Sermon delivered March 19, 2001 by Pastor Donald J. Gettys

McDonald Road Seventh-day Adventist Church

McDonald, Tennessee

Biblical quotations are from the New International Version NIV unless otherwise noted. Divine pronouns and titles are capitalized.

Jesus' Last Convert

Luke 23:32-43

This morning I would like to continue our series on the life of Jesus Christ. We are talking this morning about Jesus' last convert, the very last person that Jesus ever won to the kingdom prior to His death. And this individual is who we call the "thief on the cross."

One day, about 31 A.D., a terrible tragedy took place in Jerusalem. Well, actually, it wasn't a tragedy, was it, because if this had not happened, would you and I had been saved? We would have been lost, so, what some people consider a tragedy is actually a blessing. So, let's get into this.

We remember Calvary as the place of the cross. In former times Israel used stones to put people to death, however the Roman military used the cross. The Cross was basically an instrument of torture.

When a person died on the cross, there were many hours of agonizing, cursing, groaning, screaming. As the naked body, hanging from those iron nails, sagged lower and lower, breathing became more and more difficult. They became very thirsty, dehydrating in the hot sun. The cross was a horrible crime stopper. That's about what it was, because when you saw that, you didn't want to be the next victim.

About 2000 years ago, there were three crosses silhouetting that ugly skyline.

Now, we're going to talk about these three crosses.

1. > The Cross of Shame.

Luke 23:32,33. Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with Him (Jesus) to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified Him, along with the criminals--one on His right, the other on His left.

The first criminal blasphemed Jesus. How do we know that? Well, he was an evil, hardened man. Look at verse 39. The New King James Version says: And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on Him, saying, "If Thou be Christ, save Thyself and us." He railed on Him. And the word, "railed" I looked up in the Greek. Well, the word is "blasphemeo" which means blasphemed Jesus. The word is especially strong, which means the evil criminal blasphemed Jesus, he cursed Jesus, he loudly cursed Him and zealously swore at Jesus. This dying lawbreaker is bound to the cross, and here in the last moments of his life all he can think to do is curse the very person who could help him. Isn't that illogical? That's unbelievable. He was criticizing Jesus. His face was set. He was angry. He cursed Jesus. He had an attitude and no one could adjust it. Not even Jesus. He was lost. I think that your negative attitude just might cause you to lose eternal life. I think we ought to be sweet. We ought to be like Jesus Christ.

When you have one foot in the grave and the other foot on a banana peeling and Jesus is within inches of you you ought to make amends. You ought to make peace with your maker. He died within arm's length of the living Savior who had the keys of death and yet he died unchangeably lost.

And you are attending McDonald Road here this morning. You are very close to Jesus Christ right now, and yet some people probably will walk out of this place today lost. There's no need for that. You can be saved. You can be saved today. Like the good thief, I believe this individual, the bad thief, heard Jesus pray. He read the sign on Jesus' cross like the other thief. He saw Jesus hanging there, saw His face, how kind He was and yet he hung there and hardened his heart and died. He was unaffected.

I was out walking yesterday morning. I went up White Oak Mountain, back down to the creek, and the up a very strenuous trail and back to my house. And as I was walking down that mountain, the thought came to me. I want to see if you agree with this statement: "The greatest thing in the world is NOT Salvation." Would you agree with that? I don't believe it is. The greatest thing in the world is not salvation, but is the fact that I have ACCESS to Salvation, that I have access to Jesus. That's the greatest thing in the world. The first is sort of like having a big thick heavy catalog of everything you could possibly want in your entire life, but with no access to it. All you can do is look. You don't have access to it. There's no 800 number. There's no address. You can't have those things. The greatest thing in the world is having access to our salvation, having access to Jesus. That is like having a catalog of all the things you cloud ever desire, and it can all be yours, and the price is absolutely nothing. Even the delivery charges are paid. It's all free of charge. You can have any of it or all of it. You get it all by simply asking.

So, this robber was robbed. He was robbed of the greatest thing that he could have had. He didn't get it.

2. > The Cross of Submission

This is the cross of the good crook. There are good crooks you know. We have some good crooks in this church. (We have several families by the name of "Crook.") I love Don and Sylvia and their family. And there were good crooks in the Bible. The "good" thief was no stranger to Jesus. He knew Jesus, and how do we know this? Come over to Luke 23:39-41. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!"

But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence. We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong."

He knew Jesus. He had prior knowledge of the Savior. He knew that He was innocent. The good crook had a former experience with Jesus. Ellen G. White says in Desire of Ages. pp. 749-750, "This man was not a hardened criminal; he had been led astray by evil associations, but he was less guilty than many of those who stood beside the cross reviling the Savior. He had seen and heard Jesus... He called to mind all he heard of Jesus... The Holy Spirit illuminated his mind... In Jesus he saw the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world." He called on Jesus and he was saved. That's beautiful. That's how all of us are saved.

This good thief cried out: "Lord Remember me." This was actually a prayer. Quickly Jesus answered the prayer of the thief. Jesus said: "I tell you the truth today, you will be with Me in paradise."

Notice that Jesus did not promise that the thief would actually be in heaven that particular day because Jesus Himself slept in the tomb until Sunday. Jesus hadn't even gone there yet. If you read John 20:17, it says: "I have not yet returned to the Father." So He hadn't even gone there yet. Jesus is our great example of what happens when one dies. We all rest in their grave until the resurrection. We do not go immediately to heaven. After the resurrection we are taken to heaven. That's what happened to Jesus. We do not go immediately.

By sundown at the end of Friday, the two thieves were still alive themselves. Sometimes victims of crucifixions languished for days on the cross of torment. Right at sundown the soldiers came and broke their legs so they couldn't run away. Even the Jews did not want criminals to hang on the cross during Sabbath. Obviously the good crook did not go to heaven that day either. They were very much alive, but Jesus had already died.

The repentant thief was a blessing to our Savior. Have you ever thought how lonely Jesus must have been up there on that cross? It could be tough. For long agonizing hours all Jesus had heard were frenzied voices mocking Him the thief cursing Him. The soldiers gambling for His clothing, bad-mouthing Him, saying, "If You're the true Messiah, why don't You come down off of there? Where are all Your soldiers. If You're a king, where is Your army?" But the good thief called Him "Lord" and that must have been a blessing to Him.

Evil leaders might exhibit power over Jesus body, but they could not rob Jesus of His power to forgive the sins of a dying man. You know, our Savior is a forgiver. He's a professional forgiver. There on that cross, with His hands nailed fast, Jesus was not robbed of His power to forgive, because that person asked, "Would You remember me?" and Jesus said, "I will." It is Jesus' royal right to save to the uttermost all who come unto Him.

One of the great ironies of this experience is the fact that the Jews killed the only one who could possibly save them. They killed their Savior. Imagine killing the doctor who wants to help you. Imagine the only surgeon who can help you and you kill him. And He's the only Surgeon in the world. How stupid that would be! And yet, that's exactly what they did. The Jews were looking for the Messiah and they did not recognize Him even when they stared Him in the face. But a lawless thief knew Jesus!

The good thief hung within inches of Jesus. The closer we come to Jesus the greater the contrast between our failings and His perfection. By that close association he knew Jesus was divine.

There are a number of lessons from this experience, and I want to list several of them for you today.

#1 Salvation is fantastically simple.

It is not difficult to be saved. I don't care what all the books say, salvation is so easy: that good crook was saved simply by asking Jesus to save him. That's all! Romans 10:13 says: Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. This includes the worst sinner. This included the thief on the cross. It includes you. He asked in Faith. And actually that was a prayer. He believed that Jesus could save him even at the last moment. I believe he was sorry for the life of sin and truly repented for his sins. He trusted that Jesus would save him. This demonstrates that Salvation is very simple. Just ask and you will receive. It is unsophisticated. It is hard to be lost.

#2 No one is too bad to be saved.

Now, you can even be a thief. You could be a life-long thief. In fact, these two individuals were probably part of a trio of people of which Barabas was the leader. Barabas didn't get hung that day because Jesus took his place as the substitute. But these two criminals probably worked with Barabas. They were hung that day, and they were bad. But they were not too bad to be saved. If that thief can be saved, so can you. There is a great hymn in our hymnal, number 341 which is called, "To God Be the Glory." There's a phrase in that hymn that says, "the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus, a pardon receives." The vilest offender! It doesn't matter how wicked you are. You come to Jesus and He'll save you.

#3 If you ask Jesus to forgive your sin He will always do it.

If we ask Jesus to forgive us, what does He promise? I John 1:9 - If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. This is God making a promise through His word. If you sincerely ask God to forgive your sins and He will forgive you. Suppose you asked Him and He didn't do it? Then, God is a Liar. And God is not a liar. He is truth. So, every time you ask Him to forgive you, He's going to do it because He is not going to lie to you. He will forgive your sins if you ask Him sincerely.

#4 Personal salvation doesn't depend on a third party.

There was no priest there to officiate. There wasn't even a minister. There was no organization representing the thief and an attorney representing Jesus and trying to get these parties together. What you do to be saved depends on your personal direct relationship with Jesus Christ. Nobody else has to be involved. No middle man. There was nothing between him and His Savior.

#5 We are saved by grace.

Surely, this demonstrates grace. I am a firm believer in grace. Heaven is certainly not a reward for good deeds. This story brings this out. We might say to the good thief: Wait a minute! You can't live an entire life in sin and get the same reward that I worked a whole life-time to get. No way! Nobody is saved by their good works. Nobody is lost because of their lack of good works. What did the thief contribute to his salvation? Absolutely nothing.

He was saved by grace. The saved thief demonstrates that salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone. John 3:16 is validated. Salvation is faith plus nothing! No one ever did less to get saved than the good thief on the cross. On the other hand neither did anyone ever do more to be saved than the good thief on the cross.

I imagine modern fruit inspectors would banish this man from eternal life. They would say that he did not have enough fruit. But this story proves that he will be in heaven. And we might even think that way except for the precious truth of this story. #6 IT IS EASY TO BE SAVED

What did he have to do? It didn't cost him anything. It was very convenient. It couldn't have been more convenient for either thief. It would not have cost either of them a thing. What did they have to loose? One just yielded his life to Jesus. Is that hard to do? You, yourself can be saved that same way.

#7 It is NEVER TOO LATE

Never too late to seek and find the grace of God! You can be saved even on your death-bed. Is this a death-bed experience here? His bed was vertical. It didn't have any springs in the mattress. But it was a bed, a death bed. And he died on that death-bed, and he died a saved man. It is never too late for you to be saved. You are here today and if you make your decision today you can be saved today. The good thief did have a death-bed conversion. As long as there is life there is hope. You must make your decision before you die. That could be today, we don't know.

3 > THE CROSS OF SALVATION

This is the cross that provided salvation for the other two crosses. And each person, here today, is represented either by the cross of shame, or the cross of submission. Both thieves wrestled as they were bound to those crosses. But, Jesus submitted to His. He did not struggle. The manner of Jesus' death was typically reserved by the Romans for individuals who were nothing but the filthiest of scum bags. The most evil people were hung on crosses. That's why Jesus was hung there. But, unknowingly, they fulfilled Isaiah 53:12, which says, ....was numbered with the transgressors.

And, just as Jesus was placed in the middle of those two crosses, just so, He is place in the middle of a world mired in sin. Jesus is never finer than when He is surrounded by criminals, by thieves, by sinners, because that's who He came for. He came to save sinners. And here He was, with sinners on both sides, and He saved half of them. That's pretty good. We have a professional Savior.

Jesus was cast out upon the Jerusalem garbage dump, and yet, it did not limit Him fro using His last strength to minister to the dying needs of others.

I want you to come over to 2 Corinthians 5:21 (KJV). This tells us what Jesus did there that day. For he hath made Him to be sin for us, Who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. So, Jesus became sin for us. Jesus became a thief to save a thief. Jesus takes your sin and leaves you free of sin. That's exactly what Jesus does.

The third cross provided salvation for every individual in the world. And so, the third cross, Jesus' cross, enables you to choose your cross. Will yours be the cross of Shame or the cross of Submission? The whole world is represented by the two thieves on those two outside crosses. One represents those who will continue to ridicule Jesus despite His love. The other represents those who choose to put their faith in Jesus Christ. They believe that He undeservedly took the punishment for their personal sins. One was saved and the other lost.

Around the year 1860 a young couple got engaged. Their love was strong and they looked forward to their wedding day. Shortly after, the Civil War broke out. He was called to duty and he had to go off to battle. He wrote to his beloved faithfully. She treasured each letter from her future husband. She received many many letters. One day she received a letter in strange handwriting. With anxious hands she opened it and read some bad news. It seems that he had been in a terrible battle and both of his hands had been blown off. He had no hands. A friend of his had volunteered to write the letter. In it her future husband said that because his hands were both gone he would no longer be able to provide for her, he would not be able to earn the living he wanted for her. And he felt obligated to release her from the responsibility of their engagement. He would always love her but she was now free of her commitment and could marry another. Now she could marry anybody else she wanted. She was now free.

After she read that letter, she rushed down to the train station and she bought a ticket and traveled to hospital where he was being cared for. Hundreds of badly injured men were crowded in a makeshift hospital. After much searching she finally found him. Finally her eyes met his eyes. She rushed to him and flung her arms around him. She said, "Honey, I still love you. It's okay that you have no hands. My hands will be your hands. We will make it. I am going to marry you." And they were married and they had a very happy life.

Now, that demonstrates what Jesus did. Friends, we have been mortally injured not by the Civil War, but by sin. Jesus came down to this world looking for us just like she came to the hospital looking for him. Anything that was good about us is now gone, destroyed by sin. Our righteousness is totally missing. We are not able to live the life we want. Jesus found us and said, "My unimpaired righteousness will be your righteousness. With me you now have a future. I love you. All I have will be yours. And I want you to be my bride." Isn't' that a very similar thing? That's exactly what happens.

Friends, is your heart yearning to be like Jesus? Accept Jesus as your Savior. Your sins will be vanquished. Eternal life will be yours for zillions and zillions of to-morrows.

Hymn of Praise: #341, To God Be  the Glory
Scripture: Luke 23:40-43
Hymn of Response: #303, Beneath the Cross of Jesus

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