It should give us all a great deal of hope and comfort that Jesus saved such a man as the penitent thief just before He went back to heaven. Every one who is not a Christian ought to be interested in this case, to know how he was converted. Any one who does not believe in sudden conversions ought to look into it. If conversions are gradual, if it takes six months, or six weeks, or six days to convert a man, there was no chance for this thief. If a man who has lived a good, consistent life cannot be converted suddenly, how much less chance for him! Turn to the 23d chapter of Luke, and see how the Lord dealt with him. He was a thief, and the worst kind of a thief, or else they would not have punished him by crucifixion. Yet Christ not only saved him, but took him up with Himself into glory.
Let us look at Christ hanging on the cross between the two thieves. The Scribes and Pharisees wagged their heads, and jeered at Him. His disciples had fled. Only His mother and one or two other women remained in sight to cheer Him with their presence among all the crowd of enemies. Hear those spiteful Pharisees mocking among themselves: |He saved others; Himself He cannot save.| The account also says that the two thieves |cast the same in his teeth.|
The first thing we read, then, of this man is that he was a reviler of Christ.
You would think that he would be doing something else at such a time as that; but hanging there in the midst of torture, and certain to be dead in a few hours, instead of confessing his sins and preparing to meet that God whose law he had broken all his life, he is abusing God's only Son. Surely, he cannot sink any lower, until he sinks into hell!
The next time we hear of him, he appears to be under conviction:
|And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on Him, saying, If thou be 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.|
What do you suppose made so great a change in this man in these few hours? Christ had not preached a sermon, had given him no exhortation. The darkness had not yet come on. The earth had not opened her mouth. The business of death was going on undisturbed. The crowd was still there, mocking and hissing and wagging the head. Yet this man, who in the morning was railing at Christ, is now confessing his sins and rebuking the other thief. |We indeed justly!| No miracle had been wrought before his eyes. No angel from heaven had come to place a glittering crown upon His head in place of the bloody crown of thorns.
What was it wrought such a change in him?
I will tell you what I think it was. I think it was the Savior's prayer:
|Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.|
I seem to hear the thief
TALKING TO HIMSELF
in this way:
|What a strange kind of man this must be! He claims to be king of the Jews, and the superscription over His cross says the same. But what sort of a throne is this! He says He is the Son of God. Why does not God send down His angels and destroy all these people who are torturing His Son to death? If He has all power now, as He used to have when He worked those miracles they talked about, why does He not bring out His vengeance, and sweep all these wretches into destruction? I would do it in a minute if I had the power. I wouldn't spare any of them. I would open the earth and swallow them up! But this man prays to God to forgive them! Strange, strange! He must be different from us. I am sorry I said one word against Him when they first hung us up here.
What a difference there is between Him and me! Here we are, hanging on two crosses, side by side; but all the rest of our lives we have been far enough apart. I have been robbing and murdering, and He has been feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and raising the dead. Now these people are railing at us both! I begin to believe He must be the Son of God; for surely no man could forgive his enemies like that.|
Yes, that prayer of Christ's did what the scourge could not do. This man had gone through his trial, he had been beaten, he had been nailed to the cross; but his heart had not been subdued, he had raised no cry to God, he was not sorry for his sins. Yet, when he heard the Savior praying for His murderers, that
BROKE HIS HEART.
It flashed into this thief's soul that Jesus was the Son of God, and that moment he rebuked his companion, saying:
|Dost thou not fear God?|
The fear of God fell upon him. There is not much hope of a man's being saved until the fear of God comes upon him. Solomon says, |The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.|
We read in Acts that great fear fell upon the people; that was the fear of the Lord. That was the first sign that conviction had entered the soul of the thief. |Dost thou not fear God?| That was the first sign we have of life springing up.
Next, he confessed his sins: |We indeed justly.| He took his place among sinners, not trying to justify himself.
A man may be very sorry for his sins, but if he doesn't confess them, he has no promise of being forgiven. Cain felt badly enough over his sins, but he did not confess. Saul was greatly tormented in mind, but he went to the witch of Endor instead of to the Lord. Judas felt so bad over the betrayal of his Master that he went out and hanged himself; but he did not confess to God. True, he went and confessed to the priests, saying, |I have sinned in that I have betrayed innocent blood|; but it was of no use to confess to them -- they could not forgive him.
How different is the case of this penitent thief! He confessed his sins, and Christ had mercy on him there and then.
The great trouble is, people are always trying to make out that they are not sinners, that they have nothing to confess. Therefore, there is no chance of reaching them with the Gospel. There is no hope for a man who folds his arms and says: |I don't think God will punish sin; I am going to take the risk.| There is no hope for a man until he sees that he is under just condemnation for his sins and shortcomings. God never forgives a sinner until he confesses.
The next thing, he justifies Christ: |This Man hath done nothing amiss.|
When men are talking against Christ, they are a great way from becoming Christians. Now he says, |He hath done nothing amiss.| There was the world mocking him; but in the midst of it all, you can hear that thief crying out:
|This Man hath done nothing amiss.|
The next step is faith.
Talk about faith! I think this is about the most extraordinary case of faith in the Bible. Abraham was the father of the faithful; but God had him in training for twenty-five years. Moses was a man of faith; but he saw the burning bush, and had other evidences of God. Elijah had faith; but see what good reason he had for it. God took care of him, and fed him in time of famine. But here was a man who perhaps had never seen a miracle; who had spent his life among criminals; whose friends were thieves and outlaws; who was now in his dying agonies in the presence of a crowd who were rejecting and reviling the Son of God. His disciples, who had heard His wonderful words, and witnessed His mighty works, had forsaken Him; and perhaps the thief knew this. Peter had denied Him with oaths and cursing; and perhaps this had been told the thief. Judas had betrayed Him. He saw no glittering crown upon His brow; only the crown of thorns. He could see no sign of His kingdom. Where were His subjects? And yet, nailed to the cross, racked with pain in every nerve, overwhelmed with horror, his wicked soul in a tempest of passion, this poor wretch managed to lay hold on Christ and trust Him for a swift salvation. The faith of this thief, how it flashes out amid the darkness of Calvary! It is one of the most astounding instances of faith in the Bible!
When I was a boy I was a poor speller. One day there came a word to the boy at the head of the class which he couldn't spell, and none of the class could spell it. I spelled it; by good luck; and I went from the foot of the class to the head. So the thief on the cross passed by Abraham, Moses and Elijah, and went to the head of the class. He said unto Jesus:
|Lord, remember me when thou comest into Thy kingdom.|
Thank God for such a faith! How refreshing it must have been to Christ to have one own Him as Lord, and believe in His kingdom, at that dark hour! How this thief's heart goes out to the Son of God! How glad he would be to fall on his knees at the foot of the cross, and pour out his prayer! But this he cannot do. His hands and feet are nailed fast to the wood, but they have not nailed his eyes and his tongue and his heart. He can at least turn his head and look upon the Son of God, and his breaking heart can go out in love to that One who was dying for him and dying for you and me, and he can say:
|Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom.|
WHAT A CONFESSION
of Christ that was! He called Him |Lord.| A queer Lord! Nails through His hands and feet, fastened to the cross. A strange throne! Blood trickling down His face from the scars made by the crown of thorns. But He was all the more |Lord| because of this.
Sinner, call Him |Lord| now. Take your place as a poor condemned rebel, and cry out:
|Lord, remember me!|
That isn't a very long prayer, but it will prevail. You don't have to add -- |when Thou comest into Thy kingdom,| because Christ is now at His Father's right hand. Three words; a chain of three golden links that will bind the sinner to his Lord.
Some people think they must have a form of prayer, a prayer-book, perhaps, if they are going to address the Throne of Grace properly; but what could that poor fellow do with a prayer-book up there, hanging on the cross, with both hands nailed fast? Suppose it had been necessary for some priest or minister to pray for him, what could he do? Nobody is there to pray for him, and yet he is going to die in a few hours. He is out of reach of help from man, but God has laid help upon One who is mighty, and that One is close at hand. He prayed out of the heart. His prayer was short, but it brought the blessing. It came to the point: |Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom.| He asked the Lord to give him, right there and then, what he wanted.
THE ANSWERED PRAYER.
Now consider the answer to his prayer. He got more than he asked, just as every one does who asks in faith. He only asked Christ to |remember| him; but Christ answered:
|To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise!|
Immediate blessing -- promise of fellowship -- eternal rest; this is the way Christ answered his prayer.
And now darkness falls upon the earth. The sun hides itself. Worse than all, the Father hides His face from His Son. What else is the meaning of that bitter cry:
|My God! my God! Why hast Thou forsaken me?|
Ah! It had been written, |Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.| Jesus was made a curse for us. God cannot look upon sin: and so when even His own Son was bearing our sins in His body, God could not look upon Him.
I think this is what bore heaviest upon the Savior's heart in the garden when He prayed:
|If it be possible, let this cup pass from me.|
He could bear the unfaithfulness of His friends, the spite of His enemies, the pain of His crucifixion, and the shadow of death; He could bear all these; but when it came to the hiding of His Father's face, that seemed almost too much for even the Son of God to bear. But even this He endured for our sins; and now the face of God is turned back to us, whose sins had turned it away, and looking upon Jesus, the sinless One, He sees us in Him.
In the midst of all His agony, how sweet it must have been to Christ to hear that poor thief confessing Him!
He likes to have men confess Him. Don't you remember His asking Peter, |Whom do men say that I am?| and when Peter answered, |Some people say you are Moses, some people say you are Elias, and some people say you are one of the old Prophets,| He asked again, |But, Peter, whom do you say I am?| When Peter said, |Thou art the Son of God,| Jesus blessed him for that confession. And now this thief confesses Him -- confesses Him in the darkness. Perhaps it is so dark he cannot see Him any longer; but he feels that He is there beside him. Christ wants us to confess Him in the dark as well as in the light; when it is hard as well as when it is easy. For He was not ashamed of us, but bore our sins and carried our sorrows, even unto death.
When a prominent man dies, we are anxious, to get his last words and acts.
THE LAST ACT OF THE SON OF GOD
was to save a sinner. That was a part of the glory of His death. He commenced His ministry by saving sinners, and ended it by saving this poor thief. |Shall the prey be taken from the mighty, or the lawful captive delivered? But thus saith the Lord: Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken away, and the prey of the terrible shall be delivered.| He took this captive from the jaws of death. He was on the borders of hell, and Christ snatched him away.
No doubt Satan was saying to himself: |I shall have the soul of that thief pretty soon. He belongs to me. He has been mine all these years.|
But in his last hours the poor wretch cried out to the Lord, and He snapped the fetters that bound his soul, and set him at liberty. He threw him a passport into heaven. I can imagine, as the soldier drove his spear into our Savior's side, there came flashing into the mind of the thief the words of the prophet Zechariah:
|In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for uncleanness.|
You see, in the conversion of this thief, that
SALVATION IS DISTINCT AND SEPARATE FROM WORKS.
Some people tell us we have to work to be saved. What has the man who believes that to say about the salvation of this thief? How could he work, when he was nailed to the cross?
He took the Lord at His word, and believed. It is with the heart men believe, not with their hands or feet. All that is necessary for a man to be saved is to believe with his heart. This thief made a good confession. If he had been a Christian fifty years, he could not have done Christ more service there than he did. He confessed Him before the world; and for nineteen hundred years that confession has been told. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all recorded it. They felt it so important that they thought we should have it.
SALVATION IS SEPARATE AND DISTINCT FROM ALL ORDINANCES
-- not but that ordinances are right in their place.
Many people think it is impossible for any one to get into the kingdom of God if he is not baptized into it. I know people who were greatly exercised because little children died unbaptized. I have seen them carry the children through the streets because the pastor could not come. I don't want you to think I am talking against ordinances. Baptism is right in its place; but when you put it in the place of salvation, you put a snare in the way. You cannot baptize men into the kingdom of God. The last conversion before Christ perished on the cross ought to forever settle that question. If you tell me a man cannot get into Paradise without being baptized, I answer, This thief was not baptized. If he had wanted to be baptized, I don't believe he could have found a man to baptize him.
I have known people who had sick relatives, and because they could not get a minister to come to their house and administer the sacrament, they were distressed and troubled. Now, I am not saying anything against the ordinance by which we commemorate the death of our Lord, and remember His return. God forbid! But let me say that it is not necessary for salvation. I might die and be lost before I could get to the Lord's table; but if I get to the Lord I am saved. Thank God, salvation is within my reach always, and I have to wait for no minister. This poor thief certainly never partook of the sacrament. Was there a man on that hill that would have had faith to believe he was saved? Would any church to-day have received him into membership? He had not to wait for this. The moment he asked life, our Savior gave it.
Baptism is one thing; the sacrament of the Lord's Supper is another thing; and salvation through Christ is quite another thing. If we have been saved through Christ, let us confess Him by baptism, let us go to His table, and do whatever else He bids. But let us not make stumbling-blocks out of these things.
That is what I call sudden conversion -- men calling on God for salvation and getting it. You certainly won't get it unless you call for it, and unless you take it when He offers it to you. If you want Christ to remember you -- to save you -- call upon Him.
The cross of Christ divides all mankind. There are only two sides, those for Christ, and those against Him. Think of the two thieves; from the side of Christ one went down to death cursing God, and the other went to glory.
What a contrast! In the morning he is led out, a condemned criminal; in the evening he is saved from his sins. In the morning he is cursing; in the evening he is singing hallelujahs with a choir of angels. In the morning he is condemned by men as not fit to live on earth; in the evening he is reckoned good enough for heaven. In the morning nailed to the cross; in the evening in the Paradise of God, crowned with a crown he should wear through all the ages. In the morning not an eye to pity; in the evening washed and made clean in the blood of the Lamb. In the morning in the society of thieves and outcasts; in the evening Christ is not ashamed to walk arm-in-arm with him down the golden pavements of the eternal city.
The thief was
THE FIRST MAN TO ENTER PARADISE
after the veil of the Temple was rent. If we could look up yonder, and catch a glimpse of the throne, we would see the Father there, and Jesus Christ at His right hand; and hard by we would see that thief. He is there to-day. Nineteen hundred years he has been there, just because he cried in faith:
|Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom.|
You know Christ died a little while before the thief. I can imagine that He wanted to hurry home to get a place ready for His new friend, the first soul brought from the world He was dying to redeem. The Lord loved him because he confessed Him in that dark hour. It was a dark hour for many who reviled the Savior. You have heard of the child who did not want to die and go to heaven because he didn't know anybody there. But the thief would have one acquaintance. I can imagine how his soul leaped within him when he saw the spear thrust into our Savior's side, and heard the cry:
|It is finished!|
He wanted to follow Christ. He was in a hurry to be gone, when they came to break his legs. I can hear the Lord calling:
|Gabriel, prepare a chariot. Make haste. There is a friend of mine hanging on that cross. They are breaking his legs. He will soon be ready to come. Make haste, and bring him to me?|
The angel in the chariot swept down from heaven, took the soul of that penitent thief, and hastened back to glory. The gates of the city swung wide open, and the angels shouted welcome to this poor sinner who had been washed white in the blood of the Lamb.
And that, my friends, is just what Christ wants to do for you. That is the business on which He came down from heaven. That is why He died. And if He gave such a swift salvation to this poor thief on the cross, surely He will give you the same if, like the penitent thief, you repent, and confess, and trust in the Savior.
Somebody says that this man |was saved at the eleventh hour.| I don't know about that. It might have been the first hour with him. Perhaps he never knew of Christ until he was led out to die beside Him. This may have been the very first time he ever had a chance to know the Son of God.
How many of you gave your hearts to Christ the very first time He asked them of you? Are you not farther along in the day than even that poor thief?
Some years ago, in one of the mining districts of England, a young man attended one of our meetings and refused to go from the place till he had found peace in the Savior. The next day he went down into the pit, and the coal fell in upon him. When they took him out he was broken and mangled, and had only two or three minutes of life left in him. His friends gathered about him, saw his lips moving, and, bending down to catch his words, heard him say:
|It was a good thing I settled it last night.|
Settle it now, my friends, once for all. Begin now to confess your sins, and pray the Lord to remember you. He will make you an heir of His kingdom, if you will accept the gift of salvation. He is just the same Savior the thief had. Will you not cry to Him for mercy?
. . . . . . . . . .
A cross, -- and one who hangs thereon, in sight
Of heaven and earth.
The cruel nails are fast
In trembling hands and feet, the face is white
And changed with agony, the failing head
Is drooping heavily; but still again,
And yet again, the weary eyes are raised
To seek the face of One who hangeth pale
Upon another cross. He hears no shrill
And taunting voices of the crowd beneath,
He marks no cruel looks of all that gaze
Upon the woeful sight. He sees alone
That face upon the cross. Oh, long, long look,
That searcheth there the deep and awful things
Which are of God!
In his first agony
And horror he had joined with them that spake
Against the Lord, the Lamb, who gave Himself
That day for us. But when he met the look
Of those calm eyes, -- he paused that instant; pale
And trembling, stricken to the heart, and faint
At sight of Him.
. . . . . . . .
The pale, glad lips have breathed the trembling prayer, |O Lord, remember me!| The hosts of God
With wistful angel-faces, bending low
Above their dying King, were surely stirred
To wonder at the cry. Not one of all
The shining host had dared to speak to Him
In that dread hour of woe, when Heaven and Earth
Stood trembling and amazed. Yet, lo! the voice
Of one who speaks to Him, who dares to pray,
|O Lord, remember me!| A sinful man
May make his pitiful appeal to Christ,
The sinner's Friend, when angels dare not speak.
And sweetly from the dying lips that day
The answer came.
Oh, strange and solemn joy
Which broke upon the fading face of him
Who there received the promise: |Thou shalt be
In Paradise this night, this night, with Me.|
. . . . . . . .
O Christ, the King!
We also wander on the desert-hills,
Though haunted by Thy call, returning sweet
At morn and eve. We will not come to Thee
Till Thou hast nailed us to some bitter cross,
And made us look on Thine, and driven at last
To call on Thee with trembling and with tears. --
Thou lookest down in love, upbraiding not,
And promising the kingdom!
. . . . . . . .
A throne, -- and one
Who kneels before it, bending low in new
And speechless joy.
It is the night on earth.
The shadows fall like dew upon the hills
Around the Holy City, but above,
Beyond the dark vale of the sky, beyond
The smiling of the stars, they meet once more
In peace and glory. Heaven is comforted, --
For that strange warfare is accomplished now,
Her King returned with joy: and one who watches
The far-off morning in a prison dim,
And hung at noonday on the bitter cross,
Is kneeling at His feet, and tasteth now
The sweet, sweet opening of an endless joy.