During these weeks leading up to Easter we are looking at the final words that Jesus spoke from the cross. We believe these words are important because Jesus went through such extraordinary lengths to share them with us. It would not have been easy for Jesus to speak while hanging on the cross so that he managed to get these 7 words (or statements) out and to speak them loud enough for people to be able to hear them tells us that these were words Jesus wanted us to hear, remember and live out in our lives.
Last week we heard that the first word of Jesus from the cross was really a prayer. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Now it shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus began with a prayer because Jesus entire life was built on prayer. And it should not surprise us that it was a prayer of forgiveness for others because Jesus lived a life that focused on meeting the needs of others before his own and he taught his followers about the power and freedom that comes with forgiveness. What’s amazing is that in the second word from the cross Jesus puts this prayer of forgiveness into action.
The second word of Jesus from the cross was spoken to a man who was crucified with Jesus. He said to him, Today you will be with me in paradise. On the day that Jesus was crucified, he was not the only person executed, there were at least two others. On Jesus’ right and left were two men who had also been sentenced to die. In both Matthew and Mark these men are called “lestes” which means armed robbers or bandits, but in Luke the word used for these two men is “kakopoios” which means those who do evil. What is important about this difference is that Luke is the only gospel that records a conversation that Jesus has with these two men and by purposely using a more generic word to describe them, Luke is helping us find our own place in the story. For Luke, these men represent all of us. The details of their crimes are not important, what is important is that they are simply people who do evil. In other words, they are sinners just like we are. Luke wants us to see ourselves in these two men and find our own place in this story.
So let’s look at the story. There are two men who are crucified at the same time as Jesus, one on his left and one on his right. It’s obvious that they know something about Jesus or at least by listening to the crowds shouting at Jesus they have figured out why he is being executed. They understand that Jesus is being crucified because he claims to the Messiah or the King of the Jews. One of the men joins with the crowd and begins to mock Jesus, look at Luke 23:39. He is not genuinely looking to Jesus for help, he’s mocking him. Like the crowd gathered around the cross he is making of fun of Jesus and adding to Jesus’ pain and humiliation by taunting him. What is sad is that even as he is dying, this man is trying to fit in with the crowd around him. Even now he is trying to find his value and worth in the people who surround him instead of the God who is literally beside him. Sound familiar?
Many times we fail to experience the power of God who is right beside us because we are seeking to find our validation or our salvation in the world around us. We look for meaning and security in the things of this world and when we do we are turning away from the one who offers us real life. Now it’s not just this man on the cross who is going along with the crowd and denying Jesus to find security and life, he is really no different than Peter.
Just a few hours earlier Peter had been hiding in the courtyard as Jesus was being tried by the religious leaders. When the people in the courtyard asked Peter if he was one of Jesus’ followers, Peter said, absolutely not. In that moment, Peter was looking to fit in with the crowd, he was looking for security in the people around him, instead of finding strength in the God who was standing before him. We are all like this at times and Luke wants us to see that. We are all like this man on the cross who looks to the world for life and meaning more than we look to God.
But there is not just one man who is hanging there with Jesus. The other man crucified that day is also described as a man who, like us, does evil. This man also understands who Jesus is and he hears the taunts of the people around him but instead of joining the crowd and putting Jesus down, he confesses his sin and asks Jesus for forgiveness. Look again at Luke 23:40-42.
So the man confesses his sin, he says, we are being punished justly, in other words, we have done evil – we are sinners, but then he seeks forgiveness by turning and asking Jesus to remember him. These words, “remember me,” are really a prayer for forgiveness and salvation. In the Old Testament, when God remembered people he delivered them from evil. In Genesis 8:1 God remembered Noah, which meant that God saved Noah and his family and the animals by bringing them through the flood. In Genesis 30:22-23 God remembered Rachel, the wife of Jacob who had been barren for many years. When God remembered Rachel it meant he delivered her from barrenness and gave her a child, he gave her life. In Exodus 2:24-25 it says that God remembered his promise to Abraham and so God set into motion the plan to rescue or deliver His people who were living as slaves in Egypt.
So when this man asks Jesus to remember him, he is asking Jesus to forgive him and to rescue him or deliver him – not from physical death because that was coming no matter what – but to save him for the life that is to come. In response Jesus says without any hesitation or qualification – absolutely. This is one of the most powerful scenes in the Bible because it shows us exactly what the grace and mercy of God looks like.
This man hanging on a cross has nothing to offer Jesus. He can’t improve his life, he can’t go out and lead a better life, he can’t show Jesus just how serious he is about following him. There is absolutely nothing this man can do to earn his salvation or show how deserving he is of Jesus’ mercy. This man has nothing to give Jesus, absolutely nothing, all he does is ask Jesus for mercy and Jesus gives it to him without any questions. Jesus doesn’t ask the man if he is serious about his sin and turning away from it, he doesn’t ask him what he believes about God or the Bible or any other doctrine of faith, Jesus simply reaches out to him in love and says today you will be with me.
This word of Jesus on the cross is an example of what the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 2:8 -9. Jesus offers this man salvation not because he has earned it or done anything to deserve it, and he can’t make up for his sin by going out and living a faithful life, he can’t do anything. This man literally can do nothing but bleed and die on a cross and yet Jesus saves him. Jesus hears the cry of his heart and saves him. This is what the love of God looks like for all of us. This is what mercy and forgiveness looks like for all of us. God doesn’t forgive us because we are worthy of it, God doesn’t forgive us because we have earned it or because God expects us to work it off with a life of service and sacrifice. Salvation is a gift from God and it comes to us when like this man we simply reach out to Jesus and ask for mercy. God forgives us when we simply turn to him and say, remember me.
While there may have been more people crucified with Jesus that day, Luke points out these two men because they not only represent all of us as sinners but they also show us the only two responses we can make to God’s gift of mercy and love. While God is willing to forgive us all, God can only forgive those who are willing to reach out and receive it. God can only save those who are willing to turn to Jesus and say, even though I am a sinner, even though there is nothing good in me, even though there is nothing I can do to repay you, Jesus, please, remember me. Save me.
To that request, Jesus says yes. Jesus says to the man on the cross without hesitation, today you will be with me in paradise. Now the word for paradise here is actually a word that refers to the garden of a king. In ancient Persia the palaces of kings often had within them a walled garden filled with the most beautiful and exotic plants and animals that could be found. You might say it was the King’s own Garden of Eden, a place of incredibly beauty and life and peace. To be invited into the king’s garden was a great honor and privilege reserved only for the most blessed guests, so when Jesus says today you will be with me in paradise, it was an invitation to join Jesus in the garden of the king, the garden of God– the true Garden of Eden which would be heaven.
While the Bible does not talk a lot about what heaven is like, this one word from Jesus helps us understand that in many ways heaven will be a place of incredible beauty and everlasting life. Heaven will be like the Garden of Eden which when God created it was a place of perfection. When Jesus invites this man into the garden he is opening the door or the gate for all of us to enter in. The question is how will we respond? Will we accept this invitation into the garden? Will we place our faith and trust in Jesus and find life – or like the other man, will we reject Jesus and continue to try and find the fullness of life in the things around us? This is the clear contrast we see in this scene. One man looked to the world for life and one looked to Jesus and the one who looked to Jesus, the one who reached out to Jesus was invited into the fullness of life which is found in the presence of and in the garden of God.
Now while the fullness of life will only be found completely in the garden that is to come, or in heaven, we can begin to experience this life here and now. In John 10:10 Jesus said that he came into this world and into our lives so that we might have life and life abundantly. Jesus wasn’t just talking about heaven and eternal life, he was talking about experiencing the peace and power of that life right here and now. Think about this man on the cross. When he knows that Jesus has invited him into paradise, that heaven has been opened up to him, there must have been a peace or assurance that he experienced even in the midst of the pain of his crucifixion. Where moments before this man had no hope at all – now he has hope. This is what Jesus offers us here and now. All our pain and problems don’t go away, but through them we can experience peace, assurance of a future with God, and hope. All of this and so much more can be ours when we just ask Jesus to help us.
So the first word from Jesus was a prayer of forgiveness and the second word was Jesus putting that prayer into action. Jesus offered forgiveness and mercy to an evil man, a sinner, who had been condemned to die. If all of that weren’t powerful enough, think about this. Jesus first words to a person from the cross wasn’t to his beloved disciple John or his mother Mary but to an individual who is described as an evil-doer, to a sinner, an outcast. This should not surprise us, really, because this is how Jesus lived his life – reaching out to offer forgiveness to sinners and love to those people that others wanted to just toss aside. In fact, Jesus was criticized for reaching out to the least likely people around and for associating with sinners, look at Luke 15:1-2.
Jesus was forever getting into trouble because he healed lepers, called evil and despised tax collectors to follow him and allowed well known prostitutes to wash his feet with their hair. Jesus spent his entire life reaching out to sinners and offering them mercy so it should come as no surprise that Jesus is dying the way he lived – sharing his first words to an individual from the cross to a sinner condemned to die, and evil doer.
The question for us is, are we willing to live the way Jesus lived? Are we willing to live the way Jesus died? Jesus said if we want to follow him we have to be willing to take up a cross and part of what that means is living out the words Jesus spoke from the cross, so will we offer God’s love and life to those no one else wants to reach out to? Will we give ourselves to help make sure that those who feel condemned will know they are valued and loved by God?
According to Luke 19:10 part of Jesus mission was to seek out and save the lost and to invite people into the king’s garden – paradise. Is this part of our mission? Are we willing to give our time and energy and even sacrifice ourselves to help those who are searching for and reaching out to Jesus? This might mean reaching out to those who are very different than we are and people who are unloved and uncared for by the world around us. It might mean placing ourselves in situations that are uncomfortable for us and require us to give more than we might want to. Are we willing to do this? Have we made this part of our life’s mission? If we haven’t, we need to because one of the very last things Jesus did was to reach out to the least likely person around and offer him God’s mercy. It was one of Jesus’ final words from the cross, it was how he died which means it needs to be how we live.
Final Words from the Cross ~ “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
1. Read Ephesians 2:1-10.
• Take time this week to confess your sin to God.
• Thank God for His saving grace which is free for all.
• Memorize the verse: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God. Ephesians 2:8
2. In what ways do you try to repay God for his grace? What words, attitude and actions do you think are required from you before God will “remember” you?
• When you think of these things repeat to yourself the verse you have memorized (Ephesians 2:8).
3. In one of his final acts, Jesus reached out and gave the gift of life to a lost and sinful man who had nothing to offer him in return
• How might God be calling you to reach out to the least in our society and those who are truly lost?
• What gift do you have to offer people in need?
• How can you offer that gift this week? Before Easter?
A prayer for this week:
Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. I want to be with you in paradise and I thank you for making that possible. Help me to reach out and love those who are least and last among us and those who are truly lost. May they see your love and life through me. AMEN