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‘From the Cross into Glory’
Luke 23 v32-43 tells the story of two men who were in actual fact crucified with Christ. They were “led with Him to be put to death”; and at the place called Calvary “they crucified Him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left”. These evildoers had reached their life’s end. Never again would they enter into the joys, or face the problems of this world. Eternity lay before them, and the brief spell during which life remained to them was to be spent on a Cross. We too have in fact been crucified with Christ, and this is no mere theological conception, no angle of Christian teaching, but a fact plainly declared in the Word of God, “I have been crucified with Christ (Galatians 2 v20) declared the Apostle; not as claiming some experience to which he had attained, but as stating what in God’s provision of grace happened at Calvary. It seems, therefore, that the narrative told in our verses holds a peculiar significance for those, whose life must, as must yours and mine, be lived out on a Cross.
The reactions and attitude of these two men is full of instruction. The first joined his taunts to those of the rulers, which the soldiers had already echoed. Note what he says, “If Thou be Christ, save Thyself and us”. As a Jew he knew the prophecies concerning the Messiah, and held some sort of belief in a coming deliverer for his oppressed race. He scouted, however, any claim that this crucified teacher could really be the anointed of God. “Save Thyself”, he abjures his fellow sufferer, as one of the intimate circle of Jesus’ disciples had done before him - Matthew 16 v21-23, showing that his view of the Cross was that of human reasoning, inspired by the god of this world. Then he adds, revealing his horror at the position in which he finds himself, “and us”. In this prayer, for it was prayer of a kind, he anticipates the desire of many a professing Christian down the ages, “Anything rather than the Cross!” What shifts and evasions you and I employ rather than submit to God’s way for us. But being a Christian is not a matter of looking away to Christ’s Cross in order that we may enjoy, without cost to ourselves, an eternal inheritance. It is accepting that Cross as ours, and believing that “if we be dead with Christ . . . we shall also live with him” and therefore possess eternal life with all its attributes and responsibilities. This man then was crucified with Christ, but was prepared to struggle to the bitter end to keep his life in this world. He therefore lost everything. He died as he had lived, a man of the earth having no understanding of the glorious possibilities that his position, awful as it was, could open for him.
Now let us turn to look at the second malefactor. He is in the same hopeless position as the first. He too faces eternity, and has come to an ignominious end of his earthly life and opportunities, but, and what a mighty word that can be, his eyes have been fixed on the Saviour with Whom he is crucified. He now speaks in rebuke of the fatal unbelief of his fellow malefactor. “Dost not thou fear God”, he asks, “seeing that thou art in the same condemnation?” What sublime language this is when compared with the vacillating fearfulness of the inner circle of the Lord’s disciples. The rulers of the Jews had ranged themselves against their Messiah, “Because” use their own words “that thou, being a man, makest thyself God”. But this crucified thief saw in the One his nation despised “God, manifest in the flesh”, and boldly confessed Him. Then he admits the justice of his own execution, and bears testimony to the spotless purity of the man, Jesus. “And we indeed justly” he admits, “for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss”. He anticipates the teaching of Peter, himself taught by the Holy Spirit, “Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust.” (1 Peter 3 v18). Finally he speaks directly to the One to Whom he has borne witness. What a lesson there is to be learned from this direct dealing! It is not what we believe about the Lord Jesus that brings peace, power and assurance into our lives, it is the putting into prayer of what we know, the positive request made direct to Him. “Lord!” he says, making full and free admission of the paramount right of the Crucified Saviour to be “King of Kings, and Lord of Lords” (Revelation 19 v16), and One having absolute power to grant his request, “Remember me when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom”. This Saviour, he sees is on His triumphant way to glory. The tree is merely the stepping stone to the Throne. Life on earth is nearing its end in suffering and shame, but nailed with him to a Cross is One Who can open the doors of everlasting life and eternal blessedness.
How speedy is the response of grace! The thief is not left in doubt, but receives at once the assurance of his acceptance direct from the lips of his Saviour. “And Jesus said unto him, verily I say unto thee, to-day shalt thou be with Me in paradise.” The Cross is the immediate gateway to life”, one of the old commentators writes about this verse, “To-day, as opposed to a boon expected at some future time”. The Lord of Life promises, the one who, sharing His death, turns to Him with all his heart, a speedy release from the thralldom of death and an abundant entrance in His Own company into a fuller, richer life than can be grasped by the human mind unaided by the teaching of the Holy Spirit.
In the word ‘Paradise’ we get more than a hint of the fullness of this new life. We will examine three places in which it appears in Scripture. In the first place it is to be found in the Septuagint version of Genesis 2:15 where the literal translation of the Greek words for the Garden of Eden, would be ‘The Paradise of Delight’. The most striking characteristic of Adam’s life in the Paradise of Delight was the fellowship he was permitted to enjoy with God in His creative activities. He sat in council with his Creator while the birds and animals were brought to receive their names (Genesis 1 v19-20). He witnessed the work of God in the creation of his helpmeet, Eve (Genesis 2 v21-23). He was given authority over the creatures of God (Genesis 1 v27-28). But Adam initiated nothing. After the Fall the greatest evidence of man’s changed condition was, and has continued to be ever since, his disposition to work independently of God. The Tower of Babel is one of the classic and disastrous examples of this attribute of fallen man, “and they said one to another, ‘Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto Heaven; and let us make a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth’” (Genesis 11 v4). Their plans ended in the very disruption and chaos which they intended to avoid. Is it not a fact that one of the burning problems you and I have to face in our Christian lives is the constant manifestation within us of this same disposition to independence? It can even be seen in connection with Christian work. A general practice seems to be to initiate and plan work for God, and then, sometimes almost as an afterthought, to ask Him to bless the work of our hands. We find an example of this even in the Acts of the Apostles, and amongst those being mightily used by God. Acts 15 v36-41 gives us the following record. “And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, ‘Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the Word of the Lord, and see how they do’. And Barnabas determined to take with him John, whose surname was Mark. But Paul thought not good to take him with them . . . And the contention was so sharp between them that they departed asunder one from the other.” Do you notice that there is no mention of prayer in this account? And what a difference there is between the contention and separation of this passage to the journey these same men took, when they were sent forth by the Holy Spirit (see Acts 13 v1-3). The moment you and I descend from the Cross, and seek to save ourselves in handling our own lives, and working independently of Him, we shall find these same difficulties and bitternesses overcoming us. The crucified man learns, however, that his business is to find out and enter into God’s plans, and co-operate in His works. He has been brought back into fellowship with God. He may live perpetually in the Paradise of Delight, which is close fellowship with God in His work, and the fulfilment of His purposes.
There are also two references where Paradise is spoken of in the New Testament, which are significant. The first of these which we will examine occurs in Revelation 2 v7, “The tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God”. In passing it would seem worth noticing that the Greek word translated tree is not the usual word descriptive of growing trees, but a word which means a stake, post, or gibbet which is used in 1 Peter 2 v24, “Who His own Self bare our sins in His own body on the tree.” The deliberate use of this word surely teaches afresh the fact that throughout all the coming ages of eternity the blessing of God, whether upon individuals or nations, will only be given through the great redemptive work accomplished on Calvary by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The Cross is the focal point of all God’s dealings with men. This man, crucified with Christ, is promised an immediate entrance with Him into Paradise, where is the tree of life. Adam and Eve were shut out of the Garden of Eden in case they should eat of this tree, but this dying sinner eats of it, and enters into life. In the same way you and I may reckon ourselves “to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6 v11). Crucifixion with Christ is not a kind of dead end, it is the gateway to life. The crucified man is the only man who truly lives for eternity. Many professing Christians live for the things of this life, and are dominated by the materialism of the world. Much Christian work also is done with worldly success in view. Reports at many a Church Anniversary speak only too clearly of this fact. Balances at the bank, to numbers attending the various activities, visits of men with well known names, the increase of buildings, etc. are points occupying the bulk of the reports of the various Church officials. The crucified man puts a correct valuation on such things, and realises that in the final count it is only eternity work wrought in the hearts and lives of men by the hand of God that has true worth. The apostle’s solemn warning to the Christian workers in 1 Corinthians 3 v11-15 is one to which you and I should pay close heed. He tells us that it is possible to build on the one unalterable foundation “which is Jesus Christ”, wood, hay and stubble, which in the day of His coming again shall be burnt up as utterly valueless. That will be a great and terrible conflagration! To be able to go out into Christian work with a single eye for His glory, and an undivided purpose to bypass the mass of non-essentials which throng our path to-day, and to be spent in bringing men to Christ, we must take our place as having been crucified with Him. Then, and only then may we walk in the Paradise of God tasting the fruits of the tree of life, and looking at “the things which are not seen. . . which are . . . eternal” (2 Corinthians 4 v18).
Finally in 2 Corinthians 12, we find the paradise of God to be the place of revelation. The apostle tells in the early part of the chapter “How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter” (v4). So it is with every crucified man. He has a deep inner vision of the grace, wonder, and love of God, which belongs to Him alone. He cannot and dare not communicate this revelation of divine loveliness to others. The very thought would be repulsive to him. Sometimes I tremble when I hear experiences talked about so freely in testimony meetings, because real heart revelations of God are deep and secret. Are there not sacred places in your own life which only God and you can ever know about? Such experiences colour the whole of our life and outlook, but we cannot speak of them. Such experiences also inevitably bring with them the trial that keeps us humble. “Lest,” continues the apostle, “I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And He said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee, for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (v7-9). Oh that Paul’s instructive reaction to this perhaps unexpected answer to his prayers, might be yours and mine in similar circumstances. “Most gladly, therefore”, he cries triumphantly, “will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (v9). Is it not a fact that there is often present in our minds the picture of an era in our lives, which incidentally is always just round the corner, when the cramping circumstances, or physical weaknesses, which we feel are limiting our usefulness will be taken right away? ‘Then’ we say to ourselves we shall be used as we long to be, and shall see the work of God go triumphantly forward. The actual fact is the exact opposite, as Paul’s life shows. The further he marched along the road to the Father’s House, the greater the difficulties that beset him, and the more cramping the limitations. Years in prison followed days of enlargement when Asia Minor and Achaia were his parish. On the other hand his ministry grew ever deeper and richer as the years went by, until the great prison epistles were launched on their way of ever widening blessing through the centuries which followed. The crucified man is shut up to God and to God alone.
If God does not work on his behalf then there is no one else to whom he can turn. But as he learns the ways of God, sees His beauty, and is admitted into His secret counsels, the pressure of outward things is permitted to increase, in order that the utter sufficiency of God may have room to operate through human weakness, the only condition upon which it is seen in action. There is a sense in which even sickness and bodily suffering is a secondary consideration. The thing that matters is that which is eternal, the work that God is doing in the hearts of men. “Though our outward man perish,” declares Paul, “yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4 v16-18). The crucified man has nothing between him and the great all-important eternal issues. He lives with his risen Lord in the Paradise of Delight in the place of open vision, which day by day dominates in an increasing measure his very being.
May I end with a question? Are you crucified with Christ? Actually that is your position, and I ought to put the question another way. Which of the malefactors represents you? Is your heart cry from the Cross, “Save Thyself and us” or recognising the justice of your condemnation, do you rest all your hope on the Saviour, whose death you share; and therefore by His infinite grace do you live with Him in Paradise? Is the joy of fellowship with Him, of sharing His life, and of having the power and glory of God progressively revealed to you as a basis of meeting the problems of everyday life? This is the only possible way of life for the Christian.