The God of the Bible is the God who redeems and restores everyone who repents and turns to Jesus in trust.
Now you may ask, can that really be true? Can there truly be hope for everyone? I mean, for example, is there a place for someone who knows that the choices they’ve made is now leading them to certain death?
This morning, I want to give you such an account of second chances from the Gospel of Luke. It is the account of a man whose life of crime leads him to a courtroom where he’s sentenced to die by execution on a cross. The appointed day comes, there has been no reprieve. The man is taken to a hill where he’s nailed to a cross. Hanging across from the criminal on another cross is a partner in crime.
The two criminals are separated by a third man also hanging on a cross. This third man’s name is Jesus. They have both heard of him. They’ve heard some of his teachings. To them, he sounds a bit simple. This Jesus chap is most likely an innocent and harmless fool. But sometimes fools can get themselves killed for no good reason.
[Slide 2] Let me pick up the story. It’s found in Luke 23.32-42:
32 Two others, both criminals, were led out to be executed with him. 33 When they came to a place called The Skull, they nailed him to the cross. And the criminals were also crucified—one on his right and one on his left.
This passage comes from Luke’s account of the events surrounding the death of Jesus. And he says that Jesus is crucified with couple of criminals. Now these men are literally at a dead end. There’s no way back for them. All the choices they have ever made, has led them to this tortured conclusion to their lives. There’s nothing more. They can’t rewrite their mistakes. They can’t undo the past.
We don’t know much about their crimes, except that according to the Roman Law they are sentenced to die on one the cruellest forms of punishment, crucifixion.
A person could be sentenced to crucifixion for crimes like treason against the Roman government. A person could also be crucified for crimes like murder and banditry. Some translations of the Bible seem to suggest that these men were revolutionaries (the Romans would have seen them as terrorists). But we’re not sure.
THE THIRD MAN
Now, the man that hangs between the two criminals is clearly different. He isn’t the type you would expect to be executed on a cross. I mean, he made some crazy claims like having a unique relationship with God like a Son to a Father. He said he was on a mission from God. He seemed to be some sort of miracle worker. But you aren’t crucified by Romans for these sorts of things.
This man is said to have changed the lives of those he touched. He did bizarre things like welcoming outcasts, tax collectors and prostitutes. He was said to have attracted many followers. But the odd thing was that if he really had any followers at all, there seemed to be very few willing to support at the moment.
This innocent fool, hanging next to the criminals, is said to have preached things that no one in their right mind would say. Listen to part of one of his sermons:
Luke 6.27-36: 27 “But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also. 30 Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. 31 Do to others as you would like them to do to you.
32 “If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! 33 And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much! 34 And if you lend money only to those who can repay you, why should you get credit? Even sinners will lend to other sinners for a full return.
35 “Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked. 36 You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.
It’s easy to attack a man who says unrealistic things like this, right?
This morning I’m focusing on Luke’s account of what takes place on the cross. But versions of this account also appear in other gospels. The gospels tell us that this third man, Jesus, hanging on the cross is ridiculed. He is mocked by the crowds. And the other gospels also tell us that both criminals (at least) at first insult Jesus.
JESUS PLEA FOR THE CROWDS
As these insults are being hurled, Jesus says something incredible. Listen to Luke.
[Slide 3] 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
Now lot of people experiencing a painful death might pray. They might pray for relief from the pain. They might pray because they are uncertain of what comes after death. Some might pray for revenge. You can understand why you might want to pray for yourself.
But, this third man prays to God. He’s not praying for himself, but for those around him. He prays that God, his ‘father’, might forgive their ignorance. He prays for those who have falsely accused him. He prays for those who are adding insult to his injury by ridiculing him. And he says, ‘Father, if they really knew who I was, they wouldn’t do what they are doing to me’.
This could look a lot like a scene from Monty Python. This may very well be cruel. But there’s something comical about an innocent madman who thinks he has a special relationship with God. I mean, can he not see? If he was God, what is he doing there on a cross? If I were God and anyone threatened my life, I would summon 10,000 angels. I’d decimate those who fail to see who I really am. That’s what I would do.
And yet, this man (this third man on the cross) prays, ‘Father forgive them’.
But what if . . . what if this man really is who he thinks he is? Then, the Jewish leaders have been wrong. Then, the Roman authorities have been wrong. Then the crowds who mock Jesus are wrong. Then the criminals hanging on either of side Jesus are wrong about him. If that’s the case, it’s not this man who’s the fool. The fools are in the crowd. What if Jesus is who he says he is?
And one of the criminals thinks to himself, ‘If this man really is who he says he is, then I am missing out on the last opportunity I have for hope. I’m missing out on the only chance I have to be forgiven by God’.
AN OFFER OF PERSPECTIVE
You see, the moment you look at Jesus from a place of trust, the scene at the cross looks different.
Jesus is no longer an innocent fool (or a minor troublemaker) who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. He is the Son of God who Israel has been waiting for. He is the Messiah the world is waiting for who was promised in Scriptures.
Let’s return to what Luke has to say next:
[Slide 4] And the soldiers gambled for his clothes by throwing dice. 35 The crowd watched and the leaders scoffed. “He saved others,” they said, “let him save himself if he is really God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”
If you were part of the crowd, on that day, looking at the scene. What you would see is a bunch of soldiers gambling over the clothes that Jesus had worn. And you’d think nothing of it.
But if you looked at the scene from a place of trust, you’d suddenly realise that this scene is literally echoing one of the great psalms that King David (the ancestor of the Messiah) wrote about 900 years before. Let me read bits of Psalm 22 to you:
[Slide 5] Psalm 22.18: They divide my garments among themselves
and throw dice for my clothing.
This scene echoes the Psalm. In fact, let me read another bit from that same psalm.
[Slide 6] Psalm 22.7-8:
7 Everyone who sees me mocks me.
They sneer and shake their heads, saying,
8 “Is this the one who relies on the LORD?
Then let the LORD save him!
If the LORD loves him so much,
let the LORD rescue him!”
Can you hear the echoes of Scripture? If you come to the cross from a place of trust, it suddenly comes together. What is taking place is exactly the kind of thing you would expect happening to the Messiah.
Luke continues his account:
[Slide 7] 36 The soldiers mocked him, too, by offering him a drink of sour wine. 37 They called out to him, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 A sign was fastened above him with these words: “This is the King of the Jews.”
This is another echo from another Psalm of David, this time we’re in Psalm 69.
[Slide 8] Psalm 69.21: But instead, they give me poison [gall] for food;
they offer me sour wine for my thirst.
You see, the crowds look at Jesus and think he’s worth mocking. They look at him hanging from a tree and think he’s cursed by God. The soldiers treat him horribly. They take his tattered clothes and think it’s funny to play a gambling game with it. He’s thirsty, they think it’s a great prank to put some vinegar to the lips of a dying man. They think all will laugh when they see a crucified man with a plaque above him that reads ‘King of the Jews’.
For those who are not willing to truly see, this seems like a joke.
But for those who are willing to open their eyes, every one of these details (the mocking, the gambling, the sour wine and even the company of criminals) is pointing to the real identity of Jesus.
Let me read another portion of the Old Testament. Isaiah writes about the coming Messiah.
[Slide 9] Isaiah 53.12: He was counted among the rebels.
He bore the sins of many and interceded for rebels.
RESPONDING TO THE SCENE
So, 2 criminals walk together up to this point. But the road ahead is going to take them in two different directions.
I began by saying, ‘Is there a second chance for those who feel they are facing a dead end’?
And the answer to that is ‘yes’! But it all depends on what you do with Jesus. Do you trust him or do reject him?
[Slide 10] 39 One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us, too, while you’re at it!”
Both criminals are at a fork in the road. The first man makes his choice. He’s going with the crowd. He rejects Jesus and makes a cruel dig at him, ‘Hey Messiah, save yourself and us too’!
That’s one response. But, here’s another one.
[Slide 11] 40 But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? 41 We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.”
This second criminal responds with trust. What does it mean to trust Jesus?
He stands for Jesus. He stands against his old partner. He stands against the crowd. He stands against the authorities that have sentenced Jesus to death.
His stand for Jesus is captured by the line of that song, ‘I Have Decided to Follow Jesus’. There’s a line from the song that goes like this:
‘Oh take the whole world, but give me Jesus’.
Should the world stand against me, I will not forsake Jesus. Trusting in Jesus is to stand for him.
But trusting in Jesus is also to know that God is the ultimate judge. The second criminal rebukes his friend, ‘Do you not fear God’. God is the Eternal Righteous Judge. We will all one day face his judgment. The least, the first criminal can do is to fear God’s anger for being cruel towards an innocent man. Trusting in Jesus is to know that one day we’ll be held accountable before God.
And trusting in Jesus is to acknowledge our guilt. The criminal says, ‘we deserve our punishment’. We are criminals. We have done crime and now we are facing its inevitable consequences.
After this expression of faith in Jesus, the criminal turns to him and makes a request:
[Slide 12] 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”
I want you to see what the criminal is saying here.
Now, bear in mind who he is. He is a man who’s being punished with death for his crimes. There’s no turning back from this. He is passing through his punishment. And the punishment will end when he dies. Keep that in mind. So, this is what the criminal is saying:
There’s another death sentence that awaits me. That will be when I am judged by God. And I fear God. When God judges me, I will deserve the punishment he gives me. I will deserve eternal death. When that Righteous King judges me, I cannot escape because the Just Judge of all the earth will judge correctly. There’s no escape for me. Well, except one! I’ll be spared if the King himself would pardon me.
You see that’s what the repentant criminal is asking of Jesus, he’s asking a Royal Pardon. And who can give a Royal Pardon? Well, Royalty! The Messiah! God’s Coming King! So the repentant criminal makes his plea ‘Remember me, Jesus!’
THE PROMISE OF JESUS
The criminal makes his request of the King. And the King replies with a promise:
[Slide 14] 43 And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Jesus promises that this man is forgiven and that he will be with Jesus in paradise on that same day that he dies.
To understand what is going on here, it really is helpful to get a sense of what Christians believe will take place after death. This generally is the teaching of Scriptures.
After a person dies, they go to one of two places. Those who are righteous, those who are in Christ, go to be with the Lord. The Bible sometimes refers to this abode as Paradise or Abraham’s Bosom, Heaven so on.
Those who have rejected Christ go to a kind of ‘holding place’. The Bible refers to this place sometimes as ‘Sheol’, ‘Hades’ or ‘Grave’.
But that’s not where the ultimate story ends. The Bible says that, one day God’s Messiah King will return. The dead will rise. All will be resurrected with new bodies. And then, all will be judged. Those who are in Christ will be raised in their bodies to Eternal Life and those who are not in Christ, will be consigned to Eternal Death separated forever from God (sometimes called the Second Death).
Let’s return to what the criminal is saying to Jesus.
He’s saying basically:
Lord, I know I don’t deserve to be among the righteous. I know the life I’ve lived (really until seconds ago) was unremorseful. I deserve to be sent to the realm of Sheol. I deserve to be sent to those who will be judged and condemned by you. I cannot presume to be taken into the presence of God with the Righteous.
But will you remember me when you return? Will you remember this poor criminal who stood up for you because he recognised (maybe too late) the truth of who you are? When you return to give us new bodies, you will be right to send me to my Eternal Death. But remember me. Remember me because I come to you for refuge in this, my last hour.
The answer Jesus gives is remarkable. He promises the criminal that he will be with Jesus today. On this day that they are to die, the criminal will be among the righteous (in Paradise), not in Sheol because he trusted in Jesus.
At this final hour when all chances are taken away and death faces the criminal – Jesus still offers him a second chance.
Before I close, I want to say something by way of comfort and hope. I want to offer words of hope to some of you who feel you went wrong somewhere and missed the right turn in life.
You see, there were hundreds around the cross on the day Jesus was crucified. I’d guess that most in the crowd had not lived vicious lives like the criminal who was dying on the cross. I’d guess many of them had respectable lives and respectable trades. I guess many thought their lives were all together.
Yet how many of them saw in Jesus, what the criminal saw? I’d guess, only a handful.
Whatever place you may find yourself in, you have all the ingredients necessary to see Jesus for who is. Even the mess you are in, can offer clarity just like it did for the criminal who got his second chance.
Nothing is ever lost to God if you allow him to give you your second chance. One criminal didn’t allow Jesus to give him that second chance. Many in the crowd didn’t. The Jewish leaders and Roman authorities didn’t.
One day, time will run out. One day, you and I will cross the threshold when our mortal lives will come to an end. And then there’ll no second chance. Seize the chance Christ offers you, while it’s still day, while there’s still breath in your life.