The Thief on the Cross

Passion week is almost upon us. Luke 23:39-43 records the familiar death-bed conversion of the thief on the cross. I recently studied on this topic and discovered seven truths that the repentant thief understood. These truths must be embraced in order to gain peace with God. Here’s the passage:

One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? “And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”

So, here are the seven observations:

  1. The repentant thief recognized the brevity of this life: He understood the temporary nature of life because he knew he was dying. There is biblical support for this knowledge (Psalm 103:15-16; James 4:14). We also should be concerned about what happens to us when this life ends.
  2. The repentant thief understood the reality of the afterlife: He understood that life after death was just as real as this present earthly life. This explains why he spoke with such confidence about Christ’s coming kingdom (Luke 23:42). Scripture teaches the reality of the afterlife, because God has designed part of man to live forever (Ecclesiastes 3:11). All people will exist forever, either with God in his kingdom or forever separated from him in a place of conscious torment (Daniel 12:2; Matthew 25:46).
  3. The repentant thief understood his guilt before God: He understood this fact when he said, “And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds” (Luke 23:41). While he was a criminal being punished for his crimes, the Bible is clear that we all are sinners, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
  4. The repentant thief understood the uniqueness of Jesus Christ: He understood Jesus to be God, according to Luke 23:40, “But the other answered, and rebuking him said, ‘Do you not even fear God?'” He further understands Jesus by saying, “but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41). Christ was sinless perfection and was different than any man he had ever encountered. Jesus is not one among equals, but the unique God-Man (John 8:58-59; 20:30-31; Revelation 19:16).
  5. The repentant thief understood that Christ had the power to save him: He understood his own guilt, but he also understood that this extraordinary man, Jesus, could do something to save him. “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!” (Luke 23:42). Jesus had the ability to help people with their primary problem: their guilt and sin before a Holy God. The solution to this sin problem is found in Christ alone (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Timothy 2:5).
  6. The repentant thief understood that he could not be saved through his own good works or any act of self-righteousness: Since this thief was nailed to a cross, he understood there were no acts of self-righteousness he could perform. He could not join a church, do good deeds, or even be baptized. He was in a helpless position; just like us. We cannot do anything to merit God’s favor. God sees our acts of self-righteousness as filthy rags, if we are using them to gain favor from Him (Isaiah 64:6).
  7. The repentant thief understood that it is never too late to ask God for salvation: He knew his death was imminent, yet he still believed it was not too late to cry out for mercy and receive the divine grace the Jesus offers. Jesus gave him immediate assurance of salvation, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

No matter what you have done, or how long you have lived, or how close you are to death, it is never too late to ask God for salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2b). However, once you die and you pass into the eternal realm, then it is too late (Luke 16:19-31; Hebrews 9:27).

Here is the challenge for all of us today:

  • Do you know these spiritual realities?
  • Do you understand the brevity of this life?
  • Do you understand the reality of the afterlife?
  • Do you understand your personal guilt before God?
  • Do you understand Christ’s uniqueness and power to save you?
  • Do you understand the ineffectiveness of self-righteousness?
  • Do you understand that it is not too late to trust Christ for salvation?

If so, do what the repentant thief did and trust in Christ alone for your salvation.

[print_link] [email_link] [adapted from Dr. Andy Woods]

Suffering and Glory

These are notes from my reading John R. W. Stott’s classic book, The Cross of Christ.

According to the Bible, suffering is an alien intrusion into God’s good world, and it will have no part in his new universe.

  1. Suffering is often caused due to sin, or the sin of others: children suffer with unloving or irresponsible parents, poor and hungry people suffer from economic injustice, refugees suffer from cruelties of war, people suffer in road casualties cause by alcohol.
  2. Suffering can be a reckless use of our freedom. There is cause and effect but it is much different than Hindu karma. Think about how unreliable the universe would be receiving pain for every wrong step and pleasure for every good step.
  3. Suffering is due to the human sensitivity to pain: but pain is a valuable warning sign that something is wrong (Dr. Paul Brand, leprosy, and feeling pain).
  4. Suffering is due to the kind of environment God has placed us: laws of nature are in effect when the hurricane devastates a coastal town.

Stoics believed that suffering is meaningless, but Jesus spoke of it as revealing God’s glory. What then is the relationship between Christ’s suffering and ours? How does the cross speak to our pain?

Patient Endurance: while suffering is to be recognized as evil therefore resisted, there comes a time when it must be realistically accepted. It is no credit to us if we are beaten for doing wrong, but if we suffer for doing good and endure it, this would be pleasing to God (1 Peter 2:18-23, Hebrews 12:1-3).

Mature Holiness (Hebrews 2:10, 5:8-9, 7:28, James 1:2-4): Jesus was made perfect through suffering, and he was never disobedient. Here are biblical images of suffering and discipline:

  1. A father disciplines his children: this is an expression of love. No discipline means no love.
  2. God as a refiner of gold: heat to purify and remove the dross.
  3. Jesus mentions his allegory of the vine: pruning to bear fruit.

God intends suffering to be a means of grace; it develops humility and deepens insight.

Suffering Service (John 12:23-26, 32-33): death is more than the way to life; it is the secret of fruitfulness. Unless it falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single seed. Paul found meaning in his suffering; the greatest secret of evangelism or missionary effectiveness is the willingness to suffer and die for the sake of others:

  1. For the sake of the Gentiles (Ephesians 3:1, 13)
  2. For the sake of the body (Colossians 1:24)
  3. For the sake of the elect (2 Timothy 2:8-10)

The Hope of Glory (Hebrews 12:2): suffering should be expected; don’t be surprised by it (Matthew 5:10-12, John 15:18-21, Philippians 1:30, 1 Thessalonians 3:3, 1 Peter 2:21, 4:12, 2 Timothy 3:12). It is the hope of glory than makes suffering bearable. What happens to us down here cannot compare to the next life. Suffering is God’s appointed path toward sanctification (mature holiness), multiplication (fruitful service), and glorification (our final destiny).

The Ground of a Reasonable Faith: Job had the attitude of self-pity and self-assertion, while his friends’ attitude may be described as self-accusation. The goal is self-surrender, which Job realizes at the end of the book.

The Pain of God: the cross of Christ is proof of God’s love, that it is personal, loving solidarity with us in our pain. Philip Yancey wrote a book called, “Where is God When it Hurts?” and asked an interesting question, “If God is truly in charge, somehow connected to all the world’s suffering, why is he so capricious, unfair?” Similar to Job 9:23, like God mocking the despair of the innocent. But God is not on a deck chair watching us, he was on the cross, and continues to suffer with us today.

Outside of Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus wept with those who grieved and snorted with indignation. He wept over Jerusalem, lamenting over their blindness and obstinacy.

Nobel Peace Prize winner (1986) Elie Wiesel wrote about his time in the death camps of Auschwitz, Buna and Buchenwald and came to this conclusion: he heard over and over the question about “Where is God? Where is he?” and as they were force to watch hangings at the gallows, he heard it again, “Where is God now?” He heard a voice within him answer, “Here he is…he is hanging here on this gallows.” God in Christ suffers with his people still.

Seven Affirmations in the Letter to the Galatians:

  1. The Cross and Salvation (Galatians 1:3-5): an introductory statement that is theologically balance and indicates what the letter is going to be about.
    1. The death of Jesus was voluntary and determined.
    2. The death of Jesus was for our sins.
    3. The purpose of Jesus’ death was to rescue us.
    4. The present result of Jesus’ death is grace and peace.
    5. The eternal result of Jesus’ death is that God will be glorified forever.
  2. The Cross and Experience (Galatians 2:19-21): in context Paul writes about justification, how a righteous God can declare sinful humans as righteous. Several times he repeats it is not by the law. The death of Jesus on the cross satisfied the demands of the law.
  3. The Cross and Preaching (Galatians 3:1-3): once you have begun in faith in Christ, why continue in their own achievement?
    1. Gospel-preaching proclaims the cross visually (prographo).
    2. Gospel-preaching proclaims the cross visually as a present reality (to accept or reject).
    3. Gospel-preaching proclaims the cross as a visual, present and permanent reality (perfect tense indicates a permanent benefit of the historical action).
    4. Gospel-preaching proclaims the cross also as an object of personal faith (we continue in faith and grace, not personal efforts).
  4. The Cross and Substitution (Galatians 3:10-14): here is the meaning and consequence of the faith. Here is Paul’s logic:
    1. All who rely upon the law are under a curse (Galatians 2:16, 3:10, 11, 12, Deuteronomy 27:26, Habakkuk 2:4).
    2. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (plain statement of substitution, Galatians 3:13).
    3. Christ did this in order that in him the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, by faith (Galatians 3:14).
  5. The Cross and Persecution (Galatians 5:11, 6:12)
    1. Preaching circumcision is to preach salvation by the law.
    2. Preaching the cross is to preach salvation by God’s grace alone.
  6. The Cross and Holiness (Galatians 5:24): there are acts of the flesh and acts/fruit of the Spirit).
  7. The Cross and Boasting (Galatians 6:14): false teachers where obsessed with the numbers of their converts.
    1. To glory or boast in the cross is to see it as the way of acceptance with God.
    2. To glory or boast in the cross is to see it as the pattern of our self-denial.

The Cross in Galatians:

  1. The grounds for our justification (Galatians 1:4, 3:13)
  2. The means of our sanctification (Galatians 2:20, 5:24, 6:14)
  3. The subject of our witness (Galatians 3:1, 5:11, 6:12)
  4. The object of our boasting (Galatians 6:14, 17, Philippians 3:18)

Loving Your Enemies

These are notes from my reading John R. W. Stott’s classic book, The Cross of Christ.

To live under the cross means that every aspect of our lives is shaped and colored by it. We are to be imitators of God (Ephesians 5:1-2) and exercise relationships as Jesus did.

Conciliation and Discipline: we are called to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9) and to seek peace and pursue it (1 Peter 3:11). Peacemaking can never be a unilateral activity; live at peace with everyone is qualified by two conditions, “if it is possible” and “as far as it depends upon you” (Romans 12:18).

Jesus was determined to make peace with us, his enemies who had rebelled against him, he made peace through the blood of the cross (Colossians 1:20). If we are the offender, there is:

  1. Humiliation in apologizing.
  2. Deeper humiliation in making restitution where possible.
  3. Deepest humiliation in confessing the deep wounds we have caused will take time to heal and cannot be lightly forgotten.

The incentive in peacemaking is love, but it denigrates into appeasement whenever justice is ignored. The two powerful cries of a child are “nobody loves me” and “it’s not fair” since their sense of love and justice come from God. Here are the stages of reconciliation:

  1. Private: one-to-one confrontation with the offender, and if he listens, he will be won over.
  2. Take several others in a rebuke: if not the actual offense, perhaps the confrontation in stage one.
  3. To the church: if he will not listen, it goes to the community of faith; a third chance to repent.
  4. It is only here, if he does not repent, that excommunication is allowed.

Christian Attitudes Toward Evil: does the cross commit us to a non-violent acceptance of all violence? Does it invalidate the process of justice and the so-called “just war?” Does it prohibit the use of any kind of force so that it would be incompatible for a Christian to be a policeman, soldier or prison guard? How did we respond to divine mercy? (Note the resemblance to our September r12 emphasis).

  1. We are to present our bodies as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1-2).
  2. We are to think of ourselves with sober judgment (Romans 12:3).
  3. We are to love each other by employing gifts (Romans 12:4-13, 15-16).
  4. We are to bless our persecutors and do good to our enemies (Romans 12:14, 17-21).

How do we react to persecutors and enemies? The Romans 12-13 has several directions:

  1. Evil is to be hated: hate what is evil, cling to what is good (Romans 12:9).
  2. Evil is not to be repaid: don’t repay evil with evil, do what is right in the eyes of everyone (Romans 12:17, 19). Revenge and retaliation are forbidden. The sermon on the mount is pretty clear (don’t resist and evil person). Peter on Jesus (1 Peter 2:23), he did not retaliate while suffering.
  3. Evil is to be overcome: don’t be overcome by evil, overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). Heaping burning coals is not retaliation, but a figure of speech to cause him shame. When we retaliate with evil, evil increases in the world; our desire is to decrease the amount of evil in the world.
  4. Evil is to be punished: he (the government) is God’s servant to do good, an agent of wrath to punish evil doers (Romans 12:17, 19, 13:4). It is God prerogative to punish, not ours. Law enforcement is God’s servant to carry out justice.

Retaliation is not wrong, since evil deserves to be punished, should be punished, and in fact will be punished. Jesus said each person will be judged according to his deeds (Matthew 16:27). Peter tells us that Jesus entrusted himself to the one who will judge (1 Peter 2:23).

Authority of the State: the Christian attitude should be one of balance, avoiding extremes, embracing critical respect. In each stated point, the state is limited in its authority.

  1. The origin of its authority is God (Romans 13:1, 4, 6): three times Paul asserts the state’s authority. Despite the defects of the Roman government, Paul declares its authority and ministry of be God’s. The state must be respected as a divine institution, but to give it blind allegiance would be idolatry. The early believers would not say that “Caesar is lord.”
  2. The purpose God gives authority is to reward good and punish evil (Ephesians 1:21-22, Romans 13:3-4): Most governments tend to be better at the latter than the former; law enforcement is stronger than positive encouragement.
  3. The means by which the state’s authority is exercised must be as controlled as its purposes are discriminate (Romans 13:4): to protect the innocent and punish the guilty, coercion is often used. Authority implies power and we have to distinguish between violence and force. The state can exercise capital punishment and make war. The state has the power to stop evil-doers; punishing aggressors who threaten it from outside, and punish criminals who threaten it from the inside.
  4. The due recognition of the state’s authority is laid down (Romans 12:1, 2, 5, 6, 1 Peter 2:13, 1 Timothy 2:1-2). There are limits to our submission to the state (Revelation 12).
    1. Suppose the state misuses its God-given authority and promotes evil and suppresses good?
    2. Suppose the state ceases to protect people and begins to oppress them?

The apostle gives no room for totalitarian rule. Even Daniel practiced civil disobedience, as well as Peter and John. If the state commands what God forbids, or forbids what God commands, we disobey the state in order to obey God. We respect the state but we do not worship it.

Overcoming Evil with Good: evil is to be repaid but not repaid (depending on the agent). How can evil be overcome (Romans 12:21) and also punished (Romans 13:4)? The difference is between pacifists and war theorists.

  1. Just war theorists tend to concentrate on the need to resist and punish evil.
  2. Pacifists tend to concentrate on overcoming evil with good, and forget that evil must be punished.

Christians need to look beyond defeat and surrender of the national enemy to its repentance and rehabilitation; a politics of redemption and forgiveness.

Self-Understanding & Self-Giving

These are notes from my reading John R. W. Stott’s classic book, The Cross of Christ.

What is the attitude we should adopt for ourselves? In society today, secular humanism teaches that we basically worship ourselves, literal self-deification. Jesus said to love God, then others as we love ourselves. Some counselors emphasize loving ourselves before we are able to love others. A song on K-love by Natalie Grant has a line very similar, “you can’t love, when you don’t love yourself.”

Jesus emphasized only one commandment, to love God, and the second is like it. It is a practical guide to loving others since no one ever hated his own body (Ephesians 5:29). This is similar to the golden rule (Matthew 7:12) but we cannot always know how others would like to be treated themselves, so perhaps I would not want to be treated that same way. The love mentioned is the agape love, unconditional, meaning sacrificial love. The problem is elevated by Paul that in the last days, men will become lovers of self (2 Timothy 3:1-5) instead of lovers of God.

Paul also challenges us to view ourselves in sober judgment (Romans 12:3). The cross supplies the answer because it calls us both to self-denial and self-affirmation.

Stott mentions that the cross must be called representative as well as substitutionary.

  1. A substitute is one who acts in place of another in a way as to render the other’s action unnecessary: a football player off the bench, a soldier in place of a civilian, one is now inactive, and replaced.
  2. A representative is one who acts on behalf of another, in a way as to involve the other in his action: an agent represents a player and can act on his behalf; he does not speak instead of the player, but for him.
  3. Jesus was our substitute because we could never do what he did for us. As our representative, he has done what we have also done, by being united with him, have died and risen with him.

Paul writes about the conflict in Romans 6, that we are dead to sin and can therefore no longer live in sin (Romans 6:2). Baptism dramatically expresses our participation in going from death into life. When we speak of Jesus dying to sin, we understand that he died and bore its penalty, since the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). It is a fact that we must constantly remember each day.

Self-denial (Mark 8:34): We each must be both Barabbas (he escaped the cross) and Simon of Cyrene (he carried the cross). To carry the cross is to be in a position of a condemned man, on his way to execution. To carry a cross is for no other purpose. A hard life or a handicap is never “a cross to bear.” Self-denial is never depriving ourselves of something we enjoy, but rather disowning ourselves, and renouncing our right to go our own way.

Three deaths and resurrections in Scripture:

  1. Death to sin and subsequent life to God: this is inherent in our conversion and baptism. This death is basically legal, death to sin by union with Christ in his death to sin.
  2. Death to self: called taking up our cross, or denying or crucifying ourselves: it is done daily and willfully. This death is moral, a death that puts down the old sinful nature and its desires, and the resurrection which follows leading us into a new life of righteousness.
  3. Carrying the dying of Jesus in our mortal bodies, so the life of Jesus may be displayed in our bodies (1 Corinthians 15:30-31, Romans 8:36, 2 Corinthians 4:16). This death is physical, death to safety, being given over to death for Jesus’ sake.

This teaching is that we are wholly bad and we need to be totally repudiated and crucified with Christ.

Self-affirmation: Alongside Jesus’ explicit call to self-denial is his implicit call to self-affirmation (which is not the same as self-love).

  1. Jesus’ teaching about people: he drew attention to the ugly things and evil inside of people (Matthew 7:21-23) but he spoke about the value of human beings in God’s side. Mankind is the crown of God’s creating activity and is made in God’s image. God don’t make no junk.
  2. Jesus’ attitude to people: he went out of his way to honor those who were dishonored by society; embraced little children, approached Samaritans and Gentiles.
  3. Jesus mission and death for people: he came to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). “My worth is what I’m worth to God.”

Is it possible to value ourselves and deny ourselves at the same time? True self-denial is not the road to self-destruction but the road to self-discovery.

  1. The self we are to deny, disown and crucify is the fallen self (everything that is incompatible with Jesus Christ).
  2. The self we are to affirm and value is our created self (the teaching on losing self in order to find self).

We must affirm: our rationality, sense of moral obligation, our sexuality, family life, gifts and creativity, stewardship of the earth, hunger for love, experience of community, awareness of God’s majesty, the inbuilt urge to worship.

We must deny: our irrationality, moral perversion, blurring sexual distinctiveness, lack of sexual control, selfishness which spoils family life, fascination with the ugly, lazy refusal to develop God’s gifts, anti-social tendencies, proud autonomy, and idolatrous refusal to worship the living God.

The next level: we are not just created and then fallen, but rather created, fallen and redeemed: regeneration, resurrection, redemption and re-creation.

Self-sacrificial love: self-understanding should lead to self-giving. The community of the cross is a community of self-giving love, expressed in the worship of God (Mark 10:35-45):

  1. The choice between selfish ambition and sacrifice: the brothers express selfishness at its worst, which is incompatible with the way of the cross.
  2. The choice between power and service: asking to sit on either side of Jesus, essentially have their place on throne to rule over others. Zebedee has servants and the boys likely missed having them around. They would follow Jesus for a while as long as there was just compensation at the end of it all. Lust for power is incompatible with the way of the cross.
  3. The choice between comfort and suffering: they would become vagrants and vagabonds, missing the comforts of home. Insistence on security is incompatible with the way of the cross.

Spheres of service: home, church and the world. There is a paradox that suffering is the path to glory, death is the way to life, and weakness is the secret of power.

The cross lies at the heart of mission. The cross-cultural missionary pays costly family and individual sacrifices, renounces economic security, professional promotion, replaced with solidarity with the poor and needy, repenting of pride and prejudice, and modesty of living and serving under national leadership.

Only the incarnation can span these divides, because it means entering into the worlds of other people, their alienation, loneliness and pain. Incarnation led to the cross, where Jesus took our flesh and then bore our sin.

Love is self-giving (1 John 3:16-18): our most valuable possession is laid down for others. The essence of love is self-sacrifice. Murder is taking another’s life; self-sacrifice is laying down your own life.