Execution at Calvary
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, thick electrical cable running from the bottom of the chair and stretching across the slate-gray, death chamber floor. Time seemed to stand still as the clock’s secondhand slowly swept across the 12–it was 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.
0ne witness had seen other men put to death, but they had been laying on their back, arm stretched to one side waiting for the needle. But this man made eye contact with her as he walked to the electric chair–“He’s staring at me . . . he’s looking right at me,” she recalled.
Witnesses aren’t paid–no special skills are needed. The death house doesn’t require much from volunteers beyond state residency, a background check, and a brief explanation of why they want to watch a convicted killer 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. One man said, “It’s not for the weak of heart. It takes a lot of courage to keep your eyes open the whole time.”
Last week we entered Gethsemane to see Jesus in emotional agony, sweating great drops of blood in anticipation of His Passion. Today, as we conclude our summer series on the Shocking Christ, we come at last to the cross. In the passage before us, we journey to Calvary to witness the execution of three men, and I want you to keep your eyes open the whole time.
This is one of the most well-known and beloved stories in the Bible. It is the story of the penitent thief. JC Ryle once said these words should be written in gold. This is a story of hope, of mercy, and of salvation. Here we will see 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—”Jesus Christ is mighty to save sinners.”
Please open your Bibles to Luke 23–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. 33When 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. 34But 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. 35And 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.’ 36The soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, 37and saying, ‘If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!’ 38Now there was also an inscription above Him, ‘THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.’ 39One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, ‘Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!’ 40But the other answered, and rebuking him said, ‘Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ 42And he was saying, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!’ 43And 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 this man as a criminal in verse 32. In the original language, this is one who uses violence to rob openly. This is not the cat burglar who sneaks into your house, steals grandmother’s pearls, and is gone before you return. This is a violent criminal who takes what he wants, and kills anyone who gets in his way. The Bible doesn’t record his crime, but we know that it’s serious based on his sentence–what is it? Execution.
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.” Capital punishment 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.
Just over a week ago, early Saturday morning, the US military performed a precision counterterrorism operation in Afghanistan targeting al-Zawahiri, one of the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks in New York City. He and bin Laden had signed a declaration that read, “The judgment to kill and fight Americans and their allies, whether civilians or military, is an obligation for every Muslim.” Their declaration of Jihad led to the bombing of multiple US embassies, the USS Cole, and ultimately to 9/11.
After bin Laden’s death, al-Zawahiri assumed control of the al Qaeda network. And so last week, President Biden ordered an unmanned air strike in which a drone fired two hellfire missiles into the al Qaeda leader’s house killing al-Zawahiri. This story made headlines last week and not one person I talked to disagreed with the outcome. Why? Most Americans see this as justice. This man devised and accomplished a horrific act of murder and destruction, and he deserves what he got. In other words, the penalty fits the crime–and most people would rather see this mass murdering extremist dead than alive and they will be satisfied only when his memory has been wiped from the earth.
This man in Luke 23 was no different. He too had perpetrated crimes against the innocent. He was likely an extremist, a zealot who was part of Barabbas’ crew–insurrectionists against Rome. In any case, 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, carrying out his sentence. There is nothing special about this story so far–he is getting what he deserved. This is where his sin has taken him. This is the outcome of a life that was lived in rejection of God. This is the price of his sin.
Some of you know the price of sin. You have felt its bitter sting. You too have suffered the consequences of bad choices and wasted opportunity–living in regret and pain, you bear the scars of a life lived pursuing the wrong things. Seemingly, this man would enter eternity with his fist in God’s face, a rebel to the end. Alongside the religious leaders and the soldiers, he joins in the mockery of Jesus. They sneer 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 his gospel that, “The robbers who had been crucified with Him were also insulting Him with the same words” (Matthew 27:44). Even in death, he is defiant. 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. Ruined by sin, and now nailed to a cross, his hours were numbered, and there was but one step between him and eternity. With no power to save himself, his fate is all but sealed.
But then something changes in this man. There is no outward sign of it at first, other than the growing silence as he no longer casts insults at Jesus. But an internal change is taking place. We don’t know what the catalyst is, but perhaps it is in response to Jesus’ prayer, “Father, forgive them.” There are two words that describe what is happening in this man’s heart–sovereign grace. And the story of his conversion in these next verses is no different from any other person who becomes a Christian. There are three elements listed here that are a part of every conversion.
First The sinner recognizes their state before God verse 40
Look at his response in verse 40 as he addresses his partner in crime. “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?” He senses his own wretched sin in light of the holiness of God and he knows that judgment is coming. Isn’t this what Scripture tells us?
“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).
The fear of God is growing in his heart–he knows that eternal hell is just around the corner, and it is exactly what he deserves. And so he passes sentence upon himself. This is Isaiah, who said in Isaiah 6 when he saw God, “Woe is me for I am ruined for I am a man of unclean lips.”
The thief goes on 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. He admits that what is happening is justice. 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 empty-handed beggars.
Was this not the case with you, Christian? You were running headlong into the world, enjoying selfish pleasures, living without fear of consequence or judgment. Going your own way, you even took pride in your freedom and independence. Not many run as far from God as this man, but we all understand the effects of sin in our life–it promises satisfaction and fulfillment, but its end is misery and death. Like this man, every one of us has broken the law of God. Each of us has fallen short of His perfect standard. Our sin has separated us from God and placed us under His wrath. And every sinner stands under the weight of their sin.
When I was in college, I decided to go bodysurfing right after a hurricane had passed off the coast of Mexico. I hopped in the water near Santa Monica and swam out past the break, only to find that the waves were so big that they were cresting on the bottom of the pier to which I was swimming too close. Swimming too close to the pier marked my second mistake of the day. The first was not listening to Tracy, who was my girlfriend at the time and had told me not to get in the water at all. My final mistake was misjudging the mother-in-law set as it rolled in–that is the abnormally large and cantankerous set that breaks farther out than the rest of the waves, which caught me by surprise.
I swam with all my energy to try to get past the wave before it broke, and was just able to swim up through the wave as it crashed over me. I came up for air only to feel the all-too-familiar grasp of the churning forces below as they sucked me back down into the abyss. So powerful was this wave, that I was soon pressed on the ocean floor, unable to move, unable to breathe, unable to do anything. In the darkness, I began to lose hope and legitimately feared for my very life. But I was eventually able to get my feet under me and push off for the surface before the next wave pummeled me again. And you will be happy to know that I survived and that was the last time I have gone in the water after a hurricane.
Can I draw a comparison? In the same way that I was held under that wave, each one of us is under the judgment of God. Apart from Christ, we are helpless, hopeless, and without any chance of saving ourselves. But unlike my situation, there is no escape. God is an impartial judge and every man and woman stands equally guilty in His presence–each to receive according to verse 41, “what we deserve for our deeds.” In conversion, every sinner must first recognize their state before God. Then . . .
Second The sinner sees Christ rightly
This man has an amazingly accurate Christology. For what little knowledge he had, 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 in Matthew 27:4, “I have betrayed innocent blood.” Pilate testified in John 19:4, “I find no fault in Him.” And God opens the eyes of this robber to see the faultlessness of the Son of God.
But that is not all–look at verse 42, “And he was saying, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!’” Who is he saying that Jesus is? Who has their own kingdoms? Only kings have kingdoms. All outward appearances of Jesus deny His kingship. 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.
This man was bloody, bruised, unrecognizable man who had his beard plucked out, was covered with the spit of others, hanging naked, shamefully exposed for all to see. There was no appearance of royalty, nothing that would indicate His right to a throne. The disciples had seen Jesus walk on water, this man had only seen Him walk to Calvary, stumbling as He tried to carry His own cross. The disciples were there when He picked up five loaves of bread, broke them with His hands until 5,000 people were fed. This man sees these same hands, but now they are nailed to a cross. They were eye witnesses at His transfiguration, when Jesus pealed back His flesh revealing His very deity. The thief saw only a condemned criminal hanging on a cross. They saw him raise the dead, but this man saw a man who would Himself soon be in the grave.
There was no scepter, no crown, no throne, 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 Ephesians 2:4, “But God.” This is sovereign grace. First Corinthians 1:18 says, “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 his sin, and seeing Christ rightly, the final step for the sinner is . . .
Third The sinner cries out for mercy
To cry out for mercy, look at verse 42, “And he was saying, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!’” This is the desperate cry of the sinner. He 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 give money or perform acts of kindness. He could not try to fix all the wrongs he had done–His fate was sealed, he has but a few breaths left. And so in desperation, he cries 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 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 and is starving, desperate, and at the brink of death–and so he goes back to his father. Do you remember this Christian–that moment you cried out to Jesus to save you? When you saw the holiness of God, felt the weight of your sin pressing on your soul, and you cried out to Jesus to save you? This is the cry of this thief–and guess what? Jesus answers his prayer, because Jesus is mighty to save. 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 the man who hangs between two thieves is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ. He is infinite and eternal, existing outside of space and time. He is the all-powerful One who created the universe and sustains it by the word of His power. He is the sovereign God, the second member of the Trinity–and in His role as Son, He took on human flesh, was born of a virgin, and walked the dusty roads of Palestine. He was the prophesied Messiah who God promised would rescue the people of Israel, sit on David’s throne, and crush the head of the serpent. But instead of putting Him on the throne and bowing down to worship, they condemned Him to death and put Him on a cross.
John 1:10 says, “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.” Isaiah 53 describes Him as “despised and rejected and one from whom men hide their face.” His face is so badly beaten that He is not recognizable. He is the “man of sorrows.” But unlike the men that hang on his left and right, He is completely innocent. He does not hang there paying the penalty for His own sin, as He was completely sinless–but to pay the penalty for the sin of others.
Let me illustrate with this jar of coins–forgive the crude nature of the illustration, but I believe it is a helpful picture for us. Let’s give KK our attention as he comes up to help with this. Let’s envision that each coin in this jar represents a person–a son or daughter of Adam. Born under the curse each has broken God’s law, and stands condemned before a holy Judge. Here is 1968. Here is 1984. Here is 2003. Here is 2008.
And here, Jesus is bearing the weight of sin. God treated Him 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. The night before in the garden, He prayed, “Let this cup pass from Me.” Now He drinks the cup, experiencing the full, furious, unmitigated wrath of God as He bears the full weight of sin. His suffering–physical, emotional, spiritual, is immeasurable.
You can see the strain on this strong young man, as he seeks to hold this. You can imagine the strain on Jesus, as He cried out, “Father, why have you forsaken Me?” The sky went dark, the earth began to shake, as the judgment of God was poured on Jesus. He is carrying the sin of the world. And it is then, in His hour of greatest pain, at the moment of His supreme suffering, He hears the voice of the man hanging next to Him. There is one more–one more sinner. One more poor wretch who cries out for mercy. One more whose name is written in the Lamb’s book of life. We aren’t given His name, but you can be sure Jesus knew it.
This man cries for mercy, “Jesus remember Me.” And the Savior hears his cry and grants his request. 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). 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 life to another.
Let’s look at Jesus’ response in verse 43–He says, “Today, you shall be with Me in paradise.” It is a promise, and it speaks of the salvation He offers. The promise of Christ is . . .
“Truly I say to you” (verse 43). 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 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 . . . this is the day of salvation. You will not go to purgatory to work off your sins, you will not go into some form of soul sleep, you will not be in some form of limbo.
No, the promise is today. His death was coming in but a few breaths, and Jesus promises that He will meet him on the other side. 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.” 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 Christ.
“That which makes Heaven attractive to 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 The promise of Christ is certain, immediate, intimate, and last, the promise of Christ is . . .
Verse 43 says, “In paradise.” In just a few hours, this man will be dead. The fear of God’s judgment is replaced by the confidence of standing in the presence of God—not to receive judgment, but to be with Him. To stand before Him–not cowering in fear, but in that place of rest. In the presence of God, around His throne, gathering with the angels and the saints of old–this is Eden restored.
This verse speaks to those who have lost loved ones, those who have gone before us. They were lowered into the ground with great sorrow and grief, and we shed tears of mourning. But even now, they are in Paradise–a place where Revelation 21 tells us, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” Psalm 16:11 says, “In Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever.”
And so too, this man was promised that he would be in that glorious place with the Savior on that day–what a promise. 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, unworthy–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. Is there not one more coin? Is there not one more soul who this morning feels the weight of their sin? Who understands the fear of God who knows that they need a Savior? Come to the One who makes all things new. The One who wipes away the past, the One who grants forgiveness. He is the only One who can save.
You may have squandered your life in selfish pursuits, and like this thief feel you are beyond the reach of Heaven, but here we see the Savior extending grace upon grace to the undeserving and His call comes to you today. Jesus Christ is mighty to save. Turn to Him this morning and experience the cleansing of your soul. Wouldn’t it be great to end this message right here? But there is one more character that is often neglected.
3. The man on the right–the hardened rejecter
Verse 33 tells us there was another thief who was being executed that day. He too would pay for his crimes with his life. He witnessed the same things as the other man. He saw all that happened. He too heard the crowd insulting and mocking Christ, and he too joined in. Just like the other man, he had equal access to the Saviour. He too heard Jesus say, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He too could read the inscription above Him, “This is the king of the Jews.” 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.” In this room, there are husbands and wives who hear the same messages, are exposed to the same truths–but only one acts upon them. There are brothers and sisters who have attended the same church all their lives with equal opportunity, and yet only one has come to the Savior.
Matthew Henry 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 later. I won’t allow life to pass me by before getting right with God.” 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 was there. He saw Jesus die. 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?
As we close this message, I’d like to tell you about two young men I spoke with this week–both are from FBC and both were part of our college ministry years ago.
One called from another state, sharing he was struggling with his faith. The pressures of life are pressing against him and he is having a hard time. I took him to Revelation 2 to remind him of Jesus words, “You have lost your first love.” His instruction, “Remember from where you have fallen, repent, and return to the deeds you did at first.” The simple encouragement was to get his eyes off his trials and back onto his Savior. He softly agreed and we prayed together asking God to bring him back into an intimate relation with Christ.
I ran into the other on the street in Temecula. After telling me that life was going pretty well, I asked him how his relationship with God was. He quickly answered, “I don’t believe in God anymore. I know He’s there, but we don’t get along. I am no longer following Him, but doing my own thing.” He firmly rejects the person and work of Christ. We parted ways and my heart broke for him. So sad.
What about you? How do you respond to Jesus Christ? For those who call Him Savior and Lord, will you spend time today in worship, thanking Him for what He did for you? Confess that sin that you have been holding onto and come back to that first love. Let nothing keep you from Him. For those who are not a Christian, who still feel the weight of your sin and who do not have the hope of Heaven, won’t you, like this thief, turn to Christ today?
“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” (Matthew 11:28 to 30). Let’s pray.