THE PENITENT THIEF.
LUKE, xxiii. 42, 43.
And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.
Who can read these words, or consider the conversion and pardon of the dying thief, without exclaiming in the words of St. Paul—"Where sin abounded grace did much more abound!" Here is a wonderful instance of divine, free, and sovereign grace, abounding towards the chief of sinners; it is recorded for the encouragement of great sinners in every age; that they may take refuge in Christ "who are ready to perish;" and it affords a pleasing proof that "he is able to save to the uttermost, all who come to God by him."
Our blessed Lord was crucified with two thieves, and placed between them, that he might be thought the worst of the three. But thus the scripture was fulfilled, "He was numbered with the transgressors," or "criminals." The chief priests, the scribes, the rulers and the mob, all joined in mocking and deriding him; not content with beholding his extreme sufferings, they had the cruelty to add insult to his pains. "Come down from the cross," said they, "and then we will believe. Thou that didst save others, save thyself:" "and save us too," said the thieves; not seriously, but by way of taunt; for, it is written, "the thieves also which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth." O what an instance is this of the savage hardness of the human heart! how dreadful, that wicked men, dying in their sins, should strive to forget their own agonies, that they might join in abusing and insulting the Son of God. A state of more desperate and confirmed wickedness can hardly be conceived.
But behold the grace of God! One of these men is snatched as a brand from the fire; plucked, as in an instant, out of the very jaws of destruction. An astonishing, perhaps a sudden change is produced. He cries for mercy, and he obtains it. He looks to Jesus, and is saved. From being a hardened sinner, he becomes at once an eminent saint; obtains assurance of immediate bliss; and passes from the gallows to glory.
Let us now carefully consider the two parts of our text, into which it naturally divides itself:
I. The prayer of the dying malefactor.
II. The gracious answer of the Saviour.
I. In attending to the first, consider for a moment the character of the criminal, for a criminal he was; a malefactor; a highwayman; one who belonged to a desperate gang of robbers who infested that country; a set of seditious banditti, who were for shaking off the Roman yoke, and who lived by rapine and plunder. It is not improbable that he was a murderer also; for such men scruple not to kill as well as steal. This is the man who becomes the trophy of sovereign grace. For surely it will be admitted that here was no previous goodness or worthiness to recommend him to the divine favour.
Is it not astonishing to hear such a man as this suing for mercy? But what cannot grace effect, and that in a moment! He who in the first creation said, "Let there be light, and light there was," can, in an instant, dart a ray of spiritual light into the darkest mind. Whether any means were employed for the communication of this light or not, we cannot say. Some imagine he was first affected by the strange, total, supernatural darkness, which then suddenly overspread the land—an emblem of the inward darkness which soon involved the sacred soul of our dear Redeemer; and a dismal presage of the dreadful ignorance and darkness which should cover the Jews, and which has covered them ever since. Possibly, the pathetic prayer of our Lord for his murderers first touched his heart—"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." There was so much dignity, so much tenderness and mercy in this, that perhaps it was the means, in the hands of the Spirit, of melting the rock of ice in his bosom. Or, who can say whether, before this unhappy, or shall I say, now happy man, joined himself to the gang of thieves, whether he had not, now and then, mingled with the multitude who heard our Saviour's sermons, and saw his amazing miracles: and though his vices had long suppressed every good motion in his heart, yet now, in the time of his trouble, he calls to mind what he had before neglected. "For a grain of the divine word frequently falls on an uncultivated soil; so that it produces no fruit till many years after, when sufferings and afflictions cause it to spring up." And this may afford a ray of comfort to ministers and parents, encouraging them to hope, that though their prayers and instructions seem for the present to be lost, yet that, finally, "their labour shall not be in vain in the Lord."
Behold he prayeth! So it was observed of Saul, as a proof of his conversion. So we say, with wonder and surprise of the thief— Behold he prayeth! Perhaps he never prayed before, or he had long forgot to pray. Had he prayed, he had not come to the cross; he had not been a thief; for, according to the Dutch proverb, "Praying will make a man leave sinning, or sinning will make a man leave praying." Now he prays; and, most wonderful! prays to him who hung upon a cross. He becomes a Christian at once, for a Christian is one who "with the heart believeth unto righteousness, and with the mouth maketh confession (of that faith) unto salvation." Rom. x. 10.
He calls Jesus Lord, which no man can do aright "but by the Holy Ghost." He gives him this title of dignity and authority, though degraded by the whole Jewish nation, and branded with the name of a rebel, a Samaritan, an imposter.
He owns him also as a King, for he begs to be remembered by Jesus "when he shall come into his kingdom." You know the title that Pilate put over his head on the cross was, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews; and it was put there to intimate his crime, in assuming the character of King, in opposition to Caesar; but he was really a king; he came into the world to be a king; to set up a new and spiritual kingdom in opposition, not to Caesar, but to Satan; and this character he boldly avowed before Pilate. The penitent thief allows his claim, and begs to be admitted among his subjects. He understands also that "Christ's kingdom is not of this world," as the Jews foolishly thought the kingdom of the Messiah was to be; and this was their fatal mistake; for on this account they rejected the humble Lord of glory. They despised his mean appearance; they saw "no form, nor any beauty, that they should regard him: despised, nor accounted in the number of men. He was despised, and they esteemed him not." Isa. liii. 2, 3. But the faith of the thief broke through the clouds which obscured his real dignity; and "beheld the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth."
He pays him the just honour of having heaven at his disposal, according to what our Lord afterwards declared,—"I am he that liveth and was dead; and behold, I am alive for evermore, and have the keys of hell; " or, rather, the unseen world, including both heaven and hell. Rev. i. 18. The dying thief believed this, and his prayer was the language of faith, a confidential address to the Saviour.
Observe also the modesty of his application. 'Remember me: not prefer me to honour in thy kingdom, as the two ambitious disciples had formerly requested; but simply, remember me! he does not dictate how, or in what manner; he leaves it all to the Lord; but he commits his cause, his soul, to Christ; and, no doubt, with some degree of that satisfaction which St. Paul expressed in the view of death, "I know in whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day," 2 Tim. i. 12. It was a request like that which Joseph made to the butler, (Gen. xl. 14.) "think on me, when it shall be well with thee; yet did not the chief butler remember Joseph, but forgot him." The poor thief succeeded better; he was remembered, and saved; for Jesus never said to any soul, "Seek me in vain." "Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved."
As the case of this man was singular and extraordinary, so he gave very singular and extraordinary proofs of his sincerity. The professions of repentance and faith, first made in the hour of distress, and in the prospect of death, are often uncertain, and may justly be suspected. Too many who, in the expectation of death, have seemed to be much in earnest and gave great hopes to Christian friends of a real change, have proved by their conduct when they recovered, that they were not sincere; for the vilest of men generally respect religion in their dying hours. But the penitent thief was enabled to give the most satisfactory evidence of sincerity; and the answer of Christ to him puts it beyond a doubt. Observe now the marks of his sincerity.
(1.) He reproves sin in his comrade, especially his sin in reviling Christ—"Dost thou not fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?" Persecutors of Christ, in his person, or in his members, awfully prove their want of the fear of God: and every sin is greatly aggravated by that hardness of heart which persists in it, even in the time of sore affliction. True repentance will always occasion a sincere hatred to sin. True grace will ever make a man feel for others. The love of God and the love of man are always united. The true penitent will say with penitent David, "Then will I teach transgressors thy ways, and sinners shall be converted unto thee." Psalm li. 13.
(2.) He condemns himself, and admits the justice of God and of the magistrate in bringing him to the fatal tree—we suffer justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds—shameful and painful as our death is, it is no more than we deserve. A just sense of sin will make a sufferer patient. He will say— "against thee, thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and clear when thou judgest." Psalm, li. 4.
(3.) He vindicates Christ—"But this man hath done nothing amiss." The Jewish courts had condemned him to death as the vilest of miscreants, and the whole multitude had cried— "Crucify him, crucify him;" but the thief, more honest and better taught than they, justifies his whole character; and truly says—"he hath done nothing amiss." Thus, in the face of all his infamous and powerful slanderers, he declares the innocence of Jesus, who was, indeed, "holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners."
Thus was clearly manifested the reality of that great and gracious change which had taken place in his heart. He was evidently enlightened in the knowledge of Christ; he was convinced of his sin and misery; he was humbled for it; he reproved sin in his neighbour; he honoured the character of Christ; he owned him as Lord, and King, and Saviour; and he commits his departing spirit into his faithful hands. What wonders of grace were crowded into this small place, enabling him, in a few minutes, to give more glory to Christ than many do in the whole course of their lives!
II. Let us now proceed to consider the gracious answer of our Saviour to his dying request. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, to-day shalt thou be with me in paradise.
Recollect, my friends, the situation of our Lord when he made this answer. Call to mind his personal sufferings at the moment. Behold him naked upon the cross. He that clothed the heavens with stars, the earth with flowers, and man with raiment, is despoiled of all his garments, and hangs exposed to the scorn of the rude mob. Great was the torment of crucifixion. First stretched and racked upon the cross, while it lay on the ground; then nailed to it, through the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet, with exquisite torture; the tree being elevated, is by a violent concussion settled in the ground, while every joint and sinew is painfully distended, and his whole weight borne by the wounded parts. But "the sufferings of his soul were the sole of his sufferings." A sense of his Father's wrath, and the burthen of the sins of the world, now lay heavy upon his soul. Darkness, that might be felt, filled his holy mind; and in the agony of his spirit he cries aloud—My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Remember, it was during this inexpressible grief, that the Lord of Life vouchsafes this gracious answer. Excessive pain or grief usually prevents our care for others; but the agonies of our Saviour lessened not his compassion for the souls of men. From the moment of his last visit to Jerusalem, when "he wept over it," until he gave up the ghost, tender pity to sinful men vented itself in the most affectionate accents. Witness his parting discourse and pathetic prayer after the Passover. Witness his kind apology for his sleeping disciples. Witness his direction to the sympathising females, "weep not for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children." Witness his intercession for his murderers, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." And now, upon the first application of this poor abandoned sinner, he instantly complies with his request, and grants him "exceeding abundantly above all he could ask or think."
How readily does God regard the sinner's cry! With speed like that which winged the feet of the prodigal's aged father, who no sooner beheld at a distance his long lost, but now returning son, but "while he was yet a great way off, had compassion and ran, and fell upon his neck, and kissed him." God is slow to anger, but quick to mercy; ready to forgive. He discerns the first motion of the soul heavenward, and while the sinner is "yet speaking" in prayer, the prayer is heard and answered.
Observe the substance of the answer—a place in paradise— Christ's company there—immediately, "to-day;" and the solemn assurance of the whole—"Verily I say unto thee," it shall be so.
A place in paradise is promised; a place in hell was his desert, and would have been his portion, had he died in the same state he was half an hour before. Heaven is here called "Paradise," in allusion to the garden of Eden, which the Lord God himself planted, and in which he put the man he had formed. By sin, Adam soon lost his garden and his God. "He drove out the man." By the first Adam, Paradise is lost; by the second Adam, the Lord from heaven, Paradise is regained; a far better paradise; a garden from whence the blessed inhabitant shall never be driven out. Here grows the Rose of Sharon, and the Lilly of the Valley. Here flourishes the plant of renown; here the unforbidden tree of knowledge, and the unguarded tree of life. No subtle serpent annoys this happy spot, any more to seduce; nor shall the free will of man betray him to ruin again.
Jesus promises to the penitent the enjoyment of his own company there—"this day thou shalt be with me in Paradise." Christ, then, was going to heaven, where he assures the thief he shall also be. It is the presence of Christ that makes heaven so glorious and happy. With this he consoled his mourning friends, John xiv. "I am going to prepare a place for you; and I will come again, and receive you to myself, that where I am, there ye may be also." Amazing favour, "to be with Christ!" this is enough. He asked a bare remembrance, as if distant; Jesus promises his own immediate presence.
And, how quickly was this to be enjoyed! "To-day." He had prayed—"Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom." He knew not when that might be; perhaps he thought of some very distant time. Christ says "to-day." How short and speedy was this man's journey to glory! In the morning, he was posting to hell; in the evening, he is with Christ, in heaven. This scripture teaches us a pleasant truth, namely, that there is no interval between the time of our departure from this world by death, and our admission into the realms of glory. Some have dreamt that the soul sleeps till the resurrection; but Christ assures the thief, and assures us by the same word, of an immediate entrance into heaven; that so, being "absent from the body," we may be "present with the Lord."
Of all this, Jesus vouchsafes the most solemn assurance; he adds his usual asseveration "Verily." Perhaps he saw some rising doubts in the sinner's mind. The blessing promised was so vast and unexpected, he might feel so much his own vileness and unworthiness, as to fear he should not obtain it; but, to put the matter out of all doubt, Christ adds a kind of oath to his promise, that so this "heir of promise might have strong consolation." And is not the scripture full of assurances, "that whosoever believeth in Jesus, shall not perish, but have everlasting life?" yea, more: "he that believeth hath," even now, "hath everlasting life; and shall not come into condemnation, but is passed from death unto life." "Wherefore, then, dost thou doubt, O thou of little faith?"
Beware of abusing this glorious instance of free grace. Many have been very cautious in speaking of it, and have rather laboured to obscure its glory, by studying to find out something good in the character of the thief, lest this example of grace, purely free, and granted at the last hour, should have a dangerous tendency, and encourage men to defer their repentance; presumptuously hoping to be saved at the last moment, like the thief. But a sober consideration of the matter may prevent this abuse; while we must take care to do nothing to diminish the glory of divine grace, in this instance so illustriously displayed. It has been often and justly observed, “We have but one such instance recorded in the Bible: one sinner converted at the hour of death, that we may hope; and but one, that we may fear." And suppose it had once happened that a person had leaped down from a lofty precipice without losing his life, would it be prudent for ten thousand other people to run the risk and leap down after him? Dreadfully hazardous, indeed it is, for men to presume on a death-bed repentance. "Repentance is the gift of God;" he is bound to bestow it at no time; and can it be reasonably expected at the close of a life of sin and rebellion? Let it be considered how many die suddenly, without a moment's warning; how many die on their beds, who are so flattered by their disorder or their friends, that they have no expectation at all of death. Others die in the delirium of a fever; or are otherwise disabled, by extreme agony or weakness, for serious reflection. And some die hardened, like the other thief on the cross; for, in general, men die as they live.
But behold and admire the grace of God! Salvation is always of grace. Surely it was so in this instance. Sin indeed abounded, but grace super-abounded. Whoever is saved, must be saved on the very same terms as the thief was, "justified freely, by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ;" "without money and without price;" "not of works, lest any man should boast." Boasting is always excluded in salvation, whoever is the subject of it. How eminently so here! Who was it that made one thief to differ from the other? Bishop Hall says, "Lord, he could not have spoken this to thee, but by thee. What possibility was there for a thief to think of thy kingdom without thy Spirit? That good Spirit of thine breathed upon this man, breathed not upon his fellow: their trade was alike; their state alike; their sin was alike; their cross alike; only thy mercy makes them unlike: One is taken, the other left. Blessed be thy Mercy, in taking one; blessed be thy Justice, in leaving the other! Who can despair of that mercy? who can but tremble at that justice?"
Let every sinner, who reads or hears this, know he needs mercy, just as much as this criminal. "But I am not a thief," says one. Perhaps you have not robbed man, but have you not robbed God?" Have you not defrauded him of "the glory due to his name!" Have you not robbed him of the Sabbath, a portion of time which he demands for his own service? Have you not embezzled his talents, which were given you to trade with, for the purposes of his honour, and your own salvation? Boast not, then, that you "have paid every man his own," when you have, in a thousand instances, defrauded the blessed God of his due. See, then, the necessity of mercy, and dread the thought of a double condemnation, the one for sin, and the other for unbelief.
May the goodness of God, so divinely displayed in this instance, draw thee to repentance. Jesus Christ "came to seek and to save that which was lost." This was always his character, and he maintained it to the last. His enemies reproached him for it; they called him the "friend of sinners;" so he was; but not the friend of sin. Blessed be his name, he is "the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever." He casts out none that come. O come and try him. What encouragement is here for him "that is ready to perish;" who has a world of guilt, and not a grain of worthiness! Say, with the dying thief, "Lord, remember me, now thou art in thy kingdom," and he will find a place in paradise for you, even for you.
This prayer will suit the Christian all his days—Lord, remember me. When guilt recurs; when temptations assault; when troubles arise; look to the Saviour. He who "remembered thee in thy low estate" will not forget thee now. Like the High Priest of old, he bears the names of all his people on his heart; and though even a tender mother may forget her sucking child, yet he protests he will remember thee. In return, go thou and remember him.