Forgiveness can come from an unsuspected source and is sometimes met with odd responses.
An attorney, after meditating on several Scriptures, decided to cancel the debts of all his clients that had owed him money for more than 6 months. He drafted a letter explaining his decision and its Biblical basis and sent 17 debt canceling letters via certified mail. One by one, the letters were returned by the Postal Service, unsigned and undelivered. Perhaps a couple people had moved away though not likely. Sixteen of the seventeen letters came back to him because the clients refused to sign for and open the envelopes fearing that this attorney was suing them for their debts. How profound! We owe a debt for our sin and God is willing to cancel it but too many people will not even open the letter that explains how.
Today’s message is about forgiveness shown to a most unassuming person, a criminal. Many of us believe that a criminal is deserving of the punishment he stands to receive. And that is true. The law is based on justice. But what about forgiveness? And how does that relate to us?
Today, we turn to Luke 23 and see how Jesus treated one of the criminals hung beside him. And in it, we will find some unsuspecting lessons on the “The Blessing of Forgiveness.” Let us gain a context for this topic was we look at the scene of the Jesus’ crucifixion.
Notice verse 32:
“Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And they cast lots to divide his garments.”
“…there they crucified Him,” This is no little thing. Crucifixion was the most painful of all executions that mankind has ever known. Spike impaling the person at the wrists and feet, exposing the victim to horrendous pain and agony. The person eventually dies of suffocation. All four gospels record Jesus’ crucifixion, but none of them go into detail. The reason for this is that they seek to explain why He was crucified more than describing the event itself. Everyone knew what crucifixion meant in the first century. But to us in 2018, we must never lose sight of the fact that Jesus died the most horrible death you can imagine.
And yet even in His agony, he uttered these words over His persecutors: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” At what volume Jesus said these words is unknown. Safe to say it was loud enough for Luke’s source to record it and for the onlookers to react to it. And only Luke records the words of this prayer. Well known was it to the extent that Stephen, the church’s first martyr, repeats it for his persecutors in Acts 7:60. But notice that…
THE WORLD REACTS PRIDEFULLY TO GOD’S GRACE AND OFFER OF FORGIVENESS.
Notice the context that this forgiveness is proffered. It is in the most ruthless, venomous environment. Here, we are told that the rulers scoffed at him. The soldiers mocked him. The sign above him read: “King of the Jews,” but it was displayed out of disrespect. Lastly, the criminals hung on either side of him ridiculed him, one saying: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” Each of these sneers come with mockery of Jesus’ true identity: “the Christ, the Chosen One of God or that He was King of the Jews- most unusual responses to the statement: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Only Luke mentions the comments of the two criminals. Walter Liefield states the reason for this is “…to emphasize the humiliation of his execution and perhaps also his identification with sinners in his death as well as in his life.” Remember that hundreds of years before this event, the prophet Isaiah preached : “Because He poured out Himself to death, And was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, And interceded for the transgressors.” We identify with these criminals from a human perspective. We all have gone astray; all have committed crimes against God and others made in His image. Jesus dying between two thieves is poetic in this sense. Secondly…
ONLY THE HUMBLE AND CONTRITE TOWARDS GOD ARE FORGIVEN.
“But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.'”
Walter Liefield states that the believing criminal’s words “…reinforces two characteristics of Luke’s gospel. One is the innocence of Jesus; The other is the immediate realization of God’s saving grace through Christ.”
What is the definition of forgiveness? According to Question number one of the Heidelberg Catechism, one part of the only comfort you have in life and in death is that Jesus has fully paid for all of your sins. You see, you incurred a debt against a holy and righteous God, through your sinful thoughts and actions. The word in the book of Ezekiel tells us: “The soul that sins shall die.”
But Jesus was sent to bear that punishment. 1 John 4:10 tells us: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” And Psalm 32:1-5 reminds us that: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”
From this we know that the concept of forgiveness in “a covering.” This is where we get the idea of atonement. As one commentator states: “There is a contrast in the kind of covering: when God ‘covers’ sin, he graciously blots it out; when man ‘covers’ his sin, he is sinfully hiding it.” The Romans felt that what this man did was worthy of capital punishment. But
be that as it may, Jesus had the power and love to forgive Him, upon request!
Notice that Christ only says this to the one thief. Jesus does not make the same promise to the other thief who was reviling Him. We do not believe in universalism: the belief that everyone will eventually be reconciled to God and will be in heaven.
But here, we see firsthand what is involved in granting forgiveness here? Truth: “This man has done nothing wrong,”; confession of sin: “you and I are guilty;” and a request: “Remember me.” In this, He acknowledged that Jesus was the head of a heavenly kingdom and that He alone could grant admission.
Notice also that the repentant thief could not do anything to earn God’s favor. He could not serve at the local food bank. He could not witness door to door. He could not serve on the board of Deacons. He could not
even get baptized. He was helpless and in need of one thing: Forgiveness. A.W. Pink puts it this way:
“He had no moral life before his conversion and no life of active service after it. Before his conversion he respected neither the law of God nor the law of man. After his conversion he died without having opportunity to engage in the service of Christ. …Hence we are shut up to the conclusion that if saved at all he was certainly saved by sovereign grace.”
And none of you will be saved except by sovereign grace. That is why you must repent and believe today!
Confession rubs against the grain of society today. Guilt is seen as useless and unproductive at all costs. Very few want to acknowledge their wrongdoing. But Jesus taught us that it is a part of everyday prayer. He taught us to pray: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” And David wrote in Psalm 32:5: “I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not cover my iniquity.”
In contrast, our first parents attempted to cover their sin my hiding from God and making coverings for themselves. This did nothing. Today, people try to cover their own iniquity. They say: “I was mistreated as a child; therefore, I have every right to behave this way.” Or, pointing to others while saying: “I was done wrong,” in order to justify their poor decisions. Or some cite their genetic predisposition, their personality type, their financial plight or something else.
But God has given a special and kind formula for obtaining forgiveness: “repent and believe.” Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would convict the world of sin and righteousness. Our sin can grieve the Holy Spirit. And He is faithful in showing us where we’ve gone astray.
Someone once described a proper response to Christ and the gospel as A, B, and C.
A: Admit that you are a Sinner; Confession. Someone once said that confession is “agreeing with the Holy Spirit.” 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
B: Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ; Romans 10:9: “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
C: Commit your life to Him. Matthew 16:24: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
In closing, notice Jesus’ response in verse 43: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” That term “paradise,” is the Greek barrowing from a Persian word that means “park” or “garden.” It reminds us that God is about restoring things to their original beauty before the fall. The promise that Jesus made was that the repentant thief would be with Him in paradise, the place that God has prepared for those who love Him.
Notice that there is no mention of Jesus going to hell or of the thief paying for his sins in purgatory. Rather, he enjoyed the Lord’s presence immediately after he shut his eyes and breathed his last.
But so many misunderstand how to get there. During an edition of the news program “60 Minutes,” Dan Rather interviewed Jack Welch, the outspoken former CEO of General Electric. At the end of the interview, Rather asked Welch, “What’s the toughest question you have ever been asked?”
Welch replied, “Do you think you’ll go to Heaven?”
When asked how he had answered that question, Welch said, “It’s a long answer, but I said that if caring about people, if giving it your all, if being a great friend counts—despite the fact that I’ve been divorced a couple of times, and no one’s proud of that. I haven’t done everything right all the time. I think I got a shot. I’m in no hurry to get there and to find out any time soon.”
The truth is no one is good enough to get to Heaven except for Christ. We must trust Him and Him alone to forgive our sin and save our soul. The 17th century Puritan John Owen said: “Poor souls are apt to think that all those whom they read or hear of to be gone to heaven, went there because they were so good and so holy…. Yet not one of them, not any one that is now in heaven (Jesus Christ alone excepted), did ever arrive there any other way but by forgiveness of sins.”