Between Two Criminals – Luke 23:32-43

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April 2, 2017
Pastor Jeff Struecker

Sermon Notes

Let me ask you a couple questions about this past week. Who decided what you did with your time last week? Who decided where you went? Who decided what you did? Last week did you have the opportunity to minister to somebody in such a way that it will impact eternity, either your eternity or theirs? Did someone hurt you last week and you had a choice either to forgive or to get even and you gave them the gift of forgiveness? Did you have a chance to serve somebody else in a way that they saw the Holy Spirit at work inside of you? Basically what I’m asking is, were you living out the life of Jesus in front of somebody last week or were you calling the shots? Sometimes I get the impression that we really try in our own efforts and we mess this thing up. I have this image of God in my mind like he’s a movie director and we’re the stars. He’s trying to get us to play out a role in the movie but no matter how hard we try we just keep missing it over and over again. Like a Western movie star trying to play the role in a romance movie. No matter how hard you try you just keep getting it wrong. I have a question for you. I want you to be totally honest with you and totally honest with the Holy Spirit. This is not between you and me. This is between you and God. Who calls the shots in your life? Who decides where you go and what you do? Who really is in charge? Is it you or is it Jesus?

We have been studying for about 18-20 months in the book of Luke. Today we’re in Luke chapter 23. What you’re going to see from the Bible today is perhaps the most vivid picture of a life totally surrendered to the will of God when you see Jesus go to the cross.

I. Jesus gives power to persevere

When you’re totally and completely surrendered to the Holy Spirit, he gives you the power to persevere, no matter how bad or how big the circumstances. If they made a movie in vivid detail of the way Jesus was crucified, the Motion Picture Association would rate that movie X for violence. In fact, if you were to take somebody from the first century and transport them to the 21st century to Columbus, Georgia, it would confuse them to see people walking around with crosses on their necklaces, T-shirts, and bumper stickers. They would say, “Don’t you realize that that cross was a means of torture? Don’t you realize that that cross was a form of execution?” It would be very confusing to them that we align ourselves or identify ourselves with the means of Jesus’s death. Here’s the story of Jesus’s death on the cross.

Luke 23:32-43
Two others, both criminals, were led out to be executed with him. 33 When they came to a place called The Skull, they nailed him to the cross. And the criminals were also crucified—one on his right and one on his left.

I want you to pay close attention to the words that you see. Notice the verb tense in the verses. It’s passive tense which means Jesus is submitting himself to what you’re about to read from the book of Luke today. Let’s never forget two things about the execution of Jesus. First, this man was innocent and did not deserve to die. Secondly, he had the power to stop this at any moment. Luke records for us though he had the power to do it and though he didn’t deserve to die, Jesus submitted to this form of execution. He was willing to endure it. He was willing to go through the suffering. Isn’t it just like Jesus that he would do it surrounded by sinners, by men who were robbers and revolutionaries? These were criminals who deserved to die on his left and on his right. It only makes sense that this is the way Jesus would die, if this is the way he’s lived. He’s lived his life around bad people who were far from God and brought them into a relationship with God. Now the innocent man, the one who doesn’t deserve to die, is being crucified alongside two men who do deserve to die. They deserved everything that they’re getting.

Luke tells us exactly where this thing went down. There is some discussion today in Israel and Jerusalem about the exact site on where Jesus was crucified. The place in Jesus’s day was known as The Skull. Jesus’s language was Aramaic. In the Aramaic language that place would be referred to as Golgotha. I want you to hear something about this church. If you were to translate the word Golgotha, the top of the head is literally what it means, into Latin that word is Calvariae. The name of this church is Gas Chamber Baptist Church, Electric Chair Baptist Church, Death Row Firing Squad Baptist Church. The thing that we choose to align ourselves with to make ourselves known about more than anything else is the spot where a man died, the site of execution. It’s that significant in Christianity. It’s that significant to this church.

There’s something very obviously missing from the book of Luke today. If you know a little bit about Luke’s background, you know that this guy was a medical doctor. Luke is the only writer in the New Testament with some medical training. Today when he describes the way Jesus died, he doesn’t give us any details about what happened to Jesus’s body. The rest of the writers of the New Testament give us a little bit of description about this crucifixion. Luke just says they nailed to a cross and he was crucified. Isn’t it fascinating that the only guy with some medical training doesn’t give us any medical description of what happened to the body of Jesus? Why, Luke, would you skip these details? They seem to be pretty important. I think if Luke were standing here he would say, “I don’t want you to focus on how he died. I want to focus on why that man died.” The reason he died was to pay the penalty for sin. If it were possible for sinful men and women to be made right with God any other way, the death of Jesus was unnecessary. Since this is the only acceptable payment for sin, Luke says, “Don’t think about how Jesus died. Let me tell you why this man died. He died to make you right with God.”

Church, I want you to hear something. The same power that gave Jesus the ability to suffer on that cross and to do the will of God is available to you today too. The power that helped Jesus persevere is the power of God’s Holy Spirit. You have that exact same power available to you, those of you in this room who know Jesus, when you struggle and suffer.

II. Jesus gives grace to forgive

One of the things that the cross of Jesus teaches us is that it gives you the power to persevere but he also gives you the ability to forgive. Jesus forgives even while they’re nailing him to the cross. The verse that I’m going to read for you next is for me the most stressful and most problematic verse in the Bible. I’ve done all the research. Most of these scholars, authors, and original earliest manuscripts are divided on this verse. Some of them believe this verse doesn’t belong in your Bible and that Jesus never really said it. Others believe this verse really does belong in your Bible and he really did say it. There is no way to conclusively prove that Jesus made this statement. I choose to believe that Jesus really did utter these words on the cross. Here’s what Jesus says to the men that are executing him while he’s hanging on the cross.

Luke 23:34
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

Who is the “them” that Jesus is referring to here? Is he talking about the Roman soldiers that are nailing him to the cross? Is he describing the Jewish leaders who orchestrated the trial to make sure that he’s going to die? Is he talking about the crowds that are mocking him and making fun of him? The reason why this verse is so problematic for me personally is because of the significance of this statement. You can’t fake what you believe at your death, Death is the ultimate lie detector. Nobody goes to the grave believing a lie. You will make it known before your dying moments what you really believe. It’s human nature. If Jesus really made this statement, it says that the very men that are crucifying him he is asking his father in Heaven not to hold this against them.

Let me tell you why I choose to believe that Jesus really made the statement. The same guy who wrote the book of Luke also wrote the sequel called Acts. In the book of Acts the very first person who is killed for being a Christian is a man by the name of Stephen. When Stephen was being executed Stephen uttered these exact same words in the book of Acts. Where did Stephen hear those words? Stephen knows, “These are the words my Master said while he was on the cross being crucified.” Stephen, who is a Christian, utters the same words while he is being killed for his faith.

I want you to understand what Jesus is really saying here. If you read Paul’s description of this in Ephesians chapter 4 or if you were to read the exact same kind of thing that Peter says in First Peter chapter 1, what Jesus is literally saying here is not that the soldiers who drove nails through his wrist didn’t really understand what they were doing and it’s not that those Jewish leaders who orchestrated his death didn’t know what they were doing. What Jesus is saying is, “They’re blind by their sin. The reason they don’t understand God is their sin is so overwhelming that they can’t see the truth of who I am. Since they can’t see the truth of who I am, they have no clue what’s really happening here.” The men that crucified Jesus knew exactly what they were doing to this man they just didn’t know who this man was. Jesus is begging to God, “God don’t hold this against them. They are blind by their sin. In fact, the very reason why I’m going to the cross is so men like this can be forgiven.” If it’s not for the cross there’s no hope of forgiveness. So Jesus can look down at his executioners and say, “Father, forgive them for their sins.”

How many of you in this room recognize the name W.C. Fields? Fields was a very famous actor in the 30s and 40s. He made more than 40 movies but he also starred on Broadway and Vaudeville. He was one of the world’s most well recognized performers in his day. However, W.C. Fields was also equally known for being a drunk and a womanizer. In fact, his life was so well known that he was the Charlie Sheen of his day. W.C. Fields was notoriously atheistic. He said, “If there is no God and I don’t believe that there is, then I can live anyway that I want no matter what because nobody can tell me how to live. There are no consequences for the way that I live.” W.C. Fields died in a hospital room Christmas Day 1946. A very good friend of his by the name of Gene Fowler came to see W.C. Fields just a couple days before his death. This exchange between the deceased Fields and Gene Fowler was recorded in 1976 in the Daily Journal. Gene Fowler says he was shocked by what he saw in the hotel room just a couple of days before W.C. Fields died. He walked in the room and saw W.C. Fields reading the Bible. His first thought was, “Bill, you don’t believe that stuff. Why would you be reading that book because you don’t believe what it says?” Like I said death is the ultimate lie detector. What you believe starts to show up at your death. W.C. Fields made this statement in his classic satire comedy way. Fields said, “You’re right. I don’t believe it but I’m looking for a loophole just in case.”

The truth is when Jesus is being nailed to the cross no one asked forgiveness of their executioners unless something supernatural is happening. Jesus at the cross says, “God, forgive them.” He gives you the grace and ability to forgive even the worst hurts. Sometimes the gift of forgiveness is going to take supernatural power for you to be able to forgive people who have done you wrong.

III. Jesus gives a purpose to the aimless

Inside quotes on the side of your notes please write the word “lost”. I think our terminology is a little bit confusing from time to time. We church people like to call people who don’t know Jesus lost. The problem with using the idea of lost people is not completely accurate. In order to be lost, you have to know where you’re going and just not sure how to get there. I think a better term to refer to people without Jesus in our city is aimless. They have no idea where they’re going and no idea how to get there. So, they’re basically just walking in circles. What you are going to read next in the book of Luke is a great description of what it’s like to be aimless. Our city is full of aimless people.

Luke 23:34b-38
And the soldiers gambled for his clothes by throwing dice. 35 The crowd watched and the leaders scoffed. “He saved others,” they said, “let him save himself if he is really God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” 36 The soldiers mocked him, too, by offering him a drink of sour wine. 37 They called out to him, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 A sign was fastened above him with these words: “This is the King of the Jews.”

There are three groups of people at the cross. These exact same three groups are in the Chattahoochee Valley and all over the country today. First you have people who are genuine followers of Jesus. Luke doesn’t describe them but the other writers in the New Testament say that some of Jesus’s disciples were at the cross but most of the guys were cowards and ran away like scared little girls, with the exception of John. The women disciples and followers of Jesus had the courage to follow him to the cross. There are a few folks at the cross who believe this man really is the Son of God. Then you have the scoffers the mockers. Let me make sure you understand who these are because they know the claims that Jesus made and they don’t believe him. Jesus said, “I am the Son of God. I am the only way to God and the only way to Heaven.” They choose not to believe Jesus. In fact, they made fun of him and mocked him. Those same groups are in the Chattahoochee Valley and all over America today. There are the scoffers who know the claims of Jesus want nothing to do with him. There are his genuine followers in our city. The overwhelming majority of people at the cross of Jesus are the same kinds of people in our community today. They are the aimless and have no clue who this man is and don’t really care. They just get up, go to work, make a living, take a family vacation, and then die. That’s who the Roman soldiers were at the cross.

Jesus was probably crucified naked. I want you to remember this when you see those crucifixes and when you think about the shame that that would’ve caused him on the cross. The other books of the New Testament tell us that Jesus didn’t own anything, he didn’t have any money, or anything of value. The Roman soldiers that were on the detail to execute somebody had the authority to take that person’s belongings home with them and try to make some money. The only thing that Jesus had that was of any value was the outer cloak garment. They probably ripped the rest of his clothes off of him. They probably destroyed the rest of his possessions. This outer garment was worth some money. The Roman soldiers would never be caught dead wearing the garment. They would take it to a pawn shop on Buena Vista Road to make some money off of it and take the money home to their family. These Roman soldiers were just doing their job and in the process they had no idea who this man really was. This is the overwhelming majority of our city. This is the overwhelming majority of our country. They get up, go to work, take a family vacation, and they die. They have no clue who this man Jesus really is and what he really did for them. It’s not that their lost. They don’t know where they’re going. They are just walking in circles with an aimless life. It’s up to us to help them figure out what the real meaning of life is and what the real purpose that God put us here on the planet for is.

Probably the greatest basketball player in American history is John Wooden. Wooden is the first guy to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and as a coach. For John Wooden his life was not about basketball. His life was about something much bigger then basketball. Here’s a quote from John Wooden about the game of basketball and about life. Wooden says, “I always tried to make clear that basketball is not the ultimate. It is of small importance in comparison to the total life we live. There is only one kind of life that truly wins, and that is the one that places faith in the hands of the Savior. Until that is done, we are on an aimless course that runs in circles and goes nowhere.”

The people in school with you, the folks that you live next to in your neighborhood, the people at work with you, are on an aimless course going in circles and going nowhere, if they’re not living for Jesus Christ. That’s what an aimless life looks like. The cross of Jesus Christ shouts God wants a relationship with you so bad that he will send his Son Jesus to die for you!

IV. Jesus gives future to the hopeless

There are two very different kinds of men hanging on the cross next to Jesus. Jesus has the power to grant eternal life even while he himself is dying on the cross.

Luke 23:39-43
One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us, too, while you’re at it!” 40 But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? 41 We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” 43 And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

There’s really only two types of people that end up in church. There are really only two types of people that come to God. There are the people like the first thief on the cross who all they want is God to make their problems go away, make their pain go away, or make their life better but they don’t want anything else. Then there are guys like the other man on the cross who said, “I deserve what I’m getting. I know I deserve what I’m getting but I want more than just making my pain go away. I want paradise and, Jesus, only you can grant paradise.” You see many people come to church and they’re just looking for an excuse or way out of their problems. They’re really not in church because they want God for who he is and for what he can do in them. They want God for what he can do for them. What you see on the cross is genuine faith and false faith. You see a guy who just wants God to make his problems go away and then you see the other guy who makes perhaps one of the most profound statements in the Bible. At his deathbed he finds eternal life.

In Jesus’s day people would often write these two words on their tombstones, remember me. Those words meant don’t forget who I am. Don’t forget what I did. There’s a God aspect of this phrase. It means God remember me by taking me into paradise. This was a common phrase during Jesus’s day. I want you to hear what this man on the cross said about Jesus. First he said, “I deserve what I’m getting. I know my sin separates me from God and I deserve to die because of it.” By the way, this is what the Bible teaches. The wages of sin is death. Somebody has to die for your sin. This man believes that Jesus is innocent, righteous, and doesn’t deserve the death that he’s experiencing. He believes that Jesus is able to save him, that he is God, and that he has the ability to grant forgiveness even while he’s being crucified on a cross. This man believes that Jesus holds the keys to who gets into eternal life when he says, “Jesus, will you remember me a sinner when you enter into your kingdom and receive your reward in Heaven?” Jesus grants him eternal life right there on the spot, not because this man deserved it but because of his great faith. Jesus says, “Today you’re going to be with me in paradise. The Persians in Jesus’s day believed paradise was the Garden of Eden. It was the place where God walked with Adam and Eve and experience intimacy with each other. This man said, “I want that Jesus. When you enter into Heaven would you remember me?” Jesus says, “I’m going to do more than that. I’m going to bring you to be with me for eternity in Heaven.”

All of us have a choice to make. I’m going back to this question that I started with. Who calls the shots in your life? Who makes the decisions? Who decides where you go, what you do, and what you say? Even Christians from time to time can start to be selfish, self-centered, self-focused, and we move Jesus off of the director’s chair of our life. We decide, “I’m going to call the shots. I don’t like the direction that my life is going.” I want to ask those of you in this room who know Jesus Christ personally, do you really believe that a God who loves you enough to send his Son Jesus to die for you can be trusted with the affairs of your life? Even if he asks something difficult or sends you someplace dangerous, do you believe that he is a good enough God that he deserves to call the shots in your life? Or, are you directing the scenes of your life? The cross of Jesus Christ also speaks to somebody in this room who maybe for the first time in your life you realize you’re really not a Christian. You might have been coming to church and doing the religious thing but you really never totally came to Christ. The cross of Jesus Christ says, “If it were possible for you to be good enough, to be religious enough, to try hard enough to get into Heaven, there is no reason for that man to die.” Since you and I can’t be good enough, religious enough, pray hard enough to get into Heaven, God sent his Son to earth. God sentenced his Son to death and then three days later God raised his Son back up out of the tomb. The man who once was dead is now alive and with him will be all of those who have come to genuine faith in Jesus. Today maybe somebody in this room needs to step off of the director’s chair of their life and for the first time ever surrender totally and radically to Jesus Christ and to his cross.

Next Steps

• I want to start a walk with Jesus. Today, I commit my life to Jesus for the first time.
– There is someone that I need to forgive. This week I will reach out and try to make things right with them.
+ I will allow the Holy Spirit to direct my life. No matter what he asks me to do or where he asks me to go, I will follow him.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the most difficult or dangerous thing God has ever asked of you?
  2. If God can use Jesus’s death to bring himself glory, then he can use your pain and problems to also bring him glory. Has there been a time God made something good out of bad circumstances in your life?
  3. If you were placed in a position where you would have to die for your faith tonight- would you do it?
  4. One criminal just wanted the pain to stop, the other sincerely wanted paradise. What does false faith look like to you?
  5. Is there someone in your life that you need to forgive? Pray for each other that the Holy Spirit would give us the strength to forgive.
  6. The name Calvary represents the place where Jesus died. Are you currently helping people understand Jesus’s death when they come to this campus for one of our ministries? If not, pray about how you can share the love of Jesus to people on the Calvary Campus.
  7. There were three groups of people at the cross: those who didn’t believe, those who didn’t care, and genuine disciples. Those three groups of people also exist in our community. Who is someone that you are going to invite to attend Calvary with you this Easter? Pray for them by name.

Further reading

Acts 8:1-4

May 5, 2019Pastor Jeff Struecker Sermon Notes I. The Gospel has always been under attack Acts 8:1Saul agreed with putting him to death. On that day a...

Acts 7

April 14, 2019Pastor Jeff Struecker Sermon Notes I. God calls a people Acts 7:1-8 “Are these things true?” the high priest asked. 2...