Greetings in the name of Jesus Christ, the risen and soon-coming King! We welcome you to our website, and, even more, we hope that we will be able to welcome you some day soon to one of our worship services. We also invite you to read the message below, that lays out some of the things we hold most dear and most important.
A Message for You: "Paradise Opened To A Hopeless Wretch"
“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.'” (Luke 23:38-43)
A cross—how familiar! Does a day go by when we don't see crosses on buildings or gravestones or hanging on necklaces, or when we don't hear someone saying that “all of us have a cross to bear”? Woe to us if, while our land and our language are flooded with crosses, we neglect what the Bible calls “the word of the cross.” This word of the cross is not a man-made symbol that gives people a vague sense of comfort, it is a word from God that both shakes and saves, divides and delivers: “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18) Do you know the word of the cross? Do you know it as the power of God? Or are you still among those who are perishing?
I wish to proclaim to you the word of the cross from the passage printed above, Luke 23:38-43. In this passage, we meet a criminal (a thief) and see the three ways that God dealt with him at the cross of Jesus Christ.
1. The fear of God closed the criminal's mouth.
I do not mean that this criminal didn't say anything. I mean that he went from joining a fellow criminal in hurling insults at Christ (see Matthew 27:44) to rebuking the first criminal and saying “Do you not fear God?” It was the fear of God that silenced his insults, and the fear of God by which he sought to silence his fellow criminal. One of the surest signs that a man doesn't know his place before God is when he boldly spouts ignorant words about God and to God: “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” (Romans 9:20)
So, in what way are we to refrain from answering back to God? By acknowledging before God the Judge, like this criminal did, without “if,” “and,” “but” or counter-accusation, that we deserve death as God's sentence of condemnation or damnation. As the criminal said, “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.”
Reader, do you agree with these words in your heart? Or is the secret thought of your heart, “Oh, I'm not as bad as they were”? Well then, I ask you: have you ever stolen anything? (Since Matthew 27:44 tells us that the two men were “thieves.”) Those who steal when they are young, who defraud employees of wages or benefits, who steal wages from employers by slacking off while on the clock, who damage the property of others and don't make restitution, who squander on their own pleasures the money that should buy their children's bread, who rob God by not giving him their first and best gifts through tithing (Malachi 3:6-12), and who in any other way love to take rather than to give – all of these are condemned by God's law as thieves, and deserve to die. You may never be convicted of robbery in a human court, but all of us have stolen in one way or another, and our sin will surely find us out before God the Creator. Knowing this, will you rail against God, or will you fear him?
2. The Spirit of God opened the criminal's eyes.
The Holy Spirit never shows his presence by making a person bark like a dog, but he always shows his presence by bringing a person to contradict firmly the world's opinion of Jesus Christ. A salmon shows amazing tenacity as it swims upstream to lay its eggs, but the Holy Spirit carried this criminal against an even stronger current by bringing him to call upon Jesus just when the world's hatred for Jesus was rushing down most fiercely. The mocking sign above Jesus' head said, in effect: “Some king we have here!” Both Pilate and the Jews hated to hear Jesus' claims to royal authority, because, while self-willed man may be able to call Jesus a “good teacher,” self-willed man hates to bow the knee to Jesus' authority by believing and obeying what he taught. Jesus' enemies rejoiced to see him bloodied and humiliated because it made them feel safe from his claim that they would see him coming on the clouds of heaven, enthroned as Lord and Judge. But even so, the Spirit caused this criminal to be of a different mind: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus' enemies consigned him to the shameful death of crucifixion by bringing false charges against him. So the Spirit brought this criminal to contradict the world's opinion of Christ in a second way by saying: “this man has done nothing wrong.” Perhaps this eyewitness was moved by the patience with which Jesus suffered unjust hatred. His words call us not only to see the presence of God the just Judge at that place of punishment (“Do you not fear God?”), but also that Jesus, suffering right next to him, had no sin (“has done nothing wrong”). In this truth lies the only salvation that there is for sinful men. Christ, the sinless one, suffered God's sentence of condemnation. He suffered because God laid on him the sins of all his people.
Further, the first criminal, the one who kept mocking Jesus, expressed the worldly opinion that Christ cannot save: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” In the pangs of death, the first criminal had a heart hardened against Christ, and sneered that Christ wasn't able to save. This is an example of how, when everything is stripped away, natural man is not God's friend but his enemy. But the blessed Spirit of God was at work in the other criminal, causing him to call out: “Jesus, remember me.” Remember me! These humble words put Christ's ability to save beyond question, and run out earnestly to fall upon his willingness to save. They imply: “Though now they call you No Salvation, your name will soon be proclaimed as the only salvation there is. So, Lord, look on me, a wretch, and save me!”
Reader, has the fear of God closed your proud mouth, and have your eyes also been opened by the Holy Spirit to see Jesus Christ, through humble tears, as Sovereign One, Sinless Sufferer, and Saving One?
3. The Son of God welcomed the criminal to paradise.
Jesus said: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” This is, first, a free, gracious welcome. The thief had no time to give alms to the poor to make up for what he had stolen. He didn't go to heaven because he made up for his sins. He didn't go to heaven because of himself at all! He went to heaven because of Christ and Christ's mighty words: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
It is also an immediate welcome. He says: “today.” Perhaps you have heard of purgatory, reincarnation, or soul sleep. Nonsense! Jesus Christ is mighty enough to say: “today you will be with me.” If he is mighty enough to take a man from the brink of hell to the gate of paradise, he is mighty enough to do so in an instant!
This is a welcome to keep company with Christ: “you will be with me.” What company do you love here on earth? Do you love the company of saved sinners and redeemed robbers in the church of Christ? Or are you most comfortable in godless company? Remember that the thing that makes paradise paradise is the near presence of Jesus Christ. For those (and only those) who love Christ's presence in the Word and sacraments and prayer, paradise will be unspeakably satisfying. Bountiful paradise is the place where thirsty, sin-humbled souls will at last come unhindered and uninterrupted to the Fountain of living waters, Jesus Christ.
Finally, this is a welcome to be proclaimed. What Christ did for the thief, he stands ready to do for every one who will call out for his mercy. Now, suppose you did a special favor that you didn't want to be asked to do again. You'd ask the one you did the favor for to keep quiet about it. But this is not what Christ has done! He has proclaimed to all the world what he did for the thief, and he proclaims it now to you. Will you call on him?