THE DYING THIEF
A sermon preached by Geoffrey Thomas of Aberystwyth, Wales, at a communion season in Inverness, Scotland.
The Scripture reading was Luke 23.19-43
Every one of you here has heard about the dying thief who hung alongside our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. It is one of the most
memorable incidents in the life of our Lord and it is, of course,
remembered that the dying thief was saved at the moment of his death. It is always quoted as a case of salvation at the eleventh hour. Indeed it is that, and I do not want to deride that concept. I was told by a good brother from Lewis a story which probably you know of a
man who was driving his horse and cart on a cliff top road on the island of Lewis and strayed with that horse and cart and fell off the edge of the cliff and as he was falling he cried to God for mercy.
“Twixt the saddle and the ground
I mercy sought and mercy found.”
That was something of his experience as he was falling – he asked God to save him. His fall was cushioned as he landed on sand, seaweed and bushes and he lived for many years adorning the Gospel, but the point he made was this, that, if he had landed on rocks and been killed, people would have said, “Oh! poor Donald, he perished in his sins and went to hell.” They would not have known that as he was falling and before he hit the ground he was crying to Christ to save him, and he found that mercy in a loving Saviour. We do not know in what state our loved ones die. We do not know what is going on in their hearts in those hours as they perhaps to us seem to be in a coma. We do not know what transactions are taking place. God knows. A dying thief was saved that no-one should despair but, one only, that no one should presume.
But there are a number of lessons we can learn from this great word to us:-
1. God is sovereign in saving sinners.
W. G. T. Shedd has a wonderful sermon whose title is “The Exercise of Mercy Optional with God,” from the text “He will have
mercy on whom He will have mercy.” We always remember that there were two criminals that were crucified together, one on the right and one on the left, both equally near Christ. Both saw and heard all that happened that unforgettable day – the six hours’
darkness, the prayer “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” They both heard the cries of Jesus from the cross, they were both dying men, both in acute pain, suspended by nails from those crosses. They were both alike, convicted criminals, both needed forgiveness, yet one died in his sins with no sense of guilt, blind to the Person of the Saviour who was alongside him, never pleading for mercy or one gesture of grace from the loving Saviour. He died as he lived, hard and impenitent and unbelieving. The other, he believed and cried to Jesus for mercy and was saved. Why is this? Why was one saved? Not because he was better. Why was one lost? Not because he was worse. Yet their destinies were as different as hell and heaven. It is a tremendous warning to us. Many here have trusted in the Lord Christ, have repented of their sins;
others have not. They have come to church, to the means of grace the same number of times, heard the Gospel preached, heard the Word that says, “Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as wool,” but one receives the Word and another rejects it. Look at Kings Saul and David; both had Samuel as their preacher, both had great privileges, both reigned for the same number of years, one went to heaven and the other went to hell. Look at two of the disciples of the Lord Christ, Judas and Peter. Both saw Lazarus raised, both heard the Sermon on the Mount; both were sinners catastrophically, one went to heaven and the other went to hell. Children from the same Christian home come under the same Gospel influence, are recipients of the same instruction and affection, one rejects and one believes. We cannot explain it. We can only say in the words of the Saviour, “I thank thee, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight.” How is it that two could come to a meeting like this and one know a surge of assurance in his heart that he indeed belongs to Jesus, another go away as indifferent as he came? We only know it is so. It is useless to argue. Salvation is of the Lord. It is of His grace from beginning to end; in its conception, continuance and consummation; it is all of grace. I am saying to you, sinner, don’t abuse His mercy. Don’t abuse His compassion. We are to use the means of grace God has given us, to heed the Word of God to do our souls lasting good for “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Don’t abuse His mercy; don’t presume upon His grace. One thief was saved, but one was lost.
2. The marks of a saving interest in Christ.
Again, this is something that is so often ignored. Thousands know of the dying thief but they fail to see that there are evidences and
marks that there was repentance and faith in the life of this man. For example:-
(a) There was concern for his companion’s condition. This is a mark of grace, those that are concerned for their friends and families yet in their sin. “Don’t you fear God?” he said to his friend as his friend cursed and railed on the Saviour. “Don’t you in these circumstances, absolutely wretched, soon to die, so godless a man, don’t you fear God?” He did not say, “Aren’t you afraid of men?” because what could men do any more to this man than they had done so cruelly to him already? There was nothing left to fear from the hands of men. “Don’t you fear God?” There is a God. He knew it – a God that we should come to with reverence and godly fear, a God who is a consuming fire, a God to whom we must give an account. Men and women, this is a moral universe. We live and move and have our being in God. The dying thief knew it and he feared that, above the condemnation of men, there was a far wider condemnation – a throne of perfect equity where every exigency. would be known, everything would be evaluated by the eyes of Omniscience. If only that man had seen it earlier how different his life would have been! But he sees it now and he is moved with compassion for his friend. “Fear God”, he says, “Fear God.” “Don’t you fear the living God?”
(b) Another mark of grace was that he fully acknowledged his sin. Â“We indeed justly.” We are punished justly. There is no attempt to bluster, to attempt to cover up, no attempt to say, “I am an innocent man.” He is open – looks at his life – looks at his past – looks at the chains now that went from the cross of judgment to the life of crime and debauchery, “I have sinned” he said. “We are justly condemned. We are getting what we deserve.” The man who acknowledges his sin may come to the Lord’s Table, for the Table is for sinners. “Two men went up to the temple to pray”, Jesus said, “one prayed with himself and thanked God for all he was. The other said, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus said that he went out of that place justified. There is no salvation without an acknowledgment of sin. Have you seen you are a sinner? You will never come to the Saviour unless you have seen your sin. You will remember how Rabbi Duncan said to the weeping woman who was hesitant to come to the Lord’s Table, “Take it” he said, “It’s for sinners.”
(c) Another mark of grace in this man is that he openly confessed that Jesus was the holy Lamb of God, that He was impeccable, that there was no sin in Him. “This Man” he said, “hath done nothing amiss.” There was no sin in his life. The centurion says later on
‘Certainly this was a righteous man.” When He turned the money changers’ tables over and made a whip of cords, He did no wrong. When He rebuked the Pharisees He did no wrong. When He made vine out of water He did no wrong. When He claimed to be the Christ, when He claimed pre-existence, when He claimed equality with God, “I and my Father are one,” He said no wrong. When He said He was the Bread from heaven, when He said He could give all who came to Him rest, He said no wrong. All His preaching, when He spoke of the wrath of God that abides on the children of disobedience, when He said that one day all the world would stand before Him and some would hear the most fearful words it is possible to hear, ‘Depart, ye cursed, into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels,’ He was saying no wrong. In all His life He was “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners.” This thief had seen it, the uniqueness, the impeccability of the spotless Lamb of God, “bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh,” yet without sin – the uniqueness of the glory of Christ, His glory as the Lamb of God who bears away the sin of the world.
(d) Another mark of grace is that he prayed to Him. God only is to be prayed to. We are not to pray to angels; we are not to pray to spirits. God only is to be prayed to. But this dying thief said, “Lord, remember me.” He prayed – he cried to Him. He asked Him to help him. He made Him the Object of his prayers. What is this mark of grace? It is that we look away from our sins to our Saviour Lord and we come to Him for His help and His comfort to be with us, to cleanse us and to renew us day by day. We pray to God through the Lord Jesus Christ.
(e) Another mark of grace is that he believed in Christ’s power and readiness to save sinners. “Lord, remember me,” he says. Speaking to this dying Man, this agonizing Man alongside him, “Lord,” he addresses Him “Lord, Jehovah”, he is saying, “Remember me.” There is life after death. Death is not annihilation; life goes on after death, “Remember me. Remember me!” The Lord would remember all that happened that day, that memorable day, the crucifixion, the mockeries, the taunts. He would never forget it. “Lord,” the thief prayed, “Remember me too,” he says, “especially when you come into your Kingdom.” He knew that this One would be given a Name that is above every name, that all authority in heaven and earth would be given to our Jesus, that He would be the King of kings and Lord of lords. ”Remember me,” he says, “when thou comest into thy kingdom.” So great a view he had of Christ! He believed in His power to save sinners.
(f) Another mark of grace is humility. “Remember me”. “Blessed
are the meek.” “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” “I am the chief of sinners but Jesus died for me.” “Remember me” – that’s all. It was not “Let me sit at Thy right hand in glory; let me reign with Thee.” Nothing of that. Just, “Don’t forget me, but smile on me. King Jesus, don’t forget me. As you superintend all the myriad hosts of angels and give them their daily orders and hold the rolling spheres in your hands, ineffably sublime Redeemer, as Head of all things and Head over the church, don’t forget me.” That was his prayer. I am saying to you, where a saving work is done in the life of a man, grace shows itself. There is no such thing as the power of grace without a change of life. No such thing as secret holiness – no such thing as repentance without marks. Thousands die every week ignorant of that, they fancy they have been saved because the dying thief was saved at last – if they say a prayer, if they repeat some formula. My friends, it is not so. There must be marks of a change, and the nearer death we come, the more evidently must our desires be focussed in Him, in our Saviour.
3. How did this man come to such a faith?
You think of that day as he walked behind the Lord Christ, how he saw the professional mourners wailing and weeping, and Jesus stopping and saying, “Weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, for the days that shall come to you.” The dignity of Christ at that time! How, when they were nailing Him to the cross He did not scream and curse but could pray, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The thief saw it; he heard it; he saw the sign above the cross on Jesus’ head there, “The King of the Jews” Â— the King”. He heard the taunts that men in disdain spat out, all of which contained so much truth, “If thou be the son of God.” “He saved others.” “He trusted in God that he would deliver him.” That was the One hanging alongside him, the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. All these broken fragments he gathers together as he hangs in his agony on the cross and the Spirit illuminates them and gives them coherence and pastoral blessing, saving power in his life, and he concludes, “This is the Lord, the One they are mocking, the appointed King.”
Oh, how much knowledge have you? How many sermons have you heard? What meetings you have been to! What explanations of Christ’s Gospel you have had! How He has been exalted before you! This man had none of these privileges; you sit amongst a whole worshipping community of those in whom Jesus dwells, those who have been washed, those who have been sanctified, those who have been justified, with their persuasive witness to you day after day and year after year. You have the whole counsel of God opened up before you so winsomely. This man had none of these privileges, but
oh how he used the privileges he had, and what a change was effected in him! Acknowledge, my friends, that we are without excuse. We are to take advantage of every opportunity that is given to us to improve it and mix it with faith. See, this man who had one opportunity in his life to speak a word for Jesus, one opportunity to witness to Him and he seized it. No one else in all the world was speaking a word of tenderness, of confidence in Jesus, save this man – it was his one opportunity and he took it.
4. See the amazing power and willingness of Christ to save sinners.
“Wherefore he is able to save to the uttermost all that come unto God by him,” and if you search all the Bible from Genesis to Revelation you will find scarcely a greater proof of that. You think of the time in which Jesus saved him. Our Lord was bearing our sin. He was at His greatest weakness. Our Lord was suffering the anathema and entering the darkness. Our Lord was surrounded by the bulls of Bashan (Psalm 22.12), He was taunted and torn. He was enduring the contradiction of sinners against Himself, was tasting the judgment that we deserved, was experiencing an alienated Father because of sin not His own, but yet, at that time of weakness, He heard the prayer of this man and He saved this man.
5. Salvation is all of grace
He heard this man – He saved this man – think, then, how much more does He now! Today He is exalted at the Father’s right hand, He is Head over the church. He determined that “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me.” How much more now should we believe in His saving power to change us. Consider the utter unworthiness of this man whom He did save. The world looked at him and the world said, “It’s trash!” the people of Jerusalem looked at him and said, “Well, he’s got what was coming to him. Remember how he lived – he’s nothing.” And they condemned him as a criminal with no compunction. His was not a life of usefulness that Christ might invest His gifts and graces in to plant churches and spread His Name abroad. There was nothing of that; He would never come down alive from that cross. Yet he was saved. This criminal was saved; he did receive mercy from God. Surely, my Friends, if you want proof that salvation is of grace and not according to our deservings for a life past or a life future, you see it in this life. He was nailed hand and foot. He could do nothing to earn salvation and yet Christ’s grace touched him. Salvation is of grace. He was not baptized and he did not come to the Lord’s Table. He repented of his sin and acknowledged Christ to be the heavenly Holy One. He cried to Him just that he might be remembered, and he went to heaven.
Christ never changes. The way of salvation never changes. HE LIVES whom the dying thief sought and found. The fountain is still open:-
“Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power
Till all the ransomed church of God
Be saved to sin no more.
The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day
And there have I though vile as he
Washed all my sins away.”
6. How near a believer is to glory.
“THIS DAY shalt thou be with me in paradise.” “Tomorrow,” Satan says. “Tomorrow; do it tomorrow; Tomorrow,” the world says, “We will think about it tomorrow.” “Tomorrow” the unbeliever says. “TODAY” Christ says. “NOW is the appointed time; NOW is the day of salvation.” The Only day we have, the only time we are guaranteed is now. TODAY! There is a body of divinity in that word “Today.” What a systematic theology in that word Â•’Today”. You can turn it two ways. You can turn it this way. From the very moment a man ventures in faith in Jesus Christ his soul is saved. He is as ready for heaven that moment as at the moment of his death. The dying thief was as ready for glory that moment as the Apostle Paul was after years of service and toil in the cause of the Gospel. The moment a man believes in Jesus Christ he is united to the Lord Jesus Christ. “For in him all the fulness of the Godhead dwells bodily and ye are complete in him.” He trusted in Christ and he was complete in Christ. Christ was “made unto him wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption.” He was complete. ‘TODAY shalt thou be with me in paradise.” That was the promise. Heaven does not depend on our lives; it depends on His life, not on our good works but on that GREAT WORK which Jesus achieved upon Golgotha.
“Not the labour of my hands
Can fulfil Thy law’s demands
Could my zeal no respite know
Could my tears for ever flow –
All for sin could not atone,
Thou must save and Thou alone.”
“TODAY” and he was ready.
Or, again, we can take it this way. “Today” was the day he became “absent from the body” and “present with the Lord.” That
day he was “presented faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy,” fully cleansed, fully washed from every sin. Every crime, even the most enormous, the most unspeakable, the most unthinkable, that which a man might feel in his terrible conscience as unforgettable when he comes into a congregation like this, saying to himself, “If only they knew what I’ve been; if only they knew what I have done, they would move away from me in horror.” But the blood of Christ is sufficient to pardon you, to cleanse you, to give you an entrance into His kingdom. The thief looked to Jesus and he was saved. He was ready for Paradise. No need to suffer further. Christ didn’t say, “Well, break your heart a little bit more; squeeze a few more tears out of that stony heart of yours, suffer a little longer on the cross.” He said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, today, today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” What authority! With what authority does Christ speak! Men and women, that is the salvation of the Bible! I feel some of you can scarcely believe it. That is the salvation of the Bible. It is a perfect salvation;
from the depths of sin Christ raises us to paradise. What the first Adam lost for us the last Adam regained – paradise restored. He has recovered it. It was ALL done THAT DAY and by Christ alone. WHAT A DAY! Sometimes you say. “What a day I have had!” What a day this man had had! What a day from its opening to its close. What a day from its morning to its night. That morning he breakfasted with the devil in this world. He dined with Christ on earth, and that night HE SUPPED WITH HIM IN GLORY. That morning he was a culprit found guilty before the bar of earth’s justice. That evening he stood before heaven’s bar acquitted, justified. That morning he went out of the gates of Jerusalem jeered and hooted at by the crowds that taunted him, never to return. That evening THE EVERLASTING DOORS WERE OPENED. He entered that heavenly Jerusalem never, never to leave that place again. That day it was all done – that glorious day in the life of this man!
O how wonderful this salvation is, my dear friends. It is not just for the glorious company of apostles and the noble army of martyrs, but it is for the Mary Magdalenes, and the Davids, and the Sauls of Tarsus, and the dying thief. Surely, if you cannot identify with the apostles and prophets you can identify with this man. Surely you can come to Christ this day, just as you are, without a plea, and fall into the outstretched welcoming arms of this Saviour who can take you and receive you, whoever you are, however bad the past has been. ‘The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanseth us from all sin.” ‘Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures. He was buried and he rose again from the dead according to the scriptures.” He will receive all
that the Father has given to Him. He will cast out none. Come then, to this loving Saviour, Prophet of His Word, Host of His Table, King of His Church, nearer to you than the air you breathe or the one sitting alongside you. He constrains you now by day to come as the dying thief came. Come, lift your heart to Him. It is an activity created by the Word of God, moved by the Spirit of God drawing you to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Prophet, Priest and King of all who come.May God bless His Word to us this day!