DON'T YOU FEAR GOD
Dear Christian friends
Unless you’re a history buff, you wouldn’t be too familiar with the name of Chester A. Arthur. He was the 21st president of the United States. He became president when James Garfield was assassinated in 1881. Arthur’s career took an ironic twist when he became president. No one expected him to ever be president. He was only put on the ticket to heal a split in the Republican Party. Even though Arthur had been a Republican for years, the previous president—also a Republican—had fired him from his job as the collector of customs in New York City. That was the richest government job in America then, and it was considered to be a center of corruption. He didn’t do anything strictly illegal, but Arthur made a lot of money there. He hired a lot of Republican cronies to unnecessary, well-paying jobs. So when the brand new president died, many people thought the best thing Arthur could do for America would be to resign.
However, a young woman named Julia Sands wrote him a series of letters calling on him to defy everyone’s expectations and be a good president. Arthur took her letters to heart and persuaded Congress to pass reform legislation; his old job was included. He then enforced that legislation. He shocked friend and foe alike by permanently changing the way American government ran. This evening, we have before us another man whose words would’ve shocked anyone who knew him. Those words are tonight’s irony of the passion: Don’t you fear God?
The account of the criminal who said these words is well-known, even though we don’t actually know his name. But it is true that adying criminal came to faith on a cross.
Pilate condemned Jesus to die, and the Roman soldiers marched him the through the streets of Jerusalem to Calvary. Crucifixions required serious logistical support. Poles were needed, cross beams, nails, and ropes. Soldiers were needed to guard the prisoners and to keep order, because crowds gathered to watch crucifixions. Ordinarily there was a delay between the time when the sentence was passed and when it was finally carried out. There was no appeals process. Jewish leaders wanted Jesus dead that day. More importantly, God wanted his Son to die on that Friday, so Jesus went immediately to the cross.
There were two other criminals in prison awaiting execution. Since the Romans were going to all the trouble to crucify Jesus, they wanted to be efficient and decided to crucify those two good for nothings also. As soon as he was nailed to his cross, Jesus’ enemies began to mock him. “If you are the Christ, save yourself!” And both of these criminals joined in. Luke tells us that they even echoed the words of the Jewish leaders: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
Now some claim that this is a contradiction in the Bible to prove that there are some errors (the Devil doesn’t stop trying to do that), because Luke says one criminal said that while Matthew and Mark tell us that both criminals mocked Jesus. How do we reconcile that? Both men started out mocking Jesus by saying “Come on, Christ! Use that miraculous power of yours and save yourself and us!” But one came to faith. The other apparently didn’t.
Jesus was indeed the Christ, the promised Savior of Israel, and he could have come down from that cross. The reason he didn’t was to save sinners, even the very people who wanted him executed, those who were executing him, those who were executed with him and even those who talk about it 2000 years later.
What kind of criminals were those two men? The Bible doesn’t spell out their crimes, but the Greek words used to describe them imply they were not only men who stole but also were violent. That could also include murder. They were habitual offenders. They deserved the death.
But without any warning, one of them asked the other, “Don’t you fear God . . . 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.”Don’t you fear God? Where did that come from? If either had feared God, they wouldn’t be in this position, one on the right and one on the left. But then maybe not. Being innocent didn’t seem to keep Jesus from there.
Something interesting occurred there on the cross. The Bible says that God wrote into the heart of every human being a knowledge of what is right and wrong and that God is going to judge everyone when we die. Even a hardened criminal with a fear of facing God like this one is not unusual.
The surprising thing is not that he acknowledged his wrong, but that he trusted Jesus to take him to heaven when all this was over. How did he come to know Jesus as his Savior?
The ultimate answer is the same one for every Christian – it is the work of God the Holy Spirit who works through the Word of God. Most Jews were raised with religious instruction. Perhaps he remembered some of the prophecies like Isaiah 53 or Psalm 22 that point so clearly to the suffering Savior. He was seeing those passages unfold right before his eyes. For three years Jesus was the most famous man in Israel. Thousands of people heard Jesus teach and saw his teaching confirmed by the miracles he did. Perhaps he had been among them. He had heard Jesus speak to the people on the way to Calvary; he even asked God to forgive the soldiers who nailed him to the cross.
Sure he mocked Jesus at first too, but it all began to sink in. The stories about Jesus, the words and actions of Jesus that he could see was the Gospel that the Holy Spirit used to touch his heart. He was brought to faith there on the cross.
God has done the very same thing for you and me. Now does that seem like kind of a forced comparison? When you look at this man dying because of robbery and violence and maybe even murder, do you see yourself? Or do you think it’s obvious that you aren’t the kind of sinner he was? The truth is, you are. We are all sinners from birth. The greatest lie of our age is that we’re good people by nature, that there is a little bit of good in all of us. It’s all an illusion. It is an illusion because people are comparing themselves with other people. Compare yourself with God! The Bible says, “There is no difference for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
The good news is that God has been every bit as generous to us as he was to that criminal.
Jesus paid for all our hatred and murder, for all our greed and robbery, for all our sin. His blood washed it all away. He promises us as he promised that criminal—paradise with him. The same Holy Spirit worked through that same gospel to give us the same faith in our Savior as this dying criminal had. The day is coming when we will get to know the name of that man.
Obviously, this man knew he was dying, and without that realization, he might never have come to see what the gospel promised him. Do you ever wonder it? As a pastor I have seen it many times in my lifetime. That, as far as I am concerned, is in the job description of being a pastor – to help people get ready to die and help them to the finish line. Every time it occurs, I ask myself how I am going to deal with the time when it comes for me. I remember the professor’s words that death is not natural. Man was not created to die.
Crucifixion was a horrible way to die. Do you know what usually killed the person? Suffocation. As someone wrote, “As the victims hung there on the cross, they had to push themselves up with their legs to get a full breath of air. As this process continued for hours, the victim became more and more tired. Each breath became harder to take. Slowly, their lungs filled with water, so each breath brought less and less oxygen. It made the victims have to work harder to draw deeper and faster breaths, but they burned more oxygen doing that. Eventually, they reached the point where they couldn’t bring in oxygen fast enough, and they died.”
Remember how Pilate sent soldiers to break their legs. If they couldn’t push up with their legs, they suffocated faster. Pilate was surprised to learn that Jesus was dead in such a short time because this could last for a couple of days. The soldiers did, however, have to break the legs of the two criminals, the one repentant and the other probably not.
Take a closer look at how he did. He didn’t ask to be rescued from the cross. He didn’t try to bargain with Jesus and promise to turn over a new leaf. He didn’t even ask Jesus to spare him some of the pain. He asked only one thing: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”He asked to go home to heaven.
And Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”That very day he would leave behind all that sin does to people here on earth and go home. He would be with Christ in heaven. That is the greatest joy of eternal life. And as this Christian hung on his own cross, as the hours dragged on and his life slipped away, the promise of the gospel kept his faith alive. Faith in the gospel promises brought him home. That same gospel even led him to call even another sinner to repent. Who would ever expect a man in this situation to witness to Christ? Another one of those ironies, don’t you think?
There is so much pain in this life, so may diseases that are probably every bit as painful as crucifixion. And even if we don’t face such horrible deaths, some of us may face pain that seems just as bad—spouses who are unfaithful, children who abandon us, abuse from parents, or addiction to drugs or alcohol. All the pain and sorrow of this life attack us and our faith. God never promised us that we would avoid the crosses he lays on us.
However, he did promise to limit our crosses to no more than what we can stand—like he did when he limited this man’s crucifixion to only one day. God does promise to give us the strength we need to endure them. When the time comes for us to go home, those we love will take great comfort in hearing our confession as we hear it from this penitent criminal.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling.