We are sinners and our sin deserves to be punished by being separated from God forever and, what's worse, there's not one thing you and I can do to fix that problem. What if I do good things? That doesn't change the fact that you're a sinner. What if I go to church every Sunday morning, go to a Bible study every Wednesday night, and read a chapter in my Bible every night before I go to bed. Surely that will take care of it, right?
Well, let me ask you a question. Let’s say you were single and you went to a wedding every Saturday and watched it. You also went to a wedding rehearsal every Friday night, and you read a chapter in a book about marriage every night before you went to bed. So you're going to a wedding every Saturday, you're going to a wedding rehearsal every Friday night, and you're reading a chapter in a book about marriage every night before you go to bed. Does that make you married? Of course not. You aren’t married until you make a commitment to a person. In the same way, going to church doesn’t make you a Christian. You must make a commitment to Christ, placing your faith in His death to pay the penalty for your sin.
In Genesis 3 Satan tempts Adam and Eve in the garden and Adam and Eve sin. When they sin, it breaks their fellowship with God because God can't have fellowship with sin. As a result, sin now passes on to every person who's ever lived. Romans 5:12 says, just as through one man Adam sin entered into the world and death through sin, so death spread to all men because all have sinned. Every single one of us are born sinners. We don't become sinners the first time we disobey God. We're born that way. That's why you never have to teach your children how to misbehave. It comes naturally.
You might be thinking, “then what's the big deal?” If we're all sinners then we are all in the same boat so what’s the problem? The problem is that there is a penalty that comes with sin. Romans 6:23 says the wages of sin is death. This is more than physical death. Sin also brings spiritual death meaning that we are separated from having fellowship with God. Worse yet, ultimately, sin brings eternal death in which we are separated from God forever. Sin is a serious problem and it is because of our sin that God sent His Son, Jesus, to die in our place to pay the penalty for our sin.
Remember the centurion in charge of the crucifixion of Jesus? No doubt he had seen many such executions but this one obviously was different because at the end of this one this Roman soldier begins to praise God and declares Jesus was innocent. The word literally means righteous. The centurion saw Jesus as the Righteous One. But it wasn’t just him. Matthew 27:54 says, “Now the centurion and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus – that’s the other soldiers -- when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening they became frightened and said, truly this was the Son of God.” It's possible that some of those same soldiers who slapped Him, spit on Him and mocked Him, ultimately put their faith in Him. It's possible that it was that same soldier who wove that crown of thorns together and placed it on His head who ultimately put his faith in Jesus. It's possible that it was one of those soldiers who raised that hammer high and drove those nails through His flesh that ultimately realized who Jesus was. It's possible that it was that same soldier involved in gambling for the clothes of Jesus at the foot of the cross who ultimately put his faith in Jesus. My friend, listen. The cross changes everything.
The story of the thief on the cross has quite a twist of irony to it that simply amazes me. As Jesus hangs on the cross, what are the Jewish leaders and His enemies saying to Him in mockery? Matthew 27 tells us that they are saying, “Save Yourself! You say You're the King. You say You're God. Save Yourself and we will believe you!” I find this ironic for two reasons. Number one, He could have done exactly what they were telling Him to do in mockery. Wouldn’t that have flipped them out? The Bible teaches us that He could have called for a host of angels that would have swooped down from heaven and taken Him right off that cross. The very thing they are mocking Him in regard to is something He could have actually done. That’s ironic. But do you know what the bigger point of irony was? As they're screaming at Him to save Himself, He was instead, at that very moment, saving the thief hanging beside Him who repented. As they were aiming their words of mockery toward Him, He was saying to the thief, “Today you will be with Me in paradise.” Instead of saving Himself, He saved the thief. Instead of saving Himself, He saved you and He saved me.
When the thief on the cross besides Jesus repents, Jesus responds to Him with the words, “Today you will be with Me in paradise.” I love that for a couple reasons. First, because these words strike down every false teacher there is who will tell you that you have to do something in order to get to heaven. You have to be good enough or go through certain rituals or be baptized in order to get to heaven. The thief did not have any opportunity to go back and do anything good. He couldn't go make up for lost time. He couldn't go do good deeds. He couldn't go get baptized. He couldn't go through a ritual. This is a verse that screams to us the truth of the gospel that we are saved by faith alone in Jesus Christ.
I also love the fact that He says to that thief, TODAY you'll be with Me in paradise. Today! There is no place of pause or limbo. There is no place of purification before you get to heaven. Folks, this affirms that the Bible teaches with great clarity that to be absent from the body is to be immediately present with the Lord Jesus Christ. That promise is made clear right on the cross to a thief who simply believed. .
According to Matthew and Mark’s account, at the beginning of the crucifixion of Jesus both thieves crucified with Him were mocking Jesus. Ultimately one of those thieves repented. All in the space of a couple hours he has a change in mind about Jesus. Now, here's the question I want to ask you. What changed this thief's mind? How did he go from insulting Jesus to believing in Jesus? What happened that flipped the trigger in his mind? The answer is found in a statement Jesus made. When Jesus hangs on the cross He makes seven statements. Statement number two will be His answer to the thief when He says, “Today you'll be with Me in paradise.” There's only one other statement Jesus made prior that and it had to be that statement that got through to the thief. What was that statement? It was when He prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. “ And at that moment, the thief gets it. The man hanging in the middle is my only hope. He is the only one who can save me. And how does Jesus respond to the repentance of this thief? He shows grace and He shows mercy…”Truly I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise.” Forgiveness is a powerful thing!
As a pastor, I have had many opportunities to stand next to a hospital bed, an emergency room gurney, or a freshly dug grave and try to bring comfort to a person or family who has lost someone very dear to them. It’s never easy, but it is always rewarding to share in someone’s grief. However, the day of the funeral comes and goes and before you know it days become weeks and weeks become months and months become years. The pain, loss and sorrow may tend to get easier as time marches on, but it never completely goes away. As I often tell people, “You never get over it but you do, with God’s help, get through it.” Some say you need to take it one day at a time. I think it’s more detailed than that. I think there are times that you have to take it one hour at a time.
Let me encourage you to ask God to lay on your heart today the name of someone you know who has lost a loved one. Maybe the death happened many months or even years ago. Yet, even today they could still use your touch, your prayers and your encouragement! After all, you never get over it. But with God’s help you do get through it.
One day a great theologian was to speak at a Bible College. His presentation would be followed by a question and answer period where young men studying for the ministry could ask of this great theological mind any question they would like. One of the students thought long and hard about what question he could ask this great theologian that would make him speechless. He finally came up with the perfect question. When the day of the assembly came, the student waited patiently for this great scholar to finish his talk. Finally the question and answer session started. The student let several other students ask their questions first. He then walked to the microphone and asked what he thought would be the best question to stump the guest. He asked, “Sir, you have forgotten more in your lifetime than I will ever hope to learn. What would you say is the most transcendent thought that has ever crossed your mind?”
The student was convinced that the scholar would be stumped with the depth of this penetrating question, but to his amazement, the elderly gentleman needed no time at all to respond. He simply said, “Young man, that is easy. The most transcendent thought that has ever crossed my mind is this, ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so!’”
Don’t you hate it when the preacher talks about money? One day an oil tycoon from Texas called the church and asked if he could speak to the Head Hog at the Trough. The secretary said, “Who?” The man replied, “I want speak to the Head Hog at the Trough!” Sure now that she had heard correctly, the secretary said, “Sir, if you mean our pastor, you will need to treat him with more respect and ask for ‘The Reverend’ or ‘The Pastor.’ But certainly you cannot refer to him as the Head Hog at the Trough!” At this time the man came back with, “Oh, I see. Well I have ten thousand dollars I was thinking about donating to the building fund.” After a pause the secretary said, “Hold the line, please, I think the Big Pig just walked in the door!”
Why do we get so uptight about the pastor talking about money? Do you realize that Jesus talked about money in 16 out of his 38 parables and that 1 out of every 10 verses in the Gospels deals with money or possessions? Maybe, just maybe, we need to follow the example of Jesus and talk about money a little bit more. After all, where your treasure is, that is where your heart will be also?
In I John 3:1, the Bible says that God “lavished” His love on us. I like to think of this in terms of food. One of my favorite places to eat is “Cracker Barrel” and when I go to Cracker Barrel, I almost always order the same thing...country fried steak and mashed potatoes (with a side order of okra and fried apples). As the waitress takes my order I ask for gravy on my steak and potatoes emphasizing that I would like extra gravy. I want to make sure that she realizes that I want lots and lots of gravy, so much so that she will have to struggle to keep the food from swimming right off the plate as she rings it to my table. I don’t just want some gravy. I don’t just want extra gravy. I want my food “lavished” with gravy.
In the very same way, that is what God did. He didn’t just love us. He didn’t just give us some extra loving. He lavished His love on us. Romans 5:8 says that God demonstrated His love for us in this, while we were still sinners, Christ died in our place. “See how great a love the Father has lavished on us, that we would be called children of God and such we are!”