‘I was there’. T.V /Radio commentators like to make a big thing about certain historic occasions emphasising that they were there to witness what happened. The Scots have a proverbial dislike of certain English football commentators that refer to a particular match in 1966, but many people can recall a small number of special occasions that will always stand out in their experience. In cricket when Sir Garfield Sobers in 1968 hit the first ever 6 consecutive sixes in a first class game representing Nottinghamshire versus Glamorgan –probably Malcolm Nash the bowler has a less happy memory of the occasion! Or maybe more impressive to you might be David Duval’s round of 59 at the Bob Hope Classic at La Quenta Golf Club, California. He was the first man to gain such a score in the final round of a professional tournament and it was the score he needed to win that event. A much more important claim of ‘I was there’ was stated by Anne van der Bijl who can honestly say: ‘I was there’ at some of the least likely places on earth. This extraordinary man of God has a simple philosophy: ‘Jesus told us to go into all the world. He didn’t say, ‘Go when you get an invitation’. ‘Tell me a place where Christians can’t go and I’ll go there’, he says. In the past that has included knocking at the door of Palestinian terrorist group Hamas’ headquarters, presumably in Gaza. He has also turned up at an Islamic terrorist training camp in Pakistan just across from the Afghan border. ‘I just turn up on the doorstep and say I want to speak to the boss. I say that I have a message from God’. ‘I have never had a “no”.’ His visit around a decade ago to the Taliban’s training headquarters led to several days of preaching. He stated: ‘I pulled out my New Testament and preached about salvation. And to my amazement, the leader of the place said that he wanted us to speak with their graduate class, a huge group of people with beards who will go straight into the Taliban and al-Qaeda.’ This was the place they make terrorists, Anne explained. ‘And no-one had confronted them with the claims of Christ. I preached and they asked for Bibles and Christian books. The Taliban leader asked his followers to ‘treat me like a brother’ and ‘to consider the camp my ‘second home’ and gave me an invitation to return whenever I wished to preach again.’
He continued his reflection on his visit to the camps: ‘I see Muslims as God-seekers who are more serious about seeking God than many professing Christians. They are waiting for the God of Abraham to provide a sacrifice that they can believe in. No-one told them that Jesus is that sacrifice so they think they have to be the sacrifice that is why some of them become suicide bombers…the key to the future is to preach Jesus as the answer to the question Muslims are asking whether they realise it or not. Jesus is the sacrifice that has been made. They just need to know who Jesus is.’ Anne van der Bijl, better known as ‘Brother Andrew’ is looking for an army of compassion that will pray for and love Muslims so that they will turn to Christ. ‘You cannot win them by fighting only by showing the love of Jesus.’ [Interview Idea magazine Jan / Feb 2008, pp. 18-19]
‘I was there’ supremely relates to the cross and the man to whom Jesus spoke the famous words recorded in Luke 23:43. I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise. The people present would not forget that day as long as they lived after an event more memorable than a man walking on the moon. The events of that day and the words of Jesus invite, even require a response from every person born on this planet. Here Jesus was preaching what He had practised throughout His three year ministry. Let us consider these powerful words He proclaimed:
1. The Bold Declaration (Luke 23:38)
There was a written notice above Him, which read: this is the king of the Jews. Nailed to the cross was a clear statement of the identity of the occupant of that cross and as it was written in three languages almost everyone who passed by would be able to read it. It did not state ‘he claimed to be king of the Jews’, or ‘he hoped to be king of the Jews and failed’, instead it recorded what its author deemed to be a fact of history. The enormity of what had taken place could not be plainer the guilt of those responsible could not be hidden. No pleas of diminished responsibility from participants would be acceptable. The irony of the occasion was that those who nailed that inscription possibly above His head, depending on the type of cross used, did not really believe it in the sense in which either Jesus or Herod would have understood that title. The charge brought against Jesus was of a claim to kingship. In Matthew 27:11 Pilate asked Jesus: Are you the king of the Jews? ‘Yes it is as you say’ Jesus replied. The cross-examination by the Roman Governor led him to declare to the assembled Jews in John 19:14 Here [ide] is your king. The strong emphasis on the first word here often translated behold –take note, think about the significance of what you are proposing before it is too late, with reference to the charges against Jesus. Their appalling reply (John 19:15): Take Him away! take Him away! Crucify Him stunned even the hardened Roman Governor. His response (v15): Shall I crucify your king? Pilate was unwilling to make the decision that rested with him as Governor devolving it to the mob assembled ‘in the public gallery’. However, 2000 years later the ‘ball is in your court and mine’ -what is your response to Jesus? Have you accepted Him as Saviour and Lord? Have you acknowledged that the sacrifice He offered on the cross was in your place and as a substitute and sin-bearer in your place? Can you say in the words of the hymnwriter [CMP 458 Man of Sorrows]: ‘Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned He stood, sealed my pardon with His blood. Hallelujah what a Saviour!’ One day each of us will stand before the judgement seat of God and account for the choice we make. We will look into the face of King Jesus and observe those nail-pierced hands and hear Him ask us what was your response to my claims on your life while you were alive on earth? The evidence is clear: (a) At His Birth (Matthew 2:2) The wise men upon their arrival in Jerusalem asked: Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him. (b) At His entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:9) on Palm Sunday the crowd of pilgrims from Galilee shouted: Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. David was Israel’s greatest king who reigned a thousand years earlier and this gathering of thousands of people acknowledged Jesus as David’s descendant and successor as the king. This was the fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy of 500 years earlier [Zechariah 9:9]: rejoice greatly; O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See [Behold] your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. Do you know Him? Is He your king? Will you tell other people so that they can know Him as well? (c) At His Second Coming (Revelation 19:11-16) He has this name written King of Kings and Lord of Lords (v16). Are you ready for His return? He will come as judge to punish those who have rejected Him? If He came back tonight would you be ready? Have you acknowledged Him as your king –the most important decision you will ever make?
2. The Blasphemous Demand (Luke 23:35-39)
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.36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37and said, If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.38There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the Jews.39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us! In effect God impress me – be my Santa Claus and Superman rolled into one. Show me your great power, overwhelm me with your greatness I’m currently under whelmed. People will express such sentiments in different ways, some more polite and respectful than others. But the essence of it all of what they are communicating is this: ‘God I don’t take you seriously’. I don’t believe what the Bible says is going to happen. From God’s perspective a creature made from the dust on one planet in one galaxy in one small corner of God’s Universe calling out –impress me? To use the famous words of John McEnroe, the infamous tennis player of a former generation: ‘You cannot be serious!’ As Paul told the assembled crowd of Philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens in Acts 17:30-31: In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent. 31For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising Him from the dead. Their responses are given in Acts 17:32-34: When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, We want to hear you again on this subject. 33 At that, Paul left the Council.34 A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others. The majority of these pagan intellectuals rejected the message; a minority were sufficiently challenged to acknowledge that they needed to consider this matter in the future and a handful of them accepted the message and became followers of Jesus Christ. Paul expected a response and received one. What is your response to Jesus?
3. The Amazing Assurance (Luke 23:40-43)
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. 42Then he said, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.43Jesus answered him, I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.
(a) Facing the Present (i) The Context (Luke 23:32-33) Three men hanging on crosses just outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem had one certainty –within 48 hours they would be meeting their maker, an inevitable fate of a crucified man. There are not too many things in life that concentrate our minds like impending death. It hangs over each one of us from the moment of our birth; some of us get notice of our impending departure other people have absolutely none. As we get older the balance of probability becomes considerably greater! (ii) The Call (Luke 23:39) One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at Him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ/ Save yourself and us!’ He was a man who had rightly been convicted of at least armed robbery and violent assaults possibly even murder. He was saying if you truly are the Messiah, make yourself useful and get us all off these crosses – the ultimate in self-gratification. In other words Jesus I will trust in You, follow You –if you will give me…make my life comfortable… What are your priorities and mine? Even at the end of his life that man staring death in the face was missing the point? Have you acknowledged who Jesus truly is and received Him as your Lord and Saviour? (iii) The Confession (Luke 23:40-41) But the other criminal rebuked him. Don’t you fear God, he said, since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong. Repentance and confession of sin are the starting point of the Christian faith. Until we are prepared to admit the problem of our personal sin we will not obtain the solution that God has provided for us. This man knew what he had done and was honest enough to admit that the punishment administered fitted his crime. For such a person there is always hope, for people like his former comrade in crime there is no hope. Human pride must be faced up to and put in its place.
(b) Facing the Future (Luke 23:42-43) (i) The Request (Luke 23:42) Then he said, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. In other words this man was saying Jesus I’ve heard about you before but never had the courage to admit that I needed you as Lord of my life. Foolish pride and fear of what my friends would think has kept me back from trusting you. Please forgive me and accept me now though I don’t deserve it. I have no right to expect anything from you but I ask only for your mercy and love to the undeserving. It is personal here remember me. It needs to be personal. Like the tax-collector in the story Jesus told of the Pharisee and the Tax collector in the Temple (Luke 18:9-14) who cried out: God be merciful to me the sinner
[better than a sinner NIV]
. Jesus declared (Luke 18:14): I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. Like the tax collector the penitent thief felt his need and his utter helplessness before God to do anything about his situation apart from appealing to the love and mercy of God. Our position outside of Christ is no different to theirs –has there been a time when you sought the mercy of God to take away your sins? If not will you cry out to Him today? (ii) The Response (Luke 23:43) Jesus answered him, I tell you the truth, today you will be with Me in paradise. Here with the full authority of Jesus is the reply this man had sought. The timing –today not an undefined time in the future; it’s personal –I tell you; it is relational – with Me; and in paradise the place where Jesus would be. Is this just a promise that encouraged him or is there something here for us too? John 6:40 confirms that the promise is just as applicable to us: For My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. This man had one final opportunity and he took it- we must never presume future opportunities, instead we must respond to the Lord now and acknowledge Him. To those who receive Him the words of John 14:1-3 are so encouraging: Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. 2In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. However they are only an encouragement if you have placed your trust in Jesus. To the person who has taken that step we have the joy of hearing in our own ears these personal words of Jesus: I tell you the truth, today [as certain as if it had already happened] you will be with me in paradise Amen.