The Face of Forgiveness: The Thief Part 1
by John Lowe
(Laurens SC, USA)
Series: Going to Jerusalem
Title: The Face of Forgiveness: The Thief
Text: (Luke 23:39-43)
Scripture Reading: Luke 23:26-43
Everything about Jesus’ death was designed to bring Him suffering and shame. His enemies crucified Him between two thieves for the purpose of humiliating Him. They wanted to present Him as a common criminal dying with His kind. But, as usual, Jesus turned the evil plans of His enemies into something good. The presence of these condemned men provided Him with an opportunity to demonstrate His grace and forgiveness.
Though the two thieves came to the cross from a common background, and had perhaps been companions in sin, they responded to their situation differently. While at first, both of them joined the crowd in ridiculing Jesus, one of them soon made a dramatic change in his attitude toward Jesus. The way that Jesus responded to the abuse being heaped upon Him convicted the thief. It convicted him of his own guilt and of Jesus’ innocence. The thief knew that he and his companion deserved death because of their guilt. He also knew that Jesus was innocent of the charges brought against Him. He could see that Jesus was different.
He was out of place hanging on that cross. The way that Jesus was praying probably made an impression too. He said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” How could a man have such confidence in God in these circumstances? There was just something about the way He said the word “Father.”
And surely He must be different to have such an attitude of forgiveness toward those who were crucifying Him. All of these impressions led to the thief’s appeal.“Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” It was not a very strong appeal, but it was directed to the right person. Beneath this simple request was an unspoken plea for forgiveness. This very day this thief who was not fit to live on earth, according to the Roman government, went to be with the Lord. This man was a bad thief, not a good one, but because of his faith in the Son of God he became a saved thief. In mercy and love Jesus answered the thief’s request, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” Our Lord made this remarkable statement that the thief would be with Him in Paradise that very day.
Those two thieves had been arrested for the same crime, tried for the same crime, condemned for the same crime, and were dying for the same crime. What was the difference between them? There wasn’t any—both were thieves. The difference lies in the fact that one thief believed in Jesus Christ and the other didn’t.
This incident is a beautiful example of divine forgiveness. Forgiveness is the removal of our sins so they are no longer a factor in God’s dealings with us. We have no greater need than the assurance of God’s forgiveness. There are two words that can be used to describe the Lord’s forgiveness; full and free.
We will consider first the fullness of the divine forgiveness that is on display.
God’s forgiveness is full in that He forgives all kinds of sins.
Because of this man’s reputation as a thief, he was sentenced to death on a cross. He was probably guilty of many other kinds of sins as well. He may have broken all of the Ten Commandments along the way! When you find people burdened with guilt, ask them, “Have you ever done anything you feel God cannot forgive?” You will be surprised by the things that people feel God cannot forgive: for one person adultery seems unforgivable, for another homosexuality, for another divorce, for another murder, and I could go on. The account of Jesus’ forgiveness of the thief shows us that God forgives all kinds of sins.
God’s forgiveness is shown to be full in that He forgives all sins regardless of the number.
Can we accumulate so many sins that God cannot forgive them all? Are there a certain number of sins that mark the limit of divine forgiveness? The story of the thief is a witness to the fullness of God’s forgiveness. God can forgive a multitude of sins as easily as He can forgive one sin. However, before we could have this forgiveness, God had to send His Son as a sacrificial lamb. When Jesus died on the cross, He died for everyone. His death covered all our transgressions. Isaiah realized this truth when he prophesied, “Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the Lord, “Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They shall be as wool.”
This reminds me of a story I recently read. Aaron Burr was a grandson of the great Jonathan Edwards, who, on occasion, conducted meetings at Princeton, where Aaron Burr was a student. There was a great spiritual movement in the school. One night when Jonathan Edwards preached on the subject, “The Mastery of Jesus,” Aaron Burr was deeply stirred, and he went to the room of one of his professors to talk to him about making a decision for Jesus. The professor urged him not to make a decision under any sort of emotional appeal, but to wait until after the meetings were over. Aaron Burr postponed making a decision and went on to murder a great American and to betray his country. When he was an old man, a young man came to him and said, “Mr. Burr, I want you to meet a friend of mine.” Aaron Burr said, “Who is he?” The young man replied, “He is Jesus Christ the Savior of my soul.” A cold sweat broke out on the forehead of Aaron Burr, and he replied, “Sixty years ago I told God if He would let me alone I would let Him alone, and He has kept His word!”
As far as I know Aaron Burr never received Jesus as his Savior, and so he died believing that there was no way out for him. He lived without God and he died without God. But there is a way out for you and me.
Philosophy says: Think your way out.
Indulgence says: Drink your way out.
Politics says: Spend your way out.
Science says: Invent your way out.
Industry says: Work your way out.
Communism says: Strike your way out.
Militarism says: Fight your way out.
The Bible says: Pray your way out.
Jesus Christ says: I am the way (out)…
And John offered this assurance, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” “If we confess our sins.” Here is another one of the “ifs.” You run into the little word “if” quite frequently in the Bible. For example: “If we say that we have fellowship;” “If we walk in the light;” and “If we say that we have no sin.”
Now here is the right method for bringing together a sinful man and a holy God: confession of sins. What does it mean to confess your sins? The word “confess” is from the Greek word “homologeo,” meaning “to say the same thing.” Logeo means “to say” and homo means “the same.” You are to say the same thing God says. When God in His word says the thing you did is sin, you are to get over on God’s side and look at it. And you are to say, “You are right Lord, I say the same thing you say. It is sin.” This is what it means to confess your sins. This is God’s way for a Christian to deal with sin in his own life.
After we confess our sins, what does God do? He cleanses us. In the parable, the Prodigal Son came home from the far country smelling like a pigpen. You don’t think that his father would put a new robe on that ragged, dirty boy, smelling like that, do you. No, he gave him a good bath. The Roman world majored in cleanliness, and I am confident that the boy was bathed before that new robe was put on him. The next week he didn’t say, “Dad, I think I will be going to the far country and end up in the pigpen again.” Not that boy. When you have confessed your sin, it means that you have turned from that sin. It means you have said the same thing which God has said. Sin is a terrible thing. God hates it and now you hate it. But confession restores you to your Father.
We have seen the fullness of God’s forgiveness, and now I want to talk about the freeness of God’s forgiveness.
Jesus’ forgiveness of the thief exposes more erroneous thinking about how we receive forgiveness than any other incident in the Bible. Surely the Holy Spirit caused Luke to include this account for this very reason. God forgives people freely. There was no other way this condemned man could have known forgiveness. There are four things in our story which show the freeness of God’s forgiveness that I want you to consider.
First, God gives His forgiveness apart from works.
This man had no opportunity to do any good works. How could he? His hands and feet were nailed to a cross. I encounter people again and again who feel if they just do enough good works, God will forgive their transgressions. When they feel the pains of guilt because of past sins, they redouble their efforts to cover their sins with a multitude of good works. But good works alone are worthless without sincere repentance. The thief received the forgiveness of his sins from Jesus as a free gift.