The Conversion at the Cross
The Crucifixion of the King
The Conversion at Calvary
Luke 23:39-43
Today we will travel once again to Calvary by way of Luke 23.  Last week I tried to get into your mind the comedy that the crucifixion was for the crowd that witnessed it.  We would never dare refer to the death of our Lord as a comedy, but for those who were there that is exactly what it as. 
To think that Jesus was the promised Jewish Messiah was a laughable idea.  It was equally hilarious for the Romans.  Jesus was anything but a king.  So in sarcasm and parody they dressed him in a royal robe, put a scepter in his hand, a crown on his head and hung him up between two courtiers at his right and left hand with a sign over His head identifying Him as the King of the Jews. 
And yet, as unbelievable as it was, they were exactly right.  He really was King.  And in the contrast between their scorn and contempt and sarcasm and His forgiveness we discover the only hope for mankind was for this king to die in the way He did as a sacrifice for their sin. 
And while they were doing the worst thing that could ever be done by anyone in anytime, He is dong the greatest thing that could ever be done for anyone anywhere.  When man is at his worst, God is at His best.  And so He prays, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”.
So having considered the comedy of Calvary, we now come to the conversion at Calvary. It is the account of the salvation of a crucified thief.
The story of this thief on the cross is not in Matthew, Mark or John.  It is only in Luke so 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, it leaves us wanting more. 
At first glance, it seems a bit brief and perhaps not very revealing. I would like to know more about this man.  What was his crime? Who was he as a person?   
But I think you will find by the time we’re done that we are provided much more than we realize. 
Luke 23:33-43 is our text
There are so many ironies at Calvary that is difficult to list them all. 
For instance, here is Jesus being mocked because He can’t save anyone including Himself, and yet He is saving a thief by not saving Himself.
Jesus is accused of claiming to be a King and as such a threat to Rome and Caesar, a threat to Roman authority.  Therefore He must be executed before He can lead a revolt. And yet, the same people who are killing Him to protect Rome make fun of Him because He is powerless and helpless.
He is sarcastically treated like a King yet in reality He is God’s true King.
He is accused of blasphemy against God by those who blaspheme Him, the true God. So the blasphemers accuse the one being blasphemed of blasphemy.
It is also ironic that He the innocent is executed by the guilty.  It is also somewhat ironic that He is cursed by His enemies who hate Him but cursed in an infinitely greater way by His Father who loves Him.
He appears unable to save Himself or anyone else, yet by being unwilling to save Himself He becomes the Savior of the world.
He, the one who gives life, is now dying so those who are dead might have life.
Perhaps the greatest irony of all is 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 at the same time they are rejecting the one true Lamb of God who alone can take away the sin of the world.
While they are busy killing the lambs that 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 the power of Pharaoh in Egypt. It was really far more than that. That really wasn’t what the Passover was. It was so much 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?
During the days of Moses, Israel was held in Egyptian bondage.  God sends Moses to lead His children out of Egypt.  The Word came from God that He was going to come in sweeping judgment on both Egyptian and Jews.
The only people who would be protected from that judgment would be those who put the blood of the Lamb on the doorpost and the lintel.  Otherwise the judgment of God would hit that house and take the life of the firstborn. And God did not discriminate between the Jews and the Egyptians. He would take the life of any firstborn. He would bring wrath and judgment on any household that was not covered by the blood of the Passover Lamb.
Therefore, the night of the Passover, was not really about deliverance from Egypt; 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.
And while they celebrated that part of it, they forgot that the real Passover was a deliverance from the wrath of God.
The picture that is provided for us through that is that everyone outside of God’s grace is deserving of God’s wrath.  It doesn’t matter if you are in charge or in bondage, all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.  And all sinners are always deserving of wrath, unless they’re covered by the blood.
And the only blood that is sufficient to deal with the problem is the blood of the Lamb of God. 
The irony was that these good Jews were so intent on remembering God’s goodness to their forefathers that they wanted to get everything ready for the Passover and they had no idea what was going on at the 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. Everybody had a twisted and perverted understanding of what was happening.
But 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 thief on the cross
Now it’s a very personal story about one man. But it’s also the pattern for the story of everyone who is saved.  You might read the story and say, “Well, it’s just a detail from the crucifixion about one man who found grace in the sight of God. 
But if you take the time to think about it what you discover is that this man’s story has so much more in it than at first meets the eye. It is a personal story but it is everyone’s story because it is how all sinners come. And so it’s your story and my story if you’re a believer.
So let’s look at his story and see what it tells us about ourselves.     
The scene begins to unfold at nine o’clock in the morning when Jesus is crucified.  This thief and the other one being crucified are a part of the comedy.  They’re fully involved in the blasphemy led and orchestrated by the Jewish leaders.
Verse 39 tells us one of the thieves is shouting at Jesus, but other gospel writers let us know that initially both were involved.  And even though they’re hanging on the cross enduring the same suffering that Jesus Himself was enduring physically, even though they’re in excruciating agony themselves, they’ve got enough energy to hurl abuse and blasphemy at Jesus.
That’s how powerful and infectious the hatred and disdain of that moment was.  They’re dying and yet they will use their last bit of energy to mock the Savior. 
But at some point, something happens.  Here in Luke’s account, one of them suddenly grows silent and only one is shouting at Him.
As the hours passed on the cross, one of the two has a massive transformation. He makes a one hundred eighty degree turn and suddenly his taunting goes silent.
And while his body is in the unparalleled suffering of crucifixion, his mind, perhaps foggy from the sedation and pain and shock, suddenly grows stone cold sober and he has this unbelievable moment of clarity and perception.  
And all of a sudden he turns to this other thief and rebukes him for doing what he had just been doing. What has happened? I’ll tell you what has happened:
The miracle of salvation has begun.  There is no other explanation. Now remember, this thief would have been the most wretched of men. He would have been the worst in attendance in the eyes of the Jews.  The religious Jews would have seen him as unredeemable. This is a wicked man.
But all of a sudden, in a 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. He is hanging there hurling abuse at Jesus with the same mocking sarcasm, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us.”
And it must have shocked him to hear from the other side of Jesus this response he is given. 
verse 40
 This must have been a shock to the other thief who was hurling the abuse. What happened to you?
Let’s think about that.  What has happened? As I said last week, Jesus was no different from this man in regard to the crucifixion. Whatever these criminals endured, Jesus did also. 
But there is a companion thought.  Whatever happened to this man is what happens to every person who is saved.  So what happened to him on that cross is what happens to us.  So what was it?
Let me give you four things that occurred demonstrating his salvation.   
The first evidence that God is doing a work of conversion is
1. The Fear of God
Verse 40
When someone gets saved, Paul said 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 an understanding that God is to be feared.  I find it interesting that he’s not looking for someone to get him off the cross or 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 but what’s going to happen to him when he comes to the throne of God.
I would speculate that he is a Jew, raised to understand God and the law of God and the lioness of God. And now here he hangs about to enter eternity.  He is a tried and proven violator of God’s law and he’s dying a death that is just, and he knows it and admits it. 
And he understands that if this is what men do to 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.
And to make matters worse, in addition to all that He had done to get him to where he was, he can now add blasphemy to the list because of what he’s just been saying to Jesus.    
And from this place of clarity, he responds to the other thief in verse 40. 
They were 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?
And I can tell you from my experience, that puts him way ahead of many that I’ve talked to about salvation.  They have no fear of God.  This thief who is still hurling abuse at Jesus has no fear of God like all other sinners. It is characteristic of the lost not to fear God. Instead they will say, “Well I’ve lived a pretty good life, certainly God will take me to heaven.”
But the sinner who comes to salvation has been brought by the power of the Spirit of God to a fear of divine judgment. 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 better fear God.
That’s the message. And it’s always a part of
genuine salvation.  And all of a sudden this man 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
2.  A Personal Awareness of Sin. 
Those two always go together. The fear of God, coupled with the sense of one’s guilt.
Verse 41
He says, “I’m a lawbreaker and I know it.” He’s guilty. He’s aware of his sinfulness. He’s, in a sense, saying, “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 deserves. 
No excuses. He’s not saying, “You know, I was led astray. There were evil influences in my life. I was molested when I was four.  My daddy left us when I was little,” 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.”
The true convert pleads nothing but confesses his utter guilt and absolute bankruptcy. He has nothing to offer God.  He needs mercy and grace and he knows it.  He’s nothing but an unworthy sinner and it’s never been this clear before.
And by the way, the reason he can see it so clearly now is because he’s in the presence of Jesus.  Sin never becomes as clear to the sinner as when he’s in the presence of righteousness. Like Isaiah in the presence of God who is holy, holy, holy, said, “Damn me for I am a man of unclean lips.” He had a clear perception of the judgment of God to which he was deserving and a clear perception of his great guilt.
There’s a third element that becomes an evidence for us of the work of God in his heart and that is 
3. Belief in Christ
End of verse 41
Here he does what every 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.”
And here the story moves from an assessment of his condition to an assessment of Jesus Christ. And please note that he goes beyond saying, “Jesus isn’t guilty of the crime for which he’s being crucified.” That’s not what he says.  He said, “He has done nothing wrong.”
Now 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. 
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.
And now maybe with some of that knowledge or maybe void of that knowledge this man comes 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 in the righteousness of Christ.
And in response to that recognition, notice what he says:
verse 42
What’s he asking for? In a word, forgiveness. How is he ever going to get in the Kingdom if he’s not forgiven?
Did he know that the Old Testament said, “Who is a pardoning God like You?” Maybe. Did he know God was by nature willing to forgive? If he knew anything about the Old Testament, he knew that. I don’t know what all he knew about God, but what he did know is that he needed forgiveness and he couldn’t do anything to help himself. 
So why did it come to his mind to ask Jesus to remember him in the kingdom?  Why did that come into his mind?  I think it is because of what he had just heard Jesus say.  Just before this Jesus had said to God, “Father, forgive them.”
And he knew enough about God to know that God was a forgiving God and now that he is clear on who Jesus is, as the Messiah of God, the Christ of God, the Promised King, the Promised Messiah, and having heard Jesus ask the Father to give forgiveness to these people who were right there blaspheming Him, he is now asking if he couldn’t be one of those recipients.
And so he concludes if there’s forgiveness, if there’s grace, if there’s mercy available from God to people who are doing this, maybe there can be grace and mercy and forgiveness for me. Maybe I could be one of those to receive that forgiveness.
And by the way, he has a fairly comprehensive understanding of the Messiah because he says, “Remember me when You come in Your Kingdom.”
He knew Messiah would be a king. 
He knew his Old Testament.  What did the Old Testament teach? That Messiah would come and establish a Kingdom fulfilling all the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament. 
He knew Messiah would set up His throne in Jerusalem from which He would rule the world. The world would be filled with knowledge and peace and He would rule with a rod of iron in righteousness in glory. He has messianic understanding. He understands that the Messiah will bring a Kingdom.
And so, he says, “Remember me when You come in Your Kingdom.”
And by the way, since nobody survived crucifixion he believed in the resurrection. He believed that Jesus would die and be resurrected and bring His Kingdom. That’s pretty good Christology. That’s exactly what he is saying. Remember me when You come in Your Kingdom. He is saying, “This isn’t the end of You.” He’s convinced.
And the answer that Jesus gives him is absolutely astonishing.
Verse 43, “And He said to him, ‘Truly I say to you,’” Truly I say to you, why does He add the truly?
Because this is so hard to believe.  In fact, this is really impossible to believe. After all, Jesus is hanging on a cross and what Jesus says to him is outrageous.
He says, “Truly I say to you,” and He throws “truly” in there because it’s just too hard to believe, “Today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
Now if Jesus would have been a Roman Catholic, He would have said, “Yes, maybe by the time the Kingdom comes you’ll be out of Purgatory.” Or if he had been in the Jewish system of works he would have had to have said, “You know what? I like your attitude but you don’t have time to earn your way in, you’re about dead. There’s not much hope for you.”
If He’d been like a lot of Baptists He could have said, “Today, maybe I’ll make you a place in paradise out on the outskirts and as you demonstrate some spiritual development up there, we’ll move you closer to town.  Once you come three Sunday in a row we’ll see about getting you in.”
No. “Today you shall be,” what are the next two words? “With Me.”
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. But Jesus promise is today, you will be with Me in paradise. 
Paradise.  It’s the old Persian word for garden. It’s a synonym for heaven. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul says in verse 2, “I was caught up to the third heaven.” And in verse 4 he says, “He was caught up to paradise.”
The first heaven is atmospheric;  the second heaven is celestial; but the third heaven is the dwelling place of God!  The first you see by day; the second you see by night, the third you see by faith. 
Paradise! Heaven! The abode of God. 
That’s what Jesus is promising! He’s not saying anything other than you’re going to be with Me in heaven today. There’s no waiting time, there’s no transitional place. Absent from the body, present with the Lord, to depart and be with Christ.
If that’s not a 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.
What an amazing turn of events!  Can you imagine how that response must have overwhelmed this man?  Here he is dying on a cross, burdened now with the guilt and weight of his own sinfulness in the presence of God, and in desperation makes an appeal for some mercy someday, and Jesus just tells him, “Today, you’ll be there with Me.”
Heaven is not a place where you can go and see Jesus. Heaven is a place where you’ll be with Him. He’ll make His abode with you. He asked for a place in a future Kingdom, and Christ gave him a place in His presence that day and forever after.
Instant heaven. He believed in an earthly Kingdom, a Messianic Kingdom. He believed the Kingdom would be populated by saints and ruled by the Messiah. He believed Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus was the Savior, Jesus was the righteous One, Jesus offered gracious forgiveness and he asked for that forgiveness and received it.
So the mockers are wrong. He can save, but to save others, He has to give up His own life.
This is the story of one man and it’s our story. Or at least it can be.  If you will come to grips with the wrath of God and the reality of sin and the truth of Christ and ask for forgiveness and grace, you will discover that Jesus is so eager to answer that as soon as you ask He’ll say, “You can be with me in paradise.”
Let’s pray
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