Text: 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.” (Luke 23:27-43 ESV)
Pain tends to bring incredible attention to things we often ignore. You don’t give a lot of thought to our toes until you stub one of them. It is a small body part, and not even a crucial one, but, in that moment, every effort of your entire body is bent toward relieving the pain in that toe.
That’s one of the many things that makes what our Savior did as He endured the cross for my sake so amazing. In spite of the unimaginable pain, Jesus focused on the people around Him. The crowds who followed Jesus were weeping over Him and He thought of them as He warned them of tragedy in their future. The soldiers pierced His body with nails and He prayed for their forgiveness. He was literally hanging there, nailed to the cross, in agony, straining for every single breath and, when one of the criminals confessed his sin, Jesus used one of those precious breaths to absolve him of his sins.
How different Jesus is from our culture today. We live in a culture of narcissism. We are in love with ourselves. If it makes me feel good, then it is right. If it makes me feel bad, then it is wrong. Instead of searching for truth, we search for pleasure. We don’t care if something is right or wrong. We just care if it is fun or boring.
And it is amazing to see how stubbornly people hang on to these beliefs. So many people have very strong convictions about God and spirituality and the afterlife—that are based only on their own feelings. I won’t even say “based on their own opinions” because that would suggest there’s some sort of evidence, some sort of factual basis for what they believe. You’d think there was a great deal of evidence, based on how strongly held the beliefs of many people are, but it’s all based on what feels right to them.
Ask someone why they are opposed to something. The reply is often, “I don’t like it,” or “It bothers me,” or “I disagree with it.” We have become so self-centered that we don’t even realize that such statements are not reasons. They don’t answer the question, “Why!” All these statements do is restate the opposition. They do nothing to make a case. Funny thing about being “spiritual but not religious”—there’s no one and nothing to challenge what you think. No one can second guess you when it’s just you and your Bible.
Of course, it’s not just “those people out there.” Each of us is guilty of relying on our own opinions, feelings, and desires instead of looking to the Word of God.
I’ve heard a book advertised recently that sounds very intriguing. The advertisements include a couple of lines from the book. In one of those lines, the author points out that, often, we wrestle with God’s will that leads us to do more of something we like, and we call that good stewardship. What is God’s will for my life? It’s whatever I can be successful at.
There’s truth to that. We take verses like “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” and use it to mean that, with God behind us, we can leap tall buildings in a single bound. What Paul was actually talking about was enduring the times when he had nothing. Or we turn to Jeremiah 29:11, “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you a future and a hope,” and ignore the fact that, what God is telling His people through the prophet Jeremiah, is that they would be in captivity in a foreign land for 70 years and, only then, would He return them to their land and restore the promises He had made to them as a nation.
Now, does God want us to try to succeed, to do well in our endeavors? Certainly. But if Jesus used our standard for seeking God’s will in His life—what made Him feel good, what He enjoyed—history would be a little different, wouldn’t it?
Jesus said, [Matthew 15:19] “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” Never the less we trust the thoughts and feelings that come out of that evil heart more than we trust the Word of God—sometimes blatantly, other times far more subtly. If it makes me sad or angry, it is wrong. If it makes me happy … If it gives me pleasure, then it is right. This is nothing other than worshipping our wants, our desires, our thoughts, our opinions. This is nothing other than the “Playboy philosophy” of Hugh Heffner saying, “If it feels good, do it.”
What kind of arrogance does it take to place our feelings over the Word of God? What kind of arrogance does it take to complain that we don’t feel heard, when we ourselves refuse to listen to God’s Word? It is the arrogance that the serpent suggested to Eve in the garden. [Genesis 3:4–5] But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” You will be like God. That is the temptation. That is the sin when we place our wants, our desires, our opinions, our feelings above the needs of others … especially when we place them above God’s will for us. We want to be God.
[Matthew 20:25–28] Jesus … said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” How sad it is that we decide to follow the example of the Gentiles and lord it over the people who disagree with our feelings, our wants, and our desires. How often do we even disagree with God and try to boss Him around. That is not just sad, it is destructive.
Jesus Himself gives us a different example. As the Holy Spirit inspired the Apostle Paul to write, [Philippians 2:5–8] “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Jesus actually is God and yet He did not grasp for the equality with God that was rightly His. Instead, He emptied Himself and humbled Himself in order to die for you on a cross.
This is what we see in today’s Gospel. Here is Jesus, flogged to the point of death, staggering toward the place that is called the Skull in order to be crucified for the sins of the entire world. Is He thinking about Himself? No! He noticed the mourners following Him and He cared enough for them to warn them of their future troubles. In His extremity of pain and sorrow, He continued to serve others. He continued to place others above Himself. He offered Himself up for them.
The same is true of the soldiers. No doubt the two criminals cursed these soldiers for inflicting such pain on them. Jesus, on the other hand, prayed for the soldiers. When the soldiers pierced Jesus, He asked the Father to forgive them. Here they were crucifying the very Son of God and Son of God served them with prayer. He offered Himself up for them.
Then there was the criminal. This criminal had no reason to expect anything from the Son of God. He knew that he had earned the death sentence with his crimes. He knew that he deserved eternal punishment for the life that he had led. His only prayer was that the innocent Son of God would remember him. Jesus served him with absolution. Jesus assured him that they would meet again … in paradise.
Jesus served you as well on that day as the Holy Spirit inspired the Apostle Paul to write, [Romans 5:8] “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” While we were still curved in ourselves … while we were still trying to satisfy our feelings … while we were still busy trying to impose our will on others … while we were even trying to impose our will on God, Christ died for us. Christ, the true God, died for us while we were busy trying to become god in His place.
When Jesus died on the cross, He was thinking of you … each and every one of you … personally … individually. In a way that we will never understand, He took on the eternity of hell that you deserved and suffered it for you. He served you in a way that you can never repay.
And, because Jesus’ service was perfect in every way, it was impossible for death to hold Him. It is as the Apostle Peter said in his Pentecost sermon, [Acts 2:24] “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” After His resurrection, He ascended and poured the Holy Spirit out on us that the Holy Spirit might work faith in us so that we receive the forgiveness He earned for us on the cross.
The Son of God died to serve you and He lives again to serve you forever. He serves you through the mouth and hands of your pastor as you hear God’s Word in your ears and as you receive Christ’s body and blood with your mouth. Jesus invites you to join the criminal on the cross and confess your sin. After you confess your sin, Jesus serves you with the promise of paradise through the mouth of your pastor as he forgives all your sin in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When our last hour comes, Jesus will have the same words for us that He had for the criminal, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Does God have a plan for you, a plan to prosper and not to harm you, to give you a future and a hope? Absolutely. The point that He was making to those exiles through the prophet Jeremiah was that, for as long as they were in exile, they should “5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:5-7).
Does He want you to seek His will for your life? Sure. But that will and that plan are not about you. His will is that, every single day until He returns, you drown the Old Adam—the sinful nature—by daily repentance and trust that you are a new creation in Jesus Christ and seek to serve the people He places in your path with the gifts He’s given.