Notes on Luke 23:39-54

Luke 23:39‑54  •  16 min. read  •  grade level: 9
Here God would give a testimony of His grace to man, suited to His Son and suited to the cross. Hence He was pleased to choose the most hopeless circumstances in the view of nature, and even while delivering a soul, up to this steeped in guilt and degradation, in the agonies of death, and with the forebodings of a judgment incomparably more solemn, even as it is eternal, to secure in the fullest way His own immutable character, and to manifest in practical righteousness the ungodly one whom His grace had justified by faith. All this and much more may be seen in the history which our evangelist alone gives of the converted robber.
“Now one of the hanged malefactors reviled him, Art not thou the Christ? Save thyself and us. But the other in answer rebuking him said, Dost not even thou fear God, because thou art in the same judgment? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due requital for what we have done, but this [man] hath done nothing amiss. And be said to Jesus, Remember me when thou shalt come in thy kingdom. And he said to him, Verily, I say to thee, To-day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Ver. 39-43.)
There is no sufficient reason to suppose that the robber was converted before he was crucified or even before he had joined his fellow in reviling the Lord. The earlier Gospels give us ground to believe that both were thus guilty, that the rejected Jesus was exposed to this as well as to every other draft of the bitter cup. I am aware that general phrases may be used, but I see no sufficient ground to doubt that each of the robbers did thus join in insulting the Lord of glory. “Why should we hesitate? Is it because the conversion of one of them might seem too sudden? a reason in my judgment wholly insufficient. Conversion is usually if not always sudden, though the manifestation of it may not be. The entrance of the soul into enjoyed peace may be long delayed and may demand the removal of many hindrances. This is rarely done in a very short time; but it is wholly distinct from conversion, and the two things should not be confounded as they too often are. Conversion is the soul's turning to God through a believing reception of the Lord Jesus; the enjoyment of peace depends on the soul's submission to the righteousness of God when the redemption-work of the Lord Jesus is seen by faith. Hence there are many souls who are truly converted because they have bowed to Jesus, who nevertheless are often cast down and unhappy and burdened, because they do not equally see peace made by the blood of His cross. Where there is the simple reception of the gospel the converted soul passes so soon into peace that one can well understand how the two things get confounded in the minds of many; as many others, on the contrary, confound them, because, unconsciously slighting conversion, which frequently plunges the soul in deep exercise and trouble of conscience before God, they only take into account that complete relief and peace which the gospel ministers.
Certain it is that the malefactor was now converted who rebuked the sin of him who persisted in reviling the Lord. On the other hand there may be the surest reviling of the Savior without one word which man as such would consider blasphemous. In this very instance the impenitent robber simply said, “Art not thou the Christ? Save thyself and us.” It was a thought, it was language not unnatural to man's mind under such circumstances. It was blasphemy to the mind of the Spirit. That the promised center and medium of every blessedness for the earth, for man, and for God here below, should die upon a cross did seem beyond measure strange; that He who had all power to save others, not to speak of Himself, should be pleased so to die, was naturally incredible. Man does not understand the depth of the humiliation of Jesus any more than the grace of God, or of his own utter need as measured and met by both.
But it is deeply interesting to see that a new born soul discerns according to God, and this instinctively in virtue of the new nature where no formal teaching had been given or received. The converted robber at once warns his impenitent fellow of his sin, sets before him his danger, confesses his own natural state, his own life, his own ways no less evil than the other's, and in the most serious and feeling way vindicates the glory of the Lord Jesus. “Dost not even thou,” said he in a reply of rebuke, “fear God?” The death which was before his spirit gave the gravest tone to it and made him speak out with evident anxiety, and this not so much for himself personally as in compassion for the reviler, however he might feel his sin. There they were, “in the same judgment,” as a fact, but how different in God's eyes!
And faith gave him to estimate this aright—the crucifixion of a malefactor unrepentant, of another repentant, and of Him whose grace drew out the repentance of the latter and hardened the former to the uttermost because he believed not. There is no true fear of God apart from faith; but faith produces not only hope and confidence in God, but also the only genuine sense of what it is to be a sinful man in His sight, and hence the only real humility. Such was the present state of this converted robber. Nothing shows it better than that he should so forget himself as practically to preach to the reviler, to set before him his sin and his danger, to hold up Jesus Christ the righteous. He does not stop to think of the singularity of such words from his own mouth, that he, a wretched guilty degraded malefactor should appear to presume to speak of God to man, to rebuke a fellow-sinner, to maintain unsullied the name of Him whom the highest authorities had just condemned to die on the cross. This in truth is the humility of faith, not the mere human lowliness of trying to think as ill of ourselves as we can, but the divinely given sense that we are too bad to think of ourselves at all, because of the perfection we have seen in the Savior, the Son of God, the man Christ Jesus.
Not that this self-forgetfulness produces the smallest unwillingness to confess our own sins, but on the contrary makes us free to acknowledge them fully, as we see in the words “And we indeed justly, for we receive the just requital for what we have done, but this man hath done nothing amiss.” The converted man owns himself as bad and as justly condemned as the unconverted one, but lie takes all care to exempt Jesus from the common character of fallen man. “This man hath done nothing amiss.” How had he learned it? We know not that he had ever listened or ever seen Him before; but we may be certain that never before had he such a knowledge as would warrant such language. Was he rash then? He was taught of God, he had beheld the Lamb of God. On the cross he had seen enough, heard enough, to be certain that there was hanged beside him the long-expected Messiah who should save His people from their sins and blot out their iniquities as a thick cloud, who should make reconciliation for iniquity and bring in everlasting righteousness. As for himself, his wicked life was ending, the forfeit of his crimes, due to the outraged majesty of the laws he had broken. But if there was a just sentence of man in his case, there was forgiveness with God that He might be feared; and the spotless dying Lamb had given him to realize both his own sins and God's holiness as never before.
Without a particle of high-mindedness, he felt that the opinion, yea the solemn judgment of man was nothing in divine things. The high priest had treated the claim of Jesus as blasphemy; the Roman governor had given him up, knowing he was innocent but afraid of displeasing Caesar, to the murderous will of the Jews. But grace had made single the eye of the converted robber; and his whole body was full of light. He could answer for Jesus as one that was known thoroughly. “This [man] hath done nothing amiss.” It was contrary to all made experience, not only to what he knew of himself and of others known to him but to all ever reported since the world began. Yet it was not more sure that others were sinners than that Jesus was not. It was faith, and exactly such a confession of Jesus as glorified Him at that moment when in the eyes of the world at the lowest point, despised and rejected of men. No angel was here to comfort, no apostle to confess who He the Son of man was. If all else had forsaken Jesus and fled, the converted robber from the cross was there to confess the crucified Lord, in terms hardly hoard before but truly adapted in the wisdom of God to give the lie to unbelief. The God who opened the lips of babes and sucklings a few days before to set forth His praise wrought in the hanged robber with yet greater power now.
“And he said to Jesus,1 Remember me when thou shalt come in thy kingdom.” An admirable prayer and in beautiful keeping with the whole truth of the position. It is not what we might have thought at first sight suitable to such a case. The Lord described a poor publican saying acceptably to God, Have mercy upon me, the sinner that I am. The converted robber here has no doubt of the Lord's mercy. He does not ask for a part in His kingdom, but to be remembered by Jesus then. What! He, a robber, to be remembered by the King of kings and Lord of lords? Even so. He was right, and those who would judge him wrong are so themselves. They enter not, as he did, into the glory of Jesus, who, as He calls His own sheep by name now, will not forget the last any more than the first then in the perfection of His love. He prays to be remembered when Jesus should come in His kingdom, for he at least believes in the kingdom of the Son of man. Others might set up the inscription without faith over the Crucified, but the name and kingdom of the Crucified were inscribed on the converted robber's heart.
Remark also how he was guided of the Spirit, not more concerning Christ and His ways and character than about His kingdom. Truly be was taught of God. Some looked only for the kingdom of Messiah here, others since conceive that Jesus is gone into a kingdom far away. He prays to be remembered when Jesus shall come in His kingdom; for, as our evangelist shows in the parable (chap. xix. 11, &c), He is gone to a far country to receive for Himself a kingdom and to return. He will be invested with the kingdom on high, as also is shown by the prophet Daniel; but He will surely come in His kingdom instead of merely closing all things here below. Not so He will come in His kingdom. He shall reign over all peoples and tribes and tongues. Yet it is no mere earthly realm, but the kingdom of God, consisting of heavenly things us well as of earthly (John 3:1212If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? (John 3:12)); nor is it a kingdom of the Spirit, though the Spirit makes it good now in those who believe, but a real personal kingdom of Jesus; and the converted robber, with all saints, will be remembered when He shall come in His kingdom. The once robber will surely have his place in that day. He knew whom he had believed and was persuaded that He is able to keep what he had committed to Him against that day.
But the prayer of faith, while it surely has its answer according to the measure of our soul's confidence in divine love according to the word, has its answer also according to the depths of divine grace and truth far beyond our measure. so it was now. “And he said to him, Verily, I say to thee, To-day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (ver. 43). If the prayer of the robber was admirable, much more was the reply of Jesus, a reply ushered in with special emphasis, not for him only to whom it was said, but for us also who believe in Him that died and rose again for us. The blessings of accomplished redemption are not deferred till that day. They are true now whether we live or die. “We are the Lord's, and we know it; we are bought with a price; we are washed from our sins in His blood. By Him the Father has made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light. Such is the position, such the standing, such the assured known privilege of the believer by virtue of redemption. The converted robber was the first soul to taste of this rich and fresh mercy. The Lord assures him not merely of His remembrance in the kingdom, but of being that very day with Himself in paradise. What a testimony to the all-overcoming and immediate power of His redemption! A robber so purged by His blood as to be that very day with the Son of God, and this, not in heaven only, but in its brightest highest seats. For such is paradise.
Believer, heed not those who may say that the Lord, separate from the body, abode in gloom till His resurrection. Not so. His spirit was shut up in no prison, but commended by Himself to the Father; and where He is, there too are His saints. Doubtless He had not yet ascended; for ascension, like resurrection, is predicated of the body; but His spirit went to paradise, and as Adams paradise of old was the choicest spot of an unfallen earth where all was very good, so is the paradise of God the choicest of heaven. Hence the Apostle Paul, in 2 Cor. 12, connects it with the third heaven; and the Apostle John holds it out as the promised scene of glory where the overcomer shall by and by eat of the tree of life. No believer can conceive that this will be a place of dimness and doubt and restraint, but of divine and everlasting glory through the Second man, the last Adam.
In this paradise then the Lord declares that the converted malefactor should be with Him to-day, so completely were his sins blotted out by blood, so rendered capable himself, by and in that new nature which grace gives the believer. Instruction most weighty for us, and a hope full of glory, for it is the present fruit of redemption and the gift of grace to every believer. It was not assuredly his own act of dying which had this virtue for the malefactor, but the death of the Lord; and this is as free and full for every Christian as for him to whose faith it was then made known. To us now it is proclaimed in the gospel. Shame on those who profess to believe the gospel, but deny its most precious and eternal blessings. Nor is it merely the dark and queen-like Circe who cheats her victims and destroys them with poisoned cup, and will surely find her plagues from God in one day. How few among those who have cast off her thralldom enjoy the liberty wherewith Christ has set us free! How many with an open Bible overlook the plainest lessons where there is no veil, but man stands immediately confronted with the light of God's glory in the face of Jesus Christ! Anything short of this is not the true grace of God, is not the gospel of the glory of Christ, but the darkening effect of that unbelief, so prevalent in Christendom, which has, as it were, sewn up the veil again with God at a distance within, and man without wistfully looking for a deliverance as if the Deliverer had not already come and finished the work of redemption. For the soul salvation is come: for the body, no doubt, it waits till Jesus come again. But this is another matter on which we need not inquire more now.
Nor did God permit that so stupendous an event as the death of His Son should leave unaffected that world which He had made, or that legal system which He had set up by Moses in the midst of His earthly people. “And it was now about [the] sixth hour, and darkness was over the whole land till [the] ninth hour, and the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst. And Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit; and, having said this, he expired.” (Vers. 44-46.) And the testimony was not without immediate effect on, the officer in command at the crucifixion. “Now the centurion, seeing what took place, glorified God, saying, Certainly this man was righteous.” (Ver. 47.) But the mass were filled with the sense of having committed themselves to they knew not what. “And all the crowds that came together for that sight, having beheld the things done, returned beating their breasts.” (Ver. 48.) Not that some were not there who prized His ministry and were attached to His person, but far off in that of man's shame and guilt and of Satan's power. “And all his acquaintance stood afar off, and women that accompanied him from Galilee, seeing these things.” (Ver. 49.)
But God used that very day and His grace who was thus put to death to bring out to distinct association with His name a good and righteous man. If Jesus in His life of rejection had not Joseph openly in His train, the death of the cross made him bold while others fled or stood aloof. “And, behold, a man named Joseph, being a counselor and a good and righteous man (he had not consented to their counsel and deed), from Arimathea a city of Judea, who waited for the kingdom of God, himself went to Pilate and begged the body of Jesus; and, having taken down, rolled in fine linen and placed him in a rock-hewn tomb where none had ever been laid. And it was preparation day, and sabbath dusk2 was drawing on.” (Vers. 50-54.) On their affection, not without darkness a brighter day was soon to dawn.