by Andrew Lansdown
I once sat with an elderly man in hospital as he died. His daughter had been with him during most of his last days, but unfortunately she was absent at his death. When she saw me shortly afterwards, one of the first things she asked was, "Did he say anything?"
We are always keen to know a person's last words. There is, we tend to feel, something special about them. We cling to them in the hope of finding some unique insight into the character of the deceased person. We ponder them in an effort to get some comfort concerning both our place in that person's heart and his or her place in eternity.
The Bible records the last words of the most important person who has ever lived—God's Son, Jesus Christ. During the six hours He hung dying in agony on the cross, the Lord Jesus made seven statements. These are sometimes referred to as "the seven words" or "the seven sayings" and are especially precious to Christians at Easter. One, the word of salvation, is found in Luke 23:43.
Luke informs us that two criminals were crucified with Jesus. One mocked Jesus, but the other silenced him, saying, "We are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man [Jesus] 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" (NIV). With these last words, Jesus revealed six wonderful truths.
Firstly, He revealed his confidence that God the Father would accept His sacrifice on our behalf. Notwithstanding all He had suffered and all He was about to suffer, He trusted that His Father would neither abandon His soul to hell nor let His body decay (Acts 2:27, 31). This is evident from the fact that He expected to be in paradise that very day, the moment His ordeal was over.
Secondly, Jesus revealed that there is life after death, and that entrance into that life is immediate. You will be with me in Paradise today, He said—not some time in the future after your soul has "slept" in the grave.
Thirdly, Jesus revealed that He has the power and the authority to save people from judgment and hell. The apostle Paul states that "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Timothy 1:15). And what better proof could there be of that than His dealings with the dying criminal?
If only we love Him in returnFourthly, by His response to the thief, Jesus revealed his concern to save individuals. He is the Saviour of the world, certainly. But that does not mean much unless He is the Saviour of individuals, for it is individuals who make up the world. The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me, Paul said (Galatians 2:20).
And every person alive can and should say the same. Jesus died for each one of us personally. He does not save humanity en masse. Rather, as his last words to the criminal indicate, He saves us one by one and one to one.
Fifthly, Jesus revealed the reason He saves people. It is not because we are useful to Him, but because we are precious to Him. He loves us, that is why He saves us. The dying thief had nothing to offer Jesus, nothing to bargain with. By his own confession he had lived an evil life and was justly under condemnation. There was nothing in his past to commend him to Jesus. And there was nothing in his future to commend him, either, because he had no future. With his hands and feet pinned to the cross, he had no ability and no time to make amends or to offer service. He was helpless and useless. So it is impossible to understand why Jesus saved him, unless we understand that Jesus loved him—simply loved him just as he was.
Sixthly, Jesus revealed the way of salvation. What must we do to be saved? Well, Jesus approved of what the thief did—so if we do likewise, we too will be saved. What did the thief do? To begin with, he acknowledged that he was a sinner, justly condemned. Then he acknowledged that Jesus was innocent, unjustly condemned. And lastly, he entrusted himself to Jesus, appealing to Him for a place in His heavenly kingdom. In short, he recognised his need for salvation, then asked for it in repentance and received it by faith.
The dying thief had not been good in the past, and he had no prospect of being good in the future. He did not participate in any religious rite such as baptism or Holy Communion. He did not pass a theological exam. He simply turned from his sins and trusted in Jesus.
And so it is with us today. To be guaranteed a place in God's kingdom, we simply need to understand that Jesus died for us because He loves us and He will save us if only we love Him in return. And on the basis of that understanding we need to entrust ourselves to Him and love Him wholeheartedly. We are saved by grace, not by works of any kind. It is after we are saved that we undergo baptism, share in Holy Communion, grow in knowledge, and strive to do good.
The last words of Jesus were words of salvation. They give vitality to the repeated promise of Scripture that "Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13). The dying criminal did and was on that first Easter Friday. He set an example for us to follow.•