Luke 23: 33-44
It is good to have from the mouth of the Lord Himself the testimony received by the malefactor on the cross: “Today thou shalt be with me in paradise”. His hope had not gone so far as that. The grace of God always goes further than our thoughts. We are so used to judge His grace according to our own hearts that we have only a very poor idea of its extent. Everything is concentrated in this scene: the certainty of salvation, the iniquity of man's heart, and the work of Christ in the heart.
The world took pleasure in putting Jesus as low as possible. His goodness and mercy, having caught the attention of the Jews, became their opportunity for making Him as despicable as possible, to the point of putting Him on a level with malefactors. His claim to being the Son of God also provoked their insults. They could not deny that Jesus had saved others, but the natural heart hates the gospel, and when they see Jesus on the cross they mock Him, whilst recognising that He had saved others, because He did not save Himself. The world always seeks the appearance of success. If we wish to be Christians we must take our part in being despised by the world. Jesus was the holy and faithful witness, which is why He was put in the lowest place, even though He was God's elect. “Holy and faithful” are the two names also given to each Christian and in taking them on we share Christ's place. Even one of the malefactors takes the opportunity to mock Him. The most miserable of men, whom the world would tread underfoot, place Jesus in a position to be the object of their contempt. Even one dying could despise the Lord Jesus. Look at the natural heart of man when it is laid bare by the cross of Christ!
The Son of God is despised by the world, but it is on the way to paradise and He does not want to enter there alone. He made the cross the gateway to paradise, because He wanted others to enter with Him. Coming down from paradise, His will placed Him on the cross where men nailed Him, but there He gave His life in love so that sinners might find salvation and enter paradise with Him. People in the world think it is only the righteous who enter, but if only the righteous entered, would that have given any joy to the Lord's heart? What refreshed His heart was being able to say to the malefactor, “shalt thou be with me”. He comforted the heart of the malefactor, but He also comforted Himself by saying “with me”, because He did not come to save the righteous but sinners. The malefactor would not have been able to enter there, nor been at home there, had Jesus not been with him. The poor malefactor is the consolation and the reward of Jesus' soul on the cross.
It is said that a malefactor was saved on the cross so that no one need despair, and that there was only one saved so that no one may be presumptuous. But no one can be saved in any other way than the malefactor, and none of those listening to me tonight have shown as much faith and piety as this malefactor. He does not seek any other relief than to be with Jesus in His kingdom. He is occupied with his sins, with the grace of Jesus and with the joy of being with Him, and not at all by his own suffering. The unbelieving malefactor says, “Save thyself, and us.” He thinks only of his current miserable circumstances on the cross and wants to be taken out of them. His companion rebukes him severely. The conscience must be awakened in order to rebuke sin, to speak with boldness to a sinner of the sin that we have ourselves committed. A washed conscience is needed even more. Peter denied the Saviour; later, he accused the Jews of the sin that he had himself committed in much more disgraceful circumstances (Acts 3). He said with a loud voice in front of all the people, “Ye denied the holy and righteous one”. To rebuke sin in such a way when we are sinners ourselves, we need a purified conscience. It is easy for one who believes himself to be righteous to rebuke sin, but the converted malefactor recognises that he is as guilty as the other one. He already has the beginning of wisdom, that is, the fear of God and with this fear men's opinion is of little importance. The fear of God replaces the fear of man and frees us from concerns about the world's opinion of us and our reputation here - because there is no sadder bondage than that of one's own reputation.
“We indeed justly”. When some chastisement comes upon us we excuse ourselves, blame our circumstances. The malefactor recognises that he deserves the shame and the terrible chastisement that has come upon him. Do we have in our hearts such grace, truth, fear of God and self-judgement? The malefactor has the truth in his conscience, and moreover his heart is subject. To be shown up in front of everyone as a malefactor is not easy to bear. A truly broken heart can only show great subjection in such circumstances. “But this man has one nothing amiss”. In the court of the high priest, Peter had not dared to say this. The disciples who all fled had not dared say it. How did the malefactor know it? Had he been His companion? No, but he had a knowledge that comes from the Holy Spirit and which, by a ray of light in the soul, makes us know the character and the life of Jesus. He saw that, as being of God, Jesus was without sin. He was a good judge of this because from the moment that God teaches us there is a certainty in the heart, a clarity of view, a moral clarity. When the Holy Spirit teaches us and the conscience is awakened, Jesus makes Himself known and justifies Himself to our souls. If the malefactor had compared Jesus to others, with the high priest for example, he would not have been able to judge Him. We cannot judge God's Word. It is the Word which judges us; we are judged by the perfection, by the light, by Christ. In one word, we do not need to be told what the light is when we possess it. From the moment we have the Word, we are blind if we cannot say, “this man has done nothing amiss”. We cannot be persuaded that we do not see, when we do see. When God gives us eyes and the light, we have a perfect certainty.
“Lord...” How did he know that Jesus was Lord? The high priest did not know it, but the malefactor recognises Him as such. The Lord on the cross - this throws light on all that you are. It can only be explained by the perfect love of God towards sinful man. Why would the Lord be on the cross if the world walked as it should? There is then some great disorder. The Lord on the cross gives the lie to everything that the wisdom of the world invents but it also announces the truth that God is love, even for sinners. It is a great fact in which I find the great love of God who takes up sin.
“Remember me”. The affections of the malefactor are completely changed; he forgets his misery and desires just one thing, that Jesus should remember him in His glory. He recognises that Jesus is the Lord who will come again in glory. To desire that Jesus should remember me implies confidence in Him. Conscience had spoken previously, but when it finds itself in the presence of the infinite love of God, it is not troubled by sin. The soul finds confidence and asks Jesus to remember him. Jesus had taken possession of the malefactor's heart, because he could say: the Lord is beside me; sin placed me on the cross; love placed Jesus there. The malefactor is confident that he will be the object of Jesus' love when He returns. If our heart is not broken and we have no consciousness of sin, we seek pleasure and a better situation in the world, but when we are judged before God all these other things disappear. There is a manifestation of a love so great that the heart, affected by the love of God, leaves its preoccupations. It is when you see that you are guilty before God that you desire to be the object of the love of Jesus.
Jesus' response puts the seal on all the Spirit's work; it shows us that the work of Christ is so perfect that the malefactor can, through faith in the Lord Jesus, enter paradise today. The malefactor was not expecting anything before the coming of Jesus in His kingdom, but he learns that he is accepted according to the complete acceptation of Christ, who, after having put Himself on the same level as the malefactor, entered into paradise according to the Father's acceptation.
Jesus says, “with me”. This is even greater joy than simply being in paradise. Jesus has acquired rights for Himself. He has won us to be with Him, to have the same life, the same glory, all that He acquired as man. Such is the efficacy of the cross of Christ!
When we understand the truth that Christ died for sinners, our soul is able to enter paradise. It is possible that we may not enter straight away, that we have a difficult path to tread, but by the efficacy of the blood of Christ the sinner has the same right as Jesus and the malefactor to enter into paradise. We are as clear of sin as this man in the presence of God. There are not two Christs, nor two different efficacies of His blood.
We have seen in this passage the heart of man who despises everything, even if he is a crucified malefactor. We have seen the work accomplished in the heart and the perfect certainty which the work of Jesus gives: 'today thou shalt be with me'!
Beloved, may the fear of God replace the fear of man in your hearts, and may Jesus be your light, your salvation and your joy!
Translated from “Le Messager Evangélique”