Note: This is NOT an easy read for the casual reader. If you're interested, sit down, get your Bible, take some notes and meditate on this blog. I hope you enjoy it.)
It’s Easter week and one of my favorite stories is about the penitent thief in Luke 23. The stories of this man are also in Matthew and Mark who both include accounts of how THIS particular thief was at one point mocking Jesus from the cross. So, we know that he was a criminal and was being crucified for his crime(s). And we know that he was not a believer until the very end of his life. I would consider this is a death-bed conversion. This is the story of someone who has a dramatic conversion at the end of their life right before they die. There seems to be little doubt that he was ‘saved’; a word that Christians throw around without really knowing what it means.
Let’s talk about that for a moment. What was he ‘saved’ from? Can you articulate the answer to that question? Sometimes, I think we use it without considering what it actually means. The Greek word is Soteria, from which we get our word, soteriology which is the theology of being saved. It means a commemoration event or in expectation of deliverance from a crisis; in a specific sense the word was often used in reference to large-scale commemorative festivals held at planned intervals. It’s about deliverance.
In fact, Jesus death saved us from sin. John 1: 22 says, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” John the Baptist called him “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” 1 Peter 1:19 says we were delivered “by the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” There’s more. But it has to do with the holiness of God and our faith, by grace, in Christ’s death, that takes away our sins.
But what else? He saved us from death or that part of death which would eternally separate us from God. He did this when he defeated death at his resurrection.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?
For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 15: 55-57)
So ,the thief was saved from sin and death. By the death and resurrection of Jesus, he could live with God forever. Is that what happened? Do you hesitate at all when considering the fate of this thief? If so, why? Many people would say (emphatically), “It’s just not fair!” That’s what a friend of mine said recently when considering the fate of people who don’t live good lives or even live bad lives and then turn to Christ on their death bed and get ‘saved’.
This thief’s tory reminds me of several other stories in scripture:
-Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9).
-The prodigal son story in Luke 15: 11-32
-The parable of the lost sheep or lost coin (or lost son) in Luke 15.
But my favorite story is the parable of the vineyard owner in Matthew 20. In this account, a vineyard owner hires workers for the day at a certain amount. Later in the day, he hires more workers and then later on, more. When the work is done, the workers line up for their pay, starting with those hired last and going back to those hired first. Those who were hired last got the full amount as those who were hired first but only worked a small portion of the day. When questioned about the ‘fairness’ of this, the owner simply responds, ‘it’s my money and so if I want to be generous, what is that to you?’ Still, the echo, “it isn’t fair”.
Romans says that if you want to be saved you must:
-Confess you’re a sinner (Romans 3:23)
-Recognize that your sin separates you from God forever. (Romans 6:23)
(These two points together require an act of ‘repentance’ or acknowledgement of our position as being hopelessly lost.)
-Jesus died for my sins as a way to save me from sin and eternal separation from God. (Romans 5:8)
-Confess with your mouth, “JESUS IS LORD” and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead and you will be saved.” (Romans 10: 9,10)
Did the thief do this? He said, “We are being punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.” CHECK. He as much acknowledges the reality that they should die for their sins. CHECK. “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He may not have understood the ‘soteriology’ of what was happening, but his confession of faith in the person of Jesus Christ, who was dying next to him for HIS (thief’s) sin nature, was enough. Because Jesus tells him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” CHECK. Not only was he saved that day, he may have been the first person to enter PARADISE.
This is a sidebar, but it’s worth noting. NO one was in ‘paradise’ at this point in time. The righteous saved were in a place referred to as “Sheol, Hades, or Abraham’s Bosom” (Luke 16). When Jesus died, he DESCENDED to this holding place and made himself known as the Great I AM. Since it is only by the name of Jesus that men can be saved (Acts 4:12), those righteous saints had to believe in Jesus who made himself known to them. (1 Peter 1: 18-20). He then led the ‘captives’ free to Paradise. Accordingly, the conversation between Jesus and thief may have gone something like this:
Jesus: Hang out here until I go and get your brothers and sisters. I’ll be back soon.
It is conceivable that this thief was the very first person to actually enter ‘paradise’. (Note: The word for ‘Paradise’ in the Greek is NOT the same word used for heaven. We tend to refer to ‘heaven’ a lot without really understanding what/where it is.)
That will turn your head upside down, won’t it? There can be no doubt that the man was saved because Jesus declared it so. And it is the very heart of God that no one should die and be separated from him forever. John 3:16 says as much. Hell was not created for people. It was created for demons. God does not send anyone to Hell. They choose to go there.
What in the world happened to change this man’s mind in such a short time? How could he possible put his hope in a man who was dying next to him. Regardless of what Jesus claimed to be, all seemed hopeless. Well, didn’t it? The people on the ground there thought so. The religious leaders thought so. Even the disciples thought so. Satan thought so. Why would this man think differently?
First of all, the Bible clearly says that no one comes to Jesus unless God draws them. (John 6:44). So, ultimately, it was a work of God. Still, the man couldn’t help but amazed by:
-“Forgive them father, for they know not what they do”
-The sign over his head said, “Here Is the King of the Jews”
-People sneered at him. The guards mocked him. The religious leaders hurled insults. He said nothing. “He went like a sheep before his shearers…” (Is 53).
-His mother and followers at the foot of the cross were a testimony to his life and ministry.
The centurion who stood at the cross would later say, “Surely, this was the Son of God.” (Matthew 27:54). He knew it. Somewhere along those three hours of hanging on that cross, the thief knew it too. Thanks be to God. Even in death, Jesus’ compassion for us never failed. What a magnificent demonstration of grace.
One of the amazing stories about Easter is that no matter what you’ve done or who you are, Jesus died on the cross for you.
But going back to my friend’s response….
It’s just not fair.
Let me say this: I would NOT want to be that thief.
Salvation is a verb. It’s a process. You are not just saved. You are being saved. You will be saved. Salvation is three phases really: Justification, Sanctification, Glorification.
Regarding the first, Romans 4: 14, 15 says, “Now, when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trust God who justifies the wicked, this faith is credited as righteousness.” You see, what we deserve is death. We can not ‘do’ anything to ‘earn’ salvation. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Ephesians 2:8. You see, my friend is wrong when he applies the notion of ‘work’ or ‘earning’ to justification.
However, there is a part of the salvation process that we must ‘work’ or ‘earn’ what justification brings. That part is ‘sanctification’ and it requires that we partner with the Holy Spirit to become more and more like Jesus. It is the narrow way and it requires our full and active participation or it will produce NOTHING in you. I have much to say about this in my book, “The Funnel: Framing Your Life in View of Eternity”. And it really is the matter of a whole book to discuss. Glorification comes when we move on to eternity.
What happened to that thief and why wouldn’t I want to be him? Because heaven is not it’s only reward. Oh, it’s VERY good. But there’s so much more to heaven than just getting there. If that is your goal, you live by a gospel of sin management, as Dallas Willard describes it in his book, “The Divine Conspiracy.” And you play Russian Roulette with your eternity. Do you want to take that chance? Can you time it so that you can have a ‘death bed conversion?’ I know three people who died in car accidents THIS WEEK. Let me know how that goes for you.
Becoming a Christian is so much more than going to heaven. First of all, eternity doesn’t begin when you die. It begins the moment you accept Christ as your Savior and step into the “Kingdom Among Us.” ---(That’s Willard again!). You learn to live a victorious and abundant life now and not when you die. The thief may have had a saved soul, but he had a LOST LIFE. Solomon says, “Remember God when you are young.” (Eccl 12:1) Why? Because eternal life starts the moment you ask Jesus to save you from your sin and receive the Holy Spirit in your life to help you learn what it means to live in the Kingdom now! It’s eternity…here. You can not live a victorious and abundant life in THIS world apart from the Holy Spirit. And don’t even get me started about what that means when you die. What if the character you die with is the character you go to heaven with? Your character matters. If it didn’t, Jesus would have said so. And he spoke a lot more about discipleship than he did about salvation.
Is it fair that he got into heaven? Yes. Did he deserve it? None of us do. Would I want to be him in eternity? Definitely not. He is going to be sad and frustrated that he didn’t follow God’s plan sooner. (Yes there IS room for this type of sadness and frustration in the spirit realm. Read the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25.) I am working on character because I am going to rule and reign with Christ in the Millennial Kingdom and then for eternity after that. I am living in the Kingdom of God now. As Colossians says, my heart AND my mind are focused on things of heaven and not earth. Thank you Jesus for making yourself known to us. Thank you for dying for my sins. Thank you for defeating death and making a way (the only way) for me to live with God in heaven forever. Happy Easter.