Sermon: The Heroic Highwayman

14 mins read

Editor’s note: The following is extracted from The Village Tragedy and Other Sermons, by Rev. Clovis G. Chappell, D.D. (published 1921).

Luke 23:42

You will find the text of the evening in Luke, twenty-third chapter and forty-second verse: “Lord, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom.” The man who prayed this prayer was a highway robber. He was a Knight of the Road. Even now he is dying the death of a rebel and of a murderer, and yet I believe you will agree with me that this highwayman is no ordinary man. I believe when you take into consideration the circumstances under which he prayed this prayer, you will be convinced that he is one of the most daring thinkers and one of the most heroic men of which history gives us an account.

Look at the situation. It is a holiday in Jerusalem some nineteen centuries ago. Great out-of-town multitudes throng the streets of the city. Rome is going to execute three prisoners today. She has chosen this day because she desires the largest number of spectators possible. She will let her subjects see what it means to rebel. In this way she will make rebellion tremble and hide its face even in the most distant parts of the Empire.

And the crowd is hideously eager to witness this bloody show. Men have always liked the gruesome somehow. I suppose in a measure they always will. Even today we like to see things that are dangerous. We like to watch people flirt with death. If there is daring auto race, if there is an especially dangerous feat to be performed in an airship — multitudes will gather to see. We are still blood brothers of those who used to watch the gladiators fight in the arena years ago. We are still kin to those who witness the bull fight of the Spanish countries to this day. We love things that are bloody, gruesome, horrible.

The crowd is more eager to see this show because the three men who are to die are well known. Two of them are highwaymen. They were men who had begun possibly by being zealous patriots, but being unable to gather an army and fight in the open, they had banded themselves together into a robber clan. They had homed in the fastnesses of the mountains and had preyed upon the passersby as ruthlessly as they felt that Rome had preyed upon themselves.

They were not unpopular men, I dare say. On the contrary, I doubt not they were thoroughly popular. They were looked upon as heroes. Had they not dared all to plague and to vex the common enemy, Rome? We are not entirely successful in holding back our admiration from men of the Jesse James type in our own day, though he had far less excuse for going upon the road than did these men.

The other man who is to die has come into prominence in an altogether different way. He has preached in their synagogues, taught in their temples. He has touched lepers into purity. He has opened blinded eyes and raised the dead. He has shown Himself a religious leader and teacher of marvelous power. For this reason some have loved Him with a love stronger than death. For this reason also others have hated Him with a hatred that would not endure His being on the earth.

As the procession moves out from the Roman praetorium down the narrow streets, there is much more in the appearance of the robbers to appeal to the vulgar crowd than in the appearance of Jesus. The robbers walk jauntily forward under the weight of their wooden crosses, for they are “lithe and sinewy and hard as nails.” They seem unafraid. Like men they have fought. Like men they are determined to die.

The other man seems almost utterly spent. His cross is more than He can bear. He has just passed through a horrible night. He has been crowned with thorns and His back has been hideously gashed by the Roman scourge. He has lost much blood and is weak, so weak that before the end of the journey another has to carry His cross.

Arrived upon a weird skull-shaped hill outside the city gates, the four soldiers in charge of each prisoner perform the work of execution. The victims are stripped bare. A vessel of highly medicated wine is passed among them. This wine is to deaden the pain. For even in that iron age when the heart of the world was far from being tender, this poor boon was not denied even to the worst of criminals. The robbers drink, and Jesus refuses. He will meet death fully awake.

Then the victims are stretched prone upon the cross, spikes are driven into palms and insteps and the crosses are dropped into the holes that have been digged for them. There is a spray of blood, the tearing of flesh, the straining of tendons — and then these three trees so lately planted stand laden with their fruit of infinite pain.

The soldiers now make themselves as comfortable as possible at the foot of the cross and begin dice throwing and drinking. For death by crucifixion is such a slow-footed monster that they must needs amuse themselves while their victims die.

Now it is that the jeers and the scorn and the revilings of the crowd break out in their most blasphemous intensity. I can well imagine that the robbers, to whom little of it was directed, would have replied in kind. They had nothing to fear. Rome had already done its worst. They had reached the end of the trail. But to the amazement of at least one of these robbers, the one who is the butt of the bitterest mockings does not reply at all except to throw round the shoulders of those who are murdering Him “the sheltering folds of this protecting prayer”: “God, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Now, I suppose you have noticed many a time that a scene that will soften one man will harden another. Two men attend the same service and hear the same sermon. One man has his heart broken by it. Under the spell of it he finds his way to the cross. The other is only made the more hard, the more stubborn, the more bitter and indifferent. This was the case with these two robbers. The attitude of Jesus seems to have maddened the lesser robber beyond endurance. I think he would like to have hit Him in the face. As it was, he railed on Him.

But on the greater robber the impression was exactly the opposite. As he had watched Jesus on His way to the cross and upon the cross he had become convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that He was an innocent man. He had been impressed with His perfection. So deep and genuine is this impression that the howls of the mob and the taunts of the churchmen and the revilings of his companion are becoming almost unbearable. They pain him, I think, more than the nails upon which he hangs. At last he can contain himself no longer, but turning as best he can to his companion, he says, “Dost thou not fear God seeing thou art in the same condemnation? But we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our crimes. But this man has done nothing amiss.”

Look at the insight of it, and the daring. Rome has declared Jesus guilty. The religious leaders of his day had declared Him guilty. The mob has declared Him guilty. Gray beards of the church are even now declaring Him guilty. But these jeers and howls and false sentences cannot disguise from this discerning man the truth. There steals into his heart an absolute conviction of the snow-whiteness of this man who is dying at his side.

Then you will notice that that happened which always happens when a man comes to realize the presence of Jesus. When this robber had realized the spotlessness of the man at his side he became conscious at once of his own spottedness, of his own guilt, of the stains upon his own soul. Against that white background he sees himself in all his moral ugliness. And he cries, as he endures the very pangs of hell: “Justly, justly, I am suffering, but I deserve every pang that I suffer. I am guilty. Against thee, thee only have I sinned and done this even in thy sight.”

This man is on the way to victory. He dares face his own sin. Now, he might have taken another course. He might have nodded his head at his companion over there and said, “I am a sinner, it’s true, but I am no worse than that man. He has been my companion in crime.” He might have pointed out distinguished churchmen in the crowd and have said, “I am a saint beside that old hypocrite yonder with soul mummified and heart utterly dead.” But men never get far in that way. It is only as we face our own sin and hate it and forsake it that we find salvation.

One of the dangers of this day is a lost sense of sin. We have lost our sense of sin because we have lost our sense of God. The man who sees God sees himself as one guilty and defiled. Isaiah was one of the best men of his day, but when he caught a vision of his Lord he put his lips in the dust and cried, “Unclean! unclean!” Job was a high toned and moral man. But at the vision of his holy Lord he abhorred himself in dust and ashes.

There is no surer rebuke than the rebuke of a stainless life. Many a man who will never be convinced by our preaching may be convinced by our living. Sam Hadley met a beautiful woman of the street one night. She said, “Go home with me.” He said, “No, you go with me.” She went, and to her amazement he carried her and introduced her to his wife. They talked together a while. She was very restless and soon declared that she must go. Mrs. Hadley got her wrap for her, put it round her shoulders and gathered her in her arms and kissed her. And the woman of sin sobbed, but she never left. Her heart had been broken at the revelation of her own self that had come to her in the light of this good woman’s life.

This robber saw himself. He saw himself as a man in need, as a man sin-stained and hastening on to the second death. And he reached out his hand for help in this wonderful prayer: “Lord, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom.” It was not a coward’s prayer. It was not the prayer of one who has insulted a million chances and who now calls on God not because he loves goodness, but because he wants to dodge a penalty.

There are people like that. This smaller robber was on that order. He said, “If thou be the Christ, save thyself and us.” He is only interested in escaping the penalty. He is only praying as you prayed when you thought you were going to die. He is only calling on God as you called on Him during the storm. That sort of praying is born not of love of goodness nor love of God. It is born simply of slavish fear. It is the prayer of a coward.

But whatever else this man was, I say, he was no coward. Will you notice this, he dared take the part of Jesus before he took his own. Before he asked Jesus to help him, he did all that was in his power to help Jesus. He tried to defend Him from the howling mob. He did the best that he could to put his torn and tortured body between Jesus and those who were tormenting Him. Do you think that was easy?

It was not easy. When that robber did that, he put himself in a crowd absolutely by himself. He stood utterly alone. There was not another man in all the wide world that dared speak for Jesus and defend Him at that moment. Every disciple has forsaken Him. The women stand in the distance and sob in silence. The churchmen jeer at Him. And Rome crucifies Him. Only one man dares to defend Him, dares to speak for Him. Millions will rally to Him in other years, I know, but let us honor this man who dared befriend his Lord when all others had forsaken Him. Let us honor the courage and devotion of him, who uttered the last kindly and tender words that ever gladdened the ear of the dying Son of God on this side of the grave.

Then look at the faith of this man. He calls Jesus “Lord.” Did ever a man exercise such marvelous faith? Some of you have never called Him “Lord,” in spite of the fact that He has come to you as the Christ who has been the molder of history. You have never called Him “Lord” though you were reared in a Christian home. You have never called Him “Lord,” though you had a godly father and a praying mother. This man called Him “Lord.”

He called Him “Lord” in the most trying of all possible circumstances. Peter called Him “Lord” when he had witnessed His miraculous power in the draught of fishes. Thomas called Him “Lord” when He had shown him the hands that had throttled death and hell and the grave. Paul called Him “Lord” when he had seen Him risen with a resplendent glory that had smitten him blind. But this man called Him “Lord” when to the crowd He seemed even less lordly than the reviling robber by whom He hung.

There was a sign above His head: “Jesus, the King of the Jews.” That was the joke of the day. Nothing was matter for deeper scorn and derision than that word. This dying man a king! But to this clear-eyed robber the superscription was no fiction. He saw in this man the King Eternal.

Hear him: “Lord, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom.” How sure he is of His kingship! He doesn’t say, “Remember me if thou comest.” We might at least have expected him to put it that way if he had considered Him a king at all. But his faith goes far beyond that. He said, “When thou comest.” Not “if you happen to outride this storm, remember me,” but “I know, Lord, that your victory is sure. So when you come in your kingdom remember this poor robber who hung with you on the nails.”

Was ever a faith so wonderful? There is the King and He has no throne but a cross. He has no crown but the thorn marks. He has no scepter save the nails that pinion His hands. He has no retinue but a jeering and howling mob. His whole royal wardrobe is in the hands of the Roman crap shooters. And yet this man penetrates the disguise of nakedness and the disguise of shame, and even the dusky disguise of death itself, and sees in Him the King Eternal, whose head is to be crowned with many crowns.

Notice, too, that he believes this King is able to grant favors beyond death. He believes that this dying Lord is the very Lord of Life. Think of it — this robber is dying. He knows it. He is fisticuffing now with the last grim enemy. The man at his side is dying more rapidly than himself. He knows that, too. Yet dying robber unto dying Christ speaks of life. And in the gloaming of the night of death he lays plans with Him for eternity. I tell you the faith that sent martyrs to the stake, the faith that removes mountains into the depths of the sea is but child’s play in comparison with the faith of this man.

“Lord, remember me” — mark you, that he does not ask for a throne. He does not ask, as the sons of Zebedee, for a place on His right hand or His left. He somehow feels that one thought of this dying man will be enough for him for time and for eternity. And so he says, “Lord, remember me.”

Did Christ hear that heroic prayer? Did He listen to this dying man who appealed to Him in the hour of His sorest agony? Yes. He heard him. He heard him and gave to him an answer. And there is no sweeter word that ever fell from His lips: “Verily I say unto thee, today thou shalt be with me in paradise.”

We would be much poorer every way if we did not have this word. Hear what a marvelous light it throws upon the immediacy of salvation. How long does it take Christ to save a man? How long does it take Him to snap his fetters and break his chains? How long does it take Jesus to make the worst of men clean and unspotted in His sight? How much time is required before this sinful human heart of mine can become a sharer in the divine nature? Answer: It may be done instantly. In the quickness of the lightning’s flash I may be reborn. I may this instant become a new creature in Christ Jesus.

Some people laugh at instantaneous conversion. They want to save the world by a process of evolution, but evolution would have been a poor remedy for this dying man. He needs salvation now. And that is just the salvation that Christ had and has to offer.

“Now is the accepted time and today is the day of salvation.” “Today shalt thou be with me,” He says. And that was his birthday. And this may be yours, however far in sin you may have gone. Today you may be with Jesus. Tonight you may leave this church in the sweetness of His fellowship.

This answer of our Lord also throws a flood of light upon the grounds upon which we may hope to meet Jesus in peace by and by. “Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” Why? For the simple reason that this dying robber has begun by being with Jesus in the here and now. He has just claimed a present salvation; therefore it is perfectly reasonable for him to expect a future salvation. He has come to know Jesus personally here; therefore he has sure grounds for hoping to meet Him and know Him yonder.

And heart, there is no other sure basis of hope. Do not, I beg you, expect salvation at the hands of the cemetery. Do not hope for redemption through the power of the coffin and the shroud. There is one, and only one who saves — “There is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.” And if this Jesus cannot save you in the here and now, then He can not save you at all. But if He can and does save you now, He can and will save you forever more.

“Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise”— where is that? I do not know. What is it? It is the abode of Jesus and those who have trusted in Him. I take it, it is Heaven. And He makes this place very sure to us. He asserts upon His very oath that this dying robber is going to be with Him in Paradise. Then, there is a Heaven. There is a place where love shall find its own. There is a land where God shall take us upon His great mother lap and wipe away all tears from our eyes.

“Thou shalt be with me” — this man had become a sharer in the nature of Christ. As best he could, he had shared in His shame, and now he is going to share in His glory. He is going immediately. He is going today. He is with Christ now. He will be with Him forever more.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

“Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us.

“For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers nor things present, nor things to come,

“Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Therefore I beg you to lay hold on Jesus tonight, that you may claim Him for your Savior now and forever more.

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.


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