April 12, 1992

A LAST GASP OPPORTUNITY

“‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.'” Luke 23:42

There’s a man in heaven right now who must still be laughing.  He can’t get over the fact that he’s there.

This guy’s life had been a waste.  Actually, it was worse than a waste;  it was a disaster, characterized by crime and cruelty.  Society would have been better off without him, and in the end, it finally did get rid of him.  His deeds eventually caught up with him, and he was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death.

But even as he was dying, he breathed a desperate prayer–and the next thing he knew, he woke up in heaven.  And he’s been there ever since.  I suspect he’s still laughing.  He can’t contain his delight and wonder at the fact that he made it there.  A career criminal who groans out a prayer during his execution doesn’t seem like the best candidate for permanent citizenship in heaven.  But that’s where he is, and he’s enjoying it immensely.

This crook literally received a last-gasp opportunity that landed him in paradise.  The Bible tells about it when it describes the crucifixion of Jesus in Luke 23.  Listen:

Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with Jesus to be executed.  When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals–one on his right, the other on his left.  Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him.  They said, “He saved others;  let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”

The soldiers also came up and mocked him.  They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”

There was a written notice above him which read:  THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him:  “Aren’t you the Christ?  Save yourself and us!”

But the other criminal rebuked him.  “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence?  We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.  But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”  (Luke 23:32-43)

In paradise!  A dying scoundrel somehow received a passport to paradise!

This story of a last-gasp opportunity is very moving and heartwarming for some people, but to others, it may seem more like a sick joke.  They find it unbelievable.  Why should a man whose entire life was evil suddenly end up in heaven just because of something that happened shortly before he died?

Some of us are more than a little skeptical about crooks who suddenly get religion after they are caught and convicted.  Even if their repentance is real, so what?  It’s a little late to start feeling sorry after the damage has been done.  When a number of the people involved in the Watergate scandal turned to Christ after their fall from power, they were greeted by a lot of snickers and suspicion.  Whenever a prominent person gets himself in trouble and then turns to Jesus, the media and the late-night comedians make a joke out of it.  We tend to be skeptical of those who repent only after they get caught.

And what about those conversions that don’t make the headlines?   Many prison inmates claim to have found Christ during their imprisonment.  They plan on going to heaven, even though they’ve been convicted of some terrible crimes.  I’ve had the opportunity to visit with some Christian prisoners, and here at the Back to God Hour we often get letters from convicted criminals who tell us they have turned to Christ in prison and are now growing in their faith.

Some of these Christian prisoners have an amazing sense of peace and forgiveness.  One man on death row writes, “My being here led me to Jesus Christ.  Now I live on Life Row because I know Jesus.  He is my Savior and I do not fear execution.”  Another prisoner says, “I have trusted Jesus as my personal Savior.  To express my feelings–I feel great because of all that He took me out of and has given me instead.  He took my sorrow and gave me joy.  He took my death in sin and gave me life.  I can call Jesus my true friend.  I love him because he loved me so much He died for me.”

When these people feel certain that they are going to heaven in spite of all they’ve done, some of us are tempted to laugh it off as a joke.  But if their repentance is real, the last laugh will be theirs.  You can be sure that the criminal who was crucified beside Jesus is laughing.  He’s in paradise, and he’s there to stay.  He got his passport to paradise the instant he put his trust in the crucified Jesus.  In fact, that’s the only way any of us can go to heaven.  The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is an awful event that makes us tremble with dread, but at the same time, it’s a marvelous event that makes repentant sinners tremble with joy.

The fact that Jesus was crucified between two common criminals seems outrageous at first glance.  He was the innocent Son of God, not a filthy crook.  He didn’t deserve to die at all, let alone in company like that.  But actually, Jesus was simply dying as he had lived:  in the company of undesirables.

Jesus spent much of his life befriending bad people.  He had a reputation as a friend of cheaters and sinners (Matthew 11:19).  Indeed, some of the more respectable people figured that Jesus himself must be evil.  Don’t “birds of a feather flock together”?  They thought that since Jesus was friendly with immoral and sinful people, he must be immoral and sinful himself.  Why, he even talked to prostitutes and let them touch him (Luke 7:39)!  Jesus himself was sinless, but that never kept him from being a friend to sinners.  Though he was perfectly holy, he was never “holier than thou.”  So it was only fitting that Jesus would die as he had lived:  in bad company.

If we want to know how a vile criminal can be living with Jesus in paradise, we must take account of the fact that Jesus was willing to identify with sinners and outcasts.  A criminal can be in the same place as Jesus only because Jesus first put himself in the same place as criminals.

Hundreds of years before Jesus was crucified, God inspired the prophet Isaiah to write about Jesus’ death.  Near the end of Isaiah 53, God says:

After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied;  by his knowledge, my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.  Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors.  For he bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors.  (Isaiah 53:11-12)

Every detail of this ancient prophecy came true.  As Jesus hung there between two criminals, he was (as Isaiah put it) “numbered with the transgressors.”  He did this in order to “justify many,” to pardon their sins.  By sacrificing his own innocent life, he “bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”  When Jesus chose to endure the agony of the cross, when the spikes smashed through his wrists and feet, when his chest heaved and his lungs gasped for air, when his entire body was wracked with pain, when he endured the hellish agony of separation from his Father in heaven, he was bearing the iniquities of sinners.   And that’s why Jesus could guarantee a place in paradise to a dying criminal.

Notice, though, that only one of the criminals received a passport to paradise.  The other rejected Jesus and used even his dying breath to mock the Lord and heap abuse on him.  This man was full of rage and hatred, and even when he hung on the edge of eternity, he remained defiant.  He had a last-gasp opportunity and he squandered it.  He carried his defiance right into hell.

Unfortunately, that man’s story has been repeated many times since.  It’s tragic how people who are almost beyond hope rage against the only hope they have.  Some prison inmates feel hatred for God and refuse to seek his forgiveness.  Some of them even heap scorn on fellow prisoners who have turned to Jesus.  They see it as a sign of weakness.  But their mockery and contempt are really directed at God.

As a matter of fact, all of us have a tendency to do this.  We get ourselves in trouble, and then curse God for letting it happen.  Somebody neglects or abuses his wife, and then screams at God for allowing his marriage to fall apart.  Another person gets hooked on alcohol or drugs and hates God for allowing it to happen.  Another catches a sexually transmitted disease and blames God.  The list could go on and on.

When the going gets tough, the tough don’t “get religion.” They figure repentance is for weaklings.  They would rather keep snarling at the Lord for not rescuing them, rather than admitting the mess is their own fault and asking for help.  The unrepentant criminal got himself crucified for his own crimes, and then he lashed out at Jesus for not rescuing him from the cross.  He remained defiant all the way to damnation.

The other criminal, however, came to his senses just in time.  At first, he had been mocking Jesus, too (Mark 15:27).  But then he became silent.  By God’s grace, reality suddenly hit him.  As his life flashed before his eyes, he didn’t like what he saw.  He realized how evil he had been, and he knew he was getting what he deserved.  He couldn’t deny that he had it coming.  And here he was, dangling over the abyss of eternity.  In a few hours, he would be face to face with God, and he would deserve nothing but a one-way ticket to hell.

But when he looked over at Jesus, he saw someone very different from himself.  He saw an innocent man.  And, though he couldn’t really understand it very well, he must have seen something more.  He saw someone who called God “Father,”  who said that his kingdom was not of this world, and who also seemed to be very forgiving.  After all, hadn’t Jesus prayed for the very people who crucified him?  Maybe he could also forgive a convicted criminal.  What if he was staying on the cross, not because he was helpless to save himself, but because he deliberately chose not to save himself?  Perhaps this innocent man could save those who were not innocent.

Whatever thoughts went through the mind of this dying man, a mysterious hope, something he couldn’t quite explain, sprang up inside him.  He first rebuked his fellow criminal for cursing Jesus.  Then he turned his head toward the bleeding man on the center cross and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

And Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

You know what that means, don’t you?  The moment the man’s heart stopped beating, his spirit went directly to heaven.  Even before his broken body was removed from the cross, his spirit was safe, rejoicing in the presence of Jesus.  Jesus didn’t say, “Someday you will be with me in paradise.”  He said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

At the very moment of death, those who believe in Jesus are taken to be with him.  The story of the crucified crook makes this very clear, and other parts of the New Testament also make the same point, reminding Christians that as soon as we are absent from the body, we are present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:9; cf. Philippians 1:21-24).  Paradise is the immediate destination of the spirits of all who die in the Lord.

When life on earth ends, life in paradise begins.  The spirits of dead believers are now rejoicing in the presence of Christ, and when Jesus returns and brings heaven to earth, he will also unite our spirits with new and glorified bodies like the one he’s already received through his resurrection.  Every Christian who faces death can rest confident in the words of Jesus, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Jesus’ promise to the criminal on the cross is stunning.   The man saw himself as a sinner before God, he asked Jesus to remember him, and Jesus guaranteed him a passport to paradise.  It was as simple as that.  This criminal had absolutely nothing to offer Jesus in return for his salvation.  He had a life of crime behind him, and just a few hours of suffering ahead of him.  He wouldn’t do anything great for God to make up for his crimes.  He wasn’t going to become a missionary or get involved in prison reform.  He was going to die.

And yet Jesus answered his prayer and gave him a place in heaven.  This is one more example of why Christians don’t just sing about grace;  we sing about “amazing grace.”  God doesn’t save us first of all because of what we might be able to do for him after we’re saved, but simply because of his grace and love. God needs no other motive than love.  Some of those he saves never have a chance to serve him at all.  They trust Jesus just in time to go to heaven.

So even if you’ve wasted most of your life, there is such a thing as a last-gasp opportunity.  Some people who were dying of cancer or AIDS have trusted Jesus just in time join him in paradise.  Prison inmates, and even some on death row, have found eternal life in Jesus.  Elderly people, who have wasted most of their lives living for themselves rather than for God and have only a short time to live, can find salvation through Jesus.

That former criminal who now lives in heaven is living proof that even if it’s very late for you, it’s not too late.  Even if your life is almost over, you can turn to Jesus.  Are you any more sinful than the criminal on the cross?  And if it wasn’t too late for him, how can it possibly be too late for you?  Why go to your grave rejecting Christ, when you can instead confess your sinfulness and pray, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”?

Oh, I know that some people may laugh at such last-minute conversions.  But let them laugh.  They may think that Jesus’ promise is a joke, but you can join the procession of cheats and prostitutes and criminals and ordinary sinners like me who are going to be laughing all the way to heaven!

Don’t get me wrong.  This laughter isn’t the chortling of people who pulled a fast one on God, who first had fun wallowing in sin and then squeezed into heaven through a loophole, gloating that they got away with it.  There are tears of repentance before there are tears of laughter.  Like the criminal who repented, those who are really saved feel deep sorrow and revulsion for their sins.  But once we’re delivered from sin, we can laugh with wonder and delight as we rejoice in the miracle of salvation.  Jesus is so wonderful that not only do we go to heaven, but we reign with him, we are sons and daughters of God, and we share forever in the splendor and jubilation of God himself.

It’s important to remember that this story of the last-gasp opportunity is about God’s grace and love;  it’s not an excuse to put off trusting Jesus until the last possible moment.

For one thing, very few of us know when the last moment will be.  Death is not always a long process.  It doesn’t always give an advance warning before it strikes.  You could die very suddenly, and so could I.  We must be ready to face eternity at any time.

But aside from that, there are other important reasons not to wait till the last moment.  Jesus provides forgiveness and eternal life to those who call on him from desperate situations, but that doesn’t mean he will remove all the fallout and earthly consequences.  The suffering criminal wasn’t snatched from the cross the moment he trusted Jesus.  He still had to endure the earthly punishment for his crimes.  Inmates who are born again in prison still have to serve their sentence here on earth.  Those who have been saved after grievous mistakes with sex and drugs must often still cope with painful fallout from their previous way of life.  So the best time to be saved is always right now.  The later you are saved, the more seeds you sow that you may still have to reap even after you turn to Christ.

Maybe you’ve already trusted in Jesus, and you kind of envy those whose conversion was more sensational than yours. Christians sometimes glamorize those who were saved after an especially vile life, or who were converted at the last possible moment.  Now, even though we praise God and rejoice with those who were saved so dramatically, it’s not wise to envy them.  Instead, thank God for saving you before your sin brought you to that point.  You’ve probably been spared a lot of grief, and you’ve also had the privilege of knowing God and serving him for many more years than those who were saved only at the end.

A dear friend of my family didn’t put his faith in Jesus until he was 61 years old.  Although this man rejoiced in his Savior, he sometimes spoke of how sorry he was that he had wasted all those years without the Lord rather than using them to work for Jesus.  He wished had hadn’t waited so long.  (I should add that he recently celebrated his one-hundredth birthday, so he’s had more time to serve the Lord on earth than he first expected.)

What it all comes down to is this:  faith in Jesus.  Whether you’re old or young, you need Jesus, and you need him now.  Whether you’re a prison inmate or a Sunday school teacher, you need Jesus, and you need him now.  Whether life seems to be going well for you, or if it seems like a last-gasp opportunity, you need Jesus, and you need him now.  He died on earth so that those who trust in him could live in heaven.  He was “numbered with the transgressors,”  he was weighed down with grief and shame, he was surrounded by scorn, he endured deadly pain, and he did it all so that we could be with him in paradise.

PRAYER

Savior, give us your grace.  Jesus, remember us.  Thank you for taking our sins upon yourself, and for opening the way to paradise.  Help those who have not turned to you to do so while they still have the opportunity.  By your Spirit, move them to repent and find forgiveness and eternal life through faith in your atoning death.

Then, Lord Jesus, draw all of us who trust you into a deeper and deeper awareness of your grace and love.  We will never find the language to thank you enough, but we offer ourselves to you.  Make us yours forever, and receive our love for you, our dearest friend.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.