“One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’” Luke 23:39-43
True story: while pastoring a church in St. Paul, MN, I had to undergo extensive stomach surgery (they actually removed over one-third of my stomach.) While undergoing the surgery, my heart stopped beating due to the stress of the situation; I literally almost died on the operating table. Later, after about a five hour surgery, I began to wake up in the recovery room. In the meantime, a member of our congregation, who happened to be a nurse at the hospital, walked into my room, pulled up a chair—and started asking me for marital counseling!
I had tubes in and out of my body, was hooked up to heart monitors, and was moaning and groaning in pain; I was still drugged up from the anesthesia, and I quite honestly wasn’t even sure where I was. Nobody would blame me if I didn’t feel like ministering to one of our church members at that time! In fact, what I felt like saying was “do you think maybe you are having marital problems because you can only think of yourself and your own needs?”
Now look at the above verses again. Jesus had undergone the torture of flogging, had nails driven through his hands and feet, was publicly shamed by being nailed to a cross, was thirsty, in incredible pain, and dying—and yet, with not a word of rebuke or self-pity, he extended grace to a dying sinner!
Here are some of the things this passage teaches me: First, that death-bed conversions can be real! Part of our human nature thinks it is unfair that someone could live a selfish, sinful life—and then come to believe in Jesus as they are dying, and still be saved. But let me ask this: would you rather the Savior of the world had told the thief that it was too late—that he had no hope of forgiveness? Like the prodigal son who chose sin over family, we see God’s gracious heart—wanting to forgive; willing to forgive; waiting to forgive! (See Luke 15:11-32.)
The second thing I notice in this brief exchange between the thief and our Savior, is that salvation really is—really is!—fully free. The thief had no time to prepare, to repent, to do anything deserving forgiveness. And yet—we will meet him in heaven one day! He couldn’t be baptized; he couldn’t tithe; he couldn’t even make amends to those he stole from. All he could do was to ask Jesus to remember him—and this simple act of belief; this one sign of faith, saved him! Let me preach for a second here: don’t ever, ever, ever add anything to the Gospel of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ alone! Jesus, the Son of God, died for our sins and rose from the dead—period! Believe this, and you are saved—period!
The third thing I note in this passage is that Jesus never stopped fulfilling his mission! He said in Luke 19:10 “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” He did so—seeking and saving—even while dying! Are we as committed to the Great Commission that we have been entrusted with? (Matthew 28:18-20)
Let me conclude today’s meditation with this: do you have a friend, a relative, a loved one, that you have been praying for for years, but they still do not believe? Don’t give up hope; if they are still breathing, they are not beyond the grace of our gracious God! With their last breath (though hopefully before!) they may just call out to the Savior to remember them. And He will!