People often turn to God in their last moments of life. I suspect there are very few who dont, if theyre still aware of whats happening. But what they say to Him can be quite different. Some are focused completely on trying to escape death. They cry out, God, if youre really there, rescue me from this deathbed! They challenge Him to prove He exists by performing a miracle. I suppose bargaining is often involved. If God will postpone their death they promise to go to church, or serve Him, or maybe right some injustice that they committed that troubles their conscience. Their goal is to prolong their life on earth, theyre hoping to delay the inevitable. And I believe God has mercifully answered this type of prayer billions of times, giving that person another opportunity to get right with Him before they die. Such people tend to live in denial of their death as long as possible, and only in their last days or hours do they finally face the fact that theyre actually dying, and ask themselves if theyre prepared to meet God. The problem is, by then theyve developed such a habit of refusing to listen to things they dont want to hear, it would take a miracle for them to be able to ask hard questions about themselves, or put aside doubts theyve carefully nurtured to keep God at a distance, or admit that they need forgiveness because theyve spent a lifetime telling themselves that theyre a good person whos been misunderstood.
But there is another group of people who are equally sinful, yet whove not hardened their heart against God. Their unbelief has more to do with ignorance (no one told them) or deception (people lied to them), or foolish choices (they got on the wrong road, early). They dont deny theyre sinners, they just never really knew what to do about it. They, too, pray in those moments, but what they ask for may be very different. Theyre not afraid to acknowledge their sin or beg God for mercy. Their hope is that somehow God will make it possible for them to be with Him on the other side. Theyre focused on what happens next, not how to stay here longer. And, If God often answers the prayers of those who simply want more time, how much more will He answer those who desperately call on Him for salvation (Ac 2:21).
When Jesus was crucified, two criminals were crucified at the same time, one on each side. And for six hours, as they hung there dying, those two men had the opportunity to watch Jesus closely. They heard every word He said, and they also heard the murmuring of the crowd, the defiant challenges from the religious leaders, and the mocking of the soldiers. They watched the sky grow dark, and felt the earth quake. And each man responded very differently. In effect, they both prayed to Jesus, but what they asked for made all the difference.
The crucifixion (Lk 23:26-43)
In addition to physical pain and spiritual agony, Jesus was also subjected to ridicule. People in the crowd, along with some of the members of the Sanhedrin, misinterpreted His vulnerability. They were so convinced that the Messiah would be a powerful figure who effortlessly destroyed His enemies, that they viewed the suffering of Jesus as conclusive proof He could not possibly be the Messiah. The real Messiah would never allow such a thing to happen to Him. So they tried to shame Jesus by challenging Him to exercise divine power. They had to admit He had rescued others from disease and demonic torment, but in their estimation, if His claims to be the Messiah were genuine, He must miraculously rescue Himself. The very fact that He was on the cross, in their theology, proved that He was a mere man, and was being justly punished for His presumptuous claims.
After finishing their executioners work, the Roman soldiers stood guard, waiting for their victims to die. Hearing the ridicule being directed at Jesus, they joined in, not out of theological conviction, obviously, but out of racial hatred for the Jews in general. They were glad to join in the humiliation of a failed Jewish Messiah. Even those who approached the dying men to offer them spiced wine, to help numb the pain, dared Jesus to escape the grip of Romes death sentence (Lk 23:36, 37).
One of the criminals, who had been crucified next to Him, joined in the blasphemy saying, Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us! But when he heard this, the other crucified criminal spoke up. He warned the man that his remarks were offensive to God and would provoke His wrath. Since they were dying, and would shortly be judged by God, he should hold his tongue. Matthew 27:44 tells us they were being executed for violent robbery, meaning they had committed robbery and probably murder. The repentant man reminded the other they had violated Gods laws and were receiving what they deserved (Ex 20:13, 15; 21:12-14). His statement reveals an inner integrity. Hes a criminal, but at least he did not, at that moment, confuse right and wrong. He assessed his own sin honestly and admitted he deserved to die. He seemed certain of the verdict he would face when he stood before God. And he had watched Jesus very carefully and he had concluded that He was not guilty of the charges against Him. In fact, he had decided He must be the Messiah, so he addressed a request to Jesus that is filled with an amazing level of faith. Totally disregarding the battered, dying body of Jesus, he recognized His divine dignity and he begged Him Remember me when you come into your kingdom. Such a prayer can only mean Ive watched you suffer and yet you retained a quiet dignity. I listened to you prophesy to the women and I could sense the authority in your words. And no man can hide whats inside him when they drive nails into him, and you asked God to forgive those who tortured you. So youre no liar and youre not insane. Ive never seen anyone like you. I believe you are who you claim to be, and I hope youll be as merciful to me as you were to those soldiers when that day comes when you rule the world.
Saving faith (v43)
All the elements necessary for a person to be saved were present in this confessing man. He feared God. He acknowledged he had sinned and deserved death. He believed Jesus was the Messiah and would rise again after He died. He heard Jesus offer mercy to others, and he asked for mercy for himself. In the time it took to be marched out of the city and crucified, this criminal had become desperately honest about his spiritual condition, so God opened up His spiritual eyes to see the gospel as it was embodied in Jesus. And then Jesus, recognizing that the Holy Spirit was at work in this man, and that he had just confessed Him as clearly as Peter in Caesarea Philippi (Mt 16:13-17), without hesitation, assured him that before the day was over he would join Him in the presence of God. The Bible pictures the unbelieving dead as being held until the judgment in darkness in the depths of the earth, in a place called Sheol or Hades. But it says the righteous dead are taken, at the moment of death, to a wonderful place called Paradise (2Co 12:4; Rev 2:7).
On this Good Friday weve focused on the two criminals beside Jesus. Both were dying. Both asked for help. But what they asked for was very different. One apparently died and went into eternity separated from God forever. He had asked for longer life, but his request was denied. But the other man chose to be totally honest about himself and about Jesus:
1) He refused to be controlled by what others thought of Jesus. He watched Him carefully, and made up his own mind. He saw: dignity, prophecy, courage, mercy, and signs (darkness, earthquake).
2) He realized he would go somewhere after he died. He knew he wouldnt cease to exist.
3) He wanted to be with God after he died. That was more important than trying to postpone death.
4) He acknowledged he was a sinner and deserved to die. He didnt make excuses or blame others. He knew he was in trouble with God.
5) He feared God: He knew God was present and was listening to everything they said.
6) He believed Jesus was innocent. He studied Him carefully. He may have known His ministry. He confessed Jesus was holy.
7) He heard Jesus forgive those who were executing Him, and hoped God might give him mercy too.
8) And finally, he confessed that Jesus would be resurrected. Though He was obviously dying right next to him, he believed He would rise again and come back to rule Gods kingdom.
Now, lets go back and ask ourselves if we have been as totally honest about ourselves and Jesus as he was, because if we are, the Lords promise to him is ours as well:
Truly, I say to you, today (that day we die) you shall be with Me in Paradise.