Luke 23:39-43| According to promise: reflections on the nature of promises in the Scriptures

the crucifixion of ChristOne 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? 41We 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.”

I remember once having a dog-named Oddie, for the people who knew me he was virtually my best friend aside from my nephew Gato, of course.

I have a lot of fond memories of him during my childhood but none strikes me more than that of how he always would be looking forward to my arrival be it in the mornings when I would wake up and he will be waiting for me at the door of the bedroom that I once shared with my brothers; or during the late afternoons where he would be at our front gate eagerly waiting for me and my Nanay to get off the tricycle that we’re riding.

I do not remember him failing to be they’re waiting for me to wake up from a good night’s sleep or from coming home from school. He waited for me as though he was bound to keep his end on an arbitrary bargain where I promised that I would be back.

In the time that I spent preparing for this message I have God knows struggled in grasping the concept of promises: How I have often failed to keep them or have felt disappointed because someone who gave me a promise failed to keep it, (especially when my hopes were raised).

It is with these things in mind that I am confronted with the nature of promises that is for most of us are nothing but empty words. Which is quite interesting for us Christians because our very faith is grounded upon promises, which in a way serves as our life-support system that we can cling to by faith because God uttered these promises that we are now holding fast to as we travel as a community of pilgrims passing into hostile territory in our heaven-bound journey.

What are promises anyway?

In my study I have found several very interesting definitions best defines the word promise:

One basic definition is that a promise is a psychological contract indicating a transaction between two persons whereby the first person undertakes in the future to render some service or gift to the second person or devotes something valuable now and here to his or her use. A promise may also refer to any kind of vow or guarantee.

While Webster defines it as a declaration that one will do or refrain from doing something specified b: a legally binding declaration that gives the person to whom it is made a right to expect or to claim the performance or forbearance of a specified act 2: reason to expect something <little promise of relief>; especially: ground for expectation of success, improvement, or excellence <shows considerable promise>3: something that is promised

A quick look at the word’s etymology reveals that it came from the Latin word promissum “a promise,” noun use of neuter pp. of promittere “send forth, foretell, promise,” from pro- “before” + mittere “to put, send” (see mission). Ground sense is “declaration made about the future, about some act to be done or not done.”

In Christianity, it is the act of making a solemn oath may be done on one’s own, but certain oaths or vows, especially when it affects a person’s vocation in life and role in the community, are made publicly, and before a priest or public official. A Christian who makes an oath to God is responsible for it, not to the peril of his soul, but as a sin if he breaks it.

That’s why certain Christians, amongst them the Religious Society of Friends and the Mennonites, object to the taking of both oaths and affirmations, basing their objections upon a commandment given in the Sermon on the Mount, and regard all promises to be witnessed by God.

But is that really all that there is when it comes to promises?

In the book According to Promise, Charles Spurgeon writes:

“When we believe God as He is revealed in Christ Jesus, we believe all His promises. Confidence in the Person involves confidence in all that He speaks: hence we accept all the promises of God as being sure and certain.”1

Furthermore he writes:

“He who has said that He will save those who believe in Him will save me since I believe in Him; and every blessing which He has engaged to bestow upon believers He will bestow upon me as a believer. This is sound reasoning, and by it we justify the faith by which we live and are comforted. Not because I deserve anything, but because God has freely promised it to me in Christ Jesus, therefore I shall receive it: this is the reason and ground of our hope.”2

It is amazing how promises given either in the past or was just made known in the present stirs our hope. Primarily because we all agree that the present way of this isn’t good, especially when we’re seeing it from the primetime news.

It is with that realization that promises and hope intersects. Promises give us the drive to continue to persevere in our Christian walk so as that we would continue to: “Keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:1). It is our anticipation for our blessed hope of ultimate victory over sin and death that we face each day with our hope in Christ, in the same manner as that of Oddie, when he waited for me to wake up or to come home, but unlike that of me and Oddie, the promises that we hold fast to are not arbitrary or hidden to us, they are spoken loud and clear in the Scriptures.

Reger, a Lutheran pastor who was once an inmate in Dachau said: “…where there is no hope, there is no gospel.3

It is our hope that we would take a month-long look at Divine promises in the Scriptures that the church would be reinvigorated to reclaim these Bible promises and that each one of us would take ownership of them as we try to live out the Gospel message in our daily lives, especially since as a church we for one have our theme verse grounded upon the promise that the: “grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.” (Titus 2:11)

The Gospel according to Luke

In a nutshell Luke wrote his gospel so that his readers “may know the truth.” (Luke 1:4) Whereas Matthew wrote to convince his readers that Jesus was the promised Messiah, Luke (being himself a Gentile) wrote that Jesus was also the universal Savior. Writing for a Greco-Roman audience, who knew little about the Old Testament or Judaism he utilized the frequent use of Greek rather than Hebrew words such as: Master rather than Rabbi; Mount of Olives rather than Gethsemane and Place of the Skull rather than Golgotha. Luke’s message is that salvation is now: “Today [in the synagogue in Nazareth] this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21); “Today salvation has come to this [Zaccheus’s] house (19:9); Today you [the penitent thief] will be with me in paradise” (23:43).4

And it is in the story of this penitent thief that we will study why promises a very important for us Christians and why such promises should be made known to those who have not yet come to know Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior; and lastly why the church should always claim and at the same time proclaim this promises.

We now come to our story and I would like to invite you to join me in making “a book review of sorts”. The story is part of a larger story upon which our entire theology rests upon it is set on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. And after the Last Supper; the agony at the garden; the arrest and desertion of his friends; the trial and the scourging; and the painful procession to Golgotha we now se Jesus on the cross among common criminals, thieves as the Scripture tells it and there above him hangs a written notice that reads: “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS”, or the more popular Latin phrase “INRI” which sums up who Jesus really was and yet its truth is still unknown to the people and it is here that we are now going to see the cast and characters of these scene in the Passion of our Lord: On one side there is Criminal 1 who challenged our Lord; while on the other side there’s Criminal 2 who pleaded with Jesus and then there’s Jesus on the Cross during the climax of His earthly ministry, moments before uttering the final words :”It is finished.”

The Universal human condition as seen in the two criminals

Created beings – Both of them were humans, people like you and me created by God in His own image commonly called the imago Dei (Genesis 1:27 – So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.)

Fallen beings -. Both are guilty of sin verses 40-41 states the general condition of the human race as revealed in Romans 3:23 (for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,) and Romans 6:23 (For the wages of sin is death).

Under judgment – Both are facing death as Hebrews 9:27 (Just as man is destined to die once and after that to face judgment).

Audience to the Gospel – Both are now face to face with Jesus and are confronted with the Gospel message of Jesus.

It is in the universality of these two criminals that we now jump from what is universal to that of what is now personal as we will be examining their individual responses to the sight of the crucified messiah before them, keeping in mind that they are now in their personal ‘dead end’. Death approaches them and perhaps this famous line from the famous agnostic’s5 quote is on their minds right now:

“Is there beyond the silent night

an endless day?

Is death a door that leads to light?

We cannot say” 6

It is quite interesting that the verse was written by Robert Ingersoll, who was an agnostic and was also a prominent spokesman of the free thought7 and humanist8 movement of the late 19th century, who judging from his writing depicts uncertainty as to what is the ultimate fate of a man after he dies.

Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

Notice his words on verse 39: “are you not the Christ?” A short explanation as to why he asked that question can be found on verse 38 where it read that Jesus was the King of the Jews. We can look at it in a way that perhaps as he turned his head towards Jesus he was suddenly greeted with the sign that read: ‘THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS”.

At a glance we could merely dismiss him merely as an arrogant person who was skeptical of Jesus’s claim like Ingersoll, but a closer look at his statement might prove us wrong.

We must note that during Jesus’ time on earth there was a very strong nationalist sentiment among the Jews who have been governed by foreign empires since their return from their exile in Babylon. In fact, a few centuries before Jesus was born, the household of a certain Judas Maccabeus, launched what was called the ‘Maccabean Revolt’ against the Greeks whose story can be found in the Apocryphal books called The Maccabes. And what came out of that resistance movement was a group of freedom fighters who came to be called as ‘zealots’’ they are basically religious fanatics who fought continuously against occupying kingdoms in Judea, which were there up until the time of Jesus, in fact, one of Jesus’ first disciples was Simon who was called the zealot, what was particular about them was that they believe in the promise of a coming Messiah which was prophesied in the Old Testament, and when they interpreted that prophesy during their time the believed that it was a political Messiah who’d liberate Israel from the Romans and later on re-establish the royal line of David in a new kingdom. The Messiah or the Christ who’d come and reign as the King of the Jews, and it was one of the reasons why the Jewish leaders capitalized on such popular sentiments in brining him into trial under Pilate, they were trying to insinuate that Jesus was sowing the seeds of rebellion against the Roman Empire by claiming to be that.

So what we see now was a dying man seeking a second chance at life from a man whom he believes as the political savior of Israel. In short he had a wrong view of Christ, one that is very different from the person who is with him at the present. It should also be noted that in the passage he did not indicate any belief in an afterlife, and perhaps when he said the word “save” he probably meant that to be rescued from their present predicament that they’re facing at the moment.

It is very interesting that even in the church right now there are a lot of us who are like Criminal 1, who has as theologian Jeffrey C. Pugh says made: “a domestication of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.” 9

Domestication here implies that we Christians tend to view Jesus Christ in varying personas in such a way that we are somewhat creating graven images of Him in our minds.

To some He is viewed a celestial genie who’d give our hearts’ desire whenever we’d ask it in His name.

To some He was a revolutionary who called for change and freedom when he declared that: “the kingdom of God is at hand!”

While to some He was a historical figure who claimed to be God, but whose deity and historicity needs to be constantly defended from those who dared to question that claim.

Let it be known that any Christ apart from the one proclaimed in the entire narrative of the Scriptures as: the Way the Truth and the Life upon whom man may enter into a living relationship with God falls short of who the real Jesus is.

You might ask why do we need to address this now?

Because when we turn our attention to what type of Jesus persons in our culture worship, we do find Him as someone who is defined only by certain attributes. (I.e. ‘God is love’, ‘God is merciful’, ‘God forgives’, ‘God blesses’)

An example of this can be seen in the Biblical text itself, the book of Job is one place where Job’s view of God is brought into deep investigation. The concept of God as the God of retributive justice is called into question by the text through the struggles of Job with his friends. The God who acts according to human understanding is represented by Job’s friends who seek to justify God’s ways with humans as they tried to explain Job’s suffering. The accuse Job of being a sinner, or perhaps it was his children who’ve offended God. We do not posses power over God to define how and under which terms God will reveal Himself to us other that what is spoken in Scripture.

Perhaps the story that of Criminal 1 would help us reflect and at the same time make us understand that our most cherished image of God may have to undergo deconstruction so that holy reality may become manifest. Like in my case, I was forced by God to deconstruct my idea of Him during the preparation of this message whereupon I have thought of Him as someone merely sitting on the sidelines as I write this message according to my own image.

As C.S. Lewis once said:

“Every idea of Him we form, He must in mercy shatter.”10

“Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom”

Now we turn towards the other side and look at the other criminal who responded to the sight of the crucified Savior whose response is best articulated on the commentary of Matthew Henry:

“This gives no encouragement to any to put off repentance to their death-beds, or to hope that they shall then find mercy. It is certain that true repentance is never too late; but it is as certain that late repentance is seldom true. None can be sure they shall have time to repent at death, but every man may be sure he cannot have the advantages this penitent thief had.” 11

Further more he observes in verses 40-41:

“We shall see the case to be singular, if we observe the uncommon effects of God’s grace upon this man. He reproved the other for railing on Christ. He owned that he deserved what was done to him. He believed Jesus to have suffered wrongfully.” 12

In a sense Criminal 2 had a proper perspective of right and wrong where he acknowledged his guilt, which he believed the punishment that he’s getting is due him as opposed to Criminal 1, who showed no indication of an understanding of right and wrong and the reason of why he is crucified.

Commenting on verse 42 he writes:

“Observe his faith in this prayer. Christ was in the depth of disgrace, suffering as a deceiver, and not delivered by his Father. He made this profession before the wonders were displayed which put honour on Christ’s sufferings, and startled the centurion. He believed in a life to come, and desired to be happy in that life; not like the other thief, to be only saved from the cross. Observe his humility in this prayer. All his request is, Lord, remember me; quite referring it to Jesus in what way to remember him. Thus he was humbled in true repentance, and he brought forth all the fruits for repentance his circumstances would admit.”13

Truly Criminal 2 exhibited genuine saving faith by seeking remembrance of the Savior right after admitting his guilt as a sinner.

Lastly he warns us of the uniqueness of Criminal 2’s story where he writes:

“It is a single instance in Scripture; it should teach us to despair of none, and that none should despair of themselves; but lest it should be abused, it is contrasted with the awful state of the other thief, who died hardened in unbelief, though a crucified Saviour was so near him. Be sure that in general men die as they live.” 14

“I tell you the truth, today you will be with Me in paradise”

Now we turn our attention to Jesus Christ, and His promise where we will realize that both men (Criminal 1&2) are utterly destitute, bound to die in their sins if not for the fact that Jesus was there, no genuine repentance could save Criminal 2 if not for the fact that Jesus was there to give Him that promise.

What was more astonishing about this promise is that the guarantee is as good as done not only in the words uttered by Jesus but also with the present action that He is doing. He came to die for sinners, that includes not only the criminals or all those who were there at the time but also for us here. What makes it interesting is that Jesus’ message of salvation has in a way been accomplished in the way that His action (the work of salvation by becoming the atoning sacrifice for our sins), spoke louder than His words (the promise). To put it in the words of the radicals among us what Jesus did was, truly propaganda by deed!

What also can be noted with this scene in the story is the haunting portrayal of Jesus Christ on the Cross which is not only a clear demonstration of God’s love but was also a display of God’s righteousness. Christ’s death, allowed God to be both just and the justifier of all who believe in Jesus. Thus, making our gospel message seems, as that of the title of Marshal McLuhan’s famous book: ‘The Medium is the Message.’

Matthew Henry writes this very insightful comment on the passage:

“Christ upon the cross, is gracious like Christ upon the throne. Though he was in the greatest struggle and agony, yet he had pity for a poor penitent. By this act of grace we are to understand that Jesus Christ died to open the kingdom of heaven to all penitent, obedient believers.”

Notice also that when Jesus said: “today” He means it in such a way that this promise gives us all an assurance that salvation and the assurance of being with Him in paradise is available now and can be claimed today. Note that in salvation paradise or heaven is always equated with the idea that salvation in Christ means spending eternity with God we do not merely accept Jesus so that we would merely go to heaven but we accept Him in faith so that we could spend eternity with God as part of His household.

The promise also proves that salvation by grace through faith is true because it disproves teachings that baptism as well as church membership has any salvific value. It’s clear that paradise was assured of the penitent thief before he was able to have himself baptized or to enlist his membership to a church, in fact the church was still a mystery at the time!

Jesus’ promise is also an apologia against unorthodox trends in several sects that advocate soul sleep, which is very common amongst the Adventists who say that after death a person’s soul lies in limbo where it would only regain its consciousness on Judgment Day. Also it refutes the Roman Catholic notion of a place called Purgatory, where people who have not committed any mortal sin go to in order to be purged of their venial sins.

Lastly we should always be reminded of the truth that the promise would never have any efficacy if not for the cost that Christ paid on the Cross. Plainly it is a promise that can only be claimed by true believers.

What does this story mean for us today?

Believers – For the believer this should serve as a reminder for us to again and again remember of God’s grace, which is costly.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it:

“Above all it [God’s grace] is costly because it costs the life of His Son: “ye were bought with a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all it is grace because God did not reckon His Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered Him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”15

Imagine the extent of what it cost God just so that this promise would be of any value to all of us who believe?

Moreover it not only reminds us of the cost that entails the promise of Jesus but the story also serves as an encouragement for us Christians who might be experiencing the darkest hours of our life. This story reminds us that the Lord Jesus is our Redeemer:

“My Redeemer-your Redeemer- has the right to be called that because He suffered with us as well as for us. God could have saved us in some simpler, less terrible way than subjecting Himself to the worst that human beings could do, but He wanted us to know how much He loved us. Salvation surely did not need to come through the murder of the Messiah. But that’s how it came, so that we will know, in all sufferings and sorrows of life, that our Creator was also our Redeemer, and that He would bring joy out of sorrow, hope out of despair, love out of hate, life out of death, eternity out of time. This is our hope. It alone makes sense.”16

For those who are yet to believe, the significance of this narrative and the claims of the promise could be summed up in the name of an art form that’s presently getting a lot of exposure in the realm of fashion: ‘Memento Mori’.

The Latin phrase: “memento mori” (remember that you must die) is often described as a genre of art that often depicts skeletons, cadavers and the archetypical grim reaper – that served as a particularly timely reminder in the era of the Black Death.

What more can be said that it is true sooner or later we are going to die, and it is a call of the story’s promise: remember that you and I must die. But while we are still living Jesus Christ invites us to be with Him in paradise, will you take up that challenge and go meet Him at the foot of the Cross?

For the Church, it is a call for the continuous preaching of God’s promises I the Bible. Perhaps for the church at large the proclamation of such promises as that of paradise should again be put on the center-stage of our preaching and teaching, so that as a community of faith we would look more towards our blessed hope in Heaven.

While at the same time it is also a call for the constant preaching of costly grace, as opposed to cheap grace, which Bonhoefer defined in The Cost of Discipleship:

“The essence of grace, we suppose is that the account has been paid in advance, and because it has been paid, it can be had for nothing.” 17

He then writes:“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”18

It is my hope that as we all would reflect on the nature of God’s promises in the Scriptures that we would always look at it in light of the Cross. For it is all because of the Cross that we are given the blessed privilege of claiming these promises, especially now as we go on to partake of the Lord’s Supper this Sunday.

Amen.

___

Notes:

1 Spurgeon, C.H. – According to Promise p.35

2 ibid

3 As quoted by William W. Rankin in Cracking the Monolith p.145

4 Schwarz, John – A Handbook of the Christian Faith p.p. 110-111

5 Agnosticism – the belief that the existence of any ultimate reality is (as God) is unknown or probably unknowable. (Webster)

6 Ingersoll, Robert – Declaration of the Free

7 Free thought – a movement that is made up of individuals who form their opinions on the basis of reason independently of authority especially that which came from religious dogma.

8 Humanist – a person who believes that life is centered on human interests and values.

9 Pugh, Jeffrey C. – The Matrix of the Faith: Reclaiming a Christian Vision p.183

10 Lewis, C.S. – Surprised by Joy p.84

11 Henry, Matthew – Commentary on the Gospel of Luke

12 Ibid

13 Ibid

14 Ibid

15 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich – Costly Grace

16 Groeschel, Benedict J. – Arise from Darkness p. 145

17 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich – The Cost of Discipleship

18 Ibid

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