Sun, 14 April 2019
The Death of Jesus
Sermon Series: Easter at Istrouma
Istrouma Baptist Church – Jeff Ginn, Lead Pastor
10:45 AM Sermon April 14, 2019
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (23:39).
40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”(23:40-42).
43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise”…46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last(23:43 & 46).
Now, today, I want you to open your Bible to Luke Chapter 23, Luke Chapter 23. As you’re turning there, I want to draw attention to the fact that you can have two people facing the same dilemma, but they make different decisions, and they end up with different destinies.
You probably have heard the story about a small plane that experienced engine failure mid-flight. The only souls aboard were the pilot and four passengers – a famous doctor, a brilliant professor, an old preacher and a young student.
As the engine sputtered to a stop, the pilot opened the cockpit door and stepped into the cabin. He shared the bad news, grabbed a parachute, and jumped. The shocked passengers did a quick count and discovered that only three parachutes remained for the four of them.
The doctor said, “My medical expertise is desperately needed so I must live.” He grabbed a chute and jumped.
The professor said, “I am the world’s smartest man, so I must live.” He grabbed a parachute and jumped.
Now only one parachute remained. The pastor said to the student, “Son, you are young, you have your whole life ahead of you. I am old. I’ve lived a blessed life and I’m ready to meet the Lord. You take the last parachute.”
The student said, “That’s ok, pastor. The world’s smartest man just jumped out of the plane with my backpack.”
The people on that plane faced the same dilemma but ended up with different destinies.
This morning we are going to meet the two men who were crucified on either side of Jesus as he was crucified on that Good Friday so long ago. They faced the same dilemma but they ended with different destinies.
Like them we all face the same dilemma—a brief life of joys and sorrows and then death and judgment. Eternity awaits us all. There are two destinies—heaven and hell—and what we do with Jesus Christ determines which is ours.
Would you stand as we read God's word, Luke 23 beginning in verse 32. By the way, it's Easter at Istrouma. We're celebrating for three weeks this greatest of all celebrations. We're going to begin this week by looking at the death of Christ. You really don't appreciate the resurrection unless you ponder the death. So today is the death of Christ. Next Sunday the resurrection of Christ. Then finally, we'll look at the mission of Christ that he’s left to us, his followers. So, with that, we now read from Luke's Gospel where God says:
32 Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him [that is, of course, with Jesus]. 33And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and [the other]on his left. 34 And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. 35 And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, [the]Chosen One!”36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
44 It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour [By the way, we don’t calculate time as they did. The sixth hour would be the sixth hour after sunrise, or noon. Then the ninth hour would be 3 PM. So from noon to 3 PM, darkness was over the earth. And so, verse 45 says], 45 while the sun's light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.
Please be seated.
This morning we're going to take a look at the three men who were crucified at Calvary on that Good Friday so many centuries ago. Each one of these men faced the same destiny. Death was upon them. Yet, two of them made different decisions, and because of their distinct decisions, they ended with different destinies. Now the point of this is not just to talk about the two thieves and Christ. The point of this is to examine our own lives and to see which of the thieves might best represent us and the decision that we have made, because I'll tell you, we too all face the same dilemma. What is that dilemma? Listen. It's a brief life full of joy and sorrow, soon enough to end, and after that the judgment. And we all face that dilemma. But the decision we make with regard to Christ determines our eternal destiny. So with the weight of that upon us, let's look at each of these three men.
I want to begin with the first of these three, and I'm going to call the cross upon which he died “the cross of the rebel.” The cross of the rebel. Now here, I'm thinking of verse 39. Look at it again. Verse 39 says:
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
Now, how might we describe this rebel? I'm going to give you two words that describe him. First of all, I could describe him as sinful. His sinfulness stands out. He is called here a criminal. In another Gospel, he's called a thief. So we know the nature of his crime was to steal. However, I would just add in this historical anecdote, it's likely that he was not a petty thief because crucifixion was reserved for the worst of criminals. It was capital punishment, obviously; it meant your death. So it is very likely that this man, when it says he was a criminal, he was much more than a petty thief. He probably wedded to his thievery something like the abuse of his victims. Perhaps rape. Perhaps brutality. Perhaps even murder. Some have theorized that he might have been an insurrectionist, in rebellion against Rome’s authority, perhaps an ally of Barabbas, who was set free, you remember. And Christ died in his stead; figuratively dying in all of our stead. Perhaps he was allied with Barabbas, but this was a bad man. A bad dude. He was a sinner. In fact, the word here when it says “he railed on Christ,” the word “railed on” is literally in Greek, the word “blasphemed.” The man was blaspheming Christ. “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself.” He was cursing him. So he was a sinner.
Now, I want to hasten to make this point. Please don't think I'm looking down my spiritual nose at that thief on the cross, because, the truth is, every one of us is likewise sinful. There's not a one of us that’s without sin. We've all rebelled against God. We've broken his law. And thus we've broken his heart. And so, this man very well might represent every one of us as I describe him as a sinner. The Bible says, in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The Pope has sinned. I have sinned. Your grandma has sinned. Don't mean to bust your bubble, but you have sinned. All of us have sinned. And so we could be represented by this thief.
Now the thing that makes it even worse is not just that he was a sinner, for we all are, but that he was stubborn in his sin. His stubbornness really stands out, does it not? Here he is. His life is literally ebbing away, blood drop by blood drop. The time is ticking. The sand is falling through the hourglass. His moments are numbered. You would think, would you not, that at this juncture of life, or I could say at this juncture of death, something in him would have cried out in desperation, “Oh God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” You would think that there might be some humility in him, some repentance, some remorse, some self-reflection, but none of it. No, instead, he, in a sense, raises his fist to heaven. Very selfishly says, “If you're the Christ, save yourself and us. No interest in a relationship with Christ. Just, “Christ, if you can be my ticket out of this mess, be it for me.” But no surrender to the Lordship of Christ. He is stubborn.
I was reminded of a story that was told by a man named Ravi Zacharias. Ravi is a famous apologist for the faith, wonderful ministry. He had a personal relationship with a reporter from Britain, Malcolm Muggeridge, the legendary English journalist, author, and media personality. Muggeridge had spent some time with Svetlana Stalin, the daughter of Joseph Stalin, while they were working together on a BBC production on the life of her father. Joseph Stalin was, of course, the communist leader who once ruled Russia with a sadistic mentality and an incomprehensible coldness. During his reign untold millions of people were put to death by his command. The numbers are so high that experts can only give broad estimates as to the actual total.
“According to the story that Svetlana told Muggeridge, and Muggeridge in turn told Zacharias, Stalin was plagued by terrifying hallucinations as he lay dying on his bed. Then suddenly he sat halfway up in bed, clenched his fist toward the heavens, fell back upon his pillow, and was dead. It was if his last gesture in life was literally a clenched fist toward God.
“It would be easy to assume that Stalin lived his entire life in steadfast opposition to the concept of God, but that would be a wrong assumption. The fact is that when he was sixteen he received a scholarship to a Georgian Orthodox seminary. He even did well in his classes there until he missed his final exams and was expelled. Not long afterward he began reading the writings of Vladimir Lenin and became a Marxist revolutionary.
“Looking back over Stalin’s life it isn’t hard to deduce that he had an excellent opportunity not only to receive Christ as Savior but also to spend his life in service to Him. That is, after all, what seminary students usually do. But somewhere along the way Stalin came to a spiritual crossroad and chose to reject Jesus.” It reminds me of this thief on the cross. He is a rebel. Sinful, yes, but add to that, stubborn, and refusing to repent and find mercy and grace.
Before I go to the second cross, I'll tell you a story I uncovered this week. There's a fellow who lives in Chicago, David C. Nicosia, a business owner in Chicago. He was outside the Cook County Courthouse there in the greater Chicago area, and he was going to have a court case. While he was waiting outside, there was a very attractive elderly black woman. She's 79 years old. She was sitting outside, and for some reason they got into an altercation. He's about 50-ish; she's nearly 80. And for whatever reason, he got angry with her. He spit in her face. He then slapped her with his open hand and he made some comment along the lines of “You’re no Rosa Parks.” But, come to find out, the woman he insulted, spat upon, and slapped was none other than the judge herself. She had been outside on a brief break. Her name is Judge Arnette Hubbard. She was the first female president of the National Bar Association and the Cook County Bar Association. Judge Hubbard is a community icon who has served as an election observer in Haiti and South Africa and had long been a voice on civil rights and women's issues. She was the judge. Little did he know, he thought he was just mistreating some insignificant woman, when all the while, she was the judge.
I thought about this thief. He's insulting Christ. Had he been able to, perhaps he would have spat in his face and slapped him. He certainly did with his words and his attitude. Yet, all the while, the one he insulted and the one he pleaded with to come down from the cross was, by his insistence in being on the cross, working out the salvation of that very man. Oh the mercy and grace of Christ. He had said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And this man, Nicosia, didn't know what he was doing when he slapped that woman, and so many of us may not realize that in our rebellion we're slapping, in effect, the face of the one who could bring about our forgiveness and salvation. So that is the cross, first of all then, of the rebel.
Could I just challenge us all this morning; let's don't be rebellious against God. I know we're sinners. Let's just confess that. But we don't have to stay in our rebellion against God. We can come to him and plead mercy and grace and find it full and free in Jesus.
Now, let's come then to the second cross. Remember, two different men, two different decisions, two different destinies. There's the cross of the rebel. He dies in his sin, not repenting. But now I want to come to this cross, and I want to call this one “The cross of the repentant.” The cross of the repentant. Look at your Bible, please, again, and I want us to go down to verse 40. There, the Bible says:
40 But the other [that is, the other criminal] rebuked [the first], saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man [he said, referring to Jesus]has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
This is one of the most poignant moments in all of the pages of the Bible. This man represents all those who repent of their sins and find salvation in Christ. How might we describe this man? Well I want to speak, first of all, of his repentance. Now, the word “repent” means literally to turn around. If I'm going this way and I repent, I'm going to turn and go 180 degrees in the opposite direction, and that's what's going to occur in this second thief’s life. He was going one way. If you look in the companion story of this in Matthew's Gospel, you're going to discover something very telling, something very interesting, something worth noting, and it’s this, that when they began that trek, when they began the trek up Cavalry, both of the thieves, the Bible says, were hurling insults at Jesus. Both of them. Not just the one on one side, but both of them were, basically saying the same thing, cursing Christ, calling on him to deliver them. But as he makes that journey, something happens in his heart, something radical. Perhaps it was the effect of seeing Jesus cry out, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” He saw the mercy of grace of God in Christ, and he saw his tenderness toward his mother Mary as he called on John the beloved apostle to take care of her. And he heard the sayings on the cross and saw the mercy and grace in Christ’s eyes, and it did something to the man. He repented.
I heard about a Sunday school class of children, and the lesson that day was on forgiveness. The teacher was instructing them from the Bible about that topic. When she concluded, she said, “Now boys and girls, I've got a question for you. What must we do to be forgiven?” And so one little girl raised her hand and she said, “Well, to be forgiven, we've got to confess.” The teacher said, “That's right.” Then another student raised his hand, and he said, “To be forgiven, we've got to repent.” The teacher said, “That's right.” Then this one little mischievous boy raised his hand, and she said, “Johnny, what do you have to do to be forgiven?” He said, “Sin!” Good point. To be forgiven, you’ve got to sin and then confess and repent.
The reason I bring that little story up is to say this, “Whatever happened to sin?” There was a book written by that title a generation ago by a famous psychiatrist, and basically in the book, he was saying, “What happened to sin?” It’s like no longer is there any sin. There are sicknesses. There are addictions. There are complexes inflicted upon us by those who may have mistreated us, but as far as me personally having done anything that might be categorized sinful, it's as though we know nothing of it. But here's the truth: To be forgiven, we must recognize that we have sinned. And I love what we see in the man hanging on the second cross, his repentance.
I see it in two things. First of all, he confesses his faults. I see his repentance in the fact that he confesses his faults. He says to the other thief, “We’re getting what we deserve.” He's acknowledging his sin. Have you ever done that? Have you come to God and said, “God I know that I'm a sinner, and were I to receive what I deserve, I would be punished. I would be separated from your grace and mercy. God I am guilty.” Have you done that seriously and from your heart? You must to be forgiven. This man confessed his fault. But then, add to it this truth. Not only did he confess his fault, but he confessed his faith, and that's how salvation comes. We confess our faults, and we confess our faith. He said of Jesus, “We're getting what we deserve, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Now get this, he saw in Christ the sinless Lamb of God, given as a sacrifice for our sins, and he believed it, and he said, “Lord, remember me when you come in your kingdom.” He confessed his faith in the Lordship of Christ. If you’re to be saved, and if you're to go to heaven, you must do as the thief on the cross did so long ago. Repent, confessing your faults and your faith, and then you need to make a request of the Lord, and that's what this thief did.
I see his repentance, and now his request. He said, “Remember me, Lord, when you come into your kingdom.” That's a prayer.
You know, there's a phrase; perhaps you've heard it before. We term a certain kind of prayer the “sinner's prayer.” Have you ever heard that phrase? And fact, someone may ask you, “Have you ever prayed the sinner's prayer?” In modern times, I've actually got a sense that some people disparage that as though somehow that's not appropriate. But I want to stand today in defense of the sinner's prayer, and say to you, if you don't pray the sinner's prayer, not in any kind of like magical incantation of certain words, but a sincere cry of confession, repentance and appeal for mercy, you're not going to heaven. You've got to do like this thief did, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Could I ask you, have you ever prayed the sinner's prayer? Have you ever gotten on your knees, whether physically or figuratively, have you ever gotten on your knees and just said, “Lord, I'm guilty, but I know that you’re sinless and you died in my stead. I'm asking you, Lord, to apply that mercy and grace to me, and save me.” That's the way to heaven. Romans 10:13 says, “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” That's what the sinner's prayer is; it's a sincere cry to God for forgiveness and mercy. If you've never before called on him to be your Saviour, I'm going to invite you to do so today.
So now, let's come to the last cross. I've taught you about the cross of the rebel. He died in his sins, and had a certain destiny. I’ve talked to you about the cross of the repentant. He didn't die in his sin; no, he died to his sin and turned to Christ, and he had a certain destiny. What determined the destiny of both was what they did with the man in the middle, Jesus. His is not the cross of the rebel nor the cross of the repentant because he never rebelled, and he never had anything for which to repent. No, his is the cross of the Redeemer. He didn't die in his sin, and he didn't die to his sin. He died for our sins, the innocent for the guilty. Christ died for us.
I want you to notice the promise he made to that thief on the cross. Look at it now in verse 43:
43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Oh, if I had the time to just take every one of these words and let each word sit heavily upon our hearts. They're all worth the world. He said, “Truly.” Do you know what that tells me? It's a promise; it's a promise made by none other than the Lord Jesus himself. “Truly, I say to you.” To whom did he make this promise? To the thief on the cross. Listen to me. Some people think that to get into heaven; watch this, watch, some people think that to get into heaven, God's going to have there in heaven a large scale. And on one side, God's going to put all the bad things that you've done – disobedience, lust, pride, jealousy, thievery, abuse, all the bad things you've done – he's going to put that on one side of the scale. Then on the other side of the scale, he's going to put your good deeds. You know, you went to church on an occasion, and you gave something at Christmas time in the red kettle, and you're nice to the little lady across the street, and if you can manage to get enough good deeds to outweigh your bad deeds, then you get to go to heaven. That's what people think. Did you know that you could look throughout the whole of the Bible; you'll never find that to be the case? The best case in point to prove that that is not the path to salvation is the thief on the cross himself. Now, if we were to stack up all the thief’s bad deeds over here, it would be a pretty big stack, would it not? He's lived his whole life a rebel to God. Now on this side, what has this thief on the cross done to merit forgiveness? Had he gone to church? Not that I know of. Had he been baptized? Never. Had he given an offering? No, he had probably robbed from some offering plates, but he had not given anything. No, there was nothing that he had done to outweigh the bad that he had done – except that he had called out to the Lord for mercy and grace, and by that cry of repentance and faith, the scale was tipped.
There's a story that I've loved across the years. It's the story of a man who went to heaven, and Saint Peter met him at the gate. You know it's fanciful because that's not the way it's going to be, but Saint Peter met him at the gate and said, “May I help you?” The man said, “Well, I want to go to heaven; I want to be admitted into heaven.” Saint Peter said, “Well, tell me what you've done on earth, and we'll see if you can come into heaven.” Saint Peter said, “You’ve got to score 100 points and every good thing that you've done has a certain value, and if it adds up to 100 points you get to come in.” So the guy started sweating, and he started thinking of what he had done that was good, and he said, “Well, I went to church on an occasion.” Saint Peters said, “All right, I'll give you a point for that. Then he said, “I gave to charity on an occasion.” Saint Peter said, “All right, I'll give you a point for that.” He started sweating more profusely, and he said, “Well, I went to the soup kitchen on Thanksgiving Day and I served the homeless.” Saint Peter said, “Okay I'll give you a couple of points for that.” He said, “I was married to my wife for 40 years and I never cheated on her.” Saint Peter said, “Okay, three points for that.” He's just struggling, right; he doesn't nearly have enough points. The guy, in exasperation, finally says, “The only way I'm going to get in is by the grace of God.” Saint Peter said, “100 points!”
It's the grace of God. That's the only way you get in, the grace, the unmerited gift of God. His grace tips the scales. The thief on the cross portrays this so beautifully. Nothing he had done earned his way into heaven, but God in mercy heard his cry, and washed his sins away.
That's good news for us, folks. Now, ought we to do good deeds, ought we to go to church, ought we to give, ought we to be nice to the little lady across the street, and ought we to be a witness for Christ? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. But we ought not do it to earn forgiveness; we ought to do it out of gratitude for having been forgiven.
So, the promise that he made was that the thief would be in heaven, and the price that he paid was he breathed his last. Do you see that? How is it that we get to go into heaven, sinners as we are? We get to go because someone who was innocent paid the price for our sins. The Bible that says we have all sinned also says “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Our Lord.” Someone must die for the sins that have been committed, and the good news is someone did die. Someone did, as the text says, “breathed his last.” When he breathed his last and died for us, the way to heaven was opened for those who would repent and believe.
Two different men; same dilemma. But two different decisions, and thus two destinies.
I'm going to conclude with this. Let me describe for you a feature of our continent. There’s a backbone to the Western Hemisphere. It runs from the frozen tundra of Canada and the Arctic all the way down through the United States down through Central America, on down into South America, and that backbone is largely constituted of the Rockies and the Andes. It forms what is called the Continental Divide. Now do you guys know what the Continental Divide is? It's a curious thing. Every raindrop that falls lands on one side or the other of the Continental Divide. If the raindrop happens to fall on the western side, every one of those raindrops runs to the Pacific Ocean. By whatever tributary, it makes its way to the Pacific. If a raindrop falls, by contrast, on the eastern slope of the continental divide, that drop of water will eventually make its way to the Atlantic Ocean. It may come through the Gulf; it may go through the Hudson Bay, but it's going to the Atlantic Ocean. It is all determined by on which side of the Continental Divide it falls.
Now, what's my point in telling that? Jesus is the Continental Divide of humanity. Jesus is the Continental Divide of all of human history. Where you end up determines on which side of Christ you fall. If you fall on the side of the cross of the rebel, sinful and stubborn, your destiny is separation from God. If you fall on the side of the cross of the repentant, your destiny is heaven, Paradise, to use Jesus' word in this text. Could I ask you, “On which side of Christ do you stand today, rebel or repentant?” Before you leave this room today, if you’ve not made the decision to get on the right side of Christ, confessing your fault and your faith, I'm going to invite you to do so, so that your destiny might be with him in Paradise when you leave this life, so that you might have joy as you do live this life in obedience to him.
Let's stand together with our heads bowed. I want you to join me in thanking God for his word.
[Prayer and Invitation]
Thank you for having come today. We celebrate the victory of Christ. Here's what the Bible told us today: “He breathed his last.” Were that the end of the story, we'd have nothing to celebrate, as great as his death on the cross was.
Next Sunday, we're going to tell the rest of the story. Until then, have a great week. God bless you.