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Reign of Christ — Christ the King — Sunday is on November 20, 2022.

Readings for Year C can be found here.

The Gospel reading is as follows (emphases mine):

Luke 23:33-43

23:33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.

23:34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing.

23:35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”

23:36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine,

23:37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”

23:38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

23:39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

23:40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?

23:41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”

23:42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

23:43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Commentary comes from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Apologies in advance for another long post, but what our commentators have to say will open our eyes to the true depth of this reading.

John MacArthur says that the story of the penitent thief is found only in Luke’s Gospel:

The story of the penitent thief is not in Matthew, Mark or John.  It is only in Luke.  This is all we have.  And in a sense, as we look at verses 39 to 43 and consider this miraculous conversion of a thief hanging on a cross next to Jesus, we might conclude that this is a rather cryptic account Perhaps we would wish that Matthew had given us another look at it or Mark or both or John, but this is all we have …

we come to the conversion at Calvary, the story of the salvation of a crucified thief.  And as I said, as you first look at it, it seems a bit brief and perhaps not very revealing, but you will find by the time we’re done that it is anything but that.

MacArthur explains that our Lord’s crucifixion was set up to play out as a comedy for both Romans and Jews:

I understand that’s a stunning notion, that this is a comedy, but it is precisely that which was intended by the crucifiers.  To them, Jesus was an object of absolute ridicule.  As a king, he was laughable.  This whole thing was intended to be a mockery of the fact that he was a king.  He had no army.  He had no sovereignty over anything or any place.  He had meager and minimal followers.  He had conquered no one and nothing and delivered no one.  There was nothing about him that looked as if he was a massive power, but rather he was increasingly weaker and weaker and weaker And so the whole thing was so comedic they turned it into a kind of burlesque.  Here, those that are gathered around the cross are mocking, sneering and hurling abuse at Jesus with sarcasm.  They’re endeavoring to treat the Son of God with as much dishonor as they can muster, with as much disrespect and disdain and shame as they can possibly generate. 

Along with Judas’s betrayal a few days beforehand, this is one of history’s greatest sins. Both show how horrible spiritual blindness truly is:

Here is sin at its apex.  Here is sin at its ultimate.  Here is blasphemy at its pinnacle.  Mocking deity, sneering at the incarnate God, and with glib satisfaction piling sarcastic scorn on the Creator and the Redeemer – the true King; the true Messiah.  Sinners cannot to worse than this.  Nothing that sinners can do could more offend God than this.  Blasphemy can’t be worse than this.  We might ask that in light of the heinousness of this, maybe this is time for God to act.  We should be expecting a holy, righteous God to react to this kind of ultimate blasphemy by pouring out wrath and vengeance and fury on those who are perpetrating this on him …

Judgment will come 40 years after this in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.  Many, if not most of these people, gather today who are still alive 40 years later will perish in that judgment.  Many will die before that ever comes.  But doesn’t this seem like an undue patience?  Just how tolerant is holiness?  Just how patient is righteousness?  Just how enduring is divine mercy and grace?  If ever there seemed to be a time when God’s wrath would be justified if it came swiftly, this would be it.

Well, in a strange irony, His judgment did come swiftly at the cross, but it didn’t come on the crowd, it came on Jesus on behalf of those who blasphemed him.  The Old Testament is clear about blasphemy.  It says this in Leviticus 24:16, “Anybody who blasphemes my name shall die.”  It is a capital crime to blaspheme the name of God.  They are blasphemers.  They know that.  They’re content to blaspheme Him, to pronounce curses on Him, to heap abuse on Him.  That is exactly what they are doing.  In a perverted twist, however, they accuse him of being the blasphemer.  When earlier in his ministry Jesus demonstrated the power to forgive sin, Matthew 9, they said this man blasphemes.  You come to the end of Matthew – or toward the end of Matthew in chapter 26, Jesus says, “You’ve said it yourself, nevertheless I tell you that you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven.  And the high priest tore at his robes saying, “He has blasphemed.  What further need do we have of witnesses.  Behold, you have heard the blasphemy.  He is deserving of death.”  And they spit in his face and beat him with their fists and slapped him.

They are the blasphemers, but in a perverted twist, they make him into the blasphemer and they are the ones who think they’re upholding righteousness

MacArthur reminds us of God’s infinite patience:

When you run out of patience, God does not.  When you look, at something and think the patience of God must be exhausted because my patience would have been long ago exhausted, God’s is not.  And the answer is that God is far beyond us, infinitely beyond us, in how He thinks and how He acts.  The uniqueness of God is this: when He is massively offended and when He is relentlessly offended, He still comes to the offenders, and warning them of the judgment to come offers them forgiveness and mercy and grace and compassion and makes them His children and takes them to His holy heaven forever.  It is that God who is hanging on the cross.  That God whose patience is far beyond ours because His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts.  The stunning contrast at Calvary is the contrast between the merciless insults of the crowd and the merciful intersession of the Christ, and those are the two points I want you to look at.  The merciless insults of the crowd, verse 35.  We’re going to look at the merciless insults of the crowd.  The crowd is made up of four groups.  There’s the people, the leaders, the soldiers and the thieves and they all have the same response to Jesus.  They’re literally without sympathy.  They are heartless, cruel, brutal.

When the Romans — ‘they’ — came to the place that is called The Skull, or Golgotha, they crucified Jesus with the two criminals, one on His right and one on His left (verse 33).

Matthew Henry’s commentary says:

he was crucified at a place called Calvary, Kranion, the Greek name for Golgotha—the place of a skull: an ignominious place, to add to the reproach of his sufferings, but significant, for there he triumphed over death as it were upon his own dunghill. He was crucified. His hands and feet were nailed to the cross as it lay upon the ground, and it was then lifted up, and fastened into the earth, or into some socket made to receive it. This was a painful and shameful death above any other.

Our Lord’s place in the middle of the two men was significant:

he was crucified in the midst between two thieves, as if he had been the worst of the three. Thus he was not only treated as a transgressor, but numbered with them, the worst of them.

Jesus interceded to His Father asking Him to forgive them because they didn’t know what they were doing; the soldiers cast lots to divide His clothing (verse 34).

MacArthur says that casting lots for a criminal’s belongings was normal:

That’s standard procedure, by the way.  The executioners were given the right to keep the possessions, the final possessions of clothing and things of the people who were executed.  That was sort of a small job benefit, I guess, a perk.  Now there’s a little more detail on this back in John because John gives us some insight into exactly what the soldiers did.  In 19 John 23, “The soldiers, therefore, when they crucified Jesus, took his outer garments and made four parts.”  There would be four parts.  There would be four garments that a man would wear in that day.  There would be an outer cloak that you kept warm with, like a jacket, and you slept on and used as a blanket.  There would be shoes or sandals.  There would be a headpiece.  There would be a sash or a belt.  Four pieces. 

Psalm 22 prophesied this would happen:

We know that there were four Roman soldiers assigned to a crucifixion.  If you look in 12 Acts 4, you read about a squad of Romans.  It’s a quaternion made up of four In fact a full one was four units of four, so it’s very likely that there were four soldiers in a death squad That’s why the four garments could be divided one to each of the four, but there was also a tunic which would have been his regular garment and the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece, so they said let’s not tear it.  Let’s cast lots for it to decide whose it shall be.  That the scripture might be fulfilled they divided my outer garments among them and for my clothing they cast lots.  That, too, in Psalm 22. 

Out of the four groups of people there that MacArthur wants us to look at, we see the soldiers first:

We might expect cruelty out of Roman soldiers because they did this all the time. 

The people stood by watching, and the leaders scoffed at Jesus, saying that if He saved others, let Him save Himself if He is the Messiah of God, His Chosen One (verse 35).

Here Luke shows us the crowd and the leaders.

Remember that every Jew possible was in Jerusalem for the Passover, so it was a huge crowd.

Of them, MacArthur gives us something to think about:

these are the people, probably, who had been healed by Jesus of certain diseases.  These might be people who had had experiences of other miracles that Jesus had performed in the area of Judea and Jerusalem, and there were lots of them from, of all places, Galilee in the north.  There may have been, and surely were, people in the crowd who were fed among the 5,000 when Jesus made the food.  There were certainly people who knew well those who had been healed, maybe been given their hearing or their sight, or raised up to walk from a state of paralysis.  I mean wouldn’t we expect to find something sympathetic out of them and didn’t they hear Jesus teaching, and didn’t they experience the meekness and gentleness of Christ and the love of Christ that was so manifest in the beauty and magnificence of what he taught? 

But even the crowd is merciless.  You say, “Wait a minute.  All it says in that verse is the people stood by looking on.”  Well, that’s not all that can be said about the merciless crowd, I’m sorry to say.  This is a large crowd.  They’ve come from everywhere.  It’s Passover.  The city has swelled by hundreds of thousands of people and the crowd moving toward Calvary from the public trial early in the morning is growing and growing and growing, because Jesus is the most popular person in the country by far and he’s drawing a massive crowd that are now collected around the cross.  These are people who were there to hail him as the potential king on Monday when he came into the city.  They were the same people who were there to scream, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!” earlier in the day, and now they sort of appear to be exhausted, I guess, sort of blank stares from what Luke tells us.  But Matthew and Mark tell us more.  Matthew and Mark tell us what we need to know.  Matthew 27:39, “And those passing by, the milling crowd, were hurling abuse at him, wagging their heads, a gesture of taunting, and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself.  If you are the son of God, come down from the cross in the same way,” the priests, etc.

MacArthur thinks the leaders influenced the crowd:

Mark 15 verse 29, “And those passing by the milling crowd were hurling abuse at him saying, “Ha!” Wagging their heads, “You are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days.  Save yourself and come down from the cross.”  Again, in the same way which sorts out the rulers from the passing, milling crowd.  The crowd were in it.  They had been orchestrated by the leaders.  They’re easily seduced by their evil hearts of unbelief, easily seduced by the manipulation of their leaders.  They’d picked up the comedic game and they pour out the venomous sarcasm on Jesus.  They never do the right thing, this crowd.  They haven’t done the right thing all week.  Here they’re just vicious, merciless, to the merciful son of God.  It’s amazing.  It’s amazing.  This is the worst possible conduct by the people of Israel.  So the merciless crowd, then the merciless rulers – back to Luke 23:35, “And even the rulers were sneering at him.”  Of course they had orchestrated all of it, “Saying he has saved others, let him save himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One.”  Then they use to Messianic terms, The Christ of God, the Anointed; the word Messiah, and His Chosen One a Messianic title taken from Daniel chapter 9 The Old Testament expressions related to the Messiah are in reference – in general reference when they use the term the Christ of God.  The specific words, “His Chosen One” comes from Daniel 9 and definitely is a Messianic title. 

The soldiers joined in the mocking, offering him sour wine (verse 36) in His moment of greatest thirst and taunting Him, saying that if He were the King of the Jews, He should save Himself (verse 37).

Of the sour wine, Henry says it was a taunting invitation to drink with them:

They mocked him (v. 36, 37); they made sport with him, and made a jest of his sufferings; and when they were drinking sharp sour wine themselves, such as was generally allotted them, they triumphantly asked him if he would pledge them, or drink with them.

MacArthur discusses the Greek word for ‘taunt’ and the sour wine:

The actual Greek word empaiz is to taunt.  Inflicting even more pain on him to his face as he hangs in agony.  And in a mock act of obeisance and service to him as if he were a king, they offer him sour wine Now there are a couple of occasions that are clearly identified when Christ was crucified in which he was offered something to drink.  The first one was when they got him to the place to be crucified, you remember they offered him a drink that had a sedative in it, that would probably be used to sedate the person a little bit so it would be easier to nail him to the cross and he wouldn’t fight And Jesus refused that, remember? 

And then when he comes to the very end of his dying, six hours later, at the very end, at 3:00 in the afternoon when he’s about to die, he says, “I’m thirsty,” and they lift up to him a drink on a sponge on the end of a stick.  This seems to me to be something different from both of those.  This seems to me to be part of the game they were playing.  This is certainly not their giving him the wine in response to his asking.  This does not appear to be the sedative because he’s already there and the mockery is already full scale.  It seems to me that they are offering him sour wine and saying at the same time, if you’re the King of the Jews, save yourself.  It’s a pretend act of obeisance, as if they were bringing royal wine to the king.  The mockery just reaches ultimate proportions.  Roman soldiers drank a cheap form of wine.  They offered it to him, mimicking the rulers, mimicking the people, spewing out the same taunts.

MacArthur looks at Matthew’s account and prophecies from the Old Testament:

According to Matthew’s account, Matthew 27:42, “He saved others, he can’t save himself.  He is the King of Israel.  Let him now come down from the cross and we’ll all believe him.  He trusts in God, let Him deliver him now if he is taking pleasure in him, for he said, “I am the son of God.”  You know, they say these things and they just have no idea what they’re saying.  Listen to this.  Psalm 22 looks at the cross of Christ.  It’s prophecy.  It starts out this way.  Here’s the beginning of 22 Psalm, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Does that sound familiar?  The very words of Jesus on the cross. But go down to verse seven, 22nd Psalm 7, “A reproach of men despised by the people, all who see me sneer at me.  They separate with the lip.  They wag the head.”  That’s exactly what they did.  “Saying commit yourself to the Lord.  Let Him deliver him. Let Him rescue him because he delights in him.”  All that sarcasm was predicted in the Psalm.  They fulfilled it to the letter. 

They knew about the title of the Chosen One, because Jesus had applied it to Himself during His ministry:

… you can go back to the ninth chapter of Luke and in verses 20 and 35 you will see that Jesus did take the title The Christ of God and he did take the title His Chosen One.  They knew he claimed it.

Paul said that the Jews would find Jesus to be a stumbling block and the Gentiles would find Him foolish, things that are still true today. MacArthur addresses that and dying on a tree, the ultimate curse for a Jew:

Remember, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1 that a crucified Messiah is to a Jew a stumbling block, and of course to the gentile, foolishnessThey thought of someone hanging on a tree according to 21 Deuteronomy 23 as cursed by God and Jesus was cursed by God, and so they heap on him all the scorn of this notion that he is the true Messiah and King that they’ve been waiting for.  How could that possibly be true?  It’s absurd.  The leaders orchestrate this and egg on the mindless crowd.  Little did they know, as I said, that he was being cursed by God That was true.  Further, 53 Isaiah 4 says, “He was smitten by God and afflicted,” and verse 10 says, “The Lord was pleased to crush him, putting him to death.”  Paul looks back on that and said he was made a curse for us But it was all nonsense to the people. 

Henry says this mocking of Jesus was a moment of unity between Roman and Jew:

… they said, If thou be the king of the Jews, save thyself; for, as the Jews prosecuted him under the notion of a pretended Messiah, so the Romans under the notion of a pretended king.

There was an inscription over Jesus: ‘This is the King of the Jews’ (verse 38).

Although Luke doesn’t say so, it was written in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Our commentators place great emphasis on it being in those three languages.

Henry says that it was part of God’s plan to spread the Gospel:

That the superscription over his head, setting forth his crime, was, This is the King of the Jews, v. 38. He is put to death for pretending to be the king of the Jews; so they meant it; but God intended it to be a declaration of what he really was, notwithstanding his present disgrace: he is the king of the Jews, the king of the church, and his cross is the way to his crown. This was written in those that were called the three learned languages, Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew, for those are best learned that have learned Christ. It was written in these three languages that it might be known and read of all men; but God designed by it to signify that the gospel of Christ should be preached to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem, and be read in all languages. The Gentile philosophy made the Greek tongue famous, the Roman laws and government made the Latin tongue so, and the Hebrew excelled them all for the sake of the Old Testament. In these three languages is Jesus Christ proclaimed king. Young scholars, that are taking pains at school to make themselves masters of these three languages, should aim at this, that in the use of them they may increase their acquaintance with Christ.

MacArthur explains why Pontius Pilate wanted the inscription to read just that:

We know historically that when people were crucified, their crime was posted and since Jesus committed no crime there could be no crime posted over him So Pilate decided what was going to go on the sign Pilate, 19 John 19, Pilate wrote an inscription and put it on the cross.  This was Pilate’s thing and this is what it said, “Jesus, the Nazarene” or Jesus of Nazareth, “The King of the Jews.”  If you combine Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, it actually says, “This is Jesus of Nazareth, The King of the Jews.”  It was all placarded there.  Well, therefore this inscription many of the Jews read for the place Jesus was crucified was near the city, again reason for the huge crowd.  It was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek.  Pilate wanted everybody to know it and so the chief priests and the Jews were saying to Pilate, “Do not write the King of the Jews, but that he said, “I am King of the Jews.”  Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”  Pilate wouldn’t change it because this is Pilate’s way to mock them.  They had mocked him.  They had backed him into the proverbial corner and blackmailed him into a executing a man he knew was innocent.  Even his wife said wash your hands of this innocent man.  Pilate said multiple times, “I find no fault in him.”  Herod found no crime.  And Pilate had been made to look like a fool and he wasn’t going to leave it at that, so he wanted to turn the tables and make them look like fools.  It was Pilate’s little joke.  This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.  They said take that down and put up he said he’s the King of the Jews and he said what I have written I have written.  So you have the people mocking Jesus and Pilate mocking the people.

Then we meet the last group, the two criminals on crosses next to Jesus.

One of them also joined in the mocking, saying Jesus that, if He were the Messiah, He should save Himself — and them (verse 39).

MacArthur tells us that in Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts, both thieves had been mocking our Lord:

One of the thieves, only one is quoted by Luke, but Matthew and Mark tell us the rest of the story.  Here’s what Matthew says, 27 Matthew 44, “The robbers were also insulting him with the same words,” both of them; plural.  15 Mark 32, “Those who were crucified with him were also insulting him.”  They both joined in; the whole crowd, all the rulers, all the soldiers, both thieves.  All Luke does is record for us what one of the two said, but they were both involved.  “Are you not the Christ?” again with scorn and sarcasm, “Save yourself and us.” 

The silent thief rebuked the other, asking him if he did not fear God, for both were under the same sentence of condemnation (verse 40).

The penitent thief told his companion that both of them were justly condemned but that ‘this man’ — Jesus — had done nothing wrong (verse 41).

Henry points to divine grace in the spiritual transformation of the penitent thief:

2. He owns that he deserves what was done to him: We indeed justly. It is probable that they both suffered for one and the same crime, and therefore he spoke with the more assurance, We received the due reward of our deeds. This magnifies divine grace, as acting in a distinguishing way. These two have been comrades in sin and suffering, and yet one is saved and the other perishes; two that had gone together all along hitherto, and yet now one taken and the other left. He does not say, Thou indeed justly, but We. Note, True penitents acknowledge the justice of God in all the punishments of their sin. God has done right, but we have done wickedly. 3. He believes Christ to have suffered wrongfully. Though he was condemned in two courts, and run upon as if he had been the worst of malefactors, yet this penitent thief is convinced, by his conduct in his sufferings, that he has done nothing amiss, ouden atoponnothing absurd, or unbecoming his character. The chief priests would have him crucified between the malefactors, as one of them; but this thief has more sense than they, and owns he is not one of them. Whether he had before heard of Christ and of his wonderous works does not appear, but the Spirit of grace enlightened him with this knowledge, and enabled him to say, This man has done nothing amiss.

MacArthur describes what happened to the penitent thief physically and spiritually:

As the hours passed on the cross, one of the two most thoroughly degenerate people on the mountain, at the scene, a man devoted to violent robbery, a wicked criminal, has a massive transformation.  It is shocking; 180 degrees.  His taunting goes silent and while his body is in horrible trauma and agony, the unparalleled suffering of crucifixion, his mind might be assumed to go foggy as he tries to deal with the pain.  And as some kind of shock would set in, just to protect him from agonies that would be totally unbearable, and we know the body has the capacity to send us into shock in order to mitigate those kinds of excruciating experiences, but in the moment of the worst imaginable kind of agony, his mind becomes crystal clear with a clarity and perception of reality and truth that he’d never experienced in his life.  With a clarity and a perception of truth and reality that he hadn’t experienced a moment before.  Something has happened.  All of a sudden, he turns to his friend and rebukes him for doing what he had just been doing.  What has happened?

I’ll tell you what has happened.  A divine, sovereign miracle has happened.  There is no other explanation.  You want a parallel to this?  Paul on the Damascus Road.  That’s the best parallel.  His thoughts of Jesus are thoughts of hate.  His thoughts toward those who confess the name of Jesus are thoughts of persecution and execution.  Paul has papers.  He’s on his way to Damascus to persecute and execute those who named the name of Christ.  And while he’s on his way with his papers in his hand, God invades his life, slams him to the dirt, blinds him and saves him That’s how salvation works, folks.  It is a sovereign miracle.  Not always that dramatic, but sometimes that dramatic

The penitent thief is a form of the Prodigal Son:

If you want to connect this with somebody else, this man would be the prodigal This is a wicked man, but all of a sudden in the moment he is dramatically transformed and it becomes immediately evident what has happened.  He goes from blaspheming Jesus to being horrified at the other criminal blaspheming Jesus.  His whole perception of how you treat Jesus is completely changed and that’s where the story begins The other criminal has had no such change, hanging there hurling abuse at Jesus with the same mocking sarcasm, “Are you not the Christ?  Save yourself and us.”  It must have shocked him to hear from the other side of Jesus, his friend, verse 40, who answered and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God since you’re under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we, indeed, justly for we’re receiving what we deserve for our deeds.  But this man has done nothing wrong.”  This must have been a shock to the other thief who was hurling the abuse.  What happened to you?  What happened to you since you were nailed up there?  The transformed man finds the taunts coming out of the mouth of his companion criminal repulsive to him and frightening to him and they had just come out of his mouth.  What this man says is the evidence of his changed heart. Salvation is a divine miracle and it manifests itself There’s a lot more here than you might think. 

First of all, he becomes very, very aware of God and the fear of God Then he openly acknowledges his own sin Then he confesses the sinlessness of Christ and affirms his messiah-ship and his savior-hood It’s an amazing thing.  And all of these are responses to the miraculous sovereign work of the spirit of God on his dark heart.  This is the light of the glorious gospel of Christ shining in the midst of the darkness and dispelling it.  I want to sort of unpack those elements that are the manifest evidences that God has done the work of transformation.  The other sinner, no fear of God, no fear of judgment, no sense of sinfulness, no sense of justice, no sense of guilt, no desire for forgiveness, no longing for righteousness, no desire for reconciliation.  And the thief who has been transformed confronts that tragic condition, which moments before had been his own condition.  He can’t understand it any more.  In a moment of time he went from being a part of it to not being able to comprehend it.  How can you act like that?  How can you talk like that?  Don’t you fear God?  Don’t you know you’re getting what you deserve?  Don’t you know this man is righteous?  What a transformation.  Let’s look a little more closely at it.

While the one criminal is hurling abuse at Jesus, the other answered and rebuking him said – rebuking is a very strong word Epitima He said, “Do you not even fear God?”  Let me tell you the first evidence that God is doing the work of conversion:  the fear of God.  The fear of God.  If someone is converted to Christ, if someone is regenerate and someone is born again, made new, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17 he becomes a new creature, old things pass away and all things become new.  Boy, do we see that here.  And the first thing you see in a real conversion is a heightened awareness that God is a threat.  To be afraid of God, literally to fear God.  He really is not seeking someone to get him off the cross.  He’s not trying to find someone who can save him from physical death.  He wants to make sure he is saved from divine judgment.  His problem is not really what’s happening to him on the earth, it’s what’s going to happen to him when he comes to the throne of God.  He’s a Jew, no doubt, raised to know the laws of God, to understand God – God’s holiness, God’s law, obedience to God’s law.  He is a violator of God’s law.  He is an open violator of God’s law.  He is a known violator of God’s law.  He is a tried and proven violator of God’s law and he’s dying a death that is just and he says it.  And the law of men was a reflection of the law of God, certainly in Israel, and so he knows that if this is what men to do him for breaking the law of God, what in the world is God going to do to me?  All of a sudden he has clarity on what he had learned about the law and guilt and sin and judgment.  He knew he was a violator.  He was internally convicted by the work of the Holy Spirit, to be aware that what he was getting from a human judge was only a small sampling of what he was going to get from a divine judge.  And to add to his guilt, which put him on the cross, you can add that he had been blaspheming the Messiah and he now knows it, producing an even greater guilt From this place of clarity he can’t even imagine that he did that, that he said what he said to Jesus and he can’t understand how his friend can say that.  He says in verse 40, “Do you not even fear God since you’re under the same sentence of condemnation?”  They’re two of a kind.  Look, we’re getting exactly what we deserve.  Don’t you have a fear of what’s going to happen when we wind up before God?  As Jesus said in Luke 12:4-5, “I don’t fear those who destroy the body, but fear him who destroys both soul and body in hell.”  I will tell you this, and you need to remember this, Romans 3:18 says this when it defines the inherent nature of fallen man and his sinfulness, “there’s none righteous, no not one, there’s none that understand, none that is good,” etc.  That text from verse 10 of Romans 3 to verse 18, ends in verse 18 with this statement:  “There is no fear of God in their eyes.”  It is characteristic of the unregenerate not to fear God.  This is a typical unregenerate comment, “I’ve lived a pretty good life.  Certainly God will take me to heaven.”  Like the Jews in Romans 10 who didn’t understand the righteousness of God.  The sinner does not live under the fear of God.  He must be brought under the fear of God by the convicting power of God.  This thief who is still hurling abuse at Jesus has no fear of God like all other sinners.  But the sinner who comes to salvation has been brought by the power of the Spirit of God to a deadly fear of divine judgment And friends, as we communicate the gospel with sinners, you can’t hold back that reality.  The gospel is not telling sinners that Jesus will make them happy or Jesus will give them a better life or Jesus will fix up the pain and bring fulfillment and all of that.  The message of salvation is you are a violator of God’s law and you are headed for eternal punishment under the wrath of God. You’d better fear God.  That’s the message.  And when you see a real conversion, you see this and it’s reminiscent, isn’t it, of Luke 18.  What is the public doing as he pours his head down and looks at the ground and pounds his breast saying, “Lord, be” – what – “merciful to me, a sinner.”  Don’t give me justice.  Don’t give me judgment … 

… All of a sudden, he had crystal clarity in his mind on the fact that he was going to stand before God as a sinner with nothing that could rescue him.  That’s the first evidence of a work of salvation in the heart.  The second one is a sense of one’s sinfulness.  They go together.  The fear of God coupled with a sense of one’s guilt.  Verse 41, we indeed, justly, we’re receiving what we deserve for our deeds.  He says I’m a lawbreaker.  I know that.  It’s a true assessment of his condition.  Like the prodigal, who in getting down with the pigs and trying to eat and be on the brink of death, he says – and Jesus told the story in Luke 15 – he came to his senses That’s where true repentance begins, when you come to your senses.  He’s guilty, he’s aware of his sinfulness, he’s in a sense saying I am a sinner.  I know I am a sinner.  I am receiving what I deserve for my deeds.  This is the attitude of a true repenter.  He understands that if justice is operating in his life, then he is going to get exactly what he’s getting.  No excuses.  He’s not saying I was led astray and there were evil influences in my life.  I was molested when I was four or whatever it might be.  He’s saying look, we’re receiving exactly what we deserve for our deeds.  Justice is operating and it will operate not only in the human world, in the world of men, but it will operate in God’s realm as well.  Spiritual reality makes clear that in spite of the system of Judaism teaching salvation by works, salvation by self effort, salvation by ceremony, etc., the true convert pleads nothing but confesses his utter guilt and absolute bankruptcy.  He has nothing to offer God; nothing to commend himself.  Like the prodigal he comes back stinking and dying.  He needs mercy, he needs grace and he knows it He’s an unworthy sinner.  These are the evidences of a saving work of God He needs mercy and it’s never been this clear.  By the way, sin never becomes as clear to the sinner as when he’s in the presence of righteousness.  Like Isaiah, who in the presence of God, who was holy, holy, holy, said, “damn me, for I am a man of unclean lips.”  He had a clear perception of the judgment of God which he was deserving and a clear perception of his great guilt. 

There’s a third element that becomes in evidence for us of the work of God in his heart and that is that he believed in Christ.  He believed in Christ.  We talk about two things that make up a real conversion repentance under the fear of divine wrath and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and we see that.  The things that he says about Christ, though brief, are really quite stunning.  The end of verse 41 he does what the sinner must do.  He compares himself with the perfection of Christ.  “We’re getting exactly what we deserve for our deeds.  But this man has done nothing wrong.”  Here the story moves from an assessment of his own condition to an assessment of Jesus Christ That’s what happens in a true conversion.  And he goes beyond saying Jesus isn’t guilty of the crime for which he’s being crucified to saying something far broader than that.  He has done nothing wrong.  I don’t know how much he knew about all the attempts to try and find a crime for which they could legitimately crucify Christ and they never could find one.  I don’t know what exposure he had to Christ.  I don’t know what he heard other people say about the perfections of Jesus Christ, but our Lord had been on display for three years with all of his perfections and no one had ever been able to lay any legitimate charge against him.  He is given, by the power of the Spirit of God, clarity to understand that he is hanging on a cross as a sinner who is getting what he deserves next to someone who is righteous and is getting what he doesn’t deserve.  He believes, then, in the righteousness of Christ. 

The repentant thief asks Jesus — by name — to remember him when He comes into his kingdom (verse 42).

It’s a highly humble request.

Henry also says the request showed that the man believed in the righteousness of Christ:

1. Observe his faith in this prayerChrist was now in the depth of disgrace, deserted by his own disciples, reviled by his own nation, suffering as a pretender, and not delivered by his Father He made this profession before those prodigies happened which put honour upon his sufferings, and which startled the centurion; yet verily we have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. He believed another life after this, and desired to be happy in that life, not as the other thief, to be saved from the cross, but to be well provided for when the cross had done its worst. 2. Observe his humility in this prayer. All his request is, Lord, remember me. He does not pray, Lord, prefer me (as they did, Matt 20 21), though, having the honour as none of the disciples had to drink of Christ’s cup and to be baptized with his baptism either on his right hand or on his left in his sufferings when his own disciples had deserted him he might have had some colour to ask as they did to sit on his right hand and on his left in his kingdom. Acquaintance in sufferings has sometimes gained such a point, Jer 52 31, 32. But he is far from the thought of it. All he begs is, Lord, remember me, referring himself to Christ in what way to remember him. It is a request like that of Joseph to the chief butler, Think on me (Gen 40 14), and it sped better; the chief butler forgot Joseph, but Christ remembered this thief. 3. There is an air of importunity and fervency in this prayer. He does, as it were, breathe out his soul in it: Lord, remember me, and I have enough; I desire no more; into thy hands I commit my case.” Note, To be remembered by Christ, now that he is in his kingdom, is what we should earnestly desire and pray for, and it will be enough to secure our welfare living and dying. Christ is in his kingdom, interceding. “Lord, remember me, and intercede for me.” He is there ruling. “Lord, remember me, and rule in me by thy Spirit.” He is there preparing places for those that are his. “Lord, remember me, and prepare a place for me; remember me at death, remember me in the resurrection. See Job 14 13.

MacArthur looks at the thief’s calling Jesus by name:

“Jesus, yeshua.”  What does that mean?  Jehovah saves.  “We shall call him Jesus for he will save his people from their sins,” Matthew 1:21.  Yeshua.  He recognizes Jesus as righteous.  He recognizes Jesus as a source of forgiveness and grace and mercy.  He recognizes that Jesus is so merciful and gracious that he’s not even holding the sin of these people against them, but rather desirous of their forgiveness.  And he sees, I think, all of this with clarity given only by the spirit of God who drew, perhaps out of his background, perhaps out of conversations – who knows where it came from – to focus the clarity because he had to know the truth about Christ.  Then when he says, “Jesus,” there’s a lot in that word.  He recognizes Jesus as the Savior.  How do you know that?  Why would he then ask him to remember him when he comes into his kingdom unless he thought he was the one who could save him?  He doesn’t say to him, “Dear sir, could you find somebody that could save me.”  He doesn’t say, “Could you connect with whoever’s in charge of saving people like me?”  He says, “Jesus.  Yeshua.”  Save me.  Remember.  More than a thought.  We think about remember, it’s a hazy, foggy kind of thing.  That’s not what he’s talking about.  Much, much more than that.  It’s a plea of a broken penitent, an unworthy sinner, for grace and forgiveness.  And what he’s really saying is save me from the judgment of God.  Save me from what I deserve.  Forgive me.  You’ve prayed it.  Can I be one of those that’s in answer to your prayer? 

And then I love this.  Boy, he’s got a pretty comprehensive Christology because he says, “Remember me when you come in your kingdom.”  He’s got the Old Testament eschatology.  What did the Old Testament teach?  That the Messiah would come in the end of the age, gloriously, and establish a kingdom, right, fulfilling all the promises to Abraham, all the promises to David and fulfilling all the reiterated promises of the Old Testament that are rehearsed again and again by the prophets, including the new covenant salvation to Israel, and that there would be a kingdom established on earth that’s defined and described in great detail in the Old Testament …  Nobody survived crucifixion, so he also believed that Jesus would die and what, rise again and bring his kingdom.  That’s pretty good Christology.  That’s exactly what he was saying.  Remember me when you come in your kingdom.  He is saying this isn’t the end of you. Like the Centurion, remember, who says surely this is the son of God He’s convinced.

Jesus replied, beginning with ‘Truly I tell you’ — meaning emphatically and sincerely — that the repentant thief would be that day, with Him, in Paradise (verse 43).

Paradise was the third of the heavens referred to in that era. It meant the highest heaven.

MacArthur discusses our Lord’s reply and promise:

Did he have a right to be with Christ?  Are you kidding me?  With me?  Today.  What had he done to earn it?  Nothing.  He’d be dead before he could do anything.  This is grace, isn’t it?  This is the father kissing the son.  This is full reconciliation; instantaneous.  Today.  Paradise, paradeisos, an old Persian word for garden.  It’s a synonym for heaven.  In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul says in verse two, “I was called up to the third heaven.”  And in verse four he says he was called up to paradise.  Same thing.  Third heaven, first heaven, atmospheric, second heaven, celestial, third heaven the abode of God.  That’s paradise.  Or in relation to seven, Jesus says, “To him who overcomes I will grant the tree of life which is in the paradise of God.”  If you turn to Revelation 21 and 22, the tree of life is in heaven.  So he’s not saying anything but you’re going to be with me in heaven today.  There’s no waiting place.  There’s no transitional place.  Absent from the body, present with the Lord, to depart and be with Christ.  If that is not the great illustration of grace I don’t know what is.  This is a man whose whole life qualified him for hell.  And in one moment a sovereign God swept down, gave him complete clarity on himself and on Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit rescued him from divine judgment and that same day met him in heaven and fellowshipped with him

Henry has this analysis:

1. Christ here lets us know that he was going to paradise himself, to hades—the invisible world. His human soul was removing to the place of separate souls; not to the place of the damned, but to paradise, the place of the blessed. By this he assures us that his satisfaction was accepted, and the Father was well pleased in him, else he had not gone to paradise; that was the beginning of the joy set before him, with the prospect of which he comforted himself. He went by the cross to the crown, and we must not think of going any other way, or of being perfected but by sufferings. 2. He lets all penitent believers know that when they die they shall go to be with him there. He was now, as a priest, purchasing this happiness for them, and is ready, as a king, to confer it upon them when they are prepared and made ready for it. See here how the happiness of heaven is set forth to us. (1.) It is paradise, a garden of pleasure, the paradise of God (Rev 2 7), alluding to the garden of Eden, in which our first parents were placed when they were innocent. In the second Adam we are restored to all we lost in the first Adam, and more, to a heavenly paradise instead of an earthly one. (2.) It is being with Christ there. That is the happiness of heaven, to see Christ, and sit with him, and share in his glory, John 17 24. (3.) It is immediate upon death: This day shalt thou be with me, to-night, before to-morrow. Thou souls of the faithful, after they are delivered from the burden of the flesh, immediately are in joy and felicity; the spirits of just men are immediately made perfect. Lazarus departs, and is immediately comforted; Paul departs, and is immediately with Christ, Phil 1 23.

What an amazing illustration of forgiveness, divine grace and salvation.

MacArthur has an interesting observation on the Jews’ misunderstanding of Passover during that era. This ties in with the Crucifixion:

There’s another irony, that the Jews want him dead so they can get on with the celebration of the Passover that points to his death.  The Jews want to get on with the slaying of the lambs that can never take away sin while rejecting the one, true lamb of God how alone can take away the sin of the world While they are busy killing the lambs who had no power, God was by their hands, killing the lamb to whom all salvation power belongs.  The Jews looked at Passover as God rescuing them from Pharaoh.  That really wasn’t what the Passover was.  They looked at the Passover as God rescuing them from the power of Pharaoh in Egypt.  It was really far more than that.  While there was a deliverance from Egypt, there was a far greater deliverance in the Passover.  Do you remember what the Passover was?  The word came from God that he was going to come in sweeping judgment on both Egyptians and Jews, and the only people who would be protected from that judgment would be those who put the blood of the lamb on the door post and the lintel.  Otherwise, the judgment of God would hit that house and take the life of the first born.  And God did not discriminate between the Jews and the Egyptians.  He would take the life of any first born.  He would bring wrath and judgment on any household that was not covered by the blood of the Passover lamb.  The night of the Passover, then, was not truly a deliverance from the power of the Pharaoh and the wrath of Pharaoh, it was a deliverance from the wrath of God.  Somehow they had skewed that thinking that they were delivered from the wrath and power of Pharaoh.  They celebrated that part of it and they forgot that the real Passover was a deliverance from the wrath of God And all sinners are always deserving of wrath unless they’re covered by the blood, and the blood of bulls and goats can’t take away sin and can’t really cover the sinner.  So they had no idea what as going on at their cross of Calvary when the true Passover lamb was dying so that his blood might become the protection of all who believe in him.

So in not saving himself, Jesus was able to save others, exactly opposite their assumption that he couldn’t save anybody because he couldn’t even save himself.  How twisted their perception.  How wrong.  And the whole scene was feeding this twisted perception.  There was no clarity anywhere.  The leaders didn’t have clarity.  The people didn’t have clarity.  The Romans didn’t have clarity.  The high priests didn’t have clarity.  The chief priests didn’t have it.  Nobody had it.  Everybody had a twisted and perverted understanding of what was happening and in the midst of all of this, one man gets clarity.  In spite of everything that’s going on around him in which he’s been a participant, the light dawns.  Life comes out of death.  Knowledge comes out of ignorance.  Light dispels the darkness.  And that’s the story of this man that we call the penitent thief.  It’s a personal story. It’s a very personal story.  It’s about one man.  It’s a personal story of salvation, but it’s also the pattern of the story of all people’s salvation  

MacArthur sums up these verses as follows for what to remember about the Crucifixion and what happened at the first Pentecost:

Without argument what is being spewed out of these evil hearts and evil mouths right at the son of God is the supreme blasphemy, the ultimate desecration of holiness, the lowest sin every committed, wickedness at its lowest, and it is deserving of divine cursing, divine threatening, divine vengeance, divine judgment, divine damnation.  This is injustice without parallel, transgression without equal.  This is heresy above heresy, irreverence above irreverence, profanity above profanity, sacrilege beyond comprehension.  We would expect Jesus to pour out furious denunciations on all of them, to judge them, to make them pay for their outrageous, extreme iniquity immediately on the spot, but he doesn’t.

Contrary to that he says, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they’re doing.”  He asks God to provide forgiveness for them.  Now Jesus spoke seven things from the cross He spoke to one of the thieves and said, “Today you’ll be with me in paradise.”  Then he spoke to his mother and John and said, “Behold your mother, behold your son,” and gave the care of his mother to the apostle John who were standing far, far away.  And then for three hours the whole earth was dark and he spoke not at all.  And after the darkness he spoke to God and he said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  And then he spoke to the soldiers and said, “I’m thirsty,” and they gave him the sponge And then he spoke to himself and said, “It is finished.”  And then he spoke to God and said, “It’s at thy hands I commit my spirit.”  But the first thing he said, before any of those was, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”  His first words were words seeking divine forgiveness for the world’s most wretched sinners Certainly this is Jesus, the Father, running to embrace the stinking prodigal, isn’t it?  This is not surprising.  Jesus even said that the more someone is forgiven the more they love, so he set himself up to forgive great sinners so that he might experience from them great love. 

Peter says that when he was reviled he was reviled not again and that when he was being abused he did not cry out for vengeance, 1 Peter 2:23 and 24 Stephen picked up on this and when Stephen saw life was being crushed out by the bloody stones, Stephen, following his Lord said, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”  This is a general prayer.  To understand what he meant by this, it is a general prayer for all the world to know that there’s no sin against the son of God that is so severe it cannot be forgiven if one will repent That’s the message.  If there is forgiveness for these people, there is forgiveness for anyone.  You can’t get beyond this.  But it’s more than just a general prayer, it’s a specific prayer.  When he said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they’re doing,” he knew who the “them” were because on the day of Pentecost, 3,000 Jews in Jerusalem were converted to Christ and baptized and the church was begun Within a few weeks another 5,000 men and more and more and it moves into tens of thousands of people in Jerusalem who embrace the faith of Jesus Christ, and there must have been many of those who came to Christ in those weeks after the resurrection who were there in that crowd, so that it is a general prayer telling the whole world that the sinner who repents and comes to Christ can be forgiven of the worst crime ever committed.  But it is also a specific prayer that God knows in His mind from before the foundation of the world, who in that crowd He will truly forgive A church was born out of these people who stood at the foot of Calvary and mocked the son of God.  They became the first church.  Not only that, there was a soldier among the soldiers.  One of them came to salvation.  23 Luke 47 when the Centurion saw what had happened, he began praising God saying, “Certainly this man was innocent.”  And Matthew says he said something besides that, he said, “This was the son of God.”  And by the way, don’t think it was just that Centurion Listen to 27 Matthew 54, “Now the Centurion and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus said, “Truly, this was the son of God.”  The prayer was answered on the spot.  Some in the crowd formed the first church.  Some among the soldiers affirmed the deity of Jesus Christ, and a Roman Centurion praising the true God of Israel and affirming the reality of His son and others with him?  By the way, some of the leaders also were saying it.  In 6 Acts 7, “The word of God kept on spreading.  The number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem.”  Listen to this:  “And a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.”  And by the way, there was one of the two thieves who said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and to him Jesus said today, “I’ll meet you in paradise.”

In one sense it’s a general prayer that throws open the forgiveness of God for all who have rejected Christ no matter how great the crimes committed against him, but on another level this is a very specific prayer that was immediately answered among the crowd, among the soldiers, among the thieves and even among the priests.  The great irony of Calvary is that while all this scorn was being heaped on Christ, he was bearing the curse of God far worse than anything they could put on him You think it’s bad to be cursed by men, he was being cursed by God.  But in taking both the curses from men and the curse from God, he provided the very atonement which makes the forgiveness he prayed for possible

Christ the King: truly He is, now and forever.

This is the last Sunday in the 2021-2022 Church year. Next Sunday, a new Church year begins with the season of Advent, and a new set of Lectionary readings from Year A.

May everyone reading this have a blessed Sunday.

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