Wednesday, March 28, 2018

All the Time You Need

“Those who were crucified with him also reviled him.”

How long does it take to get saved?

Some people spend their whole lives working at it. They go to church, they provide for their families, they confess their sins, they contribute to religious causes, they try to treat people well, they “do unto others”. Some follow laws and religious regulations year after year.

But it’s not a trick question, nor a particularly complicated one.

Criminals, Not Theologians

If you’ve read the verse above and know the story of the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ, you probably know exactly where I’m going.

The Lord was crucified around the “third hour”, or approximately 9 a.m. During the three hour period between 9 a.m. and noon, we read more than once that both thieves reviled him.

And we are told pretty much what they said. They said, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ” In this, they are parroting the words of the chief priests, scribes, elders and those who passed by.

They acknowledge his miracles (“He saved others”) but dismiss their meaning. They dispute his title as king of Israel. They mock his relationship with God.

These are criminals, not theologians. Did they understand everything they were saying? Had they been following the Lord’s ministry over the last three years? Probably not. Maybe they’re belatedly showing some solidarity with a society they have rejected and that has now rejected them right back. Or maybe they’re just bitterly striking out, in their pain, at anything around them.

Darkness Falls

God, who has from the very beginning of the Lord’s ministry both privately and publicly declared “This is my beloved son”, appears unwilling to let these reproaches pass. Mark says, “There was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.”

Just before the darkness falls, in the briefest of moments in time, one thief changes his mind:
“One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ ”
What triggers the second thief’s reevaluation?

Reevaluation Time

It isn’t that he sees a miracle, and certainly not the one he was mockingly asking for. In going to the cross the Lord declared that such options were off the table.

It doesn’t appear to be some piece of wisdom from the mouth of the Lord, who is in agony at this point. He isn’t doing any teaching. And this is a thief after all, not a disciple. A man who robs people for a living is not likely to be theologically-minded.

It isn’t the darkness. That falls afterward. The inexplicable darkness may have influenced the centurion’s change of heart. It does not influence the repentant thief.

It isn’t even how the Lord Jesus died. That, too, happens later.

Was it the behavior of the Lord on the cross? Possibly. I can’t think what else could change a hardened criminal’s point of view so profoundly and so quickly.

I kind of like that it’s a mystery. In a matter of minutes, the second thief goes from “He cannot save himself”, mocking and taunting the Lord about his mythical “kingdom”, to “This man has done nothing wrong” and “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

And the Lord responds to his faith with “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

A couple of thoughts come out of this for me:

  What about the other guy?

His situation seems truly sad. He sees exactly the same things his fellow thief sees. And he’s gone past reviling, mocking and taunting. Now he’s in the throes of crucifixion agony and he doesn’t have time for that. And in his desperation, he cries out, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

But how can the Lord give him what he’s asking for?

The second thief has come to grips with his own sinfulness and the appropriateness of judgement (“We are receiving the due reward of our deeds”). He acknowledges the innocence of the Lord (“This man has done nothing wrong”). He has grasped that the Lord is indeed the Messiah, the promised king and redeemer, and that this is not the end for him (“… when you come into your kingdom”). And in two humble words, he genuinely reaches out for help. What sort of help he doesn’t even dare specify. He simply asks, “Remember me.”

But the first guy? We can see that he feels sorry for himself. We can see that he wants to avoid pain. But we see no repentance, no humility, no acknowledgement of his place … and, ultimately, no faith.

Sadly, I know a lot of people in this boat. They recognize the world is a moral disaster and that there’s lots more pain to come. In times of trouble they may cry out “Where is God?” They may even be experiencing great suffering in their own lives and be desperate for relief. But to humble themselves, to acknowledge their place before God, to exercise faith in the person and work of the Lord Jesus? These are steps they are not prepared to take.

The first thief is a reminder that “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

②  Coming to repentance is not a unpredictable process

In many hearts, repentance doesn’t operate as a growing, dawning knowledge that eventually and quietly manifests itself in faith and obedience. It may, but there’s no guarantee.

Sometimes the raving, ranting, foaming-at-the-mouth anti-Christian is closer to the kingdom than the fellow quietly sitting in the back pew nodding along with the sermon and behaving himself.

Saul, for instance, went right on persecuting believers right up until his conversion on the Damascus Road. In fact, he stepped it up. The closer he got to the point of having to humble himself, the more violently he lashed back against a troubled conscience. The intensity of his opposition indicated that he was getting close. I suspect, having seen one or two people under conviction behave this way, that his rhetoric and ranting became louder than usual. I suspect he said a lot of things he didn’t really mean, and was already starting to believe weren’t true.

So he yelled them all the louder, hoping that would make it so.

The second thief’s coming to Christ was something like that. One moment mocking, the next … reconsidering, as he looked at the face of the man on the cross beside him.

The second thief reminds us, as we pray for those around us, to never give up hope.

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How long does it take to get saved? Not long at all. But it cannot happen without both a rejection of the past and a complete and total reliance on the person and work of Jesus Christ.

1 comment :

  1. I’ve always liked the detail that the thief had both hands literally nailed to a piece of wood when he put his trust in Christ and was saved. If anyone ever needed eloquent proof that it is not our works that save us, that’s it.