Christ’s greatest trophy

From “Holiness” (J.C. Ryle)

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39–43, NIV)

Christ’s power and willingness to save sinners 
  • The penitent thief was
    • a wicked man – He was suffering a just punishment for breaking the laws. And as he had lived wicked, so he seemed determined to die wicked.
    • a dying man – He had no longer power to stir hand or foot. His hours were numbered: the grave was ready for him. There was but a step between him and death.
    • then he prayed Jesus to “remember him when he came into His kingdom.” He asked that his soul might be cared for, his sins pardoned, and himself thought of in another world. Truly this was a wonderful change
  • Some would have said he was too wicked a man to be saved; but it was not so. Some would have fancied it was too late: the door was shut, and there was no room for mercy; but it proved not too late at all.
  • The Lord Jesus returned him an immediate answer – spoke kindly to him – assured him he should be with Him that day in paradise – pardoned him completely – cleansed him thoroughly from his sins – received him graciously – justified him freely – raised him from the gates of hell, gave him a title to glory.
  • On the day when Jesus seemed most weak, He showed that He was a strong deliverer. In the hour when His body was racked with pain, He showed that He could feel tenderly for others. At the time when He Himself was dying, He conferred on a sinner eternal life.

Therefore He is able to save completely those who come to God through Him, because He always lives to intercede for them. (Hebrews 7:25, NIV)

  • This thief was never baptised; he belonged to no visible Church; he never received the Lord’s Supper; he never did any work for Christ; he never gave money to Christ’s cause! But he had faith, and so he was saved.
  • This man’s faith was only one day old; but it led him to Christ, and preserved him from hell. Jesus is a Physician who can cure hopeless cases. He can quicken dead souls, and call the things which be not as though they were.
  • Never should any man or woman despair! Jesus is still the same now
  • Are your sins forgiven?  I invite you to follow the steps of the penitent thief: come to Christ and live.

“Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. (Isaiah 1:18, NIV)

  • Are you a true believer?  Glory not in your own faith, your own feelings, your own knowledge, your own prayers, your own amendment, your own diligence. Glory in nothing but Christ.
  • Do you ever try to do good to others? Tell the young, tell the poor, tell the aged, tell the ignorant, tell the sick, tell the dying – tell them all about Christ. Tell them of His power, and tell them of His love; tell them of His doings, and tell them of His feelings; tell them what He has done for the chief of sinners; tell them what He is willing to do to the last day of time: tell it them over and over again.
Some are saved in the very hour of death, others are not 
  • What became of the other thief who was crucified? Why did he not turn from his sin, and call upon the Lord? Why did he remain hardened and impenitent? Why was he not saved? It is useless to try to answer such questions.
  • We have no right whatever to say this thief was a worse man than his companion: there is nothing to prove it. Both plainly were wicked men; both were receiving the due reward of their deeds; both hung by the side of our Lord Jesus Christ; both heard Him pray for His murderers, both saw Him suffer patiently.
  • Repentance and faith are the gifts of God and are not in a man’s own power; and that if anyone flatters himself he can repent at his own time, choose his own season, seek the Lord when he pleases, and, like the penitent thief, be saved at the very last – he may find at length he is greatly deceived.

“The mercies of God are never recorded in Scripture for man’s presumption, and the failings of men never for imitation.” – Lightfoot, 1684. 

  • Do not abuse God’s mercy and compassion. Do not continue in sin, I beseech you, and think you can repent, and believe, and be saved, just when you like, when you please, when you will, and when you choose. I would always set before you an open door. I would always say, “While there is life there is hope.”
  • Have you an idea of beginning really to serve Christ? Set about it at once. Are you enjoying any spiritual light? See that you live up to your light. Trifle not with opportunities, lest the day come when you will want to use them, and not be able. Linger not, lest you become wise too late.
  • You may say, “Why should I be afraid? – the penitent thief was saved.” I answer – “That is true: but look again at the passage which tells you that the other thief was lost.”
The Spirit always leads saved souls in one way (people are save the same way)

Understand, that every saved soul goes through the same experience, and that the leading principles of the penitent thief’s faith were just the same as those of the oldest saint that ever lived.

  • The strong faith of the thief:  He believed that Jesus was able to give him eternal life and glory, and in this belief prayed to Him. He maintained Christ’s innocence of all the charges brought against Him. “This Man,” he said, he has done nothing wrong.” Others perhaps may have thought the Lord innocent – none said so openly but this poor dying man. And when did all this happen? It happened when the whole nation had denied Christ – shouting, “Crucify Him, crucify Him.”

“A great faith that can see the sun under so thick a cloud; that can discover a Christ, a Saviour, under such a poor, scorned, despised, crucified Jesus, and call Him Lord. “A great faith that could see Christ’s kingdom through His cross, and grave, and death, and when there was so little sign of a kingdom, and pray to be remembered In that kingdom.” – Lightfoot. Sermon. 1684. 

  • This man never saw any miracle of the Lord Jesus.  He only saw the Lord in his agony, in his weakness, suffering and pain.  He saw Him undergoing a dishonourable punishment; deserted, mocked, despised, blasphemed. He saw Him rejected by all the great, and wise, and noble of His own people.  He saw no sceptre, no royal crown, no outward dominion, no glory, no majesty, no power, no signs of might. And yet the dying thief believed, and looked forward to Christ’s kingdom.  This is the mark of someone who receive the Holy Spirit.
  • This man had a right sense of sin. He says to his companion, “We receive the due reward of our deeds.” He acknowledges his own ungodliness, and the justice of his punishment. He makes no attempt to justify himself, or excuse his wickedness. He speaks like a man humbled and self-abased by the remembrance of past iniquities. This is the mark of someone who receive the Holy Spirit.
  • This man showed brotherly love to his companion. He tried to stop his railing and blaspheming, and bring him to a better mind. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? (Luke 23:40, NIV).  There is no surer mark of grace than this! Grace shakes a man out of his selfishness, and makes him feel for the souls of others. This is the mark of someone who receive the Holy Spirit.
  • His faith, his prayer, his humility, his brotherly love, are unmistakable witnesses of the reality of his repentance. He was not a penitent in name only, but in deed and in truth. This is the mark of someone who receive the Holy Spirit.
  • What kind of evidence do you mean to leave behind as to the state of your soul? Take example by the penitent thief, and you will do well.
  • When we have carried you to your narrow bed:
    • Let us not have to hunt up stray words, and scraps of religion, in order to make out that you were a true believer.
    • Let us not have to say in a hesitating way one to another, “I trust he is happy; he talked so nicely one day; and he seemed so pleased with a chapter in the Bible on another occasion; and he liked such a person, who is a good man.”
    • Let us be able to speak decidedly as to your condition.
    • Let us have some solid proof of your repentance, your faith, and your holiness, so that none shall be able for a moment to question your state.
    • Depend on it, without this, those you leave behind can feel no solid comfort about your soul.
  • We may use the form of religion at your burial, and express charitable hopes.
  • We may meet you at the churchyard gate and say, “Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord.” But this will not alter your condition!
  • If you die without conversion to God – without repentance, and without faith – your funeral will only be the funeral of a lost soul; you had better never have been born.
Believers in Christ, when they die, are with the Lord
  • Believers after death are “with Christ.” That answers many a difficult question, which otherwise might puzzle man’s busy, restless mind. The abode of dead saints, their joys, their feelings, their happiness, all seem met by this simple expression – they are “with Christ.”
  • Their happiness falls short of what it will be when their bodies are raised again, in the resurrection at the last day, and Jesus returns to earth. Yet I know also they enjoy a blessed rest, a rest from labour – a rest from sorrow – a rest from pain – and a rest from sin. But it does not follow because I cannot explain these things, that I am not persuaded they are far happier than they ever were on earth.
  • I cannot describe what kind of place paradise is, because I cannot understand the condition of a soul separate from the body. But I ask no brighter view of paradise than this – that Christ is there.

“We ought not to enter into curious and subtle arguments about the place of paradise. Let us rest satisfied with knowing that those who are engrafted by faith into the body of Christ are partakers of life, and there enjoy after death a blessed and joyful rest, until the perfect glory of the heavenly life is fully manifested by the coming of Christ.” – Calvin’s Commentary on the Gospels. 

  • If you do not know who Jesus Christ, the Saviour, is and you still want to go to paradise, will it be a place you will enjoy?  Know Him now like the man on the cross next to Christ and then look forward to the day you will enter paradise.
Eternity is close to us

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43, NIV)

  • Happiness or misery – sorrow or joy – the presence of Christ or the company of devils – all are close to us.

Yet as surely as the Lord lives and as you live, there is only a step between me and death.” (1 Samuel 20:3, NIV)

  • The very moment that believers die they are in paradise. Their battle is fought: their strife is over.
  • We are warring still, but they are at peace. We are labouring, but they are at rest. We are watching, but they are sleeping. We are wearing our spiritual armour, but they have for ever put it off. We are still at sea, but they are safe in harbour. We have tears, but they have joy. We are strangers and pilgrims, but as for them they are at home.

“I have some of the best news to impart. One beloved by you has accomplished her warfare; has received an answer to her prayers, and everlasting joy rests upon her head. My dear wife, the source of my best earthly comfort for twenty years, departed on Tuesday.” – Venn’s Letter to Stillingfleet, announcing the death of his wife. 

  • There is no change after death: there is no conversion in the grave: there is no new heart given after the last breath is drawn. The very day we go, we launch for ever: the day we go from this world, we begin an eternal condition.
  • If you are an unconverted man, this ought to make you think, Do you know you are close to hell? This very day you might die; and if you died out of Christ you would open your eyes at once in in hell, and in torment.
  • If you are a true Christian, you are far nearer heaven than you think. This very day if the Lord should take you, you would find yourself in paradise. The good land of promise is near to you. The eyes that you closed in weakness and pain would open at once on a glorious rest, such as my tongue cannot describe.
  • Are you a humble-hearted and contrite sinner?  See what the penitent thief did, and do likewise. See how he prayed; see how he called on the Lord Jesus Christ; see what an answer of peace he obtained. Brother or sister, why should not you do the same? Why should not you also be saved?
  • Are you a proud and presumptuous person.  See what the penitent thief did, and do likewise. See how he prayed; see how he called on the Lord Jesus Christ; see what an answer of peace he obtained. Brother or sister, why should not you do the same? Why should not you also be saved?
  • Are you a confessing believer in Christ?  See that you know something of true repentance and saving faith, of real humility and fervent charity.
  • Are you mourning over a departed believer?  See how your beloved ones are in the best of hands. They cannot be better off. They never were so well in their lives as they are now. They are with Jesus, whom their souls loved on earth.
  • Are you an aged servant of Jesus Christ?  Then see from these verses how near you are to home. Your salvation is nearer than when you first believed. A few more days of labour and sorrow, and the King of kings shall send for you; and in a moment your warfare shall be at end, and all shall be peace.

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