Scripture: Luke 23:33-43
You probably didn’t know this, but today is the “New Year’s Eve.” I know that sounds strange, but the Christian calendar doesn’t exactly match the calendar that we use. So today is the last Sunday of the Christian year—a special Sunday known as “Christ the King.” Next week, the first Sunday of Advent, begins a new year. But on this last Sunday of the year, we traditionally focus on the important truth that Christ is the world’s one and only, true king. And to make that point, churches like ours—and many others of different denominations around the world—are preaching today’s scripture from Luke’s gospel.
What does this passage teach us about Christ our King? What kind of King is our Lord Jesus? What does it mean that Christ is king? I want to explore these questions by making three points. Point Number One: Because Christ is king, he refuses to save himself from the cross! Point Number Two: Because Christ is king, he will redeem all our sins, all our failures, and all our suffering. Point Number Three: Because Christ is king, we will want to be with him always!
I’ve told you before that my favorite TV show of all time is The Office. The premise of the show is that a documentary film crew follows around employees who work at a regional sales office in Scranton, Pennsylvania. These filmmakers are making a documentary about working in an ordinary, average, everyday American office. Michael Scott is the regional manager of this office. And in one episode, the fire alarm goes off. There’s smoke in the building. There’s obviously a fire! The employees get up from their desks and head to the exit in a calm, orderly fashion. Michael, meanwhile, who is not exactly known for his courage or heroism, bolts out of his office, and pushes and shoves his way to the front of the line of employees who are trying to exit.
So Michael becomes the first one out… the first one to reach safety.
The documentary crew asks Michael to explain himself. Why did he push and shove in order to exit the building first. So he looks at the camera and says the following:
Yes, I was the first one out. And, yes, I’ve heard women and children first. But, we do not employ children. We are not a sweat shop. Thankfully. And, uh, women are equal in the workplace by law. So, I let them out first, I have a lawsuit on my hands.
We laugh at Michael Scott, of course.
But it’s easy to laugh at him: Literally nothing is at stake for us. We’re not in danger of being harmed or killed by a fire. And this show is all make-believe anyway. No one is going to be harmed.
But let’s imagine for a moment that this fictitious TV show isn’t make-believe. Let’s put ourselves in Michael’s shoes: Suppose we genuinely believed this fire was both real and deadly and every second counted. Suppose we imagined, “The faster I reach the exit, the more likely I’ll stay alive… It’s every man or woman for himself, so I need to do whatever I can in order to survive! It’s either them or me, so I better save myself.”
The stakes, therefore, couldn’t be higher.
Are we still one-hundred percent sure that we wouldn’t “pull a Michael Scott”and try to save ourselves first?
And most of us are probably like, “Nah… Michael is still a doofus. I still wouldn’t do what he did!” Okay…
But I bring this up because in today’s scripture, it’s incomprehensible to at least some people in the crowdthat Jesus—facing his own death on the cross—refuses to pull a Michael Scott and save his life. Notice verse 35:
And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!”
The “rulers” referred to in this verse, by the way, are members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. They are the religious elites of first-century Jewish society.
But notice those words: “if he is the Christ of God.” Christ is the Greek word for “messiah.” Messiah, remember, is the long prophesied king who will defeat the enemies of God’s people Israel and establish God’s kingdom in the world. So, sticking with our “Christ the King” theme, they are essentially saying, “No kind of all–powerful king would let himself be treated like this!… If he is this kind of king—appointed by God, blessed by God, who enjoys God’s favor, then surely this wouldn’t be happening to him!”
If he is this kind of king…
And these words should have a familiar ring to them…
They should remind us of the devil’s three temptations of Jesus back in Luke chapter 4. Recall two of the three temptations: Satan prefaced his words to Jesus by saying, “If you are the Son of God, then do these things.” For example the first temptation: “If you are the Son of God, turn this stone into bread.” In other words, “If you’re the Son of God, save yourself, Jesus! Surely no Son of God would be out here starving for 40 days in the wilderness! This is no way to live! You deserve this. Save yourself!”
After Jesus successfully resisted these three temptations, Luke includes one small detail that the other gospels omit when they report Jesus’ testing. It’s found in Luke 4:13:
And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.
It’s easy to see, I hope, how this “opportune time” is right now, while Jesus is dying on the cross.
Because it’s as if the devil’s temptation—“If you are the Son of God, save yourself”—is being magnified and replayed on a larger scale for Jesus as he dies on the cross. We’ve already looked at verse 35.
How about the Roman soldiers in verse 37:
“If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
Or how about the first criminal on the cross in verse 39:
“Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
In all three cases, please note, people are calling into question Jesus’ identity as a king.
In so many words, each of these people is saying something very similar to the devil: “If you are who you say you are—if you are who your Father says you are—if you are the kind of king that you’re supposed to be, prove it! Save yourself!”
And make no mistake… Jesus could have easily saved himself. When he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, he said, in Matthew’s gospel, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” 1 Twelve legions is 72,000 angels. If Jesus had called on these angels, they would have come and wiped out every single person who was responsible for putting Jesus on the cross! And these angels would have taken Jesus down off the cross, and saved him… if Jesus wanted to save himself.
Why didn’t he want to?
I can point to three verses in today’s scripture that help explain why… The first is verse 34: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
What is Jesus asking for here?
Now we need to be careful! There are some people, “universalists,” who badly misinterpret these words. They grab hold of this verse and say, “See! Jesus forgives everyone, Jesus saves everyone, whether they ask for forgiveness or not, whether they receive God’s gift of eternal life or not, whether they repent of their sins and believe in Jesus or not! Everyone will be saved! Everyone will be forgiven!”
But this kind of reckless proof-texting makes no sense ofthe hundreds of others of scriptures—including so much of what Jesus himself teaches—which explicitly says otherwise! God does not force himself on anyone; he doesn’t force his love, grace, and mercy on anyone; he doesn’t force his gift of salvation on anyone apart from repentance and faith.
So the forgiveness Jesus prays for still has to be received in order for it to be granted…
But by all means, Jesus is making a profound statement about God’s grace!
Because what Jesus is saying is this: even the most grievous sin in the history of the world, even the worst miscarriage of justice in the history of the world, even the greatest act of evil in the history of the world—the crucifixion of God in the flesh—cannot be a barrier between God and the sinner, when that sinner repents and believes in Christ.
Jesus is saying what he accomplished on the cross to purchase forgiveness for us was so profound, so powerful, so pervasive that no sin that human beings commit—even the worst sin of all—will ever prevent us from being saved—if only we’ll repent and believe in Christ!
Jesus’ death on the cross makes possible the very forgiveness that he prays for in verse 34!
The other verses that help make sense of why Jesus didn’t save himself are verses 40 and 41—when the second criminal on the cross rebukes the first criminal, 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.”
We are receiving the due reward of our deeds… the death penalty.
This “due reward of their deeds” isn’t because what the two of them did was especially sinful—even though it probably was, for all I know.
No, this due reward is what we all deserve because of our sins!
Remember, after all, what humanity’s biggest problem is: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23. And here’s the consequence: “For the wages of sin is death…” Romans 6:23. And that’s not merely physical death at the end of our natural lives, but eternal death… separation from God, in hell… But here’s the solution: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8.
The rulers, the Roman soldiers, the first criminal on the cross… they don’t understand this at all. “Save yourself,” the first criminal says, “and us.”
The first criminal doesn’t understand that in order for Jesus to save this criminal, Jesus can’t save himself. Jesus must die this death, in place of this criminal on the cross… Jesus must receive for himself the “due reward” that this criminal would otherwise receive… Indeed, the “due reward” that the rulers, the Roman soldiers, and every other sinner everywhere—at all times and places, including us—would otherwise have to receive… Jesus must refuse to save himself in order to make salvation for sinners possible.
Michael Scott thought, “It’s either them or me, so I better save myself.” Jesus thought, “It’s either them or me, so I better save them”!
And that’s Point Number One: Because Christ is king, he refuses to save himself!
Point Number Two: Because Christ is king, he has the power to redeem all our mistakes, all our failures, all our sins, all our suffering.
Let’s look again at the first criminal on the cross: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” We judge this man harshly, and rightly so… But for all we know, this man had also heard something about the saving power that Jesus had demonstrated—giving sight to the blind, making the lame walk, driving out demons, walking on water, quieting storms, feeding the multitudes with a few loaves and fish, raising the dead—the recent miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead was “in the news” in and around Jerusalem at this time!
The first criminal would likely not be unaware of these things… He knew Jesus’ reputation: he had likely heard about Jesus’ power.
So it was as if he were saying, “If this is all true—what people say about you… or even what I’ve witnessed myself… if you are this all-powerful king who has the power to work miracles… then surely you won’t let this grisly, humiliating, shameful, agonizing death on the cross happen to you! You’ll pull a Michael Scott and save yourself—and while you’re at it, please save me too!”
I believe there’s a small part of this man, in other words, who is genuinely hoping that Jesus will come through for him… There’s a small part of this man who is sincere when he asks Jesus to save him.
But if so, please notice the kind of salvation the criminal is asking for! Notice what this criminal is doing: He’s using Jesus as a means to an end. 2 He’s saying, “I’ll have you as Lord of my life if you’ll save me from this trouble.”
Have you ever prayed a prayer like that? “I’ll do this favor for you, Lord, if you’ll do this favor for me…”
Of course there will be times when God will rescue us from trouble—praise God! But even when he does rescue us from trouble—let’s face facts—he rarely does it on our timetable; he rarely does it the way we want him to; he rarely does it the way we’d prefer for him to do it!
Consider poor Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego from Daniel chapter 3… They refused to commit idolatry by bowing down to this golden statue of King Nebuchadnezzar, and so the king decides to execute them by throwing them into the fiery furnace. And the three friends say, “[O]ur God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” 3
And of course God does save them from the fiery furnace, but not before allowing them to be thrown into the fiery furnace! In other words, God didn’t miraculously loose the chains that held them in prison, miraculously open the locked prison door, and lead them by an angel to freedom outside. No, God allowed them to be led by prison guards to the fiery furnace, he allowed them to anticipate dying a horrifying death, he allowed them to be pushed into the furnace before discovering, “Oh! This fire doesn’t even feel hot to us!”
My point is, even though they were rescued, they still had to endure the worst part of this fiery trial!
Why? Because God’s way of rescuing us often involves fiery trials! 4 God’s Word promises his children over and over that God will transform the fiery trials we face into something that will ultimately be good for us!
And this shouldn’t surprise us at all. Because look at what God did with Jesus’ death on the cross!
If God can take the worst evil and suffering and injustice that the world has ever seen—which is the death of his Son Jesus on the cross—and transform it into the greatest good the world has ever seen—which is, salvation for all who believe… If God can do that… then to say the least it is not difficult for God to take all lesser forms of suffering, evil, and injustice and transform them for our good! Amen?
So we can trust him! Can’t we?
I’m not saying that it’s easy… I’m not saying it’s easy to accept the fact that the difficult trials that God sends our way are good for us. In fact, I’m reminded of something C.S. Lewis once said: “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.”
I shared part of this last Wednesday night; it bears repeating. In the song “My Way,” Frank Sinatra famously sings these words: “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”
I love Sinatra, but I dislike this song. The key to happiness and success in life is hardly about doing things “my way.” It’s instead about seeking first God’s kingdom and his righteousness… it’s about seeking first to do things his way! “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding…” 5
But let’s talk about regrets for a moment. Now this is timely because we have Thanksgiving coming up, and it’s hard to be thankful if we’re filled with regrets. The song suggests that only by doing things “my way” will I be able to minimize regrets later in life.
But that is not true. If we are God’s children, adopted into his family through faith in Christ, enjoying God’s favor at every moment, we have something far better to minimize regrets:We have the rock-solid promises of God’s Word!The only sure way to minimize regrets in life is to understand that while we make many mistakes, while we fail constantly, while we commit many sins, while we hurt many people in life—often or usually unintentionally—God has the power and the willingness to transform these mistakes, these sins, these failures, these hurts and use them for our good.
And in God’s Word, he promises to do so…
I mean, there are things that have happened to me in life—often as a consequence of my own sin, believe me—that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Yet I can somehow—especially during this Thanksgiving season—look back and be grateful that God let me endure these trials because, through them, he has taught me to depend on him more! To trust in him more! To love him more! To grow closer to him! To experience more of his grace, more of his power, more of his love, more of his perfect peace. More of a sense of his loving presence in my life. More supernatural intervention in my life. So thank you, Jesus, for each of these fiery trials! Because through them I have more of you!
So the question we have to ask ourselves is this: Is getting more of Jesus, trusting in him more, depending on him more, loving him more, becoming better friends with him, falling in love with him more, treasuring him more—is he worth enduring these trials? Is Jesus worth anything and everything in order to have more of Jesus?
Friends, my mission in life as a pastor is to convince you that he is… This is why our church’s mission statement is, “Treasuring Christ above all and teaching others to do the same.” If you’re not experiencing as much joy in your life as you want to experience, if you’re not experiencing as much contentment in your life as you want to experience, if you’re not experiencing as much peace in your life as you want to experience, I have to ask: Where is your treasure? Are you treasuring something more than you treasure Christ? What are you counting on in life, besides Jesus, to bring you lasting happiness and joy? I bet there’s something!
Don’t be like the first criminal! Don’t have an “if-then,” conditional kind of faith! You know: “If you do these things for me, Jesus, then I’ll have you as my Lord.” Because there’s nothing you should want more than Jesus, and the way you get more of Jesus, oftentimes, is by enduring difficult trials!
So when God puts us to the test—and he will—it’s as if he is asking us, “Am I enough for you?” Or “Is Jesus enough for you?”
Needless to say, Jesus was not enough for the first criminal on the cross! He wanted to be rescued from his crisis far more than he wanted Jesus! He wanted to go back to enjoying whatever treasures in life he enjoyed before he got nailed to this cross!
And this bring us to the second criminal on the cross—and our third point… Because Christ is king, we will want to be with him!
To say the least, the second criminal on the cross is not like the first criminal… Because you know what he’s saying to Jesus? He’s saying, in so many words, “All I want is you, Lord.”
While I’m sure he would also love to be rescued from his immediate crisis—which is dying on the cross—when he turns to Jesus in faith, he doesn’t expect to be rescued. He only wants, and expects, and hopes to be with Jesus. Verse 42: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Pastor Tim Keller summarizes the difference between the two criminals nicely when he says the following: The first criminal says, “I’ll be with you, Lord, if you save me from this trouble.” The second criminal says, “Lord, I’ll take this trouble, if it means I can be with you.” 6
Lord, I’ll take this trouble, if it means I can be with you.
Are we willing to say that? Are we willing to believe that?