Tuesday, February 22, 2011

There is Much to Learn From a Thief

I received some polite sarcasm from my beautiful wife for my "short" introduction on Friday, so today I will try to make up for it and keep things short, well short for me I suppose. I make no promises, though, as once I start typing who knows when it will end.  Today I want to talk about a tale of two thieves.  Specifically, we will be talking about the thieves crucified on either side of Jesus.  I love this brief account because in few words, so many errors that are present in the church today are dispelled. 
Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, "If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us."  Luke 23:39 NKJV
Sometimes we lose something in written word as opposed to spoken word. This is one of those times.  Just from the text, it seems like there was nothing wrong with what he said.  "If you are the Christ, save Yourself and us."  However, Luke tells us that by these words he was blaspheming Christ so I imagine they were said rather sarcastically from a profoundly unbelieving heart.  He was joining in with the Roman guards mocking our Lord on the cross.  I do not know of anything more sad then someone at the point of death, having Jesus so clearly presented to that person, and still rejecting the Gospel.  That person had salvation in the palm of his or her hands right when they needed it the most and they let it slip away through anger or bitterness.  Unfortunately, even with our merciful and longsuffering God, there is a last chance.  That last chance is at our death when we have that one last moment to come to the Lord.  Reject Him that one last time and the imminent death that comes quickly whisks you to your final judgment.  Receive Him at that one last moment and you come into the reward of the Lord. 
But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, "Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation?" Luke 23:40 NKJV
I believe this second thief was saved before he spoke to Jesus.  Maybe he spoke to Him earlier on the cross or maybe it was happening right now, but his actions show that he already has faith in Jesus.  What is amazing about this thief is that in his brief life after salvation, he appears to have many attributes of a Christian expressed in his final moments.  First, his faith produced this work.  He stood for righteousness.  He heard someone blaspheming his Lord, and he corrected him.  He rebukes his mockery of God in asking if he even fears him.  This man, in misery, and hanging on a cross took the time to rebuke someone blaspheming who he believed to be Lord.
"And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong."  Luke 23:41 NKJV
The second hallmark of a Christian is reflected in this statement.  That hallmark is forgiveness.  He does not specifically say that he forgives the men who hung him on a cross, but this statement certainly indicate he has no bitterness towards them.  He said that the death he is experiencing is justified and that it was his due rewards his his deeds.  He is accepting his own responsibility in what brought him to the cross and not lashing out at Jesus, the Romans, or anyone else for that matter in why he is where he is.  What I see here is a man forgiving from his heart for the pain (which is profound) that he is experiencing at that moment.  I say this man has forgiven his executioners because lack of forgiveness is steeped in the perception of personal injustice.  If this man feels no personal injustice for what he is enduring, I do not see how he can be holding bitterness as there is nothing, in his mind, to be bitter about.  What makes this statement so amazing is that he is saying it while dying on a cross.  This man was in pain that we can not imagine facing a soon and imminent death.  Each time he talks involves hoisting himself up on the cross against the nails in his feet and hands to be able to inhale.  Yes, despite all that, he did not have bitterness in his heart.
Then he said to Jesus, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom."  Luke 23:42 NKJV
And now we have the third hallmark of a Christian. He proclaimed Jesus, and proclaimed Him publicly.  He cried out to the Lord in front of all those who mocked Him.  He recognized Jesus for who He was and in that had faith that the cross would not be the end of Jesus.  He knew that Jesus was not only returning to His kingdom, but that He had the power to save him once He was there.  Even as he was dying, even as he was suffering, even as he was rightfully condemned by man, this man cried out to the Lord for grace.  

Notice he did not plead to Jesus that his death was unjust.  Note that he did not tell Jesus he was going to clean up his act for the short time he had left.  It is also notable that he did not ask to be saved from his present circumstances.  He could have asked to be taken from the cross.  He could have asked for healing or relief from the pain he was experiencing.  All he asked was for Jesus to save him in the next life, not to save him in this one. 

He just cried out to Jesus, and how did Jesus respond?
And Jesus said to him, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise."  Luke 23:43 NKJV
How sweet that must have been to the condemned thief.  He put his last hope in Jesus in faith that He could save his soul and Jesus assured him that his soul was saved.  I can not imagine anymore more amazing to hear.  I can not imagine any sweeter words than to hear from you Lord that this very day, he would be in paradise.  It is this brief conversation where we dispel so many errors flourishing in our church today.  First, there are some who say that being saved results in speaking in tongues.  I see no evidence that this man spoke in tongues.  There are some who say that you are not saved unless you are baptized.  This man was not baptized.  There are some who say that coming to Christ means healing for all your physical infirmities.  This man had no such healing.  The nails were still in his hands and feet and his life was still slowing draining from his body.  Not only that, but we learn later that his legs were broken to expedite his death.  Those legs did not heal nor was his faster death averted.  There are some who say that coming to Christ means prosperity.  This man still suffered the consequence of his crimes.  He did not get a pardon from his earthly condemnation.  He did not get wealthy.  He was no more prosperous than before he put his faith in Jesus and in the end he still suffered the same painful miserable death that the blasphemous thief received.  There are some who teach salvation without repentance, but this man showed a clear understanding of the wrong he did in life.  This mean clearly had a change in his heart, and that change was the result of Jesus working in his heart.  This change was so profound that even on the cross, he was able to forgive, proclaim the Lord, and stand for righteousness. 

It is amazing what we can learn from a thief.  In fact, I think that God included this in His word because of all that we can learn.  It is a short conversation with eternal implications and one that corrects many doctrinal errors people still try to pass off today.  What I wonder is what his time on the cross was like after he and Jesus spoke.  I think it is in this unspoken message where we can find perhaps the greatest lesson.  Think about it, his lot in life was no better than it was before.  His pain was no less and his wounds were not healing.  In the physical, he was suffering immeasurably, but I wonder just how much that suffering mattered when he knew what was awaiting him when it was over.  I wonder if he was thinking that each labored breath was one step closer to paradise.  I wonder if his pain was more tolerable knowing that soon that pain would be replaced by eternal paradise.  I wonder if he looked at the Romans mocking him or at his Lord dying for him at that very moment.  I wonder what that unspoken fellowship was like as he suffered beside his Lord.  We are told that we have a special fellowship with Christ by our suffering for him, but this man had the honor of suffering with him.  I wonder what the change was like when the day began with pain and hopelessness to the joy and hope of the Lord.  I wonder what it must have been like to hear his Lord saying directly to him that this very day he would be in paradise.  A day that was supposed to end in a humiliating, painful death was actually going to end in paradise and being raised up to God Himself into his eternity.  His day was supposed to end in death, but instead it ended in eternal life.  I wonder is then the Romans came to break his legs to expedite his death if he was actually excited knowing his homecoming was going to come even faster.  The point is that we can certainly focus on our circumstances in life.  Some churches make their living on focusing people on their present circumstances.  I want to correct all that.  The choice is plain in that we can either focus on our present circumstances and ask God to change them (such as the first thief) or we can focus on our Lord and what is to come to where our present circumstances do not even matter (such as the second thief). 

Sure, God could have healed his wounds, took him down from the cross, gave his wealth and riches, and made him life a very long and prosperous life.  But one has to wonder, if given the choice, would you choose to life for years with earthly treasures or would you rather suffer that one last day to be with your Lord forever in paradise.  The answer to that question determines where your heart is.  The first thief had his heart on the things of the earth.  He wanted off that cross to return to the world that condemned him.  The second thief wanted only for Jesus to remember him in His kingdom.  He did not care to return to that world because he knew there was a much better one awaiting him.  Ask yourself this day, where is your heart?
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.  Philippians 3:20-21 NKJV

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