The Luckiest Man Alive- How We Should Respond to the Cross of Christ

CalvaryJesus Christ gave His life on a cross as a substitutionary payment to satisfy the righteous demands of God and to eliminate the power and penalty of sin in the lives of all who will believe.  On this Good Friday, as we remember His sacrifice, each of us should reflect on how we should personally respond to Jesus’ death for us and the free gift of salvation He offers to all.  A good way to do this is to consider how the thief hanging on the cross next to Jesus responded to His death.

I want to insert one caveat: I do not believe in “luck.” I do believe in the sovereignty and providence of God. I use the term “luck” in a colloquial manner.

The thief was the luckiest man alive because of all the crosses he could have been crucified on, he was crucified next to Jesus.  Because he died on that cross he was able to witness the sacrifice of a perfect Lamb and hear the beautiful words that he would go to Paradise.  In Luke 23:39-43, we read about his response to Jesus. The thief did three things that assured he would have eternal life.

He Admitted His Sin

You might think it is easy for a criminal to confess that he is a sinner.  Not so.  Even in torture, the thief on the other side of Jesus who did not repent was railing insults at Jesus (v.39).  It is hard for us, too.  We usually go out and find someone worse than us to make us feel better, rather than confess our sin.  The thief confessed his sin. He said to the other thief, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds” (vv.40-41).  He admitted he was getting his just deserts.  He knew death was the appropriate punishment for his sin.

He also admitted that his sin was an offense to God, not just man.  Dying on the cross puts his life, his sin, and his standing before God in proper perspective.  Something pricked his conscience.  He starts off on the cross joining the other thief in hurling insults at Jesus.  But he has a change of heart.  Facing his own death and eternity made him think and be transformed.

In Words We Live By, Brian Burrell tells of an armed robber named Dennis Lee Curtis who was arrested in 1992 in Rapid City, South Dakota. Curtis apparently had scruples about his thievery. In his wallet the police found a sheet of paper on which was written the following code: 1) I will not kill anyone unless I have to; 2) I will rob only at night; 3) I will not wear a mask; 4) I will not rob mini-marts; 5) If I get chased by vehicle, I will not put the lives of innocent civilians on the line; 6) I will rob only seven months out of the year.

This thief had a sense of morality, but it was flawed. When he stood before the court, he was not judged by the standards he had set for himself but by the higher law of the state.  Likewise when we stand before God, we will not be judged by the code of morality we have written for ourselves but by God’s perfect law.  You cannot take your sins to paradise.  If you want to go there, you must confess them and seek forgiveness.

He Confessed Jesus as Sinless

The next thing the thief did was confess that Jesus is sinless.  “And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (v.41).  He figures this out somehow on the cross.  Most likely, when he hears Jesus ask God to forgive his tormentors, he figures Jesus is perfect.  No one else would have done that.  Jesus was/is perfect.  Heb. 4:15- “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.”

Imagine the most vile, most disgusting, most foul smelling fluids sitting in a huge vat in front of you. The fluids have been infected with deadly diseases, bacteria and decayed flesh. Picture yourself being submerged in it, drinking it, tasting it, breathing it, having it get in your eyes, nose mouth and your ears. That wouldn’t even come close to imagining what it was like for the Holy Son of God to be submerged into the filth and death of sin.

The sinlessness of Jesus is key in understanding the atonement.  Only because Jesus is sinless can He be our substitute on the cross.  If you think Jesus is just another man, or great teacher, or leader, you don’t understand salvation.  Jesus is more than these- He is perfect.  He is the only perfect person to ever live.  This is why salvation can come only through Jesus and not Muhammad or Buddha.  No other religious leader could ever serve as a sacrifice and substitute for our sin because they themselves were sinners.  But not Jesus, being sinless, only He could serve as the sacrifice suitable to satisfy the perfect demands of God’s righteousness.

He Asked for Salvation

Have you ever noticed that both criminals ask Jesus for salvation?  “One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, ‘Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!’” (v.39).  This man didn’t receive salvation.  Why?

First, he wasn’t sincere.  He was actually insulting Jesus in his comment.  He was ridiculing him that that he might be a king.  He asked with his lips, but didn’t believe in his heart.  Second, he wasn’t asking for the salvation that Jesus brings.  “Save yourself and us!” is another way of saying, “Climb down and get me out of this predicament!”  He wasn’t asking for eternal life, but for someone to save his skin for the moment.  He wasn’t interested in his soul, just his body.  He wasn’t thinking of eternity, just the here and now.

The penitent thief was asking for a different kind of salvation.  He was seeking eternal life.  He wasn’t seeking something now, but in the future.  We see this in his words, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v.42). He seems to have understood why Jesus was hanging on the cross.  The penitent thief was also asking for a personal salvation.  In the Gospels, almost every address to Jesus is “Master” or “Teacher.”  However, the thief addresses Jesus intimately by name.  We tend to think that the greatest thing about salvation is that we will go to heaven some day- and do whatever fun stuff we think we will do.  But the true joy of salvation is that we get to know Jesus personally and bring glory to Him with our lives.  The thief is probably hanging on the cross because he has been searching for meaning and fulfillment in his life.  However, it led to a life of crime.  The thief finally found the personal relationship he had been looking for his whole life.

Because of the thief’s confession and faith, Jesus responds “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (v.42).  The word “Paradise” is a Persian loan word meaning “garden.”  It was as if Jesus told the thief that today he will be restored as it was meant to be.  How so?  It is why Jesus chose the concept of the garden.  It was in the garden in Genesis that Adam and Eve walked and talked with God.  They had perfect, unbroken fellowship with God.  In heaven, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we will have that same kind of fellowship.

W. A Criswell, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas Texas for many years, tells the story of being on a plane seated beside a well-known theologian. Criswell desperately wanted to talk to the professor about theology. However, the professor told him that his young son had recently died.  Criswell listened as he told his story: “Our son came home from school with a fever and we thought it was just one of those childhood things, but it was a very virulent form of meningitis. The doctor said we cannot save your son.”

Near the end, the professor sat by his son’s bedside. It was the middle of the day and the little boy said, “Daddy, it’s getting dark isn’t it?” The professor said to his son, “Yes son, it is getting very dark.” “Daddy, I guess it’s time for me to go to sleep isn’t it?” “Yes, son, it’s time for you to go to sleep.”  The professor said his son had a way of fixing his pillow just so, putting his head on his hands when he slept. After doing this the boy said, “Good night Daddy. I will see you in the morning.” He then closed his eyes in death and stepped into eternal life.  Criswell said the professor didn’t say anymore after that. He just looked out the window of the plane for a long time. Then he turned back, looked at Criswell with scalding tears coming down his cheeks and he said, “Dr. Criswell, I can hardly wait till the morning.”

We all long for the morning- to see our Savior face to face in Paradise one day.  This can happen for each of us if we confess our sin, acknowledge that Jesus alone made the way possible for our salvation through His death and resurrection, and receive His free gift of salvation by surrendering our lives to Him.  It really isn’t luck, it’s about His love. Thank you, Lord, for Good Friday.


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