(A) Introduction. Read: Luke23v26to49

I dealt with the crucifixion of Jesus in my expositions on John's gospel. See John19v16to30. In this sermon I concentrate on what John's account declared about Jesus. In this treatment of the corresponding passage in Luke's gospel I will look at how the different people gathered round the cross react to Jesus.

(B) Simon of Cyrene who only did his duty

As they led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. Lk23v26.

The Roman soldiers accompanying Jesus to Calvary had the right by law to press a man into carrying a load for 1 mile. So, Simon was not a volunteer. He was doing what he had to do. He was doing his duty. Yet by doing his duty he shared Christ's burden and made life a little easier for the Saviour. I hope he bore the heavy cross beam cheerfully, capably and with compassion. He may well have done. Luke mentions him by name suggesting he was later known in Christian circles.

We can make a huge difference to people's lives by HOW we do our duty - the jobs we are paid to do. I expect we have all benefitted from a kind teacher, compassionate nurse, tender doctor or smiling, friendly check out girl at our local supermarket. There is lady on the tills at my local Waitrose who always contrives to brighten my day with her warmth and consideration. In my story, Love is kind, I wrote about the way a hairdresser, cleaner and carer helped my Uncle Joe care for his dear wife who suffered from Alzheimer's disease

It is very important to Jesus that we do our duty to the best of our ability. We don't want to be like the little corporal who features in this well known story:

During the American Revolution a man in civilian clothes rode past a group of soldiers repairing a small defensive barrier. Their leader was shouting instructions, but making no attempt to help them. Asked why by the rider, he retorted with great dignity, "Sir, I am a corporal!" The stranger apologized, dismounted, and proceeded to help the exhausted soldiers. The job done, he turned to the corporal and said, "Mr. Corporal, next time you have a job like this and not enough men to do it, go to your commander-in-chief, and I will come and help you again." It was none other than George Washington. (Taken from, ]Today in the Word, March 6, 1991.)

(C) The Daughters of Jerusalem and their misplaced sympathy.

It is possible the Daughters of Jerusalem were a charitable organisation that existed to weep and wail at public executions. They may also have provided wine mingled with myrrh to relieve the pain of being nailed to the cross.

Jesus told these women: "Do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children." Jesus knew that in the future a terrible time was coming for women and children who lived in Jerusalem. The suffering would be so extreme that childlessness was the best option.

Jesus said: "For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry." By this he probably meant that if the Romans were prepared to execute him who posed no threat - even as a green tree poses little threat of catching fire - what will they do when the intransigent, rebellious Jews were a threat - as tinder dry brushwood is always liable to catch fire.

There are plenty today who pity Christians as being misguided and sad! Many churches in Western Europe are in decline and in danger of dying out. The dispirited leaders may well appear rather tragic figures. I have even heard Christians say of a pastor who has laboured for years in a church and seen no blessing, "Poor old Pastor X - all that effort and he's got nowhere."

It is people in the world who are tragic figures. The rich farmer who enjoyed a bumber harvest seemed anything but a failure. He would be much envied by his neighbours. He said to himself: "You have many good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." But God said to him: "You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you." Lk12v18and19 The prosperous landowner was the tragic figure because he had made no provision for life after death. See exposition on Luke12v13to21.

There is more than one way to be rich. Some much acclaimed religious leaders need to beware that Jesus' words do not apply to them: "But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort." Lk6v24.

(D) The soldiers who knew not what they did.

If asked why they were participating in such a barbaric procedure as crucifixion doubtless the soldiers would have replied, "We're just obeying orders. We're doing our job and a very unpleasant one it is too. We have to remain detached on an assignment like this."

To while away the time the soldiers amused themselves by gambling over Jesus' five items of clothing: the inner coat, outer cloak, turban, girdle and sandals. After their game came to an end the only entertainment remaining was to mock Jesus. The legionnaires didn't realise what a terrible thing they were doing - nailing the Lord of glory, the beloved Son of God and Saviour of the world to a cross and then taunting him in his humiliation.

Sin is always greater than it seems. We often don't realise the harm our sin does to others. We fail to appreciate:

(1) How much it wounds people. We can do a lot of damage with a careless word, cold look of disapproval, lack of appreciation or recognition. We do lasting harm by belittling a man's abilities, holding someone back or being unfairly critical.

(2) The damage we do immature Christians by behaviour inconsistent with our profession. It will shock infants in Christ if we lose our temper, use bad language, speak ill of a fellow believer, tell a suspect joke, poke fun at the Bible, refuse to help, eat too much, get tipsy and the like. I can remember as a boy of 15 travelling back from a Christian camp in a railway compartment with two of the staff who were engaged to be married who spent the entire journey kissing and canoodling. What shocked me was that they were engaged to other people - not each other!

(3) The extent we grieve the Master when we dishonour his name and fail him. Jesus was very upset when Peter, James and John were unable to watch with him one hour in the garden of Gethsemane. So we should expect him to be disappointed when we skip our prayers, stop away from church, never volunteer for church office, don't support those who do and cause disunity.

(E) The thieves: repentance and reward.

Both robbers joined the passers-by, the chief priests, lawyers and elders, in mocking Jesus. See Mt27v41to44.

(1) One thief changed.

    (a) One thief experienced a real change in heart. He did all he could in the circumstances. He acknowledged his sin by admitting he was being justly punished for his misdeeds, recognised Christ's innocence, accepted that God would soon decide his fate and rebuked his fellow thief for his behaviour. The repentant robber did what all true believers should be prepared to do - stand up for Jesus.

    (b) Somehow one thief came to see that Jesus would come into his kingdom. A notice had been placed above Jesus: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. v38. Exactly what the thief believed it is impossible to say. It hardly seemed possible that Jesus would come into a worldly kingdom. I think he at least realised that Jesus would come into his reward after death.

    The thief changed because for three hours he had witnessed the conduct of Jesus:

    • There had been no oaths and curses. Jesus didn't swear at the soldiers when they manhandled him.

    • He had spoken words of forgiveness on behalf of the soldiers.

    • He hadn't retaliated with hot words to those that mocked him.

    • He commended his mother to John

    • Pain and humiliation were accepted bravely and with forbearance. His wits were not befuddled with wine mingled with myrrh.

    The behaviour, bearing and dignity of Jesus had a profound effect on the dying thief.

    (c) The repentant thief received a promise: "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." v43. These reassuring words are very precious to many Christians. However, it is not easy to be sure what they mean. Broadly there are two views:

    • Some say Jesus' promise meant the dying thief and Jesus went straight to heaven when they died. It is certainly true that just before Jesus breathed his last he committed his spirit into the hands of his Father.

      But Jesus did not go bodily into the Father's presence. He said to Mary Magdalene in the garden after his resurrection: "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father." Jn20v17 John also wrote: No-one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven - the Son of Man. Jn3v13.

      The fact is, that in the absence of a body we do not know how we exist after death and before resurrection. Our spirits are in God's keeping and our condition is likened over and over again in the Bible to sleep. This hardly seems like being in paradise. It is certainly not an ideal state for us to be in otherwise there would be no resurrection of the body.

    • Others argue that the comma is misplaced in Jesus' promise. It should come after 'today'. So Jesus said, "I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise." This is the equivalent of saying, "I tell you here and now, you will be with me in paradise." Both the, 'I tell you' and the 'today' are used for emphasis. It is no sillier Jesus using 'today' for emphasis as 'I tell you'. In both instances Jesus was stating the obvious - but stating the obvious is a common way of lending great emphasis to what you are saying. See my article on the afterlife for more detail.

      A time will come when the dying thief will share in the resurrection of the righteous and be with Jesus among the redeemed on the new earth in the new universe. Now that will be paradise.

(2) One thief remained unchanged.

The unrepentant thief witnessed the conduct of Jesus and heard the testimony of his fellow thief but it made no difference to him. He exercised no faith and remained lost. Herein lies a great mystery. I believe men are free to accept or reject Jesus. If truly free some will accept Jesus and some will reject him. That is just how it is!

If God decided before the foundation of the world to save men and women who believe on his son then by that decision some were predestined to salvation and some to destruction.

(3) Lessons.

(a) The conversion of the dying thief illustrates the power of a godly example. Many, many people are brought to faith in Jesus by the example of a godly Christian.

Years ago the communist government in China commissioned an author to write a biography of Hudson Taylor with the purpose of distorting the facts and presenting him in a bad light. They wanted to discredit the name of this consecrated missionary of the gospel. As the author was doing his research, he was increasingly impressed by Taylor's saintly character and godly life, and he found it extremely difficult to carry out his assigned task with a clear conscience. Eventually, at the risk of losing his life, he laid aside his pen, renounced his atheism, and received Jesus as his personal Saviour

(b) At the age of 67 I gave up playing cricket. This brought my sporting career to an end. I suppose I could take up golf or bowls but I tend to think it is hardly worth it. It is too late to become much good at a new sport now. My sister-in-law, Ruth, always tells me that if she was widowed she wouldn't marry again. It would be a bit like buying an old banger. You might be lucky and get a few more thousand miles out of it without too much trouble but it is more likely to cause more trouble than it is worth!

This was not the attitude of the dying faith. He didn't consider it was too late to reach out in faith to Jesus. He didn't conclude: it is hardly worth changing now.

The ultimate reaction of the repentant thief to Jesus demonstrates that an imperfect faith, a little faith and a late faith is sufficient to save.

(c) The thief's change of heart was shown by his testimony. He confessed his sin, he stood up for Jesus and he expressed his utter confidence in Christ's abiding power after death. True belief is invariably accompanied by confession and works.

(F) The Centurion.

The centurion joined the list of those who found no fault in Jesus: Pilate, Herod and the dying thief. When Jesus finally died the centurion probably said: "Surely he was the Son of God." Mt27v54. But as a Roman pagan this probably meant little more than the words Luke records: "Surely this was a righteous man." Lk23v47.

The centurion came to this conclusion after observing Jesus' reaction to:

    (a) Intense pain. He bore it patiently and without resentment.

    (b) Extreme provocation. He accepted it calmly.

    (c) Approaching death. He had no fear but exhibited every confidence in God his Father before breathing his last.

The centurion had listened to Jesus pray for his soldiers, provide for his mother, console the dying thief, announce in triumph, "It is finished" and dismiss his spirit into the care of his Father with authority and gladness.

The ultimate tests for Christians are how we behave when in pain, respond when belittled and face up to death.

(G) The women: faithful to the end.

All sorts of people witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus. His opponents were there to mock him but also present were a large number who were disappointed his life ended the way it did. When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. Lk23v48. There was a small group including John the disciple and Jesus' mother who stood near the cross. Jn19v25. Another larger group including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance watching these things. Lk23v49.

Why did these well-to-do Galilean women stand at a distance? There are three reasons:

    (a) I don't think they could bear to witness his pain and humiliation at close quarters.

    There are times when a Christian brother or sister is close to death when we may need to keep our distance. A visit could just add to the misery of someone humiliated by suffering and weakness. It is only appropriate for the nearest and dearest to be there.

    (b) The women stood within view of Jesus to show their commitment to him. They were faithful unto death. In this instance Jesus' devoted followers did watch with him - hour after hour.

    There are times in our lives when we need Christian brothers and sisters to give us moral support. It is always a great help during periods of trouble to know that there are those praying for us.

    (c) The women were the last to leave Jesus. They wanted to know where his body was laid to rest. They intended to embalm that dear body - the one, last, loving service to render their teacher and friend.

Women are: particularly sensitive to the humiliation of those they love, loyal in good times and bad and willing to express their love in humble service.

(H) The Father: bounteous in grace and mercy.

God the Father did break fellowship with his Son when Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice for sin and our sin was laid upon him. The veiling of the sun by ultra thick cloud or volcanic ash was symbolic of the darkness that overwhelmed Jesus as the barrier of our sin cut him off from the Father. BUT GOD IN MERCY:

(1) Dispelled the darkness and the sun shone again. Evening shafts of light brightened the scene.

(2) Renewed communion with the Son as the darkness lifted. Jesus was not cut off from God the Father forever!

(3) With the restoration of fellowship assured Jesus that his sacrifice was accepted, sufficient and efficacious. I believe what Jesus called out with a loud voice was "It is finished." Jn19v30. This is why Jesus asked for a drink - so that he could make this declaration with a triumphant shout. It would not be appropriate to make such a triumphant pronouncement with a barely audible croak.

God showed such great grace in accepting the token payment Jesus offered for our sin. A sacrifice is never a just punishment for sins committed; it is only a token payment and for acceptance depends upon the invincible good will of the person to whom it is offered.

(4) Allowed Jesus to foreshorten the physical pain of crucifixion. He was permitted to commit his spirit to his Father: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." When he had said this, he breathed his last. Lk23v46.

(5) Shook the temple with an earthquake rending the veil from top to bottom. By this act God signified that all could approach him through Christ the Son. There is no need for any more sacrifices and therefore no call for any more priests.

In conclusion let me reiterate: we should not dwell too much on God punishing sin by punishing Jesus on the cross. Jesus could never make full payment for sin. He could never satisfy God's justice. Instead, Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice. He made a token payment. God in his mercy to Jesus did not exact more. God showed immense grace to sinful men by accepting absolutely what Jesus offered on our behalf for our eternal redemption.

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