Luke: Remember Me

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on November 13, 2011

Luke 23:39-43

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The Lord’s Day Morning

November 13, 2011

“Remember Me”

Luke 23:39-43

The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 23 as we
continue our way through the gospel of Luke together.
I can remind you, a couple of weeks ago when we were last in the gospel,
we were looking at the passage immediately prior to this in which Luke begins to
describe the crucifixion. If you
look especially at verse 34, Luke will give you the first word of Jesus from the
cross, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing,” and in
so doing, Luke is not only being a faithful historian and recording exactly what
happens, what Jesus said, he is pointing you to specific historical facts that
elaborate the theology of the cross, that explain why Jesus is doing what He’s
doing on the cross. And he’s wanting
to draw attention to the fact that what Jesus is doing on the cross forms the
basis of God’s gracious and just forgiveness of the sins of all those who trust
in Jesus Christ. And so this is the
backdrop of the passage we’re going to read today.

We’re going to be looking at verses 39 to 43, a passage which records a
conversation between one of the two criminals, or thieves, or robbers —
depending on your translation — who were hung on crosses next to Jesus, on
either side. And this conversation
is of great significance. Again,
Luke is drawing our attention to something that none of the other gospels tell
us about. Each of the other two
synoptic gospels tell us about these criminals and tell us what frame of mind
they were in when the day began as they began to be crucified, but Luke alone
records the interaction between Jesus and one of those criminals.
And in that interaction I want us to see two or three things, so be on
the lookout for these as we read.

First of all, this passage says something about Jesus’ readiness to save
sinners, after all, Jesus said, “I came not for the righteous but to call
sinners.” And this passage expresses
that. Secondly, this passage is a
beautiful picture of what real repentance is – what it looks like, what
conversion looks like in a person.
And then, Jesus’ declaration, the declaration we’ll read in verse 43, is a
life-altering declaration and I want us to be on the lookout for that as we read
today. So before we read God’s Word,
let’s pray and ask for His help and blessing.

Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your Word.
It is more to be desired than gold.
It is more necessary than food or water for we do not live by bread alone
but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
So speak, Lord, Your servant’s listening.
We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.

This is the Word of God. Hear it,
beginning in Luke 23 verse 9:

“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

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word.
May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

In the last passage that we read in Luke, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them
for they do not know what they are doing.”
In this passage, Jesus forgives a criminal and ensures him of everlasting
life. Even on the cross, Jesus is
ministering His saving work. Even as
He dies for the sins of the world, He is concerned about the heart of a
convicted criminal who is dying the same awful death that He is dying.
And in this wonderful exchange, this unique exchange recorded for us only
by Luke, I want us to see three things today.


First of all, Jesus is at His ministry of salvation to the very end, even from
the cross. Here Jesus is, enduring
the physical torment of death on the cross, bearing the burden, the weight of
the wrath of God for the sins of the world, and yet His heart is still on the
salvation of sinners and it’s represented in this conversation that He has with
this thief. Jesus said that He came
to call sinners, not the righteous, and here He is calling a sinner to Himself,
having a conversation. At the end of
the passage, you’ll note, the sinner in verse 42 — the robber, the criminal,
however your translation renders it — says to Jesus, “Remember me when You come
into Your kingdom,” and Jesus responds, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise,”
showing concern for this sinner’s soul, even from the cross.
Just like in the trial in the courtyard when Peter was denying Him while
Jesus was being tried by the high priest, Jesus is thinking of Peter, He’s
looking at Peter, He’s driving Peter to repentance.
So also here on the cross, while He’s dying for the saving of the world,
while He’s bearing the sins of the world, He’s thinking about this thief and
He’s willing to have this conversation about eternal things, about things of the
soul, about things of the heart with this thief.
We see, even here from the cross, while Jesus is doing the work which
provides the basis of salvation for all who trust in Him, He’s also focused on
this thief who desperately needs to hear His word of assurance and blessing.
Jesus saves and He does that work even on the cross.
As the book of Hebrews says, “He saves to the uttermost,” and here He is,
even on the cross, doing the work of a pastor; doing the work of a shepherd;
doing the work of a teacher, and teaching this thief and responding to him and
being concerned for his soul. Here
on the cross, we see Jesus saving, not only in the sense of atoning for our
sins, but in the sense of going after this lost sheep, this thief who is having
a conversation with Him.

You know it’s quite remarkable, isn’t it?
Jesus said that He came to save sinners and who’s having a conversation
with Him? A condemned criminal, a
condemned criminal who admits that he deserves to receive the punishment that he
is getting in this awful death of the crucifixion.
Do you see what he says in verse 41?
“We are receiving the due reward of our deeds.”
This is a condemned criminal, the likes of which you rarely find.
You go to prisons and it’s amazing — everybody there is innocent; they’ve
all been wrongly convicted. But this
man is saying, “We’re on a cross,” to the other thief, “and we deserve to be
here. We deserve to be condemned for
what we’re doing.” And that is the
man that Jesus says, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

By the way, if this verse doesn’t teach salvation by grace alone through faith
in Christ alone, I don’t know a verse that does, because it’s certainly not
because this thief was a good person who had earned his way to Paradise.
It is that the King, Jesus, has forgiven him and welcomed him into
Paradise not because he deserved it, but because Jesus had paid for his sins and
forgiven him of those sins and welcomed him by grace into His presence.
And so we see Jesus saving sinners even while He’s on the cross.
That’s the first thing I want you to see here.


But the second thing I want you to see is this — we see a glorious conversion on
the cross, not just Jesus’ work of saving sinners but there’s a glorious
conversion that’s pictured here. The
repentance of this thief, of this criminal, of this robber, is quite remarkable.
Now I want to point out something because Luke tells us some things here
that the other gospels don’t tell us but what he says is consistent with what
they say. Notice what they are
saying. The criminal is railing against Him, verse 39, saying, “Are You not the
Christ? Save Yourself and us!”
Now the other gospels tell us about that.
Turn with me to Matthew chapter 27.
In Matthew chapter 27 verse 44, Matthew says, “And the robbers also who
had been crucified with Him were casting the same insult at Him.”
So they’re insulting Him the same way that the soldiers and religious
leaders are insulting Him. In other
words, even as they are mocking Him, saying, “Well if You’re a King, come down
from the cross and save Yourself. If
You’re the Messiah, come down from the cross and save Yourself.”
And the criminals are involved in that too.

And then if you’ll turn with me to Mark, turn with me to Mark chapter 15, and
look at verses 27 to 32. Notice
again, verse 27 — “They crucified two robbers with Him, one on His right and one
on His left. And those we who were
passing,” verse 29, “were hurling abuse at Him and,” verse 30, “saying, ‘Save
Yourself, and come down from the cross!’
And so were the chief priests and the scribes, they were mocking Him.”
And then look at the end of verse 31.
What were they saying? “He
saved others; He cannot save Himself.”
And then in verse 32, “Let this Christ, the King of Israel, now come down
from the cross so that we may see and believe.”
And then Mark just says in passing, “And those who were crucified with
Him were casting the same insult at Him.”
Now what I want you to see there is both Matthew and Mark tell you what?
Both of the criminals were mocking Jesus at the beginning of the day.
And Luke knows Mark, so it’s not like Luke doesn’t know what Mark and
Matthew know. He knows what Mark and
Matthew know, but he tells us that at some point during the day when Jesus was
on the cross that one of the criminals looks over at the other criminal and he
says, “Stop doing that.”

So what’s happened? Something has
changed in this man. Something
dramatic has changed. Even though he
started the day hurling abuse at Jesus, suddenly now he’s asking Jesus if He
will remember him when he comes into His kingdom.
Suddenly he’s rebuking the other criminal and saying, “You shouldn’t be
speaking to Him like that. Don’t you
fear God? We’re justly condemned;
He’s not justly condemned.” Suddenly
this man’s life is changed and you ask me, “What happened?”
Well, one answer that you could give is that this is an example of the
answer to Jesus’ prayer. Jesus had
prayed, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.”
This may be “Exhibit A.” Or
you might say, “Well, the Holy Spirit’s working on this man’s heart,” and that
would be true. But if you asked me,
“What was it that caused this man to change?
What did he see? What did he
hear that made him change?” I don’t
know. It could have been Jesus’
words. It could have been His words
of forgiveness to the very people who were doing this to Him.
That could have been what the Lord used to change this man’s heart and to
open his eyes. It could have been
the way Jesus was experiencing His crucifixion — His character, His dignity.
This man is clearly impressed with both Jesus’ character and His message.
In fact, one of the big points that Luke is driving home to us in this
passage is the integrity of Jesus’ person and the testimony of His message, both
of those things being confirmed on the cross.
And it’s clear that the thief has enormous respect for His person and
enormous respect for His message.
But what were the specific things that brought about the change?
I don’t know, but boy is the change there.

And you see the change in three things in particular.
First of all, you see the change in the rebuke that he administers to the
other thief, to the other criminal.
He says, “Stop talking like that.
You ought not to be speaking like that.
Don’t you have any fear of God in you?”
Suddenly, this man who was mocking Jesus at the beginning of the day is
concerned about the soul of the other thief.

Secondly, he admits his own guilt.
Is that not remarkable? He’s on a
cross dying a torturous death and he says, “I deserve this.”
I don’t know what he did.
He’s called a thief or a robber or a criminal and that could mean a lot of
different things. We talked about
that a couple of weeks ago. We don’t
know what the specific crime was, but whatever it was he says, “I deserve this.
I’m guilty.” He owns his own
sin. You know, there are very few
people that see their own sin that clearly.
It’s amazing how we can do horrible things and it’s somebody else’s
fault. But this thief says, “Guilty.
Guilty as charged. I’m
getting what I deserve.” He sees his
own sin clearly.

And then, notice also, he confesses Jesus.
He confesses Jesus’ innocence.
By the way, have you noticed now Luke has now told you that Pilate, the
Roman governor of Palestine has declared Jesus innocent, Herod, the part Jewish
ruler of one part of Palestine has declared Jesus innocent, and now one of the
thieves crucified on the cross has declared Him innocent.
This is one of the things that Luke is just pounding home.
Jesus is not on the cross because He deserves to be there.
He’s on the cross for another reason.
He’s not on the cross because He’s a criminal because He’s not a
criminal. He’s not on the cross
because He’s done something wicked because He’s not done anything wicked.
He’s there for another reason.
This is all part of Luke driving that truth home.
Jesus is innocent. He is
without sin. He does not deserve to
be punished this way. He does not
deserve to be on the cross and now he’s got the thief saying this, the thief
himself admitting this about Jesus.
And so you see this confession.

But you not only see that confession that Jesus is innocent, you see the thief
going on to say, “Would You remember me when You come into Your kingdom?”
Now that’s amazing because over and over in this passage what have we
seen Jesus mocked for? What are the
chief priests and scribes mocking Him for?
They’re mocking Him for claiming to be the King, for claiming to be the
anointed Messiah, for claiming to be the one who they are going to see coming on
clouds with power and glory in His kingdom.
They charge Him with that crime but they do not accept it as true.
They view it as blasphemy and they mock Him for claiming it.
And then Pilate thinks the same thing.
You remember when they come to Pilate and they say, “This Man is a threat
to the Roman government because He claims to be a King and have a kingdom.”
And Pilate examines Him and says, “This Man’s no threat to Rome.”
Pilate clearly doesn’t think that the kind of King that Jesus claims to
be or the kind of kingdom that He claims to have is any threat to Rome
whatsoever. And so the Roman
soldiers mock Jesus for being a King and claiming to be a King and claiming to
have a kingdom. So everybody in the
story is mocking Him and suddenly there’s this dying man on a cross saying,
“Jesus, I know You’re a King. I’ve
watched You. And when You come into
Your kingdom, could I just ask You one thing?
Would You please just remember me?”
And so we have this rebuke of the other thief, we have a recognition of
his own sin, and we have this very clear confession of who Jesus is and what He
claims to have come to do and be.
It’s an amazing change that happened to this man.

J.C. Ryle has a wonderful meditation on this passage and he says actually the
evidences of grace in this man’s life deserve our closest attention.
And he identified six of them.
Let me just share them with you briefly.
He says first notice his concern about his companion’s wickedness in
reviling Christ. “Do you not fear
God,” he says, “seeing you are in the same condemnation?” So suddenly this man
who a few moments before was mocking Jesus, now he’s concerned for his friend’s
soul. That’s an evidence of grace.
That’s an evidence of a changed heart.
When you start caring about other people’s souls, that’s an evidence that
God has done a work of grace in you.

Secondly, Ryle says the full acknowledgement that he gives of his own sin.
“We are justly condemned. We
are receiving the due reward of our deeds.”
He’s owned his own sin. No
excuses. No, “We’re getting more
than we deserve here. I don’t
deserve this. It’s somebody else’s
fault.” He owns his own sin.
“I did it. I deserve this.”
That’s a mark of grace.

Third, his open confession of Christ’s innocence.
“This Man has done nothing wrong.”
He says that in verse 31.
Jesus’ character is vindicated to this man and this man confesses it.
“This Man is innocent. He’s
not done anything wrong. He doesn’t
deserve what’s happening to Him. We
deserve what’s happening to us; He doesn’t deserve what’s happening to Him.”

Fourth, notice his faith in Jesus’ power and will to save him.
He turns to the crucified sufferer and he says, “Remember me when You
come into Your kingdom.” He believes
that He is a King and he believes that He has a kingdom, and that’s more than
anybody else around the cross except for the disciples.
Right? Everybody else there
rejects that Jesus is a King and rejects that He has a kingdom except this guy!
It’s a clear profession of faith in Jesus Christ.

Fifth, what does he do? He prays.
He cries to Jesus when he’s hanging on the cross and he asks Him even
then to think upon his soul. He
prayed a petition from Jesus. That
is prayer.

And then sixth, Ryle says, the last step was his humility.
He begged to be remembered by the Lord.
Enough for him if he is remembered by Christ.
We don’t know what led to his conversion, but the mark of God’s grace on
this man and the evidences of his change of life are everywhere to be found in
this passage.

And of course the question for us to ask is, “Do we bear the marks of that kind
of a conversion?” I’m not saying
that kind of a dramatic conversion, every conversion is different and unique
because God makes us unique, but all of us ought to be able to see evidences of
God’s grace in our heart if we truly are in Christ, if we trust Him.
Do we have these kinds of evidences of grace?
Do we care about the souls of others?
Do we see our own sin clearly?
Do we embrace Jesus’ person and His words?
Do we trust in Him? Do we
humbly pray from Him just to be able to be remembered when He comes into His
kingdom? These area all marks of the
work of God’s grace in this man’s life. Do we see those kinds of evidences of
grace in our life?


And then there’s a third thing that I want you to see in this passage, not only
Jesus working for the salvation of this sinner, even from the cross, the
glorious conversion of this sinner while he is on a cross, but a stunning,
life-altering declaration that Jesus makes.
When the man says to Jesus, “Remember me when You come into Your
kingdom,” Jesus says something that would have blown the minds of all pious Jews
who heard Him say these words.
“Truly I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
And there are at least three things in that one little sentence that
would have changed the whole theological structure of the world in which the
people who originally heard Jesus say those words lived – today, with me, in

Now when the thief said to Jesus, “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom,”
I don’t know how much of Jesus’ teaching this thief had heard or knew about.
Maybe he had heard some of Jesus’ claims in some of His teaching while he
was being held in prison before his crucifixion.
Maybe he had been among the crowds in Jerusalem and had heard Jesus
teaching. Maybe he had heard Jesus
teaching somewhere else or maybe he had just heard Jesus speaking and teaching
from the cross, enough to learn that He claimed to be a King and He claimed to
have a kingdom. But when he asked
Jesus to remember him when he came into His kingdom, if he believed like pious
Jews in his day believed, he probably meant something like this — “I believe
Jesus that the Messiah will one day come at the end of time and He will judge
this world, He will save His people, and He will condemn the wicked.
The just and the unjust will be raised from the dead, the just will be
blessed, the unjust will be cursed.
Remember me, Jesus. That is to say,
forgive me and accept me and number me among the just on the last day and not
among the wicked, among the unjust.”
He’s craving forgiveness and he’s craving inclusion in the blessing of the
kingdom to come at the end of this age.

And Jesus’ answer is mind blowing.
He says, “No, no, no, no — today, you will be with Me in Paradise.
Not just eons hence at the end of the age, not just at the resurrection
of the dead, but today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
Jesus’ announcement of “today” is an indication that in His death He is
going to conquer death, which is the wages of sin. And therefore His people will
not simply have to await the coming of the final judgment, which we do look
forward to with anticipation. We
look forward to the coming of the King in His final judgment and the great
assize and the blessing of all those who are in Christ and the punishment of the
wicked. We look for that day, but
Jesus doesn’t just say, “I’ve heard your prayer; I’ll remember you then.”
But He says, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
It’s an indication that what He’s doing on the cross is a victory over
sin, death, and the grave.

Do you realize that in that one sentence He has altered the whole way that the
Christian looks at death? Death is
the last enemy. It is the wages of
sin. And even for those of us who
believe in the Gospel, in salvation, and in the life to come, the loss of a
loved one is a hard thing to bear.
And Jesus is saying, “I want you to know that if you trust in Me, the minute,
the second, the nanosecond that you close your eyes in death you will be with
Me. Not just then at the end of the
age, but today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

Secondly, Paradise, in Paradise — the abode of the just; the place where the
blessed dwell until the final coming of the Lord.
Jesus is articulating in one sentence the doctrine of the intermediate
state more clearly than it has ever been unfolded in the Old Testament — in one
sentence! If you want to understand
that doctrine you have to scan the pages of the New Testament because the Old
Testament only gives you hints here and there as to how to understand that.
But Jesus here in one sentence is saying that the minute that the
believer closes her eyes, his eyes, in death he, she, is in Paradise,
immediately, before the final resurrection ever comes.
We still look to the final resurrection when the just and the unjust will
be raised, when Christ comes with power and glory on the clouds, when every knee
bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, we look forward to
that as the last great event in this history, but until then, if you die in
Christ you are in Paradise, in heaven among the blessed.

And here’s the best part — today, in Paradise, with Me.
Paradise isn’t some airy-fairy world where you float around on clouds.
It’s where Jesus is. And you
see, Jesus is the great treasure of the believer.
In the end, we love forgiveness of sins, but we love forgiveness of sins
because it allows us to be with Him.
We love justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, but we
love it because we treasure Jesus more than anything else and the greatest
blessing for the believer is Jesus.
He isn’t just the means to our blessing; He Himself is our greatest blessing.
And so He turns to this thief who had asked to be remembered and He says,
“Remembered? Ha!
You’re going to be with Me! I won’t have to remember you, you’ll be with
Me! You won’t be forgotten because
you’ll be with Me!” It will be the greatest thing because all the people that
we’ll want to be with – all you have to do is sit there on the pew right now and
you can think of a dozen right now that you would give your eye teeth to be
with. There are young people in this
room who have never known their godly grandparents and they will be with them.
There are husbands who’ve lost the face of the wife who loves them.
They will be with them. But
among all those precious things, the most precious will be to be with Jesus.
Today, with Me, in Paradise.
And He says it to this thief! If
that’s not salvation by grace alone I don’t know what it is.

But you see, the question for us my friends is, have we repented like this
thief? Have we trusted Christ like
this thief, because do you remember what Billy read in 1 Peter 2?
Just turn with me there. We
read it this morning. It wasn’t
planned; it was just providence.
What does Peter tell us? First Peter
chapter 2 – “You are living stones,” verse 5, “being built up as a spiritual
house for a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God
in Jesus Christ for this is contained in Scripture: ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a
choice stone, a precious cornerstone, and he who believes in Him shall not be
disappointed.’ This precious value
then is for you who believe, but for those who disbelieve, ‘The stone which the
builders rejected became the very cornerstone, a stone of stumbling and a rock
of offense.’ For they stumble
because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were appointed.”
To believe, or to not believe — that is the question.
If you believe and you walk out of here in to that parking lot and die,
Jesus’ word is, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise if you believe.”
So that is the question. May
God grant you to believe.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word.
Work it deep into our hearts we pray.
In Jesus’ name, amen.

Now as you take up your hymnals, turn with me to number 25.
And again, be on the lookout for the words in stanzas three and four
which articulate the sense of sin and the prayer to Jesus to be remembered that
we hear from the thief on the cross.
Number 25, “O Light That Knew No Dawn.”

That thief, by grace, heard the Savior say, “Well done, good and faithful
servant, enter into the joy that I have prepared for you.”
All you who believe, likewise, receive God’s blessing.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus
Christ. Amen.

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