THE WORD OF SALVATION TO THE DYING THIEF
Dr. W. A. Criswell
4-20-62 12:00 a.m.
Now the theme for this week has been “The Word of Salvation,” and I have chosen out of the Bible five different men to whom God addressed a word of how to be saved. On Monday, it was The Word of Salvation to a Learned Judean. On Tuesday, it was A Word of Salvation Addressed to a Scarlet Samaritan Woman. On Wednesday, it was The Word of Salvation to an Ethiopian Eunuch, “a representative of his government who had gone to Jerusalem for to worship” [Acts 8:27], as the King James Version says. And yesterday, it is The Word of Salvation to a Roman Philippian Jailer. And today, the day of the cross, it is The Word of Salvation to a Dying Thief. In the twenty-third chapter of the Third Gospel:
And when they were come to the place, called Calvary, Golgotha, the place of a skull, there they crucified Him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left.
And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on Him, saying, If Thou be the Christ, save Thyself and us.
But the other answering rebuked Him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?
And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this Man hath done nothing amiss.
And he said unto Jesus, Lord, Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom.
And Jesus said unto him, Verily, truly, I say unto thee, Today, this day, shalt thou be with Me in Paradise.
[Luke 23:33, 39-43]
There was no day like this day, not in the story of human history. There was no place like that place in the holy city of Jerusalem, God’s kingdom capital in this earth.
The time was the Passover. The Passover was set by the Lord in the full of the moon after the vernal equinox in order that the pilgrims of the exodus out of Egypt could journey safely in the light of the queen of the night. And so through the millenniums, the Passover season is always at the full of the moon after the vernal equinox, in behalf of the pilgrims who came from the ends of the earth to observe the sacred feast in the City of God. Easter Sunday, as you would know, would be the first Sunday after the full of the moon after the vernal equinox, which to us will be this coming Lord’s Day.
The place was outside the city wall [Hebrews 13:12], on the Damascus Road, beyond the Damascus Gate, on a hill called the Place of a Skull; the Hill of a Skull, in Hebrew, Golgotha, in Latin, Calvary [Luke 23:33; John 19:16-17]. And there, by the side of the main highway [Luke 23:33; John 19:20] was our Lord lifted up, public, open, according to the intention of God that His death should be exhibited to the whole world [John 3:14-15].
And the throngs that gathered round were almost innumerable and unnumberable. There were, of course, the curious. In the Passover season, from the ends of the civilized world did the pilgrims turn toward Jerusalem. From the then-known earth were they there by the thousands and the hundreds of thousands. And the curious were there, watching, passing by, asking a casual and an indifferent question [Matthew 27:36]. The mildly interested were there. The Book says, “And sitting down they watched Him there” [Matthew 27:36]. They had heard about Him, maybe curiously waiting to see if He would do some phenomenal, marvelous miracle; so just a little interested, they tarried to watch.
Then, of course, the quaternion of soldiers were there who, under a centurion, were assigned the task of the execution. Those four Roman legionnaires divided up His clothing between them, four pieces: one took His turban, one took His sandals, one took His outer garment, one took His girdle [John 19:23]. And there was a fifth garment, an inner one woven without seam, and they said, “Rather than tear it, let us cast lots. And he who is successful in the gambling venture wins the robe.” So at the foot of the cross, the quaternion cast die to see who would win the seamless robe [John 19:23-24].
And of course, they were there who exulted in His execution; His enemies who hated and despised the life that He lived and the message that He brought. And passing by, up and down in front of the cross, they wagged their heads and in ridicule said, “Ha! He saved others, but Himself He cannot save” [Mark 15:29-31].
And as they passed by, reviling Him, they taunted Him, “Ha, ha! Thou that destroyest the temple and raise it again in three days, come down from the cross, come down, and we will believe Thee, come down” [Matthew 27:40-42].
Ah, as you read it, the tempestuous spirit on the inside of you answers and says, “Lord, do it! Do it! Come down from the cross and strike terrified paralysis in their souls! Do it, Lord! Do it!”
No, it will not be a man in superhuman strength tearing Himself from the wood to come down just to chasten, in personal victory, those who reviled and ridiculed Him. It will rather be a limp and helpless and dead carcass taken down from the cross [Matthew 27:32-50], by other hands, wrapped in a winding sheet and laid in a tomb [Matthew 27:57-60]. And there to break for us and for all believing mankind the bonds and the corruption of death [Matthew 28:1-7; 1 Corinthians 15:52-57]. And that cross shall become for us the sign of triumph and of glory and of victory.
And if in Flanders fields the poppies grow,
It will be between crosses, row on row.
[“In Flanders Fields,” John McCrae, 1915]
This symbol of the love of God, with arms outstretched, knowing no frontier, but as far as the east goes east and as far as the west turns west, there the invitation for God’s lost children to turn back home.
And of course, there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother and the women who ministered unto Him in Galilee [John 19:25]. And there stood, of course, the centurion who glorified God, that noble Roman, and said, “This Man surely was the Son of God” [Luke 27:54].
And then, and then, this dying thief, nailed to the cross by His side [John 19:18]. And what a remarkable thing; you have it translated here “a thief” [Matthew 27:38]. The actual word refers to a political insurrectionist. He was a patriot, he was a zealot, and in his insurrection had led to murder, and of course, in folly because it failed, seeking liberty for his oppressed Judean fellow people.
That man, he had been in prison. I suppose, I am sure, he had never seen the Lord Jesus before. I am quite persuaded he had never heard of Him before. But that murderous man, in his insurrection and in his violence and in his blood-covered hands, that man, the first time he ever saw the Lord and saw Him a fellow malefactor, crucified just as he was executed, somehow, in a remarkable burst of the glory of faith, turned toward the Lord and acknowledged Him, “Lord,” kurios, and asked when He came into His kingdom that he might be one of His subjects, “Remember me” [Luke 23:42].
History and prophecy met that day in that thief. The fifty-third chapter of Isaiah is very careful to prophesy that when the Lord dies He shall die among transgressors [Isaiah 53:12]. And all four of the Gospels are very careful to point out that when the Lord died He was not crucified alone, but there were three dark crosses lifted up against the sky, three of them, three of them [Matthew 27:38; Mark 15:27; Luke 23:32-33; John 19:18, 32].
Ah, that awful, contemptuous ridicule, there in nail and in wood and in blood; not enough that the Son of God should die on a cross, but in contempt that He would be nailed between two known murderers and insurrectionists. Crucifixion was an institution, an invention of the Roman government, devised for felons and for treasonable insurrectionists. No Roman citizen by law could ever be crucified. It was reserved for the slave and the felon.
There was an antipathy toward crucifixion on the part of the Jews that is indescribable to us. Paul, for example, will quote in Galatians 3:13 the passage in Deuteronomy where the law of Moses says, “Cursed is everyone that is hanged on a tree” [Deuteronomy 21:23].
And even those who crucified Him, who asked Pontius Pilate for His blood and for His life, went to the same Roman procurator and asked ere the sun goes down that their bodies might be taken down from the cross [John 19:31]; so foul, so dark, so inhuman, such signs of blood, suffering and torture, that they might be taken down from the cross.
I would make the understatement of the millenniums and the eternities were I simply to avow that that was no ordinary execution. This is the great consummation in the prophecy and in the program and the elective divine purpose of God from before the foundation of the earth [Revelation 13:8], slain before God created these spheres and this earth and these satellites that spin around God’s eternal sun.
All of the types of the Old Testament, the old Scriptures, look forward to that great consummating antitype. Every time a sacrifice was laid upon the altar, on the head of the victim did the offerer lay his hands, confess his sins, identify himself with the lamb or the bullock, and when it was slain he was slain [Leviticus 4:26-35].
When blood was poured out, it washed his sins away [Leviticus 4:30, 34, 35]. “For the life,” said God in the Mosaic legislation, “is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your soul” [Leviticus 17:11]. This is the expiation of our sins.
Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut His glories in,
When Christ the mighty Maker died,
For man the creature’s sin.
[“At the Cross,” Isaac Watts, Ralph E Hudson, Refrain]
Were you there when they crucified our Lord?
O, sometimes it makes me to tremble,
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?
When they laid Him in the tomb?
O, sometimes it makes me to tremble.
Were you there when they crucified our Lord?
[“Were You There,” Traditional Spiritual]
It was a day of salvation. This has been the exultant theme of the services each noon day this week, and this is the theme of the Word of God. Look, look, look and live [Numbers 21:8-9; John 3:14-15]. Believe, believe and be saved [Acts 16:31]. Wash and be clean [2 Kings 5:10; Revelation 1:5, 7:14].
And one of the malefactors railed on Him, and cursed Him, and blasphemed Him [Luke 23:39]. But the other, turning in repentance and in faith, said, “Lord,” calling Him Lord, “Lord, in the kingdom that comes, Lord, remember me” [Luke 23:42]. And he found that day cleansing for his sin and the washing of the stain of judgment from his soul [Luke 23:43].
There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins,
And sinners plunged beneath the flood
Lose all their guilty stains:
The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day,
And there may I, though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away:
E’er since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme
And shall be till I die:
And in a nobler, sweeter song
I’ll sing Thy pow’r to save
When this poor lisping, stammering tongue
Lies silent in the grave.
[“There Is a Fountain,” William Cowper]
“Lord, Lord, remember me, remember me” [Luke 23:42]. And not only did he find, in that faith, and that turning, and that confession; not only did he find repentance, and forgiveness, and salvation, but he found an eternal home in glory. “And Jesus said unto him, Verily, verily,” I love that song, “Truly, truly I say unto thee, Today, this day, semeron, this day, today, this day, the day of the cross, the day we were executed, the day we died, this day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise” [Luke 23:43].
Yesterday, one of our little girls—just a small child, in the first or second grade, a very small child—yesterday, a little girl came up to me, and she said, “I want to ask you a question.” Oh, I was so complimented. “Well, honey, what would you like to ask me?”
“Well,” she said, “my school teacher told us that when Jesus died, He went down into hell for three days and then was resurrected, came back to life and to the earth. Is that so?” Well, I was amazed at a little girl! Well, I said, “Honey, I don’t know. I don’t propose to be able to answer all questions that people sometimes discuss. All I know is humbly and simply this, that Jesus said that when He died that that day— that day, semeron—“Today, this day, thou shalt be with Me in Paradise” [Luke 23:43]. And when He bowed His head, all I know is that Jesus prayed, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit” [Luke 23:46], and He said to the thief that died by His side, “in Paradise” [Luke 23:43]
And in the twelfth chapter of 2 Corinthians, Paul says Paradise is heaven [2 Corinthians 12:2, 4]. All I know is that Jesus said that, that day He and that blood-bought, blood-washed thief would walk through gates of pearl on streets of gold, arm-in-arm, the first trophy of grace in the day of His death [Luke 23:43; Revelation 21:21].
I am no expert in necromancy and spiritualism and superstition. People have all kinds of things that they think and that they say about what becomes of us when we die. All I know is the plain, simple, humble revelation of the Word of God, which is this: if I am absent from the body, I am present with the Lord. [2 Corinthians 5:8] When I close my eyes on this worldly scene, I open them in His presence in glory. To lay down the burden of this weary life is to be received into the rest God hath prepared for those who trust in Him. “Now we see through a glass darkly”—I cannot explain it all—”but then, face to face: now I know in part, understand so little; but then shall I know even as I am known” [1 Corinthians 13:12], even as God knows me.
Don’t let anyone take away from you the comfort and the preciousness of our hope in Jesus. In glory Jesus will be Jesus. This blood-washed thief will be God-redeemed saint, that man. And you will be you, and I will be I in heaven, this better thing God hath prepared for those who love Him [1 Corinthians 2:9]. “Today, thou shalt be with Me in Paradise” [Luke 23:43].
And our sweetest songs—and with this I close—are those that sing of that beautiful, faraway home in the sky.
I will sing you a song of that beautiful land,
The faraway home of the soul,
Where no storms ever be on the glittering strand,
While the years of eternity roll.
Oh, how sweet it will be in that beautiful land,
So free from all sorrow and pain,
With songs on our lips and with harps in our hands,
To greet one another again.
[“Home of the Soul,” Ellen M. H. Gates, 1865]
There’s a land that is fairer than day
And by faith we can see it afar,
For the Father waits over the way
To prepare us a dwelling place there.
[“Sweet By and By,” Sanford Fillmore Bennett]
O, they tell me of a land far beyond the skies.
O, they tell me of a home far away.
O, they tell me of a land where no storm clouds rise,
O, they tell me of an unclouded day.
[“The Unclouded Day,” Josiah K. Alwood, 1885]
“Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise” [Luke 23:43].
O, glorious cross!
O, precious crown!
O, resurrection day!
The angels from the stars come down
And bear my soul away.
[“Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?” Thomas Shepherd and others]
This is a day of salvation. And our Lord, in the spirit of the commitment of that dying thief, would each one of us in this hushed and holy hour, give to Thee the love of our hearts, the hope of our souls, that someday in an upper and a better world, we shall see Thee and one another again. In Thy blood, in Thy sobs and tears, in Thy wounds, in Thy mercy, in Thy Spirit, and in Thy precious name, amen.