Skip Heitzig - Jesus Loves Criminals
Would you turn in your Bible, please, to the gospel of Luke, chapter 23. People die differently. What I mean by that is some people die peacefully, some people die restlessly; some are very confident, some are very fearful; some die joyfully, some die angrily. People die differently because, in part, people live differently. And how you live will to a large degree determines how you die. In the seventeen hundreds one of the most outspoken critics of Christianity was a man by the name of Voltaire. He took lots of potshots at Christ, at the church, was very persuasive and very arrogant in his speech. But on his deathbed his last words were these: "I am abandoned by God and by man... I shall go to hell! O Christ, O Jesus Christ!" And he moaned like that for hours.
Afterwards the nurse that attended him said, "I would not attend the death of another unbeliever in Europe for all the money in Europe." When Mahatma Gandhi was on earth and fought for the independence of India, he was pluralistic in his outlook, but when he died, it was a very different picture. His last words were these: "My days are numbered. For the first time in fifty years I find myself in the slough of despond. All about me is darkness, and I am praying for light." Very different from men like Martin Luther who when he died, said, "God is the God from whom comes salvation; God is the Lord by whom we escape death." Or when John Knox the great Scottish reformer died, his last words were, "Live in Christ, die in Christ, and you need not fear in the flesh the death that comes upon us."
In our story in Luke, chapter 23, we discover a deathbed conversation. There are two men, two criminals, both of them hopeless both of them heartless, both of them Christless. But then there is one of the two criminals to whom Jesus Christ actually promises heaven. Max Lucado is a pastor and a very, very great author. He said that he has struggled. He struggled and one of the greatest struggles he ever had, he said, one of the most difficult truths he had to come to grips with was the greatness of God's grace to reach somebody like a Jeffrey Dahmer. Have you heard that name, Jeffrey Dahmer? If you know him, it sends chills up your spine. He was the Wisconsin murderer who not only murdered his victims, but raped many of them, dismembered them, and ate them. As low as you could possibly go.
Now while he was in prison, he made a profession of faith in Christ. I know, I know what a lot of us think, "Yeah, right, he got religion. How convenient." But when Roy Ratcliff who was a local pastor was invited to come to the prison because a prisoner wanted to get baptized, he had no idea that it would be Jeffrey Dahmer who wanted to be baptized. So he baptized him. But in the weeks to come this pastor spent every week with him, one hour a week, talking to him, discipling him. And that pastor said, "You know, I believe it's a true conversion." Lucado said, "I struggle with the idea. I know Jesus is Savior, but could he save somebody that bad, that vicious a criminal?" And he finally said, "I've come to rest in the truth that forgiveness for criminals like Dahmer is at the very heart of the gospel."
Jesus loves criminals, and I'll tell you why we should even pay attention to this, because there are so many of them. Now, the United States of America has the second highest incarceration rate in the world, second only to Russia. The current prison population is about two and a half million people. But I wonder if you can guess how many Americans have criminal records? Venture to guess? About 20 to 25 percent. You know what that means? That means one out of every four people you meet has a criminal record, and that's just the ones that have been caught. The rest of us haven't been caught yet. One out of four. So this is a very poignant issue. And I speak to you, not as somebody on a high horse, I speak to you as somebody who has been arrested before.
I had the police come to my door. They put handcuffs on me. I was carted off to jail. Broke my mother's heart. But that's been, oh, two, three months ago, so things have dramatically changed in my life since then. That was a long time ago. But, nonetheless, I speak a little bit from some personal experience. I remember when I was applying to the FBI for chaplaincy, and I had to have a background check. And they said, "Fill this paper out. I want you to tell us everything you've ever done." And I said, "Oh, come on now, everything?" He said, "Skip, we're going to find out what color shoelaces you wore in second grade, so I would just have full disclosure." Well, here in Luke, chapter 23, we have a foxhole conversion. We have somebody on their deathbed who turns his life over to Christ.
Now, the story, this part of the crucifixion neatly flows into two sections: Jesus and his relationship to criminals (plural); and then Jesus and his relationship to one particular criminal (singular). So we have Jesus in the company of criminals, and then Jesus and the converted criminal. I want to take you, first of all, to Luke chapter 23 verse 32. "There were also two others, criminals, led with him to be put to death. And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left." Criminals, kakourgos is the Greek word. It means really bad dudes, literally evil-working men, evil-working men, kakourgos. Now we are not told what they did. We are not told their names. We're just given this generic name, "criminals."
But the other two Gospels, the other two Synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Mark actually tell us what the crime was specifically. It says in both of those Gospels there were "two robbers" or "thieves" who were crucified with him. The word means bandits and it refers to bandits who pillage after they steal. So these are not petty thieves, these are heartless criminals, those who would steal and then take pleasure in hurting their victims or killing their victims or abusing their victims. And very possibly those two criminals on the cross with Jesus were associated with Barabbas the notorious criminal who should have occupied the middle cross, but he was released and Jesus died in his place. Something else, both of these criminals, we believe, were Jewish for two reasons. Simply because this was a Jewish nation.
This is a Jewish city. Most people were Jewish at the time. But also in the conversation of the one speaking to Jesus there is language employed that would lend us to believe that this is a Jewish man or at one time a practicing Jewish man. But get the picture. There is Jesus dying with two criminals, and just the fact that Jesus is dying among criminals is not accidental. It is not incidental. It is intentional. Seven hundred years before the crucifixion, the prophet Isaiah said that he would be "numbered among the transgressors." In other words, it was always part of the plan of God that when Jesus died, he would die among criminals. Why? Why would that be in the plan of God? Simply because Jesus was the friend of sinners. Did you know he is called that in the Bible, the friend of sinners?
I wish more of us had that reputation. "Oh, she's a friend of sinners. He's the friend of sinners." See, this has been Jesus' style all along. When he was born, he was born among animals in a manger. When Jesus died, he died among criminals. This is divine humility: born among animals, died among criminals; born in a cave, died on a cross. This is the friend of sinners dying among sinners. I read a blog this week from a pastor in South Carolina named Perry Noble. And something that he wrote, he wrote this to his church, by the way, just stopped me in my tracks. He said, "Jesus never intended for the church to be a group of isolated, self-righteous, angry people." Yet, I meet church people like that.
He said, "In the past, the church has spent so much time debating with people over social issues that we forget to love people like Jesus told us to. We have to remember that he will, that we will reach way more people through conversation than with condemnation." So, Jesus dying among criminals shows us divine humility. Shows us something else, though. It shows us human opportunity. Here's two men dying next to Jesus, both having an equal opportunity. Jesus was an equal opportunity Savior. There's two people just as close to Jesus, both of them committed the same crime, both of them were dying the same death, both of them were reviling the same Lord, as you'll see in a minute. One dies saved; the other dies lost. Both had the opportunity, two different outcomes.
And you know why? Because proximity and opportunity don't guarantee eternal destiny. Just because you were close, just because you observed, just because you heard, just because you were exposed doesn't mean you'll be saved. So, Jesus in the midst of criminals, divine humility, human opportunity. Look at verse 32 and verse 33. Notice that we're introduced to criminals. I highlighted the word verbally. But then go down to verse 39. It says, "Then one of the criminals," there's two criminals, one of these two, "who were hanged blasphemed him, saying, 'If you are the Christ, save yourself and us.' But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, 'Do you not even fear God, seeing that you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward for our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.' And then he said to Jesus, 'Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' And Jesus said to him, 'Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.'"
Now Luke tells us about one of the criminals hurling insults at Jesus, blaspheming him. And then the other one saying, "Why are you doing this?" This is where we need the testimony of the other gospel writers to get the full picture, because as a crucifixion began and went on, everyone was hurling insults at Jesus: priests, elders, rulers, soldiers, people in the crowd, and... and both, not one, both of the criminals, both of them. Both Matthew and Mark draw our attention to the fact everybody's voices was against Jesus. Listen to this. I'll just read one of the texts. This is Matthew 27 verse 44 where the crowd, the priests, the elders, the soldiers are mocking and jeering.
And the text says, "Even the robbers [plural], even the robbers who were crucified with him reviled him with the same thing." So here's the picture I want you to get. Everyone is piling insults and jeering upon Christ, even two criminals who were dying. Now you got to be pretty low to be dying an excruciating death and muster up enough energy to mock somebody dying next to you. But that shows you the power of the moment. Everybody is insulting Christ, and so they went along with it. But then something happened and Luke highlights what happened. Suddenly one of these criminals grows silent in his jeering. Suddenly his mind becomes very clear about what is happening with him and with that other man named Jesus who's dying.
Suddenly in his mind there's a clear thinking, a lucidity he has never experienced before. There's a sudden change of heart. There's this massive transformation, a 180-degree turn internally. And instead of mocking, he stops, and he rebukes the other criminal who is mocking, and he reaches out to Jesus Christ. Verse 39, "One of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed him, saying, 'If you are the Christ, save yourself and us. But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, 'Do you not even fear God, seeing that you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we have received the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.' Then he said to Jesus, 'Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' And he said, 'Assuredly, I say to you, you will be with me in paradise.'"
What happened? What happened to this man? Was it that he heard what Jesus had just said, "Father, forgive them, they don't know what they're doing"? And that man who is dying, it just dawned on him, thought, "'Forgive them'? Is that possible? Could I be forgiven?" Or was it that he saw the sign over Jesus that said THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS, and he thought, "Really, that's what they're saying about him, he's the King of the Jews? Could he be my King? Could he rule and reign over my life even at this late hour?" Or maybe just picking up some of the thoughts of the crowd. They are jeering him and saying, "He saved others; himself he cannot save." Maybe the thief thought, "He saved others? How did he save others and is it possible he could save me?"
Whatever it was, he had some realization, some epiphany that caused him to stop what he was doing, rebuke his friend, and trust in Christ. Before you get too suspect that such a thing is possible, let me give you a parallel account of somebody else who had this happen. Saul of Tarsus had this happen. He became Paul the apostle and it happened instantly. He had papers in hand. He's leaving Jerusalem. He's going out to incarcerate and eliminate people who call on Jesus Christ in Damascus. While he's on the road he gets knocked off his horse by the Lord, thrown into the dirt, is blinded, and is instantly transformed. It's a miraculous occurrence of the extension of God's grace. So this is Jesus in the company of criminals.
Now let's zero in on this conversation with this one criminal; Jesus and the convert criminal. Did you hear the promise that our Lord makes to him? He says, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise." Question: Why did he say "assuredly"? It means truly, or verily, if you like the old King James. Why didn't he just say, "You'll be with me in paradise"? No. He said, "Assuredly, I say to you, you will be with me in paradise." You know why he said that? 'Cause it's so hard to believe. 'Cause this is unthinkable. This is unimaginable. No one in the Scripture is given more explicit assurance of forgiveness and heaven from Jesus Christ as this man. And yet no one ever seemed more outwardly undeserving than this man. Now, how could Jesus promise a guy like that instant heaven? How is that possible?
How can you say, "Today you will be with me in paradise"? That thief didn't get baptized yet. Jesus didn't say, "Well, you know what? If you can get off the cross, get baptized, I'll think about it." He had never gone to church. He never did a good work. But Jesus said, "Assuredly I say..." In fact, his prayer wasn't even that great. It was very self-centered. "Remember me, when you come into your kingdom." It's all it takes. "There's a realization of your heart that leads me to say, today you will be with me in paradise." Folks, this is one of the greatest demonstrations of salvation by grace through faith, not works. It's one of the greatest demonstrations of what it says in Titus, chapter 3, "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us."
A few years ago I was given a call from a mother from out of state. I knew this woman and she lived in the United States, but she had lived in Cuba with her husband who was on the staff, the administrative staff of Fidel Castro. Her son lived here, was in the hospital dying of stomach cancer. At that time, just had contracted the disease. It had been revealed to the doctors. She wanted me to visit him. I found out from her and from friends of his in the past that this man now in the hospital was an assassin. He wanted to, in fact, he had a plan hatched with his buddies to assassinate Fidel Castro. It was his lifelong dream. He did not like the gospel. He did not like Christians. And his mom said, just warned me, just said, "He's not going to be favorable." I said, "I'm used to it."
So I went in the hospital and I shared with him. And he didn't want to hear it. Didn't want to see me. But I visited him a few times. The last time I saw him on this earth was a couple days before he died. Cancer had advanced. The treatments weren't working. And he turned to me, looked at me, he goes, "Look, you don't know me. You don't know what I've done." Well, I had a hint. I was told, but I didn't want to tell him how I knew. But I said, "Let me just tell you this story about a man who died next to Jesus, a criminal. He had done time. He was a known criminal. But in his last dying breath he turned to Jesus and just said, 'Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' And Jesus turned to him and granted him heaven."
And as I told the story I noticed that he grew silent and I noticed that tears welled up in his eyes. They began to drop down his cheeks and he just said, "Oh, such love." I said, "Aah, and that love can be yours." And I told him how. I told what to do and I left the room. He had fallen asleep. A couple days later I got a phone call from his mother who told me that he had died, but that before he died he asked Jesus to be merciful to him. Now I wasn't there. I couldn't attest to it. But her words, he prayed that prayer. He gave his life to Christ. And that brought this story to such life for me, because it happened again. Jesus said, "Today you'll be with me in paradise." Now that's a very interesting term for heaven. And, by the way, it's a synonym for heaven.
Paul said, "I was caught up into the third heaven," right afterwards he said, "I was caught up into paradise." But it's a very unique word. It's a Persian word that means a walled garden. And Persian kings had beautiful gardens that were walled and watered. And if the king wanted to honor someone, he made that someone what was called a companion of the garden. In other words, "I'm inviting you to walk with me in my own private garden, and I will share a level of companionship with you that nobody else has. You're a companion of the garden." So that's what I want you to think about heaven. Heaven isn't just a place where you live on and on and on with a nice mansion and gold streets; heaven is more than that, it is unbroken, uninterrupted companionship with Christ.
Notice, Jesus said, "You will be with me in paradise." You get the answer here? Here's a criminal saying, "I just want you to remember me when you come into your kingdom." And Jesus is saying, "Remember you? I'm going to walk with you. We're going to be in my kingdom together in fellowship." By the way, notice the word "today." "Today you'll be with me." Boy, when I first read that, it was liberating. Jesus didn't say, "Well, you know, we're going to get you there, but we're gonna, you're gonna sort be out of town a little bit. And after we burn off some of your sins for a few thousand years, I'll move you closer to town." No. "You'll be with me today in paradise." Here's a criminal on his deathbed who's rebelled against authority, who has stolen and pillaged, and he's promised heaven.
And, boy, does this irk religious people who believe in a works-based righteousness, just giving heaven to him. The Barna Group did a research document called "What Americans Think It Means to Be a Christian." Ten percent of Americans think it means to be a good person; 11 percent think it means to go to church and be religious; 14 percent thinks it means to love and help others. Let me ask you something: Did this thief on the cross do any of those things? He did none of those things, and Jesus said, "I'll see you soon. You'll be with me in paradise." Now there's more than meets the eye to this. Let me quickly, as we close, unpack the journey, the path, the process that this criminal, this really bad guy, this pilferer made with Jesus.
First of all, he confessed his guilt. Verse 40, "The other answered, rebuked him, saying, 'Do you not even fear God?'" Boy, that must have come as a shock to the other criminal, don't you think? Because they've been both doing it. Then this guy stops and rebukes the other guy for doing what he's been doing. And the other guy must have thought, "Wha-what happened to you?" He got rebuked, "saying, 'Do you not even fear God, seeing that you are under the same condemnation? And we,'" including himself, "'indeed justly, for we received the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.'" In an instant he goes from blaspheming to stopping, being crystal clear about the facts that he is guilty and deserves what is going on.
And he has this enormous fear of God, so much so that he rebukes the other guy saying, "Wait a minute, you don't even fear God?" In other words, "Look at us, we're dying on a cross. We deserve this. If this is what happens when you break human law, imagine what's going to happen for us in a few hours when we see God. We've broken his law." He is not really concerned about the pain he's experiencing on earth, but what he's going to experience as he stands before an almighty, righteous Judge. That's the fear of God. By the way, the fear of God is always the first step in true conversion. A person has to have a fear of the Lord. And whenever you share the gospel with somebody, you better include this. Yes, Jesus loves you. Yes, Jesus loves people. Yes, yes, yes, "but unless you repent, you will likewise perish."
Remember what Jesus said? Now this is red letter. For some of you that's more important. Jesus said this: "Don't fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul, but rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell." That is what this criminal is experiencing, a fear of God, an acknowledgment. "I'm sinful and this Man is sinless," and rebuking the other sinner. He confessed his guilt. Second, he trusted Christ. Look at his words, "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Now there's a lot there. First of all, he recognizes Jesus as "Lord." He doesn't say, "Hey, you," "Hey, buddy," he says, "Lord." He also recognizes him at King, because only kings have kingdoms. "Remember me when you come into your kingdom."
And also, he recognizes that though this other man Jesus is about to die, because he knew that nobody survives Roman crucifixion, "But this isn't the end of you, after this you're going to live again in a kingdom." So he must have believed in a resurrection. So he believes that Jesus is Lord that he is King that he's going to live after this in a kingdom. And he also recognizes that Jesus is sinless and he is not. "We deserve this; this man has done nothing wrong." That's a pretty clear Christology for a criminal on his deathbed, all in an instant this is in his heart, in his mind. Third thing you should notice is he made it personal. "Remember me when you come into your kingdom." You have to make it personal. Do not think salvation is a package deal.
There are no two-for-one specials. "Well, my grandma was a Christian" or "My parents drug me to church." No. You personally must turn to Christ. The Bible says, "As many as received him, to them he gave the power to become children of God." He confessed his guilt. He trusted Christ. He made it personal. Let me tell you a fourth thing he did: He made it public. He did it publicly. He had to say it loud enough so that Jesus could hear him. And if Jesus could hear him, presumably those right there at the cross could also hear him say, 'cause it's recorded, "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Now that's significant. That's significant because everybody else is mocking, jeering, laughing, scorning, blaspheming, as he was.
Suddenly he stops and has enough courage to say something against the flow of all that haranguing. "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom." It would be much easier to follow the crowd and hurl more insults, but he didn't. He made it public that he was going to trust Christ and recognize himself as a sinner. Sometimes people will say, "Well, if I gave my life to Jesus, I just don't know what my friends would say." If they're your friends, really your friends, they'll be happy that you're not going hell. If they're not, get new friends. But friends don't let friends go hell. He made it public. Several years ago it was printed and it is still believed by a majority of people that the answer to crime is education. In part, I think that's true. In part, its education is important.
But the idea was this, I kid you not: "If we can educate people that will end wars and crime." And, yet, I gotta be honest, when I look at American universities, they're not like the paragons of virtue. And in a report that I read this week, crimes committed by highly educated people are now on the rise. You just learn how to do it smarter. The answer to crime is not education; the answer to crime is transformation. Christ is the answer for the criminal. Jesus loves them. And what happened that day, happens every day, every day. People confronted with one choice or the other choice, for Christ, or against Christ. Both had the same opportunity. Both were as equally as close. One died lost; one died saved. That's your opportunity. That's your opportunity. It's an opportunity we make available just about every time we meet.
And, Father, as we close this service, as we close our Book, as we close your Word, we open our hearts to the possibility that we need a transformation. More than education, more than reformation, we need transformation. It's not self-help that's going to fix us. It's not a new book that we read that tells us what to do in that relationship or another. Those can be helpful, but what is required first and foremost is a real transforming, and that's what you offer. You offer a change of heart and a change of life. And though this criminal had no opportunity afterwards to express his changed heart by a changed life, because his life is over, yet by that act of faith he was admitted into your kingdom and fellowship with you.
And that's an offer you make to any of us, all of us, if we would turn to you, if we would ask you, if in sincere faith we would acknowledge our guilt, if we would trust in Jesus Christ making it personal. Lord, I pray that more would do that, that some that are here, I know there's people at other campuses, I know there's people on the radio or on computers, but here we are. Here I am. And it's individuals where before almighty God with an opportunity. There is a proximity, there is an opportunity, none of which guarantee or eternal security and destiny, but if we turn to you, you promise that it will. Before we leave this morning, with our heads bowed, and I do that just for your own thoughtfulness, reflection, privacy.
If you've gathered with us and you're at that place where you are willing to recognize your guilt, Jesus sacrificed for you, that he is Lord and King, and he will reign over you if you turn to him. And you're willing to turn from your past and give your life to Christ, if you're willing to do that, or if you need to come home to him because you've walked away from him, strayed from him, if you're willing to say yes to Jesus, as we close, would you just raise your hand so I can see it. I'll acknowledge your hand and pray for you as we close. Yes, sir, God bless you, right up here in the front. And, yes, ma'am; and then another fellow behind you, all three of you, I see your hand up. Right there in the middle; and to my left; and right up here, couple of you to my left. Anyone else?
Thank you, Father. Thank you for that acknowledgment to stick up a hand, to say, "I have a need. I need God. I need his salvation. I need his love." And for each person, Father, we'd pray that you'd strengthen them. Strengthen them in the core of their being as they're making a life altering decision. And they will find you meeting them with fellowship, with hope, with a level of peace that will make them never the same after today. Thank you for the hope of the gospel, in Jesus' name, amen.
Would you stand to your feet. As we close with this song, I'm now going to ask you if you raised your hand, I'm going to ask you to get up from where you're standing, find the nearest aisle and come up all the way to the front. And stand here, where in a moment I'm going to pray with you to receive Christ publicly, like this man did on the cross. God bless you. Come right up here to the very front. Counselors, you can welcome them as they come, if you would. Maybe you didn't even raise that hand, but the Lord has put it on your heart, you need to be up here. We welcome you. That's right. Please, come all the way up. Come on up front. Boy, I hope this doesn't get old to you, Calvary. I hope you really love, love, love seeing this. I do.
Let me say to you that if I'm addressing you and you're a religious person, you're hiding behind a church you grew up in, a religion that you have been sort of safe in, only you know if you know the Lord personally or not. Only you know if there's a transformed life behind that shirt or that blouse. Only you know that and others who know you well know that. So you answer the question: Am I right with God? Am I standing before him forgiven? Am I a new creation in Christ? If you're not, I give you the opportunity. All of us have the opportunity. You come and you join these who are standing here. We'll go just another couple moments and then we'll pray together. Anyone else?
I'm happy to see all of you up here. I hope I'm not embarrassing you by calling you up. We do this to help you acknowledge "This was the time and this was the place that I made a decision to make Jesus Christ the Lord of my life and my Savior." So God bless you. I'm going to lead you now in a prayer, and I'm going to ask you to pray that prayer out loud after me. I want you to say these words from the depth of your soul, from the bottom of your heart. You're talking to God right now. You're giving the Lord your life. So let's pray together. Ready? Say:
Lord, I give you my life. I know that I am a sinner. Please forgive me. I believe in Jesus Christ, that he died on a cross, that he shed his blood for me, and that he rose from the grave. I turn from my sin. I turn from my past. I turn to Jesus as my Savior. Help me to live for you, Lord, every day of my life. Strengthen me, in Jesus' name, amen.