#2: Today You Will Be with Me in Paradise” Matthew 20:17-23 and Luke 23:32-33,39-43 (JB)

Today, we are focusing on the second of the seven statements Jesus makes while hanging on the cross (the first one, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” was the text for the Ash Wednesday service – that sermon is now available on our website if you missed it).

So, now we turn to the second statement Jesus makes from the cross. Hear this reading from
Luke 23:32-33,39-43 (JB)

Now they were also leading out two others, criminals, to be executed with (Jesus). When they reached the place called The Skull, there they crucified him and the two criminals, one on his right, the other on his left …
… One of the criminals hanging there abused him: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us as well.” But the other spoke up and rebuked him. “Have you no fear of God at all?” he said. “You got the same sentence as he did, but in our case we deserved it: we are paying for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He answered him, “In truth I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

As I was meditating on this text for this sermon, I kept trying to dwell on those words Jesus spoke to the repentant thief (after all, this series of sermons is based on the actual words Jesus uttered from the Cross. But no matter how hard I tried, the Holy Spirit kept drawing me, not to the words of Jesus, but the words that describe the crucifixion itself. “They crucified Jesus with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.” I just couldn’t shake that mental image – and after more than thirty years of preaching, whenever the Spirit keeps pulling in a different direction than I want to go, I have learned I had better follow!

In the smash Broadway musical, “Hamilton,” which is set during the Revolutionary War, there is a scene in which George Washington is discouraged about how the war is going. This is what Washington sings (raps):
We are outgunned – Outmanned – Outnumbered – Outplanned.
We gotta make an all out stand
(Ayo,) I’m gonna need a right-hand man.

A “right hand man.” That is where the Spirit kept leading me. Why does the story of the crucifixion give us this detail that Jesus was crucified with company – a man on his right and a man on his left? And so I began to reflect on that.

“Right hand man.” That’s a phrase we all are familiar with – we hear it used it in various contexts. Generals, politicians, kings, business executives, football quarterbacks, mob bosses – even pastors . . . actually anyone in a position of power or authority often has a person or two they know they can trust and rely on – someone who is unquestioningly loyal. That person can be trusted to represent the person in authority faithfully, and carry out his or her wishes carefully. They are his or her closest advisors and confidants. Often, the “right hand man” wields tremendous authority behind the scenes. A number of important stories in our Bible feature persons who served as the right hand man to kings, pharaohs and emperors. Often their authority is second only to that of the king. To be a leader’s “right or left-hand man (or woman)” is a high honor, and is a position that would be highly sought.

And right here in our text, as the stage is set for the divine drama to play out, we are told the interesting detail that there are three crosses with Jesus in the center, with criminals to his right hand and his left. As I kept focusing on that mental image of the three crosses, God brought to mind another passage in the Gospels (our secondary scripture for today). In that scene, there is another reference to persons who seek to be on the right and left of Jesus, but in a very different context. What is God trying to tell me?

So, I switched gears and began to study the text from Matthew 20:17-23 (JB):

Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, and on the road he took the Twelve aside by themselves and said to them, “Look, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of man is about to be handed over to the chief priests and scribes. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised up again.”

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came with her sons to make a request of him, and bowed low; and he said to her, “What is it you want?” She said to him, “Promise that these two sons of mine may sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” They replied, “We can.”

He said to them, “Very well; you shall drink my cup, but as for seats at my right hand and my left, these are not mine to grant; they belong to those to whom they have been allotted by my Father.”

This story comes at a pivotal moment in the ministry of Jesus. For almost three years, Jesus had been preaching throughout Israel, going from place to place with his disciples teaching and performing miracles. Over and over Jesus kept talking about how God’s kingdom was eminent – that it was even in their very midst! There was building excitement about this “Jesus,” and people were wondering out-loud if he could be the long-awaited Messiah God had promised he would send to overthrow the Roman occupiers and save his people. Jesus was a rock-star!

Apparently, even his closest friends believed they were on the cusp of greatness! In this text, James and John (through their mother, according to Matthew), had decided that in this new kingdom, Jesus would need advisors he could trust – he’d need “a right hand and a left hand man.” And it might as well be her two boys! (What kind of Jewish mother would she be if she didn’t advocate for her sons?)

How disappointed Jesus must have been in his disciples – they had been with him for nearly three years, and they still didn’t understand his teachings about the kingdom. By their request, James and John exposed their ignorance – or at least their confusion – about what Jesus meant.

Did you notice how the story unfolded? The text begins with Jesus explaining that they were now beginning their journey to Jerusalem – and he tells them precisely what will happen to him there. No sooner did he finish saying this, then he is approached by James and John (and their mom), who ask that they be granted the most privileged places in King Jesus’ royal court! Talk about chutzpah! And how does Jesus reply?

“You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” They replied, “We can.” He said to them, “Very well; you shall drink my cup, but as for seats at my right hand and my left, these are not mine to grant; they belong to those to whom they have been allotted by my Father.”

They don’t know what they are asking… The truth is that Jesus’ coronation as King will take place, not on a throne, but on a cross. There will be “a right and a left hand man,” but they will also hang on crosses, along-side Jesus. As the old hymn goes: “Are ye able,” said the Master, “to be crucified with me?”

Jesus had asked James and John point-blank if they were prepared to take the places reserved on his right and his left, – but they don’t get it. They foolishly said they were. But when they got to Jerusalem and the tragic events of Holy Week began to unfold, they lost their nerve.

You see, the disciples had been attracted to Jesus for many reasons, I’m sure – mostly for noble reasons. But even a cursory reading of the Gospels reveals a far less noble reason they were willing to drop everything to follow Jesus. They were convinced that Jesus was their ticket to glory! They wanted to hitch their wagon to a rising star! If Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah who would finally liberate the Jewish nation and reestablish the monarchy in Israel, they wanted to be on the ground floor – they wanted a front-row seat to this glorious victory – they wanted places of honor and power in the new administration (regime).

There is something unseemly about the naked-ambition we see in the disciples, particularly in James and John. They all followed Jesus because they saw him as the ultimate winner. They wanted to share in his Glory. They jockeyed to become his right-hand and left-hand men.

But things didn’t go according to their plans. The fabric of their dreams began to unravel. Jesus was looking less and less like a winner, and more and more like a loser.

Which raises an important question for all of us to consider. Why do you follow Jesus? Are you a “fair-weather disciple? Are you and I like James and John, eager to follow him, hoping for a share of his glory, but willing to fail him when following him becomes hard? Jesus asks us the same question he asks James and John, “Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” “Are ye able… to be crucified with me?” Are you willing to be Jesus’ “right hand man,” even if it means you must suffer and die with him? Hard questions for us to ponder this Lenten Season.

That is what I heard God say to me through this passage from Matthew. Only then did he allow me to focus on the tableau of the three cross we find in Luke.

As I reflected on the details of this story of Jesus’ crucifixion, I was struck by how different the attitudes of the two other condemned men were from one another. Both had broken Roman law, both were justly condemned, and both seemed to be aware of Jesus’ reputation. And yet their comments revealed the character of each man in ways that couldn’t have been more different.

Let’s think about the first criminal to speak. It seems to me that the one who taunted Jesus may have been a zealot. The reason I say that is that we know there was a simmering insurrection against the Romans going on during this period in history. There was an underground army of those ready to use any means to throw off the yoke of Rome. As you can imagine, the Romans took any threat to their authority very seriously. These zealots were considered terrorists by the Romans, but many of the Jewish people considered them patriots and freedom-fighters. And that explains why the crowds, the zealots, and even some of the disciples had placed so much hope in Jesus.

“Are you not the Messiah: Save yourself and us!” Those word could sound like a statement of faith in Jesus. But it’s clear from the way the other criminal rebukes him that we know the words were spoken sarcastically. In fact, if you read the whole text, you would see that the first man is simply echoing the taunting of the crowd and others who are ridiculing Jesus. That first criminal to speak-up sounds to me like a man who felt betrayed by Jesus. He had bet his life on Jesus being a winner – but now it was clear Jesus was a loser. How foolish he had been to think Jesus would bring the kingdom!

Then we hear from the “Good Thief.” The reason the church has described him as “Good” is because of what we can learn from him about repentance and faith. He understood the true nature of the kingdom of God – a kingdom not won by the sword, but a kingdom won by a cross. If we follow the Good Thief’s example, you and I can also receive entrance into God’s kingdom, and know his glory. What can the Good Thief teach us?1

The first lesson we learn from him is that, if we are to hope to gain entrance into the kingdom, we must recognize that we are sinners, unworthy to stand before a holy God.

This man hanging on a cross next to Jesus understood that he was a sinner who had wasted his life. At this late moment, there was nothing he could do fix his life or to “earn” salvation – It was too late to begin going to church, or to tithe, or to do good deeds. His life had been filled with one bad choice after another, a lifetime of deliberate sinning. And because of that, he knew he was morally corrupt, and spiritually dead.

In Ephesians 2:1-2, Paul writes, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” This man dying next to Jesus knew he was lost. Left to our own devices, so are we. We need someone and something greater than our sin to make us alive so that we can respond to Jesus’ offer of eternal paradise.

The Second lesson is that we need to be converted.

The process of being transformed from a dead sinner into a living child of God is beautifully portrayed in the thief’s conversion experience. This unnamed criminal leaves a lasting legacy of how any person receives forgiveness of sin and inherits eternal life.

It starts with admitting our sin. In the words of the Good Thief, “You got the same sentence as he did, but in our case we deserved it ” The sad reality is that many people are unwilling to admit their sin before a holy God. Only by admitting our sin, or as the Bible says “confessing” our sin, can you receive forgiveness.

After we admit our sin, we must acknowledge Jesus’s supremacy. The Good Thief rebukes the other thief and declares that Jesus has done nothing wrong. This repentant thief understands that Jesus is the King of kings. He understands what Jesus’ disciples and so many of the religious leaders failed to grasp, that Jesus came to establish a spiritual kingdom. It wasn’t until after the resurrection of Jesus that the disciples finally “get” what Jesus was talking about. They begin to preach that, unless we acknowledge the lordship of Christ, we cannot enter into eternal paradise.

So first we confess our sin, then acknowledge Jesus as Lord, and finally, we need to ask for salvation. He humbly asks for Jesus to, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

In America, the Gospel has been proclaimed so widely that the large majority of people have sufficient knowledge about the claims of Christ. They understand that Jesus is the holy Son of God who gave His life for the sins of the world. Some would openly admit their sinful condition, but they have never asked Jesus to be their Savior. They are unwilling to turn from their sin in repentance. Instead, they choose to willingly reject Christ until they are “ready.” But then, they wait – until it’s too late.

That day on a hill called “The Skull,” a repentant thief became the “right hand man” of Jesus – he understood what James and John, and the thief on the opposite side of Jesus failed to understand. The kingdom of God Jesus came to bring is not to be limited to this world – it is a spiritual kingdom – for this world and the next.

And only those who approach the crucified Savior with humility and faith can hope to enter into the Paradise of God, to dwell with Jesus for all eternity.

My friend, which of the two thieves crucified with Jesus are you? One thief is right now walking with Jesus in the Paradise of God. The other one is not.

The good thief was saved from his sin and entered eternal paradise because he admitted his sin, acknowledged the supremacy of Christ, and asked for salvation.

Friend, what Jesus did for this thief, He will do for you.

1 https://www.lifeway.com/en/articles/sermon-easter-promise-of-paradise-luke-23
The points and some text in the sermon following the 1 is from a sermon by Dr. Steve Andrews is senior pastor Alabaster Baptist Church, Alabaster, Alabama. Dr. Andrews gave permission by email 3/7/19 to freely use whatever material from his sermon as I found helpful, “as the Lord leads.” I thank him.

Prayer reflection:

I must needs go home by the way of the cross,
There’s no other way but this;
I shall ne’er get sight of the gates of light,
If the way of the cross I miss.

The way of the cross leads home, (leads home,)
The way of the cross leads home; (leads home;)
It is sweet to know as I onward go,
The way of cross leads home.

(Hymn writer Jesse Pounds)