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds.” He admits his sin, he admits his guilt–and in that moment he realizes he needs a Savior. He realized that he was not ready to meet his Maker. He could not stand before the Judge on his own. His situation was desperate. This is always the first step in conversion—no one is saved until they have come to God as an empty-handed beggar.
The sinner sees Christ rightly Verse 41
This man has an amazingly accurate Christology. He sees Jesus Christ rightly. In verse 41 he says, “This man has done nothing wrong.” He declares the innocence and sinlessness of Christ. Judas said, “I have betrayed innocent blood.” Pilate testified, “I find no fault in Him.” And God opens the eyes of this robber to see the faultnessness of the Son of God.
But that is not all–he recognizes Jesus as King. Look at verse 42, “And he was saying, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!’” “In your kingdom”–only kings have kingdoms. All outward appearances seemed to deny His kingship. Think about it–this king was not seated on a throne, He was nailed to a cross. Instead of wearing a royal crown, He wore a crown of thorns. Instead of being waited upon by servants, He was in the company of criminals. Instead of an army to command, He had only mockers to ridicule Him.
No one in the crowd yelled out, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” No one threw down palm branches and said, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” The disciples had seen Jesus walk on water, open the eyes of the blind, heal lepers, feed thousands with a little boy’s lunch, and even raise the dead.
The thief saw none of these things. He only saw a bloody, crucified man in agony, alone, suffering, in weakness, rejected, dishonored, dying. He saw no royal crown, no scepter, no outward sign of a kingdom–only a sign over His head that read, “This is the King of the Jews.” And yet even with all this, he declares that Jesus is the Messiah, the coming King of Israel.
How does this happen? This is not a human effort. This is divine intervention. This is sovereign grace. First Corinthians 1:18 defines it best, “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” After recognizing sin and seeing Christ rightly, the final step is:
The sinner cries out for mercy
And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” This is the desperate cry of the sinner. This is, “Jesus save me or I die.” This is a man who could not reform his life or turn over a new leaf because he was dying. He could not walk on the paths of righteousness because his feet were nailed to a cross. He could not perform any good works because he had nails in his hands. All he could do was cry out to God, “Save me. Please, save me.”
This is the publican in Luke 18 who cries out, “God, be merciful to me the sinner.” This is the Philippian jailer of Acts 16, who saw the power of God and falls down saying, “What must I do to be saved?” This is the prodigal, who has gone all the way to the end of his rebellion. He has lost everything, is starving, desperate, and at the brink of death. And so he goes back to his father.
Have you been there? Christian, do you remember this moment–the moment where you cried out to Jesus Christ to save you? So good. This is the cry of this thief. And guess what? Jesus answers his prayer. He is saved, he is forgiven, he is cleansed. Let’s turn our attention to the man in the middle.
#2 The Man in the Middle–the Holy Redeemer
Verse 33 tells us that Jesus Christ is the man who hangs in the middle. He is the infinite and eternal God who existed outside of space and time. He is the all-powerful God who needs nothing, who is perfectly happy in Himself. And in the sovereign plan of God, laid out in eternity past, the second member of the Trinity who took on human flesh. And John 1:10-11 says He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.
The One who would sit on David’s throne, who would rescue the people of Israel, their very Messiah comes. And instead of putting Him on the throne and bowing down to worship, they condemned Him to death and put Him on a cross. He is naked, His face is so badly beaten that He is not recognizable. Isaiah 53:3 says that “He was like one from whom men hide their faces. He was despised and He was shamefully disgraced.”
Unlike the men that hang on His left and right, He is completely innocent. First Peter 2:23 tells us that He never retaliated, never uttered a threat, never promised retribution, but quietly suffered like a lamb that is led to the slaughter. And on the cross, He bore the full weight of sin. He was judged as if He had committed every sin ever committed by every believer that has ever lived. He is experiencing an eternity of Hell that was meant for us as He hangs on the cross. He is suffering in a way that is beyond our understanding.
One of my least favorite bodily functions is reverse peristalsis–throwing up, vomiting, up-chuck, hurl, ralph, bow down at the porcelain throne, etc. I had a terrible experience when I was returning from Brawley (a different time). I had a bad day and decided I would drown my sorrows with a #3 from McDonalds (filet-o-fish…no of course not)—a quarter-pounder with cheese and a super-sized fry and coke. I am a firm believer that there will be high-fructose corn syrup in heaven.
I quickly engulfed my lunch, only to find that my stomach was unsettled. On the two-hour drive, all I could think about was getting home and into my bed. I was becoming more and more miserable by the minute. About twenty minutes from home, the moment came very quickly. I did not have time to pull over to the side of the road, or even to slow down. I grabbed the only thing close to me, which was my empty 44-ounce soda cup, and I proceeded to refill it. Realizing that there was still more coming, I set the cup down and grabbed the paper McDonalds to-go bag. And as I was trying to slow down and get off the road, I proceeded to fill up that bag.
I finally stopped the car, and as I opened the door to get the bag out of the car, my hand suddenly went like this (lifting motion)–the bottom of the bag broke, draining all of the contents onto my lap. Twenty minutes from home, vomit all over me, seeping through my clothes, I was truly miserable. I went home and threw away the clothes I was wearing and sterilized my car–and have since had many #3’s. It is too good to stop there.
Here is the point. When you and I suffer, we have a hard time thinking about anything outside of our box of suffering. We have sympathies only for ourselves. But this is not true of Jesus Christ. In the moment when Christ should have been thinking only about Himself, as He is dying and bearing the wrath of God–when He should have been concerned with His own suffering, He instead seeks to alleviate the suffering of another.
In the day when He seemed most weak, He showed that He was a strong deliverer. In His hour of pain, He showed that He could mercifully care for others. And even in His own death, He offered eternal life to another. If we were to boil this passage down to one simple truth, this is it–Jesus Christ is mighty to save. “He has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:17). “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “He is mighty to save” (Isaiah 63:1).
After hearing this man’s humble request, Jesus could have looked at him and said, “You filthy, wretched, evil, reprehensible man–depart from Me, I never knew you.” He had the authority to send him straight to Hell. But look at the response of Christ. Listen to this amazing promise. I want you to see four things–the promise of Christ is:
Verse 43, “Truly I say to you”–this is a promise. This is a statement of fact. It is an irrefutable truth given from the One who holds the keys of death and of Hell. He has all power, He has all authority. When He spoke, storms ceased. When He spoke, the dead were raised to life. When He spoke, the demonic forces cowered in fear. And when He tells this thief, “Truly I say to you,” this becomes an unbreakable promise. This thief receives the greatest assurance in all of the pages of Scripture. This is a certain promise. Next, the promise of Christ is:
He says, “Today”–this day. You will not go to purgatory to work off your sins, your soul will not go to sleep, you will not be in some form of limbo. No, the promise is today. He knew Passover was coming, and that the soldiers would be coming before sundown to break his legs so that he would be dead before the Sabbath began. And these words of Jesus speak comfort to him in his time of great need. It is immediate. Next, it is:
“You shall be with Me.” This is stunning. The thief asks only to be remembered. No doubt he is thinking, “If only I can have a corner in the kingdom, even just inside the gates.” But Jesus’ response is overwhelming. “You will be with Me”–by My side, in My presence. That which makes Heaven superlatively attractive to the heart of the believer is not that Heaven is a place where we shall be delivered from all sorrow and suffering. Nor is it that Heaven is the place where we shall meet again those we loved. Nor is it that Heaven is the place of golden streets and pearly gates. No, it is Christ that the heart of the believer longs for (AW Pink).
Second Corinthians 5:8 says to be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord. And 1 Thessalonians 4:17 says we will always be with the Lord. This is an intimate promise. We will be with Chist–awesome. Last, the promise of Christ is:
“In paradise“–you will be in Heaven, not Hell. The fear of God’s judgment is replaced by the confidence of standing in His presence, blameless and with great joy. Read Revelation 21 and 22 to see what the Bible says about Heaven. In John 6:37 Jesus says, “The one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.”
How true this is–Jesus stands ready to save all who come to Him and like this thief ask for mercy. Though your sins outnumber the sand on the shore, though you have done things that you are ashamed of, though you feel dirty, used, guilty, unloved–Jesus Christ will bind your broken heart, wash away your sins, and make you clean. If this dying thief was not beyond the reach of divine mercy, then neither are you. And the same offer of forgiveness that was extended to him is extended to you this morning. I love this story, and we could end there–but there is one more character that is often neglected.
#3 The Man on the Right–the Hardened Rejecter
There was one more man, another thief. He witnessed the same things as the other man. He saw all that happened. Both of them had equal access to the Saviour. Both could read the inscription above Him, and both watched Him as He graciously gave His life for the sins of the world. And yet only one cried out for mercy.
If we are to learn one thing from this man, let it be this–while some are saved in the hour of death, others are not. You may say, “Why should I be afraid? The first thief was saved.” I answer, “That is true, but look again–the other thief was lost.” One of the puritans said, “One thief was saved that we not despair, but the other was lost that we may not presume.” As he lived, so he died–he lived rejecting God, and he died the same way.
As you live, so you will die–reject God in life and you will reject God in death. Do not continue in sin willingly and think you can repent, believe, and be saved just when you like. So many push spiritual things out of their minds. “I don’t want to deal with this now . . . I am young and strong and far from death . . . I will get serious after I have my fun”. This is madness–you have not been promised tomorrow. Do not wait–the longer you push God away, the harder it is to come back.
“Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:12 to 13). While there is life, there is hope. But if you would be wise, put nothing off that concerns your immortal and undying soul.
Think of this man–he saw Jesus die. He was there. He had an amazing opportunity to turn and repent in that moment like his fellow thief. And now for all eternity in Hell he is faced with the knowledge that he could have been forgiven if he’d only humbled himself and asked for mercy. Do not be like this man. Listen to me. You have the same opportunity today–the same knowledge, the same offer of mercy. Don’t go to Hell from Faith Bible Church. God has extended His mercy to you this morning. Won’t you turn to Christ right now and be saved?
Let me wrap this up and leave you where we started. If you love Jesus—worship Him, thank Him, tell someone about Him. If you are not yet a Christian–turn to Christ today. Let’s pray.
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew11:28 to 30).