It is a question that many of us faced in our life before Jesus, particularly if we came to Jesus as an adult. Am I too far gone for Jesus? Have I done too many bad things to be accepted by God? Am I good enough for the gift of salvation?
It is an understandable question. I made it into my 30’s before becoming a Christian and though I looked ok from the outside, my heart was desperately wicked. People thought I was a really nice person, but I knew me better than they did and I was not so certain. Looking back over my life, I saw all of the sins that I had done, both those I thought were big and little and wondered whether I had gone too far to make it back to the good side. Could I ever do enough to undo all the darkness that I had already done in life and be acceptable to God?
I found my answer while looking at the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and the thief who comes to faith as Jesus is dying. I am so thankful for the thief on the cross. You know, the guy who was crucified next to Jesus and whose conversation with Jesus was preserved by God in the Bible. I read his story and for the first time understood that I was looking at things all wrong – thankfully. It was never about us getting cleaned up and then going to Jesus for acceptance, it is about Jesus taking us as we are, dirty, messy and sinful and through His greatness making us clean. He is the Savior, the one who saves us after all and not the other way around.
We don’t know much about the guy we call the thief on the cross. He enters and exits the Bible scene in a couple of verses, but boy does he make an impression. He starts off by being identified by his sin – he is the thief on the cross. No name, no physical description, no hometown, not even “son of” like they were called back in the day, he is just a run of the mill thief, a criminal like many others.
Based upon the Roman justice system, though he is identified as a thief, it is likely that he is more than that as the Romans generally did not execute people for just theft. Crucifixion was reserved for major criminals, for example murderers and those who rebelled against Rome. Though we don’t know the details, the man’s crimes were surely significant.
The man was also guilty. There is no doubt about that. The man admits that he is deserves the punishment he is receiving in the Gospel of Luke. So the thief is guilty of something that deserves the punishment of execution and knows it.
How is he doing with his life plan at this point? If his life is being weighed on one of those ancient scales with two arms and little pots hanging from each arm with the good things on one side and the bad things on the other, which side would be heavier? The bad side is clearly overwhelming the good at this moment by a lot. Not so great, right?
He has a few hours left to live and the grand total of his accomplishments noted in the Bible are that he is a criminal, he deserves death and he is about to be executed next to Jesus. If we are judging his life based upon the good outweighing the bad, he is in big trouble.
Serious question for you, are you doing any worse that the thief on the cross right now? Have you murdered anyone, been a robber or rebelled against your country? He is in really bad shape under any objective standard.
If it were not bad enough for the thief, his interaction with Jesus doesn’t start off swimmingly. The Book of Matthew says that of the two men who were crucified at the same time as Jesus, one on each side, both men start off their time of execution by mocking Jesus and hurling insults at Him. In the face of their own guilt they initially embrace their spiteful hearts and demean Jesus. Yikes!
This is obviously bad, but do we understand just how terrible and warped it is?
Jesus is in the midst of the greatest act of redemption in all of history. He is dying as an innocent sacrifice for all mankind, including the thief. Jesus is God and the creator of the very mouths that they are using to hurl insults at him. He is entitled as the King of Kings to be worshipped and served by all creation and they should be praising Him and thanking Him for what He is doing. Instead they mock and revile an innocent man as He is dying.
The determinedly warped natures of the men are also revealed in their taking aim at Jesus with their mockery. In crucifixion, the victim was attached to the cross in such a way that it took great effort and inflicted excruciating pain to speak at all. The person was required to hold themselves up by their nailed through wrists and feet in order to get enough air to speak. The two men, guilty as charged based upon their own actions, are inflicting significant pain upon themselves in order to waste their breath insulting Jesus as He dies for them. They are physically hurting themselves greatly in order to get out their wickedness. The blackness of their hearts is shocking.
So let’s look at the thief’s life work at this point. He has spent his life as a criminal, he is guilty of a great crime, he is deserving of death and yet hours away from death while nailed to a cross, he is spending his time and effort directly insulting God to His face while God carries out His awesome act of redemption.
Talk about hitting rock bottom! He just needed to be kicking a puppy while doing it and he would be the biggest heel in all of history…and he can do nothing physically to change his standing either.
The thief is helpless to do anything himself to even his accounts, to tip the scales back in favor of his good column even if it worked that way. He is immobilized, nailed to a cross and unable to go out and feed the poor, clothe the homeless or preach the Gospel. His hands are attached to the cross member of the cross, he can’t even put his hands together to pray. He cannot do anything to undue the bad things he has done according to human judging or add to any good things he has done. He is stuck with all of the things in the bad column of his life and there is nothing he can do to add anything to balance the bad out with good. He is literally done for and helpless. If he were called to account for himself before God, his destination would be very clear.
He does change his destination though with a simple change of heart. It does not stated specifically when it occurs but at some point the thief sees Jesus differently. The thief does the only thing that he can at that moment to save himself, the only thing that we need to do – he turns to Jesus and no longer sees an object of derision, he sees the Lord and acknowledges Jesus as the Lord:
39 Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ,[j] save Yourself and us.”
40 But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said to Jesus, “Lord,[k] remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”
43 And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
The thief spends a lifetime as a criminal and then starts his interaction with Jesus by mocking His pain and yet he is not condemned as a result – in a moment everything changes. He changes his view of God and therefore he goes from being on a direct flight to condemnation to seeing Jesus in paradise that very day. Not because of how good he is, the thief is most assuredly a bad dude, but because of how great Jesus truly is. The Savior is simply monumentally bigger than the sins. As long as he had breath in his body there was an opportunity to change his eternal standing before God with no strings attached.
The thief cannot do one thing to advance the Kingdom of God as we think of it and does nothing that man would think is substantial before dying a horrible, embarrassing death. Yet the Lord welcomes him into His Kingdom. Isn’t it awesome!
If you cannot relate to the thief for some reason, how about Saul of Tarsus aka Paul the Apostle. Paul spends his life before Jesus tearing apart the church, imprisoning Christian men, women and children, killing them and causing them to blaspheme before Jesus. Not satisfied with doing this in Jerusalem alone, Paul is on his way to Damascus to attack the church there when he meets Jesus on the Road and begins life as a new creation of Christ. He goes from enemy of God to chosen vessel of Jesus in a moment despite being on the way to continue his life of great sin. It only takes a split second to make the change because the Savior is way, way bigger than the sins. Destroying the sins does not challenge our mighty God. Jesus was not challenged by Paul’s grievous sins. As long as Paul had the ability to agree that Jesus is Lord, the opportunity to change everything in his life was there for the taking despite his crimes.
You may be in the process of being drawn to Jesus like I was those years ago and feel a yearning to join into this thing we call church but think that you cannot do so due to your past. They won’t accept me, do you know what I have done. You may think that you have done too much – drinking, sex, drugs, blaspheming, worshipping false gods – to ever get clean and come to Jesus.
Your sins, though many, compared to Paul and the thief are child’s play. If Jesus accepts them immediately when they repent and turn to Him, what do you think Jesus will do with you? No one is ever too far gone for Jesus. He is too great a Savior for that!
The Bible is very clear that the Savior is bigger than your sin. He accepts murderers and thieves, drunkards and even those who spent time openly mocking Him. It is what a perfect Savior does. All we need to do is turn to Him. If we do then no matter what happened before that moment, He will make a way for us to be with Him in paradise.
Turn to Him today there is no reason to wait.