Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Thief on the Cross

The Thief On The Cross
By Larry Rouse

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What kind of power does it take to change a man’s heart? Our society may pass all the hate laws they wish, and seek out political and university leaders who claim they can change men, but in the end it is the power of God that must be used to achieve this daunting task.
One of the greatest examples of change in the Bible, the apostle Paul, started a trip from Jerusalem to Damascus with a heart that was “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). By the time he returned to Jerusalem he was now a Christian, motivated by the grace of God (1 Timothy 1:12-14).

A great example of such a change in the ministry of Christ came during the final hour of Jesus’ life. Jesus was placed upon a Roman cross to suffer a shameful and torturous death in an execution that was reserved for only the vilest of criminals. Two other men were executed along with Jesus. They were described as “criminals” and “robbers” (Luke 23:22; Matthew 27:38).

In the beginning of these executions both thieves heard the Jewish leaders taunting Jesus and they too “reviled Him with the same thing” (Matthew 27:44). No doubt these men had hardened hearts, having come from a background where they would rob and harm others without a second thought. They were likely being executed that day because their presence on either side of Jesus would give an appearance of guilt to our Lord. These thieves were filled with anger, bitterness and cursing. The hearts of these men did not seem to be a place where change would come.

Examples are often more powerful than words, especially when you can be certain of the example. The news of the rushed, unlawful trials of Jesus was widely known. The mob that heard the innocent verdict of Pilate and then by their tongues successfully intimidated him into executing Jesus would have talked freely. How could an innocent man be executed? All it took was a washing of the hands for Pilate. These thieves would see Jesus’ reaction to these injustices.

The friends of Jesus could be seen and heard as He was being led to His execution. “And a great multitude of the people followed Him, and women who also mourned and lamented Him" (Luke 23:27). It is doubtful these thieves had anyone to accompany them. When Jesus spoke to His friends, He was only thinking about them and their welfare. He warned them about the coming doom upon the city and told them how to prepare (Luke 23:28-30; Matthew 24:1-35).

These thieves could see and hear the taunts and hatred of the Jewish leaders. The nation, whose constitution was the Old Testament, whose leaders had the responsibility of judging righteously, now displayed for all the very content of their hearts. Anyone that day who had come upon this scene and observed these judges “wagging their heads,” “sneering,” and otherwise enjoying a close-up view of the suffering and death of another, would have known that an innocent man was being murdered (Matthew 27:39-40; Luke 23:35).

Consider the taunts offered by these hateful men: “He saved others,” and “He trusted in God” (Matthew 27:42-43). While the leaders disputed that these things were true, it ought to have opened eyes of those who were not filled with such bitterness. One writer described these as “taunts that offer a tribute.” Any man should be honored to have their enemies find that these be the only “weaknesses” to use against you!

The most powerful examples of all were the words and demeanor of Christ on the cross. His first words were “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do. (Luke 23:34)” As the insults mounted and the suffering became greater, Jesus remained the same. “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously.” (1 Peter 2:21-23)

It is in suffering that you display your real heart. The love of God, as seen in the example of Jesus on the cross, opened the heart of one of these thieves. “Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43)

How do you know when real change towards God has occurred in your heart?
1. You will openly confess your sin and make no excuses. (Luke 23:41)
2. You take a stand for Jesus. You will no longer stand by and do nothing when evil is expressed (Lk 23:39-40).
3. You will simply desire the presence of the Lord over any earthly advantages. (Luke 23:42)

The difference between real change and the self-serving pretense of some can be seen in the request made of Jesus by these two thieves. One said: “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us” (Luke 23:39), while the other simply asked to be with Jesus. One man was “hedging his bets” with a “just in case” request so that maybe he could escape the cross, while the other was ready to follow the Lord wherever He went.

Where is your heart? Sadly, many make the example of the thief on the cross something that is was never meant to be, as an excuse to disobey God. One preacher titled his lesson “The Most Popular Thief in Town” to describe these attitudes.

Some want to trust in “death-bed regret” because of this example. When the gospel is rejected over time, the heart becomes hardened (1 Tim 4:2). God knows real change from that which is pretense (Prov 1:24-30).

There are others who conclude that their salvation must exclude baptism because of the thief. Remember that while Jesus was on earth he had “power on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10) After His resurrection Jesus expected all of His followers to believe in his death, burial and resurrection and because of that belief be baptized in water, which is described as being into the death of Christ (Romans 10:9-10, Romans 6:3-5). How could the thief believe in Jesus’ resurrection and be baptized into His death before Jesus had even died?

What example will you follow at the cross? One who yielded to whatever our Lord wished, or of those who were bound by religious traditions that rebelled against our Lord?

“And when all the people heard Him, even the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.” (Luke 7:29-30)

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