James Merritt - Right Choice
You are going to make a choice about Jesus, one way or the other. You cannot sit on the fence with Jesus. You may say, well, I'm not a Republican, I'm not a Democrat, I am an Independent. That's fine, politically. Spiritually, you can't be independent. You're on one side of the cross or the other. You'll walk out of here today, or at one of our campuses, or when you're watching us right now on the internet or on television... when this program, this ministry is over, this message is done, you will be on one side of Jesus or the other. You will make that choice.
Now, if you want to make the right choice, which is what one man did, then we're going to learn from the story today there are three things you have to do. You ready? Number one, you must recognize your personal guilt. You must recognize personal guilt. Now, when you read this story, you wouldn't realize this because we live in the 21st century. Had you lived 2,000 years ago, there was something very unusual about this whole story, because when people are being crucified, there's one thing they didn't do. They didn't jab. There wasn't a lot of small talk going on, because you were just battling to survive. You were just battling to breathe. You were just trying to get your breath. You were trying to bear the excruciating pain. You were trying to penetrate the dehydration and the slow dying agony that was the most horrific death you can imagine.
But, something really unusual is happening. These two thieves got into a dialogue. They got into a conversation, and it begins when one of the criminals begins hurling insults at Jesus. We're in Luke 23:39. "One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at Him. 'Aren't you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!'" Now, the word there for hurled insults, we kind of cleaned that word up in the English language. In the Greek language, it's the word blasphemeo, which gives us the word blasphemy, and it's a word that really means using the most vile language you could imagine. So when this man was insulting Jesus, he wasn't just saying you're ugly. He wasn't just saying your breath smells. It wasn't that kind of stuff. This was X-rated. This man was calling Jesus every vile name in the book. I mean, he was emptying the clip. He was ragging on Jesus and letting it all out.
Now, why he was doing that is really a time for another conversation. But there came a point when the man on the other side heard enough. He's had enough. He's listened to this man really get on Jesus, and he's had all he can take. So, here's what happens. "But the other criminal rebuked him. 'Don't you fear God', he said, 'since you are under the same sentence?'" And then, he says something amazing. "We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve, but this man has done nothing wrong". Now, I want you to understand something. You might want to say, well, you know, this guy, there's a little bit of good in him. Let's be real clear. Neither one of these guys were Boy Scouts. As a matter of fact, when you read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, who all talk about these thieves, they all use different words to refer to these thieves, and none of them are really good. They were thugs, gang members, cutthroat murderers, insurrectionists, robbers. They would kill your mother for money and kill your brother for pleasure, and sometimes they would kill for both.
Now, the Roman government didn't crucify people for just being thieves. So, we know they weren't just thieves. We know something much, much worse was going on with them. They were not being crucified for misdemeanors. They were being crucified for felonies, and most likely what got them crucified was the one thing that guaranteed you the death penalty, that is, they were rebelling against the Roman government. They had somehow tried to format a revolution against the Roman government. Now if you wanted to die, all you had to do was either try to rebel against the government, or criticize Caesar, or criticize a government official, and you were absolutely guaranteed to be put to death, and this is where I want to stop, because this is where we come in.
You say, what do you mean, where we come in? Well, I don't want you just to see these men hanging on that cross. I want you to see you hanging on that cross. I want you to see them through a window. I want you to see them through a mirror. Now you may stop and say, wait a minute, whoa, time out. I'm not a perfect person, but I'm no cutthroat murderer. I might fudge my income tax here and there a little bit, but who doesn't, right? But, I'm not a thief. I don't rob banks. I mean, I've never been in a gang. You know, I don't deal drugs. I don't do all of these kinds of things. How in the world can you compare me to them, and why would you try to put me where they are? Simple reason. These men are not just dying for a crime. They're dying in sin.
Now, listen carefully. They were rebels against the government. That's why they were being crucified. But, the reason they were dying is because they rebelled against God. Because even if they had been Boy Scouts, they were going to die. Even if they got the Congressional Medal of Honor, they were going to die. Even if they rang the bell at Christmas for The Salvation Army, they were going to die. What got them crucified is they were rebels against the government, but the reason they were dying is they were rebels against God. That's exactly why the thief asked this question. He said, "Don't you fear God"? Now, what does God have to do with all of this?
Here's the point. You say, well, I'm not really guilty of a worldly crime. You may not be, but I will tell you this. We're all guilty of the spiritual crime of rebelling against God. We're all guilty of the spiritual crime of rejecting God's Son. And this criminal finally wakes up and he realizes his guilt. He says, look, I'm getting exactly what I deserve. Now, I realize we're living in a no-fault world today, okay? We've got no-fault insurance. So, it doesn't matter. You're in an automobile accident? It's not your fault. You get a divorce? Not your fault. Your hand gets caught in the cookie jar? They shouldn't have put the cookie jar there, right? I mean, it's just not my fault.
Now, here's my point. If you see these men hanging on the cross...if you do not see yourself there, if you do not realize that you are as guilty of rebelling against God, and as guilty of sinning against God as these men were, you will never come to God. As a matter of fact, let me just make it more plain. If you don't believe that you and I are the ones that nailed Jesus to the cross, if you don't believe that you and I are the ones that beat Him until He was almost a bloody corpse, if you and I don't believe that we're the ones that jammed that crown of thorns down on His head, if you don't believe that, you will absolutely never come to God.
See, this criminal wakes up. He's realized. He said, you know what? I get it, Lord. I get it. It was my crime that nailed me to the cross, but it's my sin that nailed you to the cross. So, he recognizes his spiritual guilt, his personal guilt. That's the first right choice you've got to make if you're going to be right with God. You've got to come to a point where you realize, I don't care how good you are, I don't care how good you think you are, I don't care how good other people think you are, you're in the same boat these thieves were. You are guilty before God. Then once you recognize personal guilt, you have to request spiritual grace.
Now, if you just read Luke's Gospel, you wouldn't realize the unbelievable transformation that took place. If you just read Luke's Gospel, you'd say, isn't that nice of that thief? I mean, really, good for him. At least he had a little good in him. At least he took up for Jesus. Well, here's the part of that story that you don't know. Matthew tells us that just a little bit earlier, he was doing the same thing the other guy was, cursing Jesus, ridiculing Jesus, insulting Jesus. Matthew 27, listen to this. "In the same way the rebels", that is, both of them, "the rebels who were crucified with Him, they also heaped insults on Him".
Now, wait a minute. What's happened? Somewhere along the way, transformation has turned condemnation into adoration. Somehow, this criminal is becoming a convert. Now the question is, what happened? Because the natural assumption is when anybody was crucified... if you walked down the street and you saw somebody being crucified, the assumption was they've got to be guilty of something bad. They wouldn't be crucified for a misdemeanor. They must have committed a felony. They're absolutely guilty. And yet, probably for the first and only time in the history or crucifixion, one man turns to another man who's being crucified and says, you've done nothing wrong. You don't belong here. You should not be up here. But, look what happens. He doesn't just recognize Jesus as a sinless man, he recognizes Jesus as a sovereign man and as a saving man, because listen to what he says next. "Then he said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.'"
Now, are you believing this? This guy's going from a blasphemer to a believer. I mean, he says to Jesus... he says, Jesus, I'm guilty, but you're guiltless. I'm a criminal, but you're a king. Jesus, I am hopeless. You're my only hope. I'm putting all of my chips on you. I am a sinner, and you are the Savior. Now, I'll be honest with you. I believe it may be the most amazing example of transformation and salvation in the entire Bible in all of this, and I'll tell you why. He calls Jesus a king. Now folks, let me tell you something. No man in the history of the world ever looked less like a king than Jesus did at this moment in His life. The sight of Jesus would have made you sick. The sight of Jesus would have absolutely turned your stomach. And here's this criminal. He's not looking at the risen Jesus with a crown on His head. He's looking at the crucified Jesus with a cross on His back.
Now, think about this. This is the first time this man's ever laid eyes on Jesus. He has never seen Jesus walk on water, never seen Jesus feed the multitudes, turn water into wine. He asks Jesus to save him when it looks like Jesus is the one that needs saving. Jesus had never been less believable in His entire life, and yet, at the least likely moment, this thief believes in Jesus. Now you say, what's the point? Here's my point. If that man could believe in Jesus before the resurrection, how can you not believe in Jesus after the resurrection?
Now, we still haven't answered the question. But, Pastor, what happened? What changed this man's mind? I mean, he didn't know about the virgin birth. He wasn't there when the angels sang. He wasn't there when the shepherds came. He didn't see the wise men bring gifts. He didn't know anything about the Old Testament prophecy. He wasn't there when Jesus made blind people see, and deaf people hear, and crippled people walk. He wasn't there when Jesus stopped a howling, open water storm with just three words. He never heard the Sermon on the Mount. He didn't see Jesus raise anybody from the dead. And yet, even though this was his last chance to come to Jesus, he took the first chance that he got.
Well, what happened? What in the world changed this man's mind? Well, when you go back and read the whole story, there's only one thing that can explain it. Just a little bit earlier, Jesus had made one of those other statements, and some of you will remember because we talked about it in an earlier message. In fact, it was the first thing He said when He was crucified. Do you remember? He said this. Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they're doing". Now, this man's sitting there, and he's listening. He's hearing all of this. This thief is cussing Him out. The rulers are standing there, making fun of Him. The Roman soldiers are making fun of Him. The Pharisees are making fun of Him. The Sadducees are making fun of Him. Everybody's making fun of Him. No sympathy for Jesus, absolutely none, and where most of us would have wanted to come off that cross and kill somebody, Jesus says, "Father, forgive them, they don't know what they're doing".
And I want to tell you, I believe those words pierced His heart and echoed in his ears. He said, wait a minute. Only God can forgive anybody, and only the Son of God would have said what you just said. You're not like me. You're not like him. You are not like them. And I'll tell you what I believe happened. I believe all of the sudden, the word grace came alive to this man. He saw grace in the action of Jesus. He heard grace in the words of Jesus. He felt grace in the love of Jesus. And all of a sudden, this criminal says, you know what, Lord? I get it. Nobody else knows what's going on here, but I know exactly what's going on here. I finally understand. I'm dying in my sin, but you're dying for my sin. And at that moment, he saw what was really happening. Jesus took the guilt that we deserve, so that we could get the grace we don't deserve. Jesus took the guilt that we deserve, so we could get the grace that we don't deserve.
Think about it, one simple sentence. "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom". I'm a criminal, you're a king. I'm getting what I deserve, you're taking what you don't deserve. You're taking what you don't deserve so I can get what I don't deserve, and I am requesting your grace. Let me tell you something. That criminal made the right choice. He recognized personal guilt. I deserve what I'm getting. He requested spiritual grace. I don't deserve it, but would you just remember me? Then look what happens. Now, this is my favorite part of the message. You ready? When you recognize personal guilt, and when you request spiritual grace, you receive eternal glory.
Now, watch this. This is my favorite part. Above the cackle of this crowd, Jesus hears the cry of this criminal. It's just a two word request. It's not a paragraph. It's not even really a sentence. Remember me. Have you ever thought about how two words can change your life? Two words. Two words. Here's two words. When you say these two words, your life's never the same. I do. Let me tell you, your life just changed, bro. And especially when you hear her say, you'd better. Your life's changed. Two words. You're fired. Your life's changed forever. I'm leaving. Your life's changed forever. Two words. This man says, remember me. That's all. Just remember me. Just put my name at the bottom of the list, okay? That's all. Just remember me.
What does Jesus do? He goes far above and beyond what this man was asking when he said those two words. He said two words back. This man said, remember me. What does Jesus say? Today, paradise. Excuse me? Now, I just said, yeah... today, paradise. You talk about hitting the lottery. You talk about a life preserver to a drowning man. You talk about getting not just the unexpected, but the undeserved. Listen to this. "Jesus answered him, 'Truly, I tell you'", the word there is Amen. "Truly, I tell you", take it to the bank, "today you will be with me in paradise". All the man asked for was a seat in the back of the bus, and Jesus says, oh, no, you're going first class. We're going to paradise. It's the only time in the Bible where anyone is ever, ever saved at the last moment, just before they die. It's the only deathbed conversion in the Bible.
Let me tell you why I believe this is in the Bible. Are you ready for this? This will be worth coming for. Do you know what that man tells me? It tells me two things. Number one, no one's ever too lost to be saved. And number two, it's never too late to be saved. You say, but, Pastor, you don't know what I've done. I don't care. You say, remember me, you'll get remembered. Ah, it's too late for me. Never too late for you. All it took was the grace of a Savior and the faith of a sinner. So, now we answer the question. Have you ever wondered why there were just three crosses? I mean, why were there three? You do understand that we only needed one, and that's the guy in the middle. We didn't need the two guys on the right and the left, right? If there'd just been two guys and not Jesus, we wouldn't be here today. If there'd just been Jesus, and not the two guys, we'd still be here today. The only one I needed, the only one that really matters to me is the one in the middle.
And by the way, why was He in the middle? Why not on the far left? Why not on the far right? Why was He in the center? I'll tell you why. Because these two criminals represent the entire human race, because I want to tell you something that you won't hear in Hollywood, you won't hear it at Wall Street, you won't hear it in Washington, D.C., you will not read it in the newspaper, you won't hear it on the news. The way the world is ultimately divided is not geographically, it is not socioeconomically, it is not politically, it is not philosophically, it is not even racially. The way the world is ultimately divided is not in between good people and bad people. The way the world is divided is by the cross of Jesus Christ, and you're either on one side or you're on the other side. You either receive Jesus, or you reject Jesus. You either say yes to Jesus, or you say no to Jesus.
Because, think about it. Those two criminals that died that day, they had just about everything you could imagine in common. They had both made wrong choice, after wrong choice, after wrong choice, after wrong choice. As a matter of fact, this is the only time we ever read about these two guys in the Bible, and yet we know they both made some bad choices, they both chose the wrong crowd, they both chose the wrong path. They both chose the wrong friends. They both chose the wrong lifestyle. They both chose the wrong morals. They both chose the wrong behavior. There was only one difference at the end of the day, just one. What was it? One made the right choice, one made the wrong choice. One said I'm going with Jesus, and one said I'm not.
Now, here's the only other big difference. They both made a boatload of wrong choices, but one right choice wiped out all the wrong choices. So, I want you to imagine. Good Friday's over, and this thief has drawn his last breath, and Jesus has drawn His. And now, they're at the gates of heaven, and this angel, he's so excited. His name's Gabriel. I just made that up. He sees Jesus. He sees Jesus and he says, oh, Jesus, it's so great to see you. It just hasn't been heaven without you. I'm so glad you're back. And Jesus says, oh, it's great to be back. And He starts to step in, and this thief starts to step in, and Gabriel says, oh, wait a minute. I know you. I've got a file on you that thick. You were a murderer. You're a thief. You're an insurrectionist. You're a traitor. You were a robber. You're not getting in here. And Jesus says, he's with Me.
So, you die, and I die, and I get to the gates of heaven, and you get to the gates of heaven, and Gabriel stops you and says, I know you. I've got a file on you that thick. I saw all the times you lusted for other women. I saw all of the pornography you used to look at. I saw that divorce that you caused. I saw the way you neglected your children. I saw all of those income tax forms you filled out fraudulently. Am I getting warm? I can keep going. You're not getting in here. And sitting on a throne, with a crown on His head, a crucified man calls out and said, he's with Me. He's with Me. I don't know who this man was when he lived, but I do know where he went after he died. Yep, the man lived a wasted life, but he didn't die a wasted death.
Now, listen to me. Listen to what I'm about to tell you. You can overcome a wasted life. You can't overcome a wasted death. So, three crosses stood beside that Damascus Road. The man in the center died for sin, one man died in sin, the other man died to sin. You've got a choice which person you're going to be, and which side of Jesus you're going to take. I'm just urging you and encouraging you today. You make sure the right choice is on your bucket list. And oh, by the way, in case you're wondering which choice you ought to make today, and what happened today 2,000 years ago settles that issue forever. There's only one choice, and that's Jesus.