18 April 2014 by Jason Law CM –
Today is Good Friday. As we remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for us close to 2000 years ago, perhaps it would be instructive to take a look at the people surrounding the cross on that fateful day. They were many characters that surrounded the cross on that day, all of whom stood for something.
There was the nepotism of Caiaphas and the envy of the chief priests, which were such that they condemned Jesus to death, simply because He stood for something that was not ‘strictly in line with their views’ and their Legal System. Pilate couldn’t differentiate or prioritized between Truth and Politics. The wavering crowd mostly stood there, unsure of what to make of the crucifixion, some of them scoffers who said more than they knew, most of the rest keeping silence. Earlier, Judas had betrayed his Master out of misplaced partisanship and materialism. Even Peter had failed in his faith and deserted the Lord by denying Him three times, as Jesus had foretold. ..And there were the two thieves that were crucified with Jesus and how they ended up.
Two thieves were crucified, but they had very different responses to Jesus. One hurled blasphemy and accused Jesus of ‘not being who He was’:
English Standard Version (ESV)
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
The other accepted his guilt, repented, and placed his faith and trust in the Lord, even during a time where all hope seemed to have faded:
40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Recently, I read a book by Tom Houston, ‘Characters around the Cross’, and I learned much that was thought-provoking about this passage of the Bible.
Firstly, it teaches us about the nature of repentance. The two thieves were crucified because they had genuinely committed the crime of stealing, also a sin, because it had gone against God’s will for the kind of lives He wants us to live. There are many ways of stealing (fraud, shoplifting, money laundering, bribery, etc.. even oppression against the defenseless like the widow, the poor, or the orphan), and the Bible makes it very clear through numerous passages that God notices them all. Stealing is a sin, but it is only one of the many ways we humans transgress against God. What is of importance is how we respond to our sins; firstly, we need to repent of them and turn from our old ways. But our attitudes also speak volumes.
Tom Houston points out that the first thief showed the typical attitudes of the unrepentant:
1. They abuse others – The first thief hurled insults at Jesus. Sin also affects the lives of others, and very often the unrepentant will make their problem someone else’s and blame them for it.
2. They are only concerned about getting off – The cry that the first thief made was only about getting off: ‘Save yourself and us!’. He would most likely had gone off and lived the same life if he had been saved.
3. Rationalization and Justification – The unrepentant often rationalizes and justifies their sins; in the case of the thief, calling it getting back at the Romans.
The second thief was very different from the first one. Something had stirred in his spirit, and the call that Jesus had made for His Father’s forgiveness upon the people (Luke 23:34) had awoken a remarkable insight within him. He recognized that Jesus was innocent (Luke 23:41), but it went deeper than that. He recognized that Jesus was dying for the sins of the world, ‘And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42). The second thief saw that the Kingdom of God extended beyond the cross and the grave. He saw the future with Jesus, and he made a decision to cast his lot with Christ, pleading for the Lord to remember him in His Kingdom (Luke 23:42). The second thief showed the evidences of genuine repentance:
1. Firstly, he disassociated himself from his former partner in crime (v40), and took responsibility for his crime and sin.
2. Deeper than that, he now realizes that his actions did not just affect himself and his society. Above all, it was God that he had sinned against, and it is to God to whom he will be ultimately accountable to. Tom Houston points out that this is the true start of a moral regeneration.
3. He acknowledges his sin. He is not making excuses about circumstances or protestations that he couldn’t help himself. As Houston puts it, his conscience was speaking to him again after being silenced for too long.
4. He accepts the validity of his punishment (v41)
5. Unlike the first thief, he wasn’t trying to get off. He willingly accepted the consequences of his wrong-doing. True repentance makes no excuses, and willingly accepts God’s discipline as a consequence of the sin, recognizing that the primary role of such discipline is for our instruction and growth.
The second thief pleaded out of genuine repentance, and Jesus gave him a breathtaking promise: ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’
43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”.
True freedom and transformation in a person’s live can only come through the Grace of God. A life of fear and timidity in the past becomes one of courage and faith. Anger issues become a thing of the past, and the peace beyond all understanding comes into the heart. Problems that seem insurmountable previously, driving a person to depression, suddenly become exciting challenges and opportunities in our walk with God. There is a purpose to life that transcends everything else. When a person gives their hearts to God out of genuine repentance, it becomes their moment of destiny.
Because God is holy, He cannot overlook sin, particularly that of His people. That would be unjust. But Jesus and the Father are always, always, deeply concerned with the lives of individuals. We see this numerous times as recorded in the Bible. Tom Houston points out a few examples. When Jesus stood beside the pool of Bethesda, he notices the one invalid man (John 5:1-14). When the procession of mourners passed out of the gate of Nain, He picked out a widowed mother in her woe (Luke 7:11-17). He spent hours talking to people as diverse as the Jewish leader Nicodemus (John 3:1-21), and the Samaritan woman at the fringes of society (John 4:4-26). The profound interest Jesus had for people show us how much God values each human life. Let no one tell you any different.
How are we responding to such love? Since God loves us so much, we have an obligation. Houston points out that there were three physical deaths on that day; one was for our sins, one died in sin, and one died to sin, leaving behind his earthly life but with the hope for an eternal and perfect one with Christ. Each of them stood for something, and one forgiven sinner rose again to an eternal Spiritual life together with Christ in God’s Kingdom.
Adapted from Tom Houston’s book, ‘Characters Around the Cross’ (Chapter 13; 2001). Published by Christian Focus Publications, Ltd (www.christianfocus.com).
References for pictures