The Convert on the Cross
Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
Sometimes we overlook small things, as though because they are small, they must always be insignificant. But we know better than this. Diamonds are small, yet if you had a mere handful of them, you’d be rich. And if you had one diamond that was the size of your hand, then you, your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren could be rich.
This is our second week in our Easter sermon series. In the seven weeks leading up to Easter, we’re looking at the seven last words of Jesus spoken from the cross. In total, the seven sayings are only 54 words, and the word from the cross we’ll take up this morning is only 13 words. But they are diamonds, and when we see them rightly, we are rich.
Our second saying comes from Luke 23:43, but I’m going to begin reading in v. 32, which was part of Jason’s passage last week. I’ll be starting in v. 32 because it gives us the detail about the two criminals on the cross that become the focus of this sermon. If you have a Bible, please follow along with me as I read Luke 23:32–43 (page 1,006).
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. 34 And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. 35 And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Sometimes physical blindness—the inability to see—occurs through no fault of our own. Perhaps from an injury of some kind or from a degenerative disease, a man might lose his sight. And perhaps a man might never have sight to begin with. Jesus and the disciples encounter a man in the gospel of John who was born blind, and Jesus emphatically states that, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents” (9:3). In short, he had blindness through no fault of his own.
But sometimes our blindness is willful, a blindness that comes from choice. So, for example, might we say that texting while driving creates a certain kind of willful, and also dangerous, blindness? I think we can say this. Or consider this one. I read a book once about the homeless population in a certain city, and at one point the author says something to the effect that if you want to become invisible, just stand on a busy street corner and hold up a cardboard sign that says, “Will work for food.” People might see you, but they don’t really see you. This is willful blindness.
But this isn’t a sermon about texting while driving or the issues related to homelessness. But it is a sermon about sight. More specifically, this is a sermon about what we see (or perhaps don’t) see in Jesus.
We’ve all heard the phrase “to add insult to injury.” At the crucifixion of the Son of God, we see insult added to insult, added to insult, added to insult, added to insult, added to life-taking injuries. In a famous prophecy about Jesus in the book of Isaiah, it’s said that as the suffering servant pours out his soul to death, he will be “numbered with the transgressors” (53:12). In this passage, we see the Holy one of God is crucified alongside two sinners, that is, robbers or thieves or criminals. (It’s variously translated; in our passage in the English Standard Version goes with two criminals.) Jesus crucified with criminals is to add insult to injury, and not only that but criminals who mock him. If at Jesus’s birth a manger in a barn was “no place for a babe,” then surely a cross is no place for a king.
Even though there is a neon sign flashing above Jesus’s head that reads, King of the Jews, they didn’t see him as king, do they? They are blind to the kingship of Jesus. And their blindness, just like our blindness, can puts us in a dangerous place.
But there is one who does see. He was much closer to Jesus than he might have wished for. In our sermon series during Lent, our intention is to be preoccupied with the seven last words of Jesus, and that’s true in this sermon as well. But I want to spend most of our time, not on Jesus’s words (though we’ll talk about them too), but I want to focus on what one of the criminals beside Jesus said. I want to focused on him because, in his words and in his actions, we see that he himself becomes preoccupied with Jesus in the most wonderful of ways. Here are the three things I want you to notice about this criminal: First, his repentance; second, his orthodoxy; and finally, his faith.
1. His Repentance
Let’s start with his repentance. What do I mean by this? Let’s start with a definition. Repentance is not merely being sorry for wrong doings. Repentance includes being sorry for wrong doings, but it is more than that. Repentance also includes a turn of direction. To visualize it, picture a runner in a certain race who is sprinting after a certain prize, but if and when that runner “repents,” it would be like him joining an entirely different race by first slowing down, then setting his sight on a new prize, and then beginning to sprint in the direction of it. This is repentance.
Where do I see repentance in the passage? In a sense, I don’t. But if we bring in the other accounts of the crucifixion from the gospel of Matthew or the gospel of Mark, we see something fascinating. Let me just read the Matthew account.
41 So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44 And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way. (27:41–44)
What do you notice in that last verse? Both of the men crucified with Jesus reviled and mocked Jesus. Both of them added insult to injury. At least both of them did so at the beginning. Because in the Luke passage we just read, somewhere during these six lonely hours on the cross, one of them begins to see something different in Jesus. One of them repents. This is why one author called him not the “thief on the cross” as we so often do but the “convert on the cross.”1
2. His Orthodoxy
Now, what is it that this “convert on the cross” sees in Jesus? Let’s look at his words. This next section I want to call “his orthodoxy.” Orthodoxy means seeing Jesus clearly, seeing Jesus for who he really is. Heterodoxy is seeing Jesus wrongly, which is what everyone else does in this passage, indeed what this man did at first. This convert on the cross doesn’t say much, but what he does say sings with beautiful orthodoxy.
Let me read his words again, and then I’ll briefly mention five ways he sees Jesus rightly.2
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
What does this convert see rightly about Jesus? There are many, but I’ll briefly mention just five of them. First, the convert on the cross believes in a future punishment that will be meted out by a holy God who hates sin. In short, he believes we will all give an account to God. I see this in his phrase, “Don’t you fear God . . .” The point he’s pressing upon the other criminal on the cross is that when you are moments away from meeting your Maker, you don’t stand proud and arrogant, but you stoop humble and contrite.
Second, the convert on the cross sees his own sinfulness. Look what he says. “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 . . .” (vv. 40–41). Notice the word “we.” He’s saying, “You’re on a cross, and I’m on a cross because we deserve to be here. This is where criminals belong. This is right and just and what happens to sinners.
But not all that takes place here is just, not according to this man. Notice how he finishes his sentence. “And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” Here we see his third statement of orthodoxy. The convert sees the soldiers mock Jesus. He sees the soldiers drive nails into his hands. And he sees Jesus return blessing for insults. He’s heard Jesus pray for his enemies. “This man,” he says, “has done nothing wrong.” Perhaps this convert even saw Pilate, or at least heard that Pilate had said to the crowds hours before, “I find no guilt in this man” (Luke 23:4). Perhaps the convert knew about Barabbas (Matthew 27:15–23), another criminal who just hours before was released instead of Jesus. We don’t know all that led him to say this, but we do know that what he sees in Jesus is sinlessness, a man without sin. He sees a man who is, in theological terms, impeccable. This is orthodox Christianity.
Two more. Fourth, this convert confesses his belief in the salvation of Jesus. This is seen not necessarily in his words, but what is implied by his words. Think about this. He’s talking to a middle eastern Jewish carpenter-turned-rabbi who is being mocked as a pretender to a throne (I won’t even say the throne), and this convert calls him “Lord.” Can you imagine? The scene at the place of the Skull would not lead you to that conclusion, that is unless you had the eyes of faith to cherish orthodoxy.
Fifth and finally, he saw a future kingdom of blessing for the loyal subjects of the King. In short, he believed in the Second Coming of King Jesus. Again, in v. 42 we read, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He looks at a man dying on a cross and says, “Though no one else see that you’re the King, I do. And when you come again and when you make things right, remember me.”
In summary, this convert on the cross is preoccupied with Jesus, and though few in number his words are teeming with rich orthodoxy. He sees Jesus rightly. Again . . .
- He believes all give an account to a holy God.
- He believes in his own sinfulness.
- He believes in the sinlessness of Jesus.
- He believes in the salvation of Jesus.
- He believes in the Second Coming of Jesus.
His hands may be holding nails, but his heart is holding diamonds.
Last year a movie version of the famous book Ben-Her was released. In the movie, this thief on the cross was a zealot, that is, someone so “pro-Israel” they were actively trying to throw off Roman occupation. And this zealot, in the movie, had known Jesus for some time and been acquainted with him and his ministry. We can’t know for sure if that’s the case. We can’t even know to what extent they the two, or for that matter three, knew each other before they were crucified together.
But before moving to the next point, I will just say, death bed conversions are real. They happen. This happened. I’d love to say several things about them, but for the sake of time I’ll just say one thing. While deathbed conversions are real (or they can be real, that doesn’t mean you should count on having the chance to have one. You might not have the opportunity. You might die without the opportunity to reflect for 6 hours on the person and work of Jesus, which is why this moment right now, indeed every moment, is a gift to you. Don’t waste it. Besides, who is to say that if you put off coming to Jesus until the end of your life, who is to say that if you did have that opportunity you would make use of it. The other thief didn’t.
We don’t know all the reasons why he persisted in his blindness to Jesus, but in part there was a certain pride that kept him— even in these last moments before meeting his Maker—from acknowledging his need for forgiveness. Don’t let that happen to you.
3. His Faith (and Works)
Let’s turn to the final point: The faith of the convert on the cross. When I was talking about his orthodoxy, I phrased it a certain way. I kept saying, “He believed in this, and he believed in that.” I phrased it that way because orthodoxy is something you believe, something you put your faith in, something you trust.
And when people have real faith, it changes them. When people have real faith, they begin to live differently. When a person sees who Jesus is and begins to taste the love of God in the gospel, he or she begins to show evidence of that belief displayed in his or her life. They begin to do things that correspond with their new nature. In a few sermons ago, we were looking at Luke 6, Jesus said it like this, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good” (v. 45a).
And oh, does this convert speak. In our terms, we might call him a Christian, that is someone who has orthodox faith in Jesus. His “Christian life” is very short, but oh does his mouth overflow with good things! The amazingness of his words are especially seen when we consider what everyone else was doing? They were hurling insults. “Save yourself Mr. Big-Time Savior. If you’re such a great doctor, just heal yourself.”
When this convert makes his profession of orthodoxy, and when he makes his humble plea for Jesus to remember him, he does so against the grain. He does so contra the crowd, contra the other thief, contra the soldiers, contra the religious leaders. He is alone in what he sees in Jesus, but his belief makes him bold and brave. Though weak and dying, though nailed to a cross, his faith has made him strong. What he sees in Jesus must have apparently made the favor of God of more importance to him than the favor of men. Perhaps faith might do the same for you, that is, in the midst of something very difficult, you’re made strong.
His faith leads him even to rebuke the other criminal. Let’s talk about that for a moment. The rebuking that this man does of the other criminal is instructive to us. Let me tell you what his rebuke isn’t. It’s not as though he’s rebuking bullies at school for picking on a student with disabilities. If bullies at a school pick on a child with Down Syndrome—stealing his food, knocking books out of his hands, for example—then that calls for a certain kind of rebuke.
But that’s not what people are doing to Jesus. They don’t know what they are doing in the sense that they don’t know how powerful of a person they are insulting, and thus how dangerous it is. His rebuke, like Jesus’s prayer, is a heartfelt plea to the ignorant. This is a rebuke filled with tears and brokenness and empathy and love! It’s the rebuke of, “I know what you are doing because I was doing that too and let me show what I now see.” The rebuke is not a high-handed, condescending, “I know better; I’m not on a cross” rebuke. Yes, the rebuke is forceful and desperate and pleading, but it’s not arrogant.
The better way to think about these men (religious leaders, the crowd, the soldiers, the other criminal) is to think of them like this: Picture men who capture a full-grown adult male lion (ten feet in length, and over four hundred pounds, and the leader of the pride). They put him in chains made of construction paper, and go up to the lion pulling his mane. They spit on the lion. Then they hop on the lion’s back and beat the lion’s hindquarters with a stick, pretending to ride on him.
Then some guy pries open the lion’s mouth, sticks his head inside the jaws, and he says, “Awwww, now look at this; what big teeth you have. Look how sharp and pointy they are, Mr. King of the Jungle.”
Now you want to scream, “You don’t know what you are doing, people! Don’t you fear God?! That’s a lion. Are you blind?”
Before them is power and authority and majesty and wonder and awe, but they chose not to see it. They think they can poke the King of the Univese in the nose.
Conclusion: The Cosmic Criminal
Let’s bring this sermon to a close. I’ve spent most of the time talking about what is said to Jesus, but we should end by seeing what Jesus says to him. In v. 43 we read the second word from the cross. It goes like this,
43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
That word “paradise” is used in Genesis 2 to describe the Garden of Eden (2:8, 10)—a perfect place, a place without sin and suffering, a place where there were peace and harmony and community and love and work and abundance, and a place where God walked with his people in the cool of the day (3:8). The same word is also used in Revelation 2:7 to describe these Eden-paradise promises given to those who trust in Jesus.
Let me ask this question. If, in one hundred thousand years from today, we asked this convert on the cross, what was the best day of his life?” what do you think he would say? “Mr. Criminal, I read about your story. I read about your change of heart. Is it fair to say that it was an expensive and painful lesson?”
“Yes,” he would say, “Yes, it was expensive and painful.”
“And Mr. Criminal, would you change it? Would you have it another way?”
“Never,” he would say, “Never would I want it another way.”
At this time, we are going to move towards participation in the Lord’s Supper. As I’ve been thinking about this passage and the statement that there were two other criminals with him, I began to notice it might be better to say there were three criminals—the two we know about, the two who are obvious, and then there was Jesus. Oh, he wasn’t a criminal in the same way, of course. But when he tells the convert on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” he can say that because he’s also saying this: “Today, in the sight of God, I become a criminal—for your sins and for the sins of all who would trust in me. And not only do I take their sins, today I give them my perfection.”
In this passage we see Christ becoming the cosmic criminal by taking the punishment he didn’t deserve and giving us the paradise-life that we didn’t deserve. In this passage, we see Christ as the cosmic crucified criminal who will one day reign as King over his kingdom, which is news that gives hope for a bright future in the darkest of circumstances.