The Simple Gospel
The story of the crucifixion is a horrible scene of public torture, mockery of God and despair among Jesus’ followers. But in the midst of this dark event, Luke’s gospel records a beautiful and unique conversation that took place between Jesus and one of the criminals who was crucified next to him. Read the story below and I’ll share some of my observations about it. It can be found in Luke Chapter 23, verses 32 to 43…
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with Jesus to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”
The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? 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, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
As both men were being publicly executed, their conversation was short and probably quite painful, and yet in this brief moment we hear Jesus tell this man at death’s door, that he should have complete assurance that he will go to heaven. That is staggering if you think about it. Many people would like the assurance of knowing where they’ll be going when they die. Well, this man got it. And who was he? A criminal. Not a priest or a devoted follower who had proved his devotion with years of service. A criminal. A “bad guy”. A convicted robber (as we find in Mark and Matthew). This is the guy who gets to die knowing for a fact that he will be welcomed into paradise. So what is it about this guy that we can emulate if we want the same assurance? What did he do or say or believe that led Jesus to give him this assurance?
Well, as a Christian, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how best to explain the Christian message. This is called the “gospel” which means “good news”. Of all the slogans and mission statements and sermons and political speeches in history, the gospel is the most important message that there has ever been. The gospel, as Paul puts it, “is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). But what is it? What is this good news that we must believe in order to be saved and to find assurance of entrance into paradise. Well, I think it involves lots and lots of wonderful things, all surrounding Jesus and who he is and what he has done and if you’re keen you can explore a fuller description of the gospel in passages like 1 Corinthians 15:1-5, Colossians 1:19-23, 2 Timothy 1:8-12, 2 Timothy 2:8-13 and even the epic Romans 1-6. But if you wanted to try to peel it right back and find the bare bones of the gospel, this story about the crucified criminal, might be a great place to start.
Here are two main observations I find in this story:
This man knows that he is guilty. It’s not just that he knows he did a crime, but his words indicate that he has an awareness of his guiltiness before God. He rebukes the other criminal for trying to simply use Jesus to get out of punishment. He sees his punishment as deserved and so it would be a wrong against God for it to be ignored. This is why he says, “Don’t you fear God?” To fear God is to acknowledge who God is and who you are. His fear of God gave him a humility and an ability to see his guilt and not protest the fairness of his punishment.
What is important to see here is that this totally defies any notion that you get to heaven if you are “good enough”. This criminal did not feel he had any right to enter paradise. He did not feel he had earned it, in fact he acknowledged that what he had earned was punishment.
The other criminal, in contrast, does not care about the justice of their punishment – just the potential for escape. He shows no remorse, no repentance and no acknowledgement of his own guilt or the God before which he must give account. He has no fear of God, only a fear of death. But it is the criminal, who had no “goodness” to offer God, who is the one that is given assurance of entrance into paradise.
2. What he acknowledges about Jesus.
The other criminal tries to use Jesus. He acknowledges that Jesus might be the Christ (God’s anointed king), but if that is the case, he simply wants to ride on the coat tails of Jesus’ escape. Like the mocking crowd, he can’t imagine that the “King of the Jews” would allow himself to die. The “Christ” is God’s king. He is all powerful! He could come down off the cross in a blaze of glory and destroy all his enemies. So he bates Jesus, to prove his authority and power, and while he’s at it, he should rescue him from his painful predicament. But why should he rescue him if he is the Christ? It doesn’t make logical sense. It’s just a sign of how he only sees Jesus as a potential “get out of jail free” card. Nothing more and nothing less.
In contrast, the criminal that is welcomed into paradise, treats Jesus as he truly is. He acknowledges that although he is guilty before God, Jesus is innocent. But more than that, he acknowledges that Jesus is king. He knows he has nothing to offer Jesus. All he does is ask Jesus to remember him, when he comes into his kingdom. HIS kingdom. He knows that the place Jesus is going when Jesus dies is a kingdom that he is the ruler of. What a statement! Sure, if you thought someone was innocent before God, you might expect that they would go to God’s kingdom when they died, but Jesus isn’t just going to be in heaven, where all innocent people go – he’s going home! He’s going back to the castle to sit on his throne. He is going to his kingdom!
Friends sometimes ask me whether I think they are going to heaven or hell. But one of the first things I have to do to answer that question fairly, is to encourage them to reconsider their Hollywood, fairytale concepts of heaven. Heaven is Jesus’ kingdom. He owns it. He rules it. He makes the rules as to who is welcomed into it, and one of the most obvious prerequisites for being welcomed into Jesus’ kingdom is that you treat Jesus as king. If you treat him like the other criminal did, as simply a ticket out of hell, then I think you will be met with the terrifying words that Jesus warns us of in Matthew 7:23, “Then I will say to them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'”
If Jesus rules in the afterlife, then naturally he rules in this life. I mean, if he’s the king in heaven, then how are we on earth to treat him? As Jesus encourages us to pray in the “Our Father”, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. This is how the criminal treats him – as the king of paradise – and so consequently, he knows his only hope is Jesus.
In God-fearing respect and humility, with an acknowledgement of his own guiltiness before God and of Jesus’ innocence, he asks Jesus, not to give him what he deserves, but to simply remember him. What is he asking for in that request? I’m not sure. But at the very least it shows that he doesn’t expect that he will be joining Jesus in his kingdom. There’s a sense in which he knows he should be left out and so he asks Jesus, who will be “in”, to remember him. It’s not even that he is asking for forgiveness – it’s less assuming than that. And yet, Jesus assures him that he will not be left outside. He won’t simply be remembered, he will be with Jesus in paradise.
What a promise!
And in that little scene we learn so much about the Christian message and what it means to be a Christian:
- It shows that Christianity is not about winning God’s favour by being good. Even a guilty criminal can be welcomed into paradise.
- It shows that it’s not enough to think that Jesus “might be” the Christ and to try to just use him at the last minute as a ticket out of hell.
- It shows that we must acknowledge our guilt before God and realise that we don’t deserve to go to heaven.
- It shows that we must know that heaven is Jesus’ kingdom and we must acknowledge and turn to Jesus as king.
- It shows that we can actually have assurance that we will be in paradise with Jesus when we die.
- And lastly, it shows that you don’t need to know a great deal about the whole salvation process in order to be saved.
This last point is a really good challenge to me and to other evangelicals who value doctrine and “getting the gospel right”.
I guess the main thing is not that you get the entirety of the gospel right, but that you don’t get it wrong.
I mean, the criminal didn’t say the “Sinner’s Prayer” or believe the “Four Spiritual Laws”. He didn’t get the entire “Two Ways to Live” presentation, or attend short course for seekers. He didn’t even come to a decisive position about Calvinism or Arminianism!
He didn’t even really understand the cross – the very heart of the gospel message. This guy had no idea that the reason why Jesus could welcome him – a guilty sinner – into paradise was because the death Jesus was about to die was a death that paid for his sin. He didn’t understand how Jesus could save him, and he didn’t even expect that Jesus would save him, he just threw himself on the hope that Jesus might remember him. Both the gospel he believed and his faith in it was very simple, but he still received assurance from Jesus.
I guess, my encouragement to us evangelical Christians is, don’t make the kingdom harder to get into than it needs to be! If the criminal could be assured of his salvation with so simple an understanding of the gospel, let’s make sure we don’t expect that every glorious truth is completely understood before we can encourage young Christians with the same assurance.
And my encouragement to those who are yet to become a Christian, or maybe have just expected that they should be welcomed into paradise without any acknowledgement of their guilt or Jesus’ kingship, I would commend this story to your contemplation.
My hope is that you would find in it a very simple gospel message (though still very challenging), and in responding to its call to your life, you too may hear those wonderful words from Jesus that every Christian should rejoice in… “You will be with me in paradise.”
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