Three Crosses

Sermon by David Strain on April 10

Luke 23:32-43

Well this seems to me to be an especially poignant Good Friday as we gather again, as it were, at Golgotha. Though we’re not able to be physically together, we’re gathered around God’s Word and united in a common Savior, and so we’re here dwelling together on the work of the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, and we are rehearsing and renewing our commitment to first things, to unshakable foundations, to vital truths. So many of the old certainties, the familiar rhythms of life have had to be set aside during this crisis, so it couldn’t be more important for us to come back again to the most important fundamental convictions of the Christian Gospel and to be reminded of what really matters – the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ; His perfect atoning love. 

This evening we’re going to do that by turning our attention to Luke’s gospel, chapter 23. If you have a Bible in hand, please turn there with me. Luke chapter 23. In a moment we’re going to read together beginning in verse 32 and running through verse 43. Luke 23 at the thirty-second verse through verse 43. We’re going to focus on the three crosses that we see in the passage, these three figures on Calvary, because each of them shows something to us, something important about how we respond to Jesus and about what Jesus offers to us. Hanged upon the first cross is an unrepentant thief. The first cross shows us the tragedy of a resistant heart. The tragedy of a resistant heart. Hanged on the second cross is a thief who turns from his sin, who seeks for mercy. The second cross reminds us of the necessity of a repentant heart. The tragedy of a resistant heart and the necessity of a repentant heart. And of course hanged upon the third cross, with these two criminals on either side, is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. And the third cross shows us the love of Christ’s redeeming heart. The tragedy of a resistant heart, the necessity of a repentant heart, and the love of Christ’s redeeming heart. 

Before we look at those three themes, let’s pause once again and pray together. Let us pray.

O Lord, would You open our hearts to receive the engrafted Word. Give us an appetite for the Gospel. Awaken in us a longing to know Your mercy, for we would see Jesus. Bring us anew to Him, for we ask it in His name, amen.

Luke chapter 23 at verse 32. This is the inspired Word of Almighty God:

“Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him” – with Jesus. “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.’”

Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.

The Tragedy of a Resistant Heart

There are places in the Scriptures that function sort of like an X-ray machine. I had to have X-rays done a few months ago for a minor issue, and sitting in the doctor’s office afterwards looking at the X-rays, it’s amazing you can see right inside. You see the bones and the structure. There are passages in Scripture, like this I think, that penetrate, that expose what is normally hidden in our hearts to plain view. It’s as though we’re being X-rayed by the Word of God and exposed. 

If you look at the first of the three crosses, you’ll notice how some of that begins to happen immediately. Look at verse 39 and the first thief on the cross. One of the criminals who were hanged railed at Jesus saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” Here is an expose, an X-ray of a resistant heart. Notice his spiteful words hurled at Jesus who is hanged beside him. They echo precisely, don’t they, the taunts of the Jewish rulers, the high priest and his cohorts, who stood watching the gory spectacle presumably with some glee, in verse 35. “He saved others, let Him save Himself if He is the Christ of God, His chosen one!” And the Roman soldiers likewise who comprised Jesus’ death squad, they join in don’t they? Verse 36, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!” In each case, these taunts are designed to wound and to mock Jesus, to expose Him to public ridicule. The Jewish mockery highlighted His claim to be the Christ, the Messiah. The Roman soldiers on the other hand highlight His claim to be a king. But all of them say, “If He is who He claimed to be, the one thing that would really prove it to us is His coming down from the cross.” The cross you see, in their minds, was the greatest evidence that Jesus was, in fact, a charlatan. It was the great vindication of their own judgment against Jesus since, “If He really were the Messiah, who would be able to do such a thing to Him?” That’s how they thought.

And of course it’s hard not to hear in their jeering mockery the echoes of satanic temptation. You remember how the devil spoke to Jesus at the beginning of His ministry in not too terribly dissimilar terms. “If You are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread. If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here, from the pinnacle of the temple” – Luke chapter 4, verses 3 and 9. Satan’s temptations here now assail our Savior again on the jeering lips of His murderers, inciting Him to turn from the path of suffering that ironically defines the necessary work that the Messiah came to accomplish – the crucifixion itself. And this first thief, himself dying under the judicial sentence passed over him, does not think of his own soul in this moment. There’s no remorse, there’s no acknowledgement of personal guilt, there’s no seeking of mercy from God. He joins the rulers and the soldiers. The same satanic slander and opposition to Christ that fills their mouths fills his also. This man is the epitome of hard-hearted resistance to saving grace. After all, the one person who could deliver him was hanging beside him! And the appointed means that God had ordained by which his salvation could be secured, was the cross of Jesus Christ. And he now so thoroughly despises it. 

His words to Jesus are dripping with insincerity, aren’t they? The form of his opening question, “Are You not the Christ?” is itself a well-aimed barb. It’s another way of saying, “What kind of Christ are You? Call Yourself a Savior? If You really were, You’d get me out of this mess! Save Yourself and us!” That’s the best, you know, that an unrepentant heart can muster when it comes to Jesus Christ. If it thinks of Jesus at all, it is as a talisman, a good luck charm, a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. “Maybe Jesus will get me off the hook. That’s all this man thinks of here. “If You were really who You say You are, Jesus, I wouldn’t be sick. I wouldn’t suffer. I wouldn’t struggle financially. If You really loved me, Jesus, You’d fix this for me.” John Piper has put it this way. “There are two kinds of responses to our own personal suffering. First, we can rail against God and say, ‘If You’re such a great and powerful and loving God, why am I in this hellish mess?’ or secondly we can acknowledge that we are sinners and don’t deserve any good thing and cry out for mercy and help in our time of desperation. The world,” he says, “is full of those who rail against God in their self-righteousness and presume that the Creator of the universe is obliged to make their life smooth. But there are only a few who own up to the fact that God owes us nothing, and that any good can come our way will be due to His mercy, not our merit.”

And so the question we all must ask ourselves tonight is, “Which am I?” The first thief is the epitome of a hard, resistant heart. He doesn’t believe Jesus can save him, and even if He could, the only salvation he’s interested in is rescue from his present predicament. What an ugly, tragic picture this first thief presents. 

The Necessity of a Repentant Heart

But then consider the second thief. If the first shows us the tragedy of a resistant heart, the second shows us the necessity of a repentant heart. The necessity of a repentant heart. Think about the similarities between the two men just for a moment. They have a similar background, don’t they? Verse 32 tells us they’re both criminals. Matthew’s gospel, 27:38, uses a slightly different word. He calls them both “robbers.” They are thieves, possibly bandits, and they’ve both been convicted and sentenced to the same fate for the same offense. And they’re both to die in the same dreadful, cruel manner. And now they both come face to face with the dying Christ. And Matthew and Mark both tell us that at first both robbers join in the mockery and the insults. Matthew 27:44 says, “The robbers who were crucified with Him reviled Him in the same way.” 

But at some point, the second of the pair has a change of heart. We don’t know really what has triggered it, but we know soon enough the insults die on his dying lips. In their place, he makes two speeches. First, he rebukes the other criminal who has continued his barrage of mockery, and the second speech is directed to Jesus Himself. Notice what he says to the first thief in the first place. “Do you not fear God since you are under the same sense of condemnation and we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward for our deeds. But this man has done nothing wrong.” That’s a remarkable statement of both repentance and of faith in Jesus Christ. Look at what he says. First, his question to his fellow condemned criminal reveals something of his own heart motivation. “Do you not fear God?” he asks. The fear of God has gripped him and it has stilled his mockery and it has made him tremble. And he’s amazed that the first thief knows nothing of that fear considering his predicament. He’s about to stand before God in judgment, and yet he shows no fear of the Lord.

Secondly, this man knows that his sin condemns him justly. “We are receiving the due reward for our deeds,” he says. God is just and we are sinners. There’s no self-justifying words here. There’s no attempt to make excuses. He’s owning his guilt in the sight of God. And more even than that, his words reveal remarkable faith in Christ. “This man,” pointing if he could perhaps, nodding to the Lord Jesus nailed in that central cross, “This man has done nothing wrong.” Outwardly, there’s little to distinguish the three. All three nailed to the cross. All three in agony. All three naked and bleeding and gory. Spectacles of abject suffering. Yet these two are guilty and Jesus is righteous. He is holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from sinners, spotless Lamb of God. And this second thief seems to understand, “We are guilty, but not this man. He is a righteous and holy man.”

And then look at his prayer to Jesus in the second speech that he makes. He prays to the Lord Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Now that is a staggering prayer. Everyone else looking at the cross that day saw only defeat. The disciples saw the end of a ministry they thought would result in the overthrow of Roman tyranny in Palestine and the ushering in of an earthly Messianic kingdom. What a failure Jesus must have seemed to them in these moments. The Jewish leaders and the Roman officials saw the end of an unsettling religious competitor and a troublesome political problem. The other thief saw Jesus as an object of derision whose misplaced delusions have led Him to His death and made Him an even more pathetic specimen of human folly than he saw himself to be. Alone amongst all those looking on that day, the second dying thief saw Jesus as a King indeed who, by means of His death, is not defeated but shall come into His kingdom! He did not see failure when he looked at the cross of Christ. He did not see delusion reaching the high water mark. He did not see defeat. He saw in the cross of Christ the victory of the King who was about to come into His kingdom.

Now let’s put all of that together and track the components of this man’s repentance and faith so we can see what it looks like. If the first thief you see is the epitome of a resistant, hardened, unrepentant heart, here is faith and repentance epitomized in the second thief. He fears God more than men. He confesses the justice of God in his own condemnation. He owns his sin. He knows Jesus is righteous, not guilty. And he confesses Him to be indeed God’s appointed King and Savior who is coming into His kingdom. And then finally and fifthly, confessing all of this, seeing all of this, he casts himself, he abandons himself to the Lord Jesus Christ alone for mercy. Doesn’t he? “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” The history books have long since forgotten this man’s name. He had done nothing worthy of notice before this moment, nor would he do anything else beyond this moment. But he knows here, that if Jesus would remember him from His throne of grace he would be saved.

It’s easy to think of this man as barely a Christian with meager faith; a man who was saved, as it were, by the skin of his teeth. But that’s not right at all. For all the brevity of his testimony, his testimony was remarkably bright. Wasn’t it? He’s a model to us of true repentance for every single one of us who needs a Savior. We all must imitate this man’s repentance and faith. If the cross is the fountain that God has opened for sin and uncleanness, may God help us all to sing without shame, “The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day. And there have we, as vile as he, washed all our sins away.” As vile as he, just like the thief; no better. Claiming no higher ground but coming just as he did to Jesus alone for cleansing. 

So what should we make of these first two thieves? Matthew Henry sums up the principle lesson, I think, brilliantly. He says this. “True repentance is never too late, but late repentance is rarely true.” “True repentance is never too late, but late repentance is rarely true.” Isn’t that the message here? If you are watching at home and you’ve been telling yourself, “It’s too late for me. I’m too far gone. I’ve made too many mistakes. I’ve hurt too many people. What a mess I’ve made of my life! I’ve heard the Gospel many times but I’ve always found an excuse not to come to Jesus and now, as I think about it, as I look back, surely there’s no way that Jesus would show me mercy.” Listen, if that is you, learn from the second thief. It is never too late, never too late to turn from your sin to Christ. Even at the last, supposing for a moment that tonight you are in your final days in this world, even now there’s time! There’s room for you to trust in Jesus Christ. Confess your sin. Own your guilt before God. Fear the Lord. Acknowledge the justice of His judgment upon your sin. And cry with this man, “Lord Jesus, remember me. Lord Jesus, righteous one. Lord Jesus, God’s true King. Lord Jesus, save me!” Would you do that right now? Would you make that your cry? There is a welcome for you in Jesus, as we will see, when you do. 

But suppose you’re watching this and you’re saying to yourself, “Yes, I hear the Gospel call. I’ve heard it a thousand times before. And look, I know I’m a guilty sinner, okay? But I’m young still! I have lots of time to spare. I have a life yet to live! I’ll enjoy my sin a little longer and then we’ll see.” Oh, would you remember the first thief and be warned. Here was a man caught in the prime of his life and condemned, and even then, faced with the certainty, the inevitability of his rapidly approaching death, even then he would not come and seek pardon from the hand of Jesus. True repentance is never too late. It’s never too late to repent. Today, now, do it now! Go to Jesus. He will welcome you. There is forgiveness for you in Jesus. But late repentance is rarely true. Those who say, “Tomorrow. A year from now. Down the line. At some point, maybe,” be warned, the day may never come. The day may never come. Do not wait. Do not hesitate. Today is the day. Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. If this pandemic teaches us anything, isn’t it that life is fragile and brief? No one knows what tomorrow will bring, so why is it safe to say, “I have time yet”? Turn to Jesus. He can save you.

The Love of Christ’s Redeeming Heart

Well that brings us, doesn’t it, to the third cross. The first reveals the tragedy of a resistant heart. The second the necessity of a repentant heart. The third cross, of course, reveals the love of Christ’s redeeming heart. When He hears the second thief’s cry, look at how He responds. “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise.” It is a word of assurance and comfort. They’re both going to die that day, but Jesus, by death, was coming into His kingdom. And here is the King’s assurance that when He comes into His kingdom He will bring this man with Him. What a demonstration this is of the love and grace of Jesus Christ. After all, the man to whom it was addressed, these words were addressed, had done nothing to deserve them. If we need an illustration that a person is justified by faith alone and not by works, if you needed proof in Scripture that there is nothing you must do to find acceptance with God, this is it. 

To what works could this man point as he hung there? He was a criminal, a robber, a man of violence and deceit. Nobody could say of him, “Well of course Jesus saved him. He was a devout man, a religious man, a man of prayer, a man of philanthropy and generosity. He was an influential leader in the community. He was one of the great ones. Of course he was welcomed into the kingdom!” No, no. He was a nobody. He has no name. He comes from the underclass. He has a violent past. He can point to nothing in his own defense. All he can bring to Jesus is guilt and sin and the filth of a failure of a life. And he mingles it with his cries for mercy. 

And listen to me carefully, that is all Jesus requires. That is all He ever requires. You cannot come any other way. The reason Jesus was there, you know, crucified with criminals was because He came to be the righteous One, bearing the condemnation we deserve; treated like a criminal who was no criminal that criminals might be treated like Him – pardoned and forgiven and accepted. He bore our sin in His body on the three. He died our death.

You don’t come to Him putting your best foot forward, your best argument for why you should qualify for His kingdom. No, you see, the cross secures everything you need. Isn’t that wonderful? Everything you need – all the mercy, all the pardon, all the cleansing, all the hope. Come empty-handed. There’s no other way to come. Come guilty. Come confessing. And come trusting. Come at the end of yourself, abandoned to Jesus alone, and Jesus will welcome you, just as He welcomed this man. Salvation erupts into his life, into the life of this man who in no way qualifies for it. He does nothing to amend his ways. There’s no possibility of him now turning over a new leaf. Is there? And yet abandoned to the mercy of Christ alone he finds the mercy he needs. You remember Jesus back in Matthew 11:28 said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.” Well here He is now, at this extremity of need, providing precisely the rest He promised to a dying thief who came to Him. 

What extravagance there is in the grace of Jesus Christ. Can you see it? This is what Good Friday is about. Here is hope in the darkness. Here is peace for troubled consciences. Here is the anchor for your soul no matter what the storm brings. Jesus saves. Praise God! His cross atones and no one is beyond the pale. There are no lost causes. It is never too late. So come. Won’t you come like the dying thief – empty-handed and guilty to Christ crucified. Come right now. Right now as He invites you to Himself. Ask Him for mercy. You don't need grand words. You just need to pour out your heart. Confess your sin. Ask Him for rescue. At the cross, all the mercy you need has been secured. He is Your willing rescuer. Let’s pray together.

Lord Jesus, we love You and we praise You that by Your cross You have secured eternal redemption, no condemnation, cleansing of conscience from dead works that we might serve the living and true God. You have secured our pardon and all we need do is come guilty and helpless and say, “Jesus, save me. Jesus, I can’t do it. I’m guilty; save me. I’m a sinner; cleanse me. I’m weary and heavy-laden; give me rest. And You do. O, may You grant to us now by Your Spirit that we all may flee back to You to find the rest our souls need. For Jesus’ sake we pray, amen.

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