The Path To Paradise

By: Robert Heerspink

Scripture Reading: Luke 23:35-43

March 22nd, 2009

PARADISE POSTPONED Do you ever get sick of the world as it is? Fed up with the problems, the dishonesty of leaders, the greed, the corruption? A century ago, a lot of people were pretty optimistic about what was happening in the world. In fact, many people expected the 20th century to be the turning point of history that would usher in a grand new world order. The World’s Fair held in 1933 in Chicago was even named The Century of Progress. The First World War was thought to be ‘the war to end all wars." But the 20th century turned out to be the bloodiest century in all recorded human history. Now we’re into the 21st century, and futurologists are predicting that our children and grandchildren aren’t likely to enjoy the same standard of living that many of us enjoyed. Recent retirees are wondering whether retirement is going to be the never—ending vacation they had planned for. As I prepare this message, the world’s economy is moving into recession. Huge problems loom with regard to the environment. Acts of terrorism have just torn through the streets of Mumbai, India. No, all our efforts haven’t brought heaven to earth, have they? We thought we could bring in a new world—but instead, in the words of a title from a John Mortimer novel, we have seen "Paradise Postponed." No wonder, then, that many people turn to religion as a way of rekindling hope for the future. New Agers put their hope of a new age right into their name! They’re hoping that the changing alignment of the stars reflects rising spiritual forces that will usher in the "Age of Aquarius" — an age of prosperity, freedom, and goodness. So far, I would say, their hopes haven’t been realized. Others take a more revolutionary approach to bringing in a new world order. A new age comes by means of those with the courage to seize power. Force is defensible if it’s carried out in the name of the divine. PARADISE REGAINED? But is that really the way God’s new world comes? Is that really the way to Paradise? It may surprise you that on Calvary, Jesus talked about Paradise—and the way it’s gained! Yes, really. Here, right in the crucible of the terrible suffering on Golgotha, Jesus talked about the deep heart yearnings of all of us for a new and different world! Yes, we learn a great deal as we tune into a remarkable conversation Jesus had from his cross. You see, there were two other victims on Calvary that afternoon. But being thrown together into a maelstrom of terrible suffering did not automatically create a sense of camaraderie in death. In fact, it was just the opposite. Luke tells us, "One of the criminals was blaspheming him, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.’" The scorn of the cross is leveled at Jesus not only by bored guards, who have seen it all before, not only by sadistic spectators who have turned out on a Friday afternoon to be entertained by dying men. No, the scorn goes so far as to isolate Jesus even from Rome’s other victims on that Friday afternoon. Those who are dying with him will use their last remaining breaths to join in the abuse and ridicule. You see, Jesus has two comrades in death on Good Friday afternoon. Jesus is literally "numbered among the transgressors" as Isaiah puts it (Isa. 53:12). The Psalmist speaks of the same circumstance when in Psalm 22:17, the prophet declares in the voice of the Christ: " . . . a company of evil—doers encircled me." (Ps. 22:17). The isolation of the Savior goes as far as to Calvary’s hill itself. The scorn of the cross is poured out by those who hang with Christ in suffering and death. WHO ARE THESE THIEVES? Now, who are these two men crucified with Jesus? There have been some interesting stories that have built up around these thieves. One legend tells us that when Mary and Joseph were fleeing to Egypt, they met two robbers. One robber wished to kill them, the other wanted to spare their lives. In the end, the second robber got his way. And now, these thieves become the men who hang on the cross next to Jesus. Or it has been said that on the way to Egypt, Mary and Joseph encounter a bandit and his family. The son of this robber is near death. But the infant Jesus reaches out his hand and heals the child. And now, that child, having followed his father into a life of crime, hangs by Jesus’ side. Those stories are touching and sentimental. They also are certainly untrue—the stuff of empty legend. The fact is we really know only what the gospels tell us about these two men. First, we know that they are described in the Greek text by a special word for thief. It’s the word LESTES. And second, we know that for their crimes they have been sentenced to death by the cross. Let’s unpack those two clues. For they allow us to draw some interesting conclusions about these men. Take that word, lestes. It means more than petty thief. Because we so often say Jesus was crucified between two thieves, we think Jesus was crucified with a couple guys who were guilty of a ‘b and e’—of a breaking and entering. But a lestes was someone far more sinister. A lestes was a highway robber, a bandit, likely a murderer. These two men had personal histories that were pretty nasty. Moreover, these two men who have lived lives of violence have now been sentenced to death by crucifixion. That tells us even more about these men. It tells us that in all likelihood, Jesus’ fellow victims are really quite religious! Now, what do I mean by that? You say—these men are thieves! These guys need to GET religion! But I am going to suggest that in all likelihood, the religious sensibilities of these two men had got them crucified. You see, the Roman government seldom bothered to execute common criminals, even violent criminals. Taking the time of nail someone to a cross and watch him die in stages wasn’t worth the effort and energy. No, crucifixion was reserved for a certain KIND of criminal—a certain kind of thief. One whose activities were an affront to Rome itself. Someone who had taken to the hills to undermine the Roman government. One who considered his lawbreaking a kind of guerrilla warfare against the powers that be. Crucifixion was reserved for traitors to Roman authority. And there was a certain group of Jews who engaged in such guerrilla warfare. In fact, they did so in the name of God. They considered their treason against Rome to be acts of faithfulness to the Lord! The siccarri, they were called. Literally, the daggermen. Or, as we know them best—the ZEALOTS. Yes, these zealots committed robbery and murder. But they did it with a religious, zealous passion. They desperately wished to see God’s Paradise come to earth. They want to see God’s goodness take control of the world. And they believed that would happen only if the Jewish people firmly in the driver’s seat of world history. God would rule the world through Israel! And if that meant a knife needed to slide between the ribs of a few Roman officials, so be it! If that meant that the caravans of successful Roman businessmen needed to be raided, so much the better. The zealots will rob from the Roman rich. They will slaughter the pagans who have made Palestine just another Roman territory. They will by the force of their own efforts make God’s Paradise come on earth! Now you see the thieves on the cross in a different light, don’t you? These are men who believe in the coming rule of God, all right. These are men who believe in Paradise. But they also believe in the priority of power, not unlike many people today! Might makes right! These are men who despise weakness and compassion, mercy and grace. These are men who are energized by their hatreds and bitterness. These are men who think they can build a new world order on earth by their own extreme means! A NEAR DEATH CONVERSION Now do you see the force behind the venom they hurl at Jesus? Jesus is everything these men are NOT. Oh, they know of this Jesus of Nazareth—they know his story, all right. They might even have been hanging with the crowd that greeted Jesus on Palm Sunday morning. They were probably hoping that Jesus would use the uproar to make a power move on Roman authority. But those hopes were dashed. In their minds, Jesus sold out! He blinked! He was the one man who could have rallied the zealots to his cause—who could have united them in an attack on Rome that would have established his kingly reign. But it didn’t happen! In fact, just moments before they had heard him pray—yes, pray for his enemies! Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing!——that’s what he said! No wonder we are told that these two men railed at Jesus! But then—on that Good Friday afternoon, among the sweat and gore and curses that are everywhere—something happens in the heart of one of those zealots. He undergoes one of the most remarkable conversions ever recorded. This man, who believed that Paradise comes through wars loud clashing and roll of stirring drums—this man, is moved to see the truth—that through deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes. In fact, more precisely, God’s reign in this world comes through THIS deed of love and mercy. Through the act of Christ’s own self—sacrifice on Calvary—yes, through the act of Christ’s own death—forgiveness will enter the world. Through Christ’s death the way is opened to a new world. The inscription above his head is not mockery. It is truth. This is "Jesus of Nazareth—the King of the Jews." And what Jesus is doing by his death is opening the door to a world that is once more filled with the wonder of God’s perfect goodness. Please don’t minimize the insight of this thief. The truth is, only God’s grace could bring him to this realization. For on Golgotha that Good Friday afternoon NO ONE else sees it! No, not Jesus’ executioners. Not Jesus’ family. Not even his disciples who have had heard Jesus personally explain why he must go to Jerusalem and die. NO ONE grasps an insight into what is happening—except on man. A zealot who had dedicated his life to bringing in the divine kingdom a far different way! What a conversion story! This is a man who comes to the end of his life and says— "Everything I did was wrong! It was all dust and ashes! It was all for nothing!" Few people have such courage to look at their own life with such brutal honesty and make such an admission! Imagine the courage it took to turn to his fellow thief and say "Don’t you fear God? . . . We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve, but this man has done nothing wrong . . ." What a powerful statement of surrender! Listen, says the second bandit to the first—everything we did to bring in God’s new world was for nothing. In fact, if anything it only set up obstacles to the coming of God’s reign of goodness and peace! All we did was carry out deeds of hatred that became an unholy war. We thought we were acting for God—and instead we were acting against God! Oh, people seldom act with greater cruelty than when their acts of violence are done in the name of religion! And, says this thief, that’s what we have done! We thought our deeds were earning us a place in heaven—we thought we were martyrs destined for Paradise! Instead, our deeds have delivered to us just what we deserve. A perch upon a cross. The cross for you and me, says this thief, is nothing but deserved justice. Has there ever been more honest a confession than this? A PRAYER FROM THE CROSS But this thief does more than just admit his way was the way of futility. He knows that beyond his cross, there was still, literally, hell to pay for what he has done. There is hell to pay, unless the one hanging beside him makes the supreme difference in his life. Unless this Jesus who has chosen a different path to God’s Kingdom personally enters his life with a grace this zealot has never imagined possible. This thief now turns to Jesus and offers his own prayer—for that it is what it is: "Jesus, remember me . . ." That prayer seems so weak. "Remember me. . ." Just remember me? But in Scripture, when God is asked to remember, it’s not merely for the sake of recalling the past. It’s for the sake of acting in the PRESENT! To remember isn’t just to THINK about us—it’s to ACT ON OUR BEHALF. To act for us decisively, with power to save! This man has come to see the truth. That it is not by force, it is not by the ‘shock and awe’ of military operations that the heavenly kingdom comes. Rather, God’s kingdom comes through the ultimate act of God’s own self—sacrifice. God’s kingdom will come through the death of God’s own Son. "Remember me," says this man, "when you come into your kingdom . . ." The request of the thief is the ultimate confession offered on Calvary’s hill that Friday afternoon. This man could see Jesus was dying, He could see blood trickling down among the thorns on Jesus’ brow. He could see the life of Jesus ebbing away. And yet he says—REMEMBER ME when you come into your Kingdom. Jesus, remember me . . . This is the only place in the gospels where you find someone addressing the Savior merely by his first name. This man has no time for ceremonial niceties. He has no time for formal address. He can only breathe out the name of his Savior—Jesus—and ask that in Paradise Jesus not forget this poor sufferer with him on Calvary’s hill. ANSWERED PRAYER How will Jesus respond? Well, of course, Jesus would have every right to reject this request! It would only have been giving this man his due if Jesus had said—"Remember you? I want to blot you from my memory forever!" But it was for the likes of this man that Jesus had come. Jesus came into this world for all of us who think we can bring heaven to earth through our own pathetic efforts. Jesus came into this world for all of us who think we can save ourselves! Jesus came for those who will surrender their self—centered delusions and rely upon him. To this thief—and to us—Jesus speaks a word of grace: "I tell you the truth," says Jesus, "today you will be with me in paradise." TODAY! This man had lived his whole life hoping that someday the Kingdom of God would come. And Jesus says that someday is today! TODAY you will be with me in Paradise! What is Paradise? That language carries us back to Eden’s Garden. The Creator had placed our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise! We often think of Paradise as akin to some beautiful vacation spot. If you go up to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, you can stay in a little village named Paradise. Paradise was named by a land developer, who wanted to get people to buy lots in what was, at the time, a pretty forsaken place. So he named his development, "Paradise" and he hoped the name would conjure up a Hawaiian setting in verdant mountains, surrounded by lush vegetation. Some spot on the South Sea Islands where one enjoys tropical drinks from hollowed out pineapples. Paradise! When Jesus said, "Today you will be with me in Paradise," was that what Jesus is offering this man? An eternal stay at some luxury resort in a beautiful place? Hardly. The essence of our parents’ first home—the reason Eden’s Garden was Paradise—was not because of its physical beauty, though, no doubt, it was a delight to the senses. The reason the Garden was Paradise was because God was there. To stand before the presence of God—to walk hand in hand with God—to enjoy the glory of God and delight in him forever—THAT is the essence of Paradise! And that is what Jesus offers this man! Paradise will be yours. For you will be WITH ME, says Jesus. THAT is what makes Paradise, Paradise! When we are with Jesus, then Paradise is restored. The Apostle John will later write in the book of Revelation: "And he showed me the river of the waters of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb . . . And on each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city." The throne of God and the Lamb, Jesus Christ, are there. To be with God is to be in Paradise! THE DIVIDING LINE Now, as we stand before the cross, these two thieves remind us of the dividing line that runs through humanity. All humanity flows to one side of the cross or the other. Millions flow to the side of mockery. They will not surrender their own commitment to save themselves. They will not surrender their own efforts to establish an earthly Paradise. They will not lay down their own pride. In so doing, they tragically align themselves with a path that leads to judgment and death. But millions more flow to the side of confession and faith. They stand on the side of the penitent thief and confess with him that only to be remembered by Jesus is enough to open heaven’s door. Jesus’ death and coming resurrection will open Paradise to those who otherwise would be estranged from God for ever. Where are you at today? Do you still think that human ingenuity can create a perfect world without God? Do you still think that raw power is the way God’s Kingdom comes? Do you understand that your idealism—for yes, that is what it often is—an idealism that has left Jesus out of the picture—do you see that such idealism is simply wrong—headed? In your idealism you’ve ignored the way God is really working in this world! God is working in this world through his Son. Through the cross and open tomb of Jesus Christ, a way has been opened into Paradise. And those who trust Jesus, those who align themselves with him and who follow his paths, discover that Paradise doesn’t merely await us in the future. Paradise comes down to earth. For those who place their faith in their Lord have the delight of living even today in Christ’s presence.

About the Author

Robert Heerspink

Rev. Robert Heerspink is a native of west Michigan. He completed his undergraduate studies at Calvin College and holds the degrees of Master of Divinity and Master of Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. He has also received a Doctor of Ministry degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Bob was ordained a minister of the Word in the Christian Reformed Church of North America in 1979, and has 26 years of parish experience, having served four churches throughout west Michigan. He was appointed the Director of The Back to God Hour in 2006. Bob has written several resources related to congregational stewardship, including the book, Becoming a Firstfruits Congregation. He is a regular contributor to TODAY, the monthly devotional of The Back to God Hour. Bob is married to Edith (Miedema) and they have three children. His hobbies include reading fictional and historical works, watersports, and occassional golfing.

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