(The weekly GPS Small Group Guide can be downloaded in .PDF format from the individual sermon page, found at http://www.cor.org/worship in Sermon Archives)
The Thief on the Cross
A Grow-Pray-Study guide for small groups
This guide uses the Scripture readings from the daily “GPS” study guide. Group members may read the daily readings before the group meeting, or read the verses aloud when the group meets. The group may subdivide into two or three smaller groups, each discussing a set of the daily readings and the matching questions on page 2, or the entire group may discuss those questions together. We pray that, whatever pattern of study you choose, the Holy Spirit will weave God’s Word into the life and heart of each group member.
Jesus had bad news—the Temple, the place where Jews met with God, would be destroyed. Still more, great hardship and persecution would follow the Temple’s destruction. Jesus’ shocking words about the Jerusalem Temple came true in 70 A.D. Despite the dire facts of this life, Jesus urged his listeners to keep faith through the hardship. His central message was, “Don’t be alarmed…raise your heads, because your redemption is near.”
The annual Passover meal (part of the weeklong Festival of Unleavened Bread) reminded Hebrews of God’s great act rescuing them from Egypt (cf. Exodus 12:1-18). It was their defining story. When Jesus and his disciples shared the Passover meal, with the cross just ahead, Jesus added meaning to the meal. He said that, from that time on, the bread and wine would point to his even greater act of deliverance in dying and rising again.
“Lord,” Peter said, “I’m ready to go with you, both to prison and to death!” Ancient Christian tradition said Peter was crucified in Rome around 64 A.D., but when he spoke these words, he wasn’t, in fact, “ready” for that. Jesus knew him better than he knew himself. Jesus was arrested, and when bystanders said he must have been with Jesus, Peter denied it three times. Then a rooster crowed, and Peter “went out and cried uncontrollably.”
Throughout most of his public ministry, Jesus’ enemies had dogged his footsteps, claiming that he was a false teacher, perhaps even demonic (cf. Luke 11:14-16). But when they had him in their power, the contrast was striking. Jesus remained calm and in control of himself. The leaders, who claimed great “righteousness,” were frenzied, unfair and cruel, showing a spirit tragically filled with hatred and evil.
Three times (verse 22) Pilate asked Jesus’ accusers why they were so insistent on his death. He got no coherent answers, yet “their voices won out” (verse 23). Jesus was nailed to a cross by a public road. He asked God to forgive his executioners, promised a crucified thief eternal life, and prayed Psalm 31:5 as he died. On that bad Friday, Jesus absorbed and transformed human evil into God’s central saving act, and turned the day into “Good Friday.”
Luke reported two unexpected acts after Jesus died. The Roman centurion, after directing the crucifixion, “praised God, saying, ‘It’s really true: this man was righteous.’” That testimony might have been especially telling to a person like Theophilus (cf. Luke 1:1-4). The Romans meant crucifixion to create humiliation and fear, so they often left crucified corpses in the open. Belatedly, Joseph of Arimathea, a council member and silent dissenter at Jesus’ mock trial, went public to give the body a decent burial. No one expected the resurrection, but Joseph’s act unwittingly made Easter more powerful, because Jesus’ friends knew just where his body was.
To access the Family Activity suggested in this week’s GPS, download the printable GPS from http://www.cor.org/guide.
Lord Jesus, you willingly offered yourself to ridicule, torture and death for our sake and even for those who did these things to you. You knew your purpose and calmly walked the path of righteousness for our sake. Thank you for bringing salvation and light into the darkness of our lives. Thank you for being our blessed Savior. Amen.
CONNECT (5-10 minute discussion, at most)
Do you respond more positively or negatively to the ways we celebrate Easter? Does it this holiday seem to support your faith? How would you compare Easter to our celebration of Christmas?
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND STUDY
NOTE: We encourage study groups to have several different Bible translations available for these readings. Reading aloud from the Common English Bible or The Message may help to clarify the meaning of some passages.
Read Luke 21:5-38. Jesus warned his listeners that very hard times were coming, but told them to keep their faith. Think about hard times you have faced. How did your faith help you to get through them? What made it hard to keep your faith in the midst of these hardships? What kinds of things tend to test your faith on a day to day basis? For you, have other people been a model of living with patient faith? Can you do the same for others?
Read Luke 22:1-30. Do you believe betrayal and plotting against Jesus still occurs in the world? How do we, as Christ’s followers, ensure that we don’t betray his vision for humankind, even in small ways? With these Passover events, Jesus introduced the practice of Holy Communion. How can taking part in Communion reinforce your faith? How can we intentionally prepare our hearts to get the most out of Easter?
Read Luke 22:31-62. What kinds of pressures can lead us to be ashamed of and to hide our allegiance to Christ? Was there anything Peter might have done that would have helped him to avoid disavowing Jesus? In what ways can prayer help us to overcome temptations? How can our failures somehow result in a growth in our faith?
Read Luke 22:63-23:12. In comparison to criminal proceedings of today, in what ways was the “trial” of Jesus unfair? How would you describe Christ’s demeanor while he was being beaten and berated? How would you describe the demeanor of the “righteous” people who were Jesus’ accusers? How can we strengthen our ability to remain calm and in control of ourselves when we face the adversities of life and faith? Why could it be said that it wasn’t Jesus who was on trial, but rather the people who accused him?
Read Luke 23:13-46. Why did Pilate, a powerful man, bow to the pressure of the people, knowing it wasn’t right? Why do we call the day Christ was crucified and died “Good Friday”? Have you ever had to choose whether to do the right thing if, by doing so, others would be very upset with you? In these circumstances, how do we choose what to do? What do you think about the criminal’s last minute appeal to Jesus? What is the significance of the temple curtain being torn in two?
Read Luke 23:47-56. What was Luke trying to tell us by listing all the people who witnessed Christ’s crucifixion and death? When Romans usually left bodies on display on the crosses, why would Pilate have allowed Joseph to remove the body for burial? Why did Luke make sure to tell us that people witnessed Christ’s body being put into the tomb?
From last week: Did you consider the health of your own prayer life? Did you find ways throughout your daily life to incorporate your interaction with God by thinking of him often? Did you lay your needs before him and never tire of inviting him to participate in your day-to-day activities? Please consider sharing your experience with your group (was this rewarding or an interruption?).
FOR ADDITIONAL INSIGHT
From Pastor Adam Hamilton’s sermon, April 13, 2014:
Today we come to the climax of the gospel, where Jesus is crucified by the powerful Romans at the urging of the religious elite. Everything is turned upside down here. Jesus is God’s messianic King, the Son of God, yet he is crucified between two criminals. Jesus becomes a nobody, worse even than a nobody, identifying with the nobodies, even dying for the nobodies. Yet it is precisely here that we see his greatness.
In our scripture passage we find three of the last words or statements of Jesus as he is dying on the cross. These particular statements occur only in Luke’s gospel, and each reveals something profound to us about God’s heart, character and will….
I. Father Forgive Them…
Despite his teaching about forgiveness, and his willingness to forgive prostitutes and drunks and adulterers and tax collectors, it is still a shock as you hear this story that, while Jesus hangs on the cross, in excruciating pain, while those who put him there stand by mocking, that Jesus would offer this prayer: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” This is one of the most remarkable lines in the entire Bible. In this prayer Jesus’ show us the meaning of the cross. It is the essence of mercy and grace. This prayer articulates the very thing Christians have understood his death to proclaim— forgiveness….
Not long ago a woman said to me, “I simply can’t believe God would forgive me. Not for what I’ve done.” I asked her, “Do you remember what he prayed for those who drove the spikes into his wrists and feet, nailing him to the cross; those who continued to hurl insults at him and even gambled for his clothing?” She nodded her head. I asked, “If Jesus prayed for their forgiveness, why in the world do you believe he would not wish the same for you?” Nothing you’ve done was as horrible as what the Romans and religious leaders did that day, yet even for them he desired mercy.
I’d love for you to write down these words on your GPS: Jesus prayed for my forgiveness. I am forgiven. I’d like to take a moment now to invite you to confess to the Lord those things, or that one big thing, that you would like to know he has forgiven today. Bow your head, and let’s take 30 seconds whisper that to God. Jesus prayed for you, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Amen. Listen, God is the God of the second chance. God declares that, “As far as the east is from the west, so far shall I remove their sins from them.” In the name of Jesus Christ we are forgiven.
Jesus is doing something more here as he prays this prayer. He is teaching us from the cross. He is showing us the way. It is one thing to tell people to forgive. It is another to hang from a cross, forgiving. But Jesus knew this is the only way. Resentment, bitterness, hatred, and retribution are killing us, individually and as a human race. They literally shorten our lifespan, negatively affect our health and diminish our joy in life….
I’d like to invite you to pause for a moment to think about that person or persons to whom you bear resentment. They disappointed you, hurt you, maybe never apologized to you. I’d like you to pray now, “Lord, help me to let it go. Help me to forgive as you have forgiven me.” Invite God to help you to love your enemies and to do good to those who have harmed you.
II. Today You Will be with me in Paradise
All four gospels tell us two criminals were crucified with Jesus….Luke alone calls these criminals KAKORGOUS from the Greek words kaka, which means evil or bad, and ergous, meaning workers of. These men were crucified because they had done evil things. One of these criminals joins the crowd hurling insults at Jesus, mocking him. Why would someone on a cross, crucified for doing evil, himself about to die by crucifixion, join in the taunts of those who crucified Jesus? Why do any of us mock or tease others? Because it makes us feel like we are just a bit better than the other. This man is three feet from Jesus. He can look him in the eyes. He is himself dying and his only chance at hope is on the cross next to him, but he’s spiritually blind and cannot see it.
Then the other kakorgous speaks to this first criminal: “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Of all the priests and religious leaders around the cross, only this evildoer proclaims Jesus’ innocence.
Then he turns to Jesus and says: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This thief did not know the Apostles Creed. He did not have a certain view of scripture. He had no idea that Jesus was fully God and fully human. He’d never heard of the doctrine of the Trinity. He was dying, and in that moment offered a request to Jesus that reflected an insight, and a simple faith: “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”
To this simple request Jesus replies: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”…I love the fact that Jesus refers to the afterlife as Paradise. The word Paradise comes from the Persian word paradeisos. It originally meant “the King’s garden.” This garden was a combination zoo and arboretum, set apart and maintained for the King and his friends. I’ve reminded people who were nearing death of these words of Jesus. Picture the most beautiful and wonderful place you’ve ever been, and even it is only a dim reflection of the King’s gardens.
Perhaps what I love the most in this scene is that, to the very end, Jesus is seeking to save those who are lost. He is telling one more nobody that he’s somebody. In the midst of the insults and the derision and the mocking, he is still focused on this mission. I love that being saved by Jesus was as simple as the criminal saying, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”
III. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
That brings us to the third and final saying of Jesus before he dies in Luke’s gospel. This saying is, once more, a prayer. He prays Psalm 31:5. Barclay notes that this is a psalm Jewish mothers taught their children to pray at bedtime, a bit like our “Now I lay me down to sleep…” It is a prayer of absolute trust in God: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”…
It is with these simple words, this prayer of Jesus, that I want to end the message today, and with this invitation: that Jesus’ final words from the cross would be a regular part of our life of prayer. I want to invite you, not only today, but every day this week to pray: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
The derivation of the word “Easter” – confusion and controversy
Version 1 – Old English Eōstre continues into modern English as Easter and derives from Proto-Germanic *austrōn meaning ‘dawn’, a descendent of the Proto-Indo-European root *aus-, meaning ‘to shine’ (modern “east” also derives from this root).
Version 2 – Only two languages use the term “Easter” or its equivalent to denote the day that Jesus resurrected: English and German (Ostern). All other languages use a derivation of the word Pascha (Greek for Pesach, which is Passover in Hebrew), or a translation of the words, Resurrection Day or Great Day. Here are some examples:
The English use of the word “Easter” came from German word “Oster.” When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German (New Testament in 1522), he chose the word Oster to refer to the Passover (Pascha). Oster means “rising from the east” or “sunrise,” and it is also an old German word for resurrection.
Before Luther, the Latin Vulgate used Pascha (same as the Greek spelling) and left the word untranslated. Wycliffe (1382), who was the first to publish an English translation of the Latin New Testament, used the word Pask, from the word Pascha.
William Tyndale was the first to translate the Bible into English from the Greek and Hebrew. His New Testament (1525) uses the word Ester to refer to the Pascha. He was a contemporary of Luther and influenced by Luther.
When the King James Version was created, it used the word “Passover.”
Version 3 – According to St. Bede (d. 735), the great historian of the Middle Ages, the title Easter seems to originate in English around the eighth century A.D. The word Easter is derived from the word <Eoster>, the name of the Teutonic goddess of the rising light of day and Spring, and the annual sacrifices associated with her. If this is the origin of our word Easter, then the Church “baptized” the name, using it to denote that first Easter Sunday morning when Christ, our Light, rose from the grave and when the women found the tomb empty just as dawn was breaking.
Another possibility which arises from more recent research suggests the early Church referred to Easter week as <hebdomada alba> (“white week”), from the white garments worn by the newly baptized. Some mistranslated the word to mean “the shining light of day” or “the shining dawn,” and therefore used the Teutonic root <eostarun>, the Old German plural for “dawn”, as the basis for the German <Ostern> and for the English equivalent “Easter”. In early English translations of the Bible made by Tyndale and Coverdale, the word “Easter” was substituted for the word “Passover,” in some verses.
Even though the etymological root of “Easter” may be linked to the name of a pagan goddess or pagan ceremonies, the feast which the word describes is Christian without question. Exactly why the English language did not utilize the Hebrew-Greek-Latin root is a mystery. Unlike Christmas which was set on December 25 and “baptized” the former Roman pagan Feast of the Sun, Easter is a unique celebration. Any confusion, therefore, rests with etymology, not theology.
This week, begin each day in prayer and in remembrance that we are celebrating Easter week. Make a special effort during the week to be a reflection of all that Christ is, all that he has done for us and all that he has and is teaching us. Next week, share with your group any special events and thoughts that came into your life.