Luke 23:42

Sermon preached on September 14, 2014 by Laurence W. Veinott. © Copyright 2014. All rights reserved. Other sermons can be found at

Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

I sometimes find myself quite surprised by certain people who come to Christ. A few years ago I heard that the notorious serial Son of Sam killer, David Berkowitz, came to Christ in prison. In his killing spree in 1976 and 77 he murdered 6 people and wounded 7 others. But while he was in prison in 1987 a fellow inmate gave him a Bible and when Berkowitz read Psalm 34:6 he came to Christ.

"This poor man called,
and the LORD heard him;
he saved him out of all his troubles."

Not long after I heard of his conversion I saw an interview with him on TV and I was further surprised because his seemed to be a genuine conversion. He seemed to know and understand the gospel. Now I don't know if he still claims to be a Christian or not. When I was attending seminary I heard that the song writer Bob Dylan came to Christ. But later I heard that he renounced that and went on to other religions. So you can't always believe celebrity claims that they know Christ.

I'm currently reading a book called Mission at Nuremberg. It's about a U.S. Army Chaplain Henry Gerecke, who was called to minister to some of the Nazis who were on trial for war crimes after World War 2. Much of the first chapter is about Wilhelm Keitel, General Field Marshall, second only to Adolf Hitler in the Nazi military hierarchy. Keitel was hanged for war crimes. But that first chapter states that Keitel went to the gallows as a Christian. You see, Henry Gerecke took the assignment as a chaplain at Nuremberg was to present the gospel to these men. The book says,

"These were men who had spit on the notion of traditional Christianity while promoting an idea that a cleansed Germany would mean a better world and a more pure future. They had broken a contract with God, set down in the Ten Commandments, and Gerecke believed his duty as a Christian minister was to bring redemption to these souls, to save as many Nazis as he could before their executions."

The thing was, he was successful. Gerecke led some of the Nazis to Christ before they were executed.

How do you feel about that, about them coming to Christ? What do you think of Gerecke's mission? Should a Christian minister go to monsters like that with the gospel? I know that some professing Christians would say, "No." Or what about our church's prison and jail ministries? Should we be using some of our church's resources and time on those ministries?

The text before us is very helpful in this regard. It has many great lessons for us.

But before we get to the applications, I want to draw your attention to

how bad this criminal was.

Verse 32 refers to him as a 'criminal'. The word that Luke uses refers to a 'criminal' or an 'evil doer'. It denotes someone who 'commits gross misdeeds and serious crimes'. He's a 'good-for-nothing', an 'evildoer'. 2 Timothy 2:9 suggests that this is a type of person who needs to be chained. He's such a threat to peace and security that the only thing to do with him is put him in chains.

Matthew and Mark use a different Greek word to describe him and his comrade. They use a term that means 'bandit' or 'robber'. That's where the expression, 'the thief on the cross' comes from. He was no doubt a greedy and self-centered person. But that word also has a stronger meaning and it is sometimes used in the New Testament to refer to a 'revolutionary, insurrectionist, guerrilla'. So it is probable that the man was much more than a non-violent thief. He could have been a highway man who attacked people with violence and stole their money.

This seems to be confirmed by the fact that when he rebuked the other criminal, he admitted that he had committed a capital offense, an crime worthy of death. He said, (Luke 23:41)

"We are punished justly,
for we are getting
what our deeds deserve.
But this man has done nothing wrong."

In his attempts to rob people, he had probably beaten people senseless, like the victim in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Or perhaps he had even beaten someone to death. Whatever his crime, he not only admitted his guilt, but acknowledged that the authorities, in putting him to death, were giving him what he deserved.

But even leaving all that aside—consider what he did while he was hanging on the cross. In Mark's gospel we read, (Mark 15:27–32)

"They crucified two robbers with him,
one on his right and one on his left.
Those who passed by hurled insults
at him, shaking their heads and saying,
'So! You who are going to destroy
the temple and build it in three days,
come down from the cross and save yourself!'
In the same way the chief priests
and the teachers of the law
mocked him among themselves.
'He saved others,' they said,
'but he can't save himself!
Let this Christ, this King of Israel,
come down now from the cross,
that we may see and believe.'
Those crucified with him
also heaped insults on him."

Those crucified with him also heaped insults on Him. When Jesus was at His lowest, when He was bearing the sins of His people, when He was naked and exposed, when He had been abandoned by almost all, when He was bearing the wrath of the Father—what did this criminal do? He joined in the most horrible and vile work of Satan and heaped insults on Jesus. This criminal was one of the lowest of the low.

But does all this mean that Jesus didn't come to save him? Not at all. But here's the key.

In a certain sense these criminals on the cross represent us.

Jesus was put with them on purpose because they were like us. Isaiah 53:12 predicted that Jesus would be,

"numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many, and made
intercession for the transgressors."

Donald Macleod tells us that all three gospel accounts, (Christ Crucified, Understanding the Atonement, p. 38)

"stress the word 'with'; they were crucified along with Jesus… He [Jesus] had made himself notorious as the friend of tax collectors and sinners and repeatedly allowed himself to be compromised by associating with people of dubious reputation. But here at the cross the solidarity climaxes. He is not merely among his two co-accused. He is together with them; and he is is together with them specifically in their character as transgressors and criminals."

Macleod says of Jesus' connection with the criminals, (p. 38-39)

"It is not a matter of mere association or even, ultimately, of mere solidarity, as if he were just taking the position of a sinless one forced to endure a company of sinners. He identifies completely. He lets himself be reckoned as a sinner, and dealt with as a sinner; and not only by men, but by God. He has come to redeem sinners but the way he will redeem them is by taking their sins as his own and becoming accursed in their place (Gal. 3:13). By hanging in the middle, wrote Calvin, 'they gave Him first place as though he were the thieves' leader'. Luther, ever more graphic, put it even more strongly: 'He bore the person of a sinner and of a thief—and not of one but of all sinners and thieves… And all the prophets saw this, that Christ was to become the greatest thief, murderer, adulterer, robber, desecrator, blasphemer, etc., that has ever been anywhere in the world.' Here, on the cross, he not only bears, but is (2 Cor. 5:21) the sin of the world; and so here, in solemn divine equity, the sword falls."

We must never forget that as sinners we're all the same. Yes, some sinners are worse than others. But we're all sinners. We've all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We're all vile in God's sight. The wages of sin is death. We're all worthy of being cast into hell forever. We must never forget that in a very essential way, we're one with the worst of criminals. According to Ephesians 2, before God's grace came to them, the Ephesians were dead in trespasses and sins, by nature objects of God's wrath.

This means that we must not look down on sinners.

We must not be self-righteous. We must not be proud. We must not think that, in ourselves, we are any better than others. Any goodness in us is only because of God's grace. (1 Corinthians 4:7)

We must love sinners and point them to Christ. Sinners are the ones that Jesus came to save.

The second thing we see about this criminal on the cross is that

by God's grace he outshone many of Jesus' followers.

Here's my question for you—does he outshine you?

When Jesus was arrested, His disciples deserted Him. Peter denied Him. Only a few remained near Him when He was crucified. His mother was there. John was there, and a handful of others.

Not only that, but Jesus' death on the cross was a great blow to their faith. You'll remember the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. When Jesus met them their faces were downcast. They didn't recognize Him. They started to tell this supposed stranger about Jesus. They said,

"He was a prophet,
powerful in word and deed before God
and all the people.
The chief priests and our rulers handed him
over to be sentenced to death,
and they crucified him;
but we had hoped that he was the one
who was going to redeem Israel."

They were downcast. They 'had hoped' but their hope was disappointed. Their faith was for all intents and purposes, gone.

Consider Thomas. He knew that Jesus' tomb was empty. But he still didn't believe. Even after he heard reports that Jesus rose from the dead, even after the others told him that they saw the resurrected Christ—he refused to believe. It was only after He saw the resurrected Christ, when He saw His glory that he believed.

But consider this criminal on the cross.

What faith he had!

Donald Macleod writes, (Christ Crucified, Understanding the Atonement, p. 44)

"No-one ever again came to faith in such circumstances."

It's incredible that this criminal came to faith in Christ. It's remarkable that he came to his senses and saw Jesus for who He really was. Macleod continues, (p. 44)

"Here was a faith to see the glory of Jesus at its most hidden, stripped not only of divine majesty but of human dignity: helpless, battered, bloodied, mortal, derided. The cross had blown away the faith of the disciples and killed their hopes. But this man, at the lowest point of Jesus' kenosis, when the veil is thickest and the messianic identity most obscured, proclaims him king, and prays, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom' (Luke 23:42)"

Incredible. When Jesus was suffering on the cross—this criminal saw glory. At this point Satan was doing his best to humiliate, degrade, shame and debase Jesus. The passer-byers mocked Jesus. The chief priests and teachers of the law did the same.

As incredible as it seems—that at just that point this criminal believed. How could it be? He looked at Jesus and He believed. He looked at Jesus on the cross and he saw a King—the King of Kings. How could this be?

Thomas saw the resurrected glory of Jesus and he believed. Paul believed when Jesus spoke to him from heaven.

But this criminal, saw Jesus hanging on the cross, with all its shame and humiliation—and he believed. In his conversion, by God's grace, he outshines us all.

Thirdly, consider His approach to Jesus.

Consider his testimony after he was saved. He leaves so many behind. There's no pride in Him. What does he do here?

First, He acknowledges that Jesus is the Savior of the world.

The criminal addressed Jesus by name. He said,

"Jesus, remember me
when you come into your kingdom.'"

He knew the meaning of Jesus' name. In Matthew 1:21 the angel told Joseph what was going to happen to his fiancé. He said,

"She will give birth to a son,
and you are to give him the name Jesus,
because he will save
his people from their sins."

Jesus' name means Savior. He acknowledged before all that he was looking to Jesus for salvation. Just about everything else around Jesus was mockery—but this man rebukes the other criminal and acknowledges before all that He is looking to Jesus for salvation.

Not only that, but

he acknowledged before all that Jesus was the King of Glory.

He asked to be remembered when he came into his kingdom.

This is almost unbelievable. When there was no sign of Jesus' kingship in sight (except the Old Testament predictions of the suffering servant) this criminal speaks of Jesus' kingdom. He declares it before all. From his cross, while Jesus was on His cross, this criminal proclaims Jesus as King. He was not ashamed of Jesus.

This must have been a great help to Jesus.

In the Garden of Gethsemane an angel came and strengthened Jesus. (Luke 22:43) Here, on the cross, God sends this criminal to help Jesus.

What a job the Holy Spirit gave him to do—and how well he did it! This criminal recognized the glory of Jesus and he proclaimed it.

Now I ask you—how do you compare with this criminal?

Are you recognizing and proclaiming the glory of Jesus like you should?

In Romans 1:16 the apostle Paul said that he was not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus because it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes. This criminal was not ashamed of Jesus. He acknowledged Him boldly in the middle of what was almost universal mockery.

The time is very rapidly approaching in our society where Jesus and His teaching will be held in absolute contempt. If you don't reject Jesus' teaching—you're going to be labeled as a hatemonger, you may lose your job, your business.

Will you be willing to stand and acknowledge Jesus when He's not popular? Will you be ready to stand for Jesus and His teachings when it's openly mocked?

Over the ages many Christians have looked down on this criminal on the cross. But I ask you, how does your Christian life compare with his? How will your life compare when you find yourself in a situation like his—will you boldly stand for Jesus or will you be ashamed of the gospel?

Lastly, we see in our text

the great power of God's grace to save.

If I didn't know this story I would never have expected one of the criminals to come to faith. I never would have expected God's grace to work in one of them.

But it worked in him, in seemingly, the most unlikely place, in the most unlikely circumstances. Calvin says that not since the creation of the world has there been,

"a more remarkable and striking example of faith… A robber, who not only had not been educated in the school of Christ, but, by giving himself up to execrable murders, had endeavored to extinguish all sense of what was right, suddenly rises higher than all the apostles and the other disciples whom the Lord himself had taken so much pains to instruct; and not only so, but he adores Christ as a King while on the gallows, celebrates his kingdom in the midst of shocking and worse than revolting abasement, and declares him, when dying, to be the Author of life."

For Christians

this ought to give you great hope and confidence as you seek to point people to Christ.

God can give grace to sinners in the most unlikely circumstances. Don't underestimate God's power to save.

This also means that

we should be ready to accept those that truly go to Christ. 

It's okay to test new converts. There's wisdom in that.

But we need to be careful that we aren't like many in the church in Jerusalem. Acts 9:26 tells us that when Paul went there after his conversion, he tried to join the disciples, but they were afraid of him, not believing that he was really a disciple.

Is our congregation the place for former criminals? Should we accept them in our midst? There is no doubt about it.

If you're not a Christian, this shows you that God's mercy is for you.

Jesus can save the worst of sinners. He loves you in spite of your sin. You're not too bad for Jesus. You should see the glory of Jesus. You should understand that there is no one like Him. You should go to Jesus.