Lord, Remember Me

The story of the thief on the cross is absolutely fascinating! It evidently distills the meaning and purpose of life down into a single, miraculous event: a dying criminal, with little time left to change course, sadistic and malicious even in his final hours, does an amazing about-face, and is welcomed by Christ Himself into Paradise! (Lk 23:43) He’s become a mystery and a marvel to countless scholars and theologians over the centuries.

We begin by noting that this man, as he is being crucified along with Christ, appears at first to be merciless, cruel and selfish; he sees another poor soul dying next to himself, beaten and scourged beyond reason, throbbing and writhing in agony, and chooses to mock Him, joining in with the jeers and taunts of those who have condemned Him to death. (Mt 27:39-44) The suffering of a fellow human becomes another fiendish distraction from his own pain, misery and hopelessness.

The Passion of the Christ

Then, inexplicably, he does an absolute U-turn; as his fellow criminal angrily demands that Christ deliver them all (Lk 23:39), this thief chooses integrity and honesty; he decides to stop resisting his fate, to accept his punishment as justly deserved and publicly rebukes his comrade in evil. (40) He evidently chooses to live his remaining hours, as painful as they will be, in the fear of God; he confesses to his crimes before all, that both he and his fellow are guilty and justly condemned, fully accepting both his own personal guilt and also his horrible suffering. (41a)

He then claims that Christ, “has done nothing amiss.” (41b) He is publicly acknowledging the fact (how he comes upon this awareness is a mystery for the ages) that Christ is suffering unjustly, and he does so in the presence of the top religious and military leaders of his day, those who have openly and fiercely condemned Christ and imposed His suffering. This is actually a confession that Jesus Christ is Who He claimed to be: the Son of God (otherwise Christ is a wicked blasphemer and suffering appropriately).

As he chooses Christ, siding with Him against the world, he is effectively turning from all of the false religion, likely pushed upon him his entire life, and doing so without apology or shame. Apart from Pilate (Jn 18:38), this thief may have been the only living soul who publicly defends Christ in the course of His mock trial, sentencing and death; we know of no other who proclaims His innocence and purity from a place of weakness, willing to suffer for it in this darkest hour.

He is also, consequently, bravely accusing Rome itself of profound injustice, attacking its foundation and honor. This is no small thing, since he does so from a position of extreme vulnerability, knowing any of these religious leaders or soldiers standing about below him with little else to do, are capable of making his own suffering much more unbearable if they so desire. He is choosing, in his final moments, to suffer with and for Jesus Christ.

Then this dying thief asks a dying Man, with only a few more moments to live, for an undeserved and unusual favor: to remember himself in His coming kingdom. (43) In this request he confesses publicly, against all physical evidence before him, that this dying messiah yet has a future, eternal kingdom, and that He will reign eternally victorious within it.

He sees somehow that Christ hasn’t come to overthrow Rome, as even His closest followers still seem to believe, and acts as if he trusts that Christ Himself knows what He is doing, what He is about, and what He is up to. He treats Christ, even as He is dying a cruel and unjust death, as though He is utterly sovereign, in complete and absolute control of all things, that He is dying for a divine purpose. We don’t say these kinds of things in this way, especially to the dying, apart from a clear vision of the eternal kingdom of God and how it operates.

This thief is effectively confessing Christ to be Lord of all, King of Heaven and Earth; it amounts to treason against Rome and blasphemy in the religion of his people, crimes for which he very likely knows the gruesome penalty, yet he does this anyway, seemingly without hesitation.

In the process, this thief also addresses Christ as His personal Lord; he willingly subjects himself to Christ, the King in this coming, eternal, spiritual kingdom, effectively agreeing to obey, submit to and follow Jesus Christ as well as he can in his remaining time on Earth, and then out into eternity. To the soldiers milling around below him, this is, again, the ultimate act of treason.

Not only does He confess Christ as eternal King, he also claims that he himself will be present in this future kingdom, and requests to be uniquely acknowledged by Christ in this eternal state. Among with the millions who will be present for eternity, he wants to be known for something, remembered, valued — and feels the liberty to ask Christ for this personal gesture. It suggests the thief has a sense of the generosity and love of Christ, of His grace, mercy and kindness towards himself personally; he finds Christ approachable, reasonable, true and faithful. It is a precious insight into the divine character which many of us are still missing.

This amazing about-face may well have been informed and supported by stories this thief has heard about Christ before his capture and arrest, which the Spirit brings to mind as he hangs beside the Savior, as well as by his personal observations of Christ on the cross, yet the availability of the raw data itself doesn’t account for the breathless transformation: no one else at this scene, not even the apostles themselves, appear to have yet comprehended what this dear man does.

Finally, we must observe that this thief is not running from Christ, but to Him, wanting to be with Him in eternity. Evildoers don’t do this (Jn 3:20), only the justified and transformed can do this. (21) This thief is showing us all He has no fear of Hell, or of being discovered and exposed in death; he evidently believes he has been forgiven of his life of crime, of his own selfishness and cruelty, even of that malicious jeering he’d been hurling at Christ only moments before, and that he is now completely justified before God.

There is only one way to arrive where this thief does: we must see the living Christ as our own personal propitiation before God; we must see Christ become our sin (2Co 5:21) and reconcile us to God and Himself, imputing perfect righteousness to us. (Ro 4:23-25) It must be that this thief is watching his own personal justification happening right before his very eyes, as Christ Himself suffers for his own sin (1Pe 3:18), bearing his own sins in His own body as He hangs right beside him on the tree (1Pe 2:24) … he believes on Christ and is instantly and eternally healed, and he knows it.

Given his starting condition and the events shortly following, it seems stunningly miraculous for this thief to have made such profound statements and confessions; it is evidence of a deep, supernatural work of grace, repentance and faith within him, as he is born again by the Spirit of God. It is a true deathbed conversion; in his last hours he emerges triumphant, demonstrating to all through the ages what believing in Christ looks like, how receiving Him transforms the soul. (Jn 1:12-13)

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Works of the Devil

When we observe inconsistencies between our rational minds and our emotions we discover our subconscious: underlying beliefs controlling us which are contrary to our intellect. What we actually believe and who we are is a composite of all these beliefs, and it’s a bit mysterious.

Many fight intense negative emotion, fear and anxiety, when they’re in no danger; others, a critical voice relentlessly discouraging and crippling them; still others wrestle with a debilitating sense of shame and worthlessness they can’t shake off. We all have spiritual wounds keeping us from functioning according to God’s design.

A girl, having done her best, hears, “Why don’t you do better? You’ll never amount to anything!” Satan whispers, “Something’s wrong with you; you’re unloved, worthless, unimportant, unnecessary.” As an adult she’s working herself to the bone serving others, but she’s constantly anxious, restless, no satisfaction or peace.

A boy is sexually violated and hears the insidious whisper, “If God loved you He wouldn’t have let this happen to you; you’re dirty, flawed, worthless.” As an adult he’s filled with fear and shame, hiding in rebellion and perversion.

We might frame all of this up in terms of lies and truth: when we’re acting inconsistently with reality we’re believing a lie. We might call the resulting damage to our souls works of the devil, the consequence of believing Satan’s lies about our lived experience (Jn 8:44b), and see Jesus Christ, the Truth (Jn 14:6), as our Deliverer: He destroys the works of the devil. (1Jn 3:8b)

The Passion of the Christ

Whenever we experience trauma, Satan is at hand to feed us the lie: “God isn’t good; you’re the problem.” But it’s just a lie, and there’s no reason to believe it. Yet we do tend to believe it, and this is the problem.

These lies are often buried so deeply within our subconscious we don’t even know what’s happened to us, or where to begin in dealing with them. So, how do we get free? (Ro 7:24)

We get into spiritual bondage in stages, gradually, starting in childhood and believing more and more lies as we go through life. So, it should come as no surprise that we generally get free the same way, over time, in many small steps, believing more and more truth (Jn 8:32) as we pursue God (Mt 7:7-8) and He teaches us His Way. (1Jn 2:27)

The only path to freedom is going back the way we came: realigning our mind with reality, believing differently; it’s called repentance, and it’s the gift of God. (2Ti 2:25-26)

Freedom comes as we internalize three primal truths: [1] God is good; [2] God is sovereign; and [3] He created each of us for a unique purpose. Like a three-legged stool, remove any of these fundamental principles and we have an unstable foundation.

We must know deep down that God loves us and that He’s ultimately benevolent towards us. (Ps 27:13) We must also know He’s in charge of everything: nothing ever happens without His permission. (Ro 11:36) And we must be confident that He has a unique design and purpose in creating us (Re 2:17b), and that all He has ever allowed to happen to us, or ever will allow, is ultimately for good. (Ro 8:28)

God calls us to pursue His purpose for us (2Ti 2:17), and He will help us as we turn to Him and follow after Him. (He 4:16)

The more deeply we know these things the more we align with reality and deliver ourselves from Satan’s devices.

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Repent and Believe

John the Baptist prepared the way for Christ by preaching repentance (Mk 1:4); Christ Himself preached the same (Mk 1:14-15) and so did His disciples. (Mk 6:12) Repent: this is Christ’s first call.

To repent is to change your mind, to start thinking differently, and the context here is sin (Mk 2:17), which is breaking God’s Law. (1Jn 3:4) God is introducing Himself by saying, Change your mind about breaking My Law.

This isn’t quite the same as, stop sinning; no one can totally stop sinning and live perfectly. (1Jn 1:8) It’s more like … stop sinning on purpose, deliberately, intentionally; stop thinking it’s OK to sin, that God doesn’t mind.

Sin is offensive to God, and willful, intentional sin angers Him. (He 10:26-27) Choosing sin is choosing darkness (Jn 3:19), choosing the lie; and God is light (1Jn 1:5); God is Truth. (Jn 14:6) Walk in the light. Pursue the truth. Do your best to obey God’s Law, all of it, as well as you can, and keep asking Him for help where you’re still failing to keep it perfectly. It’s the only way to be in relationship with God. (1Jn 1:6-7)

Christ follows this call to repentance with a call to believe the gospel, the good news that the kingdom of God is open to us. He doesn’t start with this message; that would be like the King giving us directions to His home while we’re still defying Him and running away; it doesn’t even make sense. Before giving us directions to help us find the Way, we must be seeking Him. (He 11:6)

Those who aren’t trying to obey God don’t know Him (1Jn 3:6); those who intend to continue offending Him have alienated themselves from salvation itself. (Ps 119:155)

Salvation isn’t so much about deliverance from Hell as it is the offer of a new nature that’s inclined to obey God’s Law (He 8:10), freeing us from the power and dominion of sin so we can fellowship with Him. (Ro 6:22) Repentance is God’s gift (1Ti 2:25), opening the door to salvation, enabling us to turn from death to life. (Ac 11:18)

This may explain why Christ replied to the rich young ruler the way He did (Mk 10:17-19); it was an invitation to take God’s Law seriously. The Law is our teacher to bring us to Christ (Ga 3:24); until we earnestly submit to this divine teacher and learn from Him we won’t find Christ.

To profess Christ yet not do what He says (Lk 6:46) is to deceive ourselves (Ja 1:22), miss Heaven altogether (Mt 7:21), and store up eternal wrath for ourselves. (Ro 2:8-9)

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Thy Judgments Are Right

The goodness of God ensures His judgements are right (Ps 119:75); the righteous understand that any affliction or punishment He prescribes is perfectly appropriate, faithful and just, more than deserved. (67,71) To resist or complain when God afflicts us is to defiantly reject His goodness and claim He’s inherently malevolent and evil; it’s exalting ourselves above God, arrogant presumption of the highest order (Ps 19:13), insisting we know better. (Ge 3:22)

This includes all those suffering everlasting punishment (Mt 25:46); to believe in God and receive Him from there, from Hell itself, which the wicked should certainly still do (Re 22:17), is to acknowledge that all divine punishments are appropriate in response to offenses and crimes committed against God; the wicked shouldn’t complain against or resist the wrath of God, even from Hell. (Re 15:4) They should exclaim with all Heaven that God’s judgments are true and right. (Re 16:7)

However, the wicked will not do this (Ge 4:13), because the very wellspring of wickedness is the belief that God is not good, that He is unjust. (Ge 3:5) Even to escape the fires of Hell itself, the wicked won’t repent of this sin against God; they’ll stubbornly persist in it. (Re 6:16)

Consider the story Christ tells of a rich man in Hell, lifting up his eyes in torment, pleading with Abraham to relieve him in his misery. (Lk 16:23-24) He plays on mercy to tempt the righteous to do what God will not do, and thereby admit God’s justice is too severe. Yet Abraham aligns with God and refuses, reminding the rich man of his sins against God and Man, having profoundly neglected the helpless in their earthly suffering (21), and of the righteous consequences. (25)

The rich man’s next move is to again beg Abraham to do something else God will not do: send someone back from the dead just to warn his family to flee the wrath to come. (27-28) This is a second attack upon God, directed at His self-revelation, claiming it’s insufficient, again implying His punishments are unjust. Abraham again refuses, pointing out that his family has perfectly sufficient proof of God’s character and expectation: God has plainly revealed Himself in Torah and the Prophets. (29)

The rich man persists in his denial of the sufficiency of God’s provision, insisting that his family would repent and be saved if they witnessed such a spectacular miracle. (30) This is a third arrogant attack upon God, directed at His knowledge of Man: his presumption is that God is misinformed, that we’re mostly reasonable people, his family in particular, undeserving of eternal punishment; we simply lack sufficient warning to live in light of eternity. Yet Abraham remains faithful: God knows Man’s depraved heart and is revealing Himself to mankind accordingly.  (31)

What would God do if the wicked softened their hearts in Hell and acknowledged His goodness? If we know God well we know how He’d respond: His mercy is infinite toward those who fear Him. (Ps 103:11)

Why won’t the wicked honor God then, even from Hell? Why would anyone ever deliberately sin against God? This is indeed the true mystery, the mystery of iniquity (2Th 2:7): the desperate wickedness of Man; the godly are horrified by it; we may never fully understand it. (Je 17:9)

In repentance, regardless of our suffering at God’s hands (La 3:9), we admit to receiving the due reward of our deeds (Lk 23:41) and heed God’s warning to flee the wrath to come. (Lk 3:7) This is God’s gift to all who are willing to acknowledge that He is, and that He faithfully rewards all who diligently seek Him. (He 11:6)

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Examine Yourselves

The questions we ask reveal our hearts. Are we asking, “Which of God’s law must I obey?” Or are we asking, “Which of God’s laws am I allowed/permitted to obey?”

As God writes Torah into the minds and hearts of His own (He 8:10), He’s revealing that Torah is holy and just and good (Ro 7:12), such that we “delight in the law of God after the inward man.” (Ro 7:22) As He transforms us we’ll be obeying every law that we’re able to obey as well as we can, and continually asking Him to help us obey Torah better, more perfectly. (Ps 119:35)

But if we don’t delight in Torah, we’ll be looking for excuses and explanations that relieve us of any sense of duty (Ec 12:13), and most any deception will do. (2Ti 4:3) This is the posture of the carnal mind (Ro 8:7), enmity against Torah, and ultimately against the heart of God. (Ps 119:136)

So, ask yourself the question: “What kinds of questions am I asking? What does this reveal about my heart?” Examine yourself (2Co 13:5): does your life reflect the things that accompany salvation? (He 6:9) If our questions don’t reveal a delight in Torah, then something’s wrong with our inward man.

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Dead Works

One of the first principles of spiritual life is repentance from dead works. (He 6:1) What are dead works? How do we repent of them?

Dead things are missing that life force from God, the energy and vitality He gives to all living things (Ac 17:25), making them sentient, conscious, aware of their surroundings, causing them to change and grow and function according to His design.

To repent is to start believing the truth about something, and to start acting differently as a result. (2Ti 2:25-26)

So, repentance from dead works must be to start thinking truthfully about our lives, understanding why we’re living as we are, identifying what sort of works we’re doing (1Co 3:13), and to stop doing things which are not energized by God, activities that are apart from and outside of Him, rooted in a carnal mind. (Ro 8:6)

Christ says that unless we’re abiding in Him, we can do nothing that’s worth doing (Jn 15:5); unless we’re aligned with Him, seeking to honor and obey Him, we’re working against Him. (Mt 12:30) In other words, if we’re willing to continue living our lives apart from Him, out of fellowship with Him, for our own pleasure, then we’re the walking dead (1Ti 5:6), having only the outward appearance of life (Re 3:1): we’ve yet to begin the spiritual life. (Ep 2:1)

The difference between a living work and a dead work lies in the motive, and there’s only one proper motive: God is doing it. (Jn 5:19) Christ in us (Col 1:27) is living in our life (Col 3:4), breathing in our breath, willing through our wills, and doing through our doing (Php 2:13), as we actively seek to please and honor God with everything we have. (Col 3:17) When we’re living to please Him as deliberately as we know how, actively seeking His will and pleasure every moment, He is living through us and we’re abiding in Him. (Jn 17:21)

Everything we do, we choose to do; to repent of dead works is to start making different choices in every choice we make. It’s a fundamental life change, a transformation, living for a different reason than we’ve been living, living for God instead of for ourselves.

If there’s something we’re thinking that Christ can’t be thinking, that He would find distasteful or repugnant, let’s stop thinking that; if we’re going where Christ wouldn’t go, let’s stop going there; if we’re speaking words He wouldn’t speak, let’s stop speaking them. Let’s be thinking what Christ in us is thinking, doing what He’s doing, and going where He’s going. If Christ dwells in us, let’s let Him live as He will in us, incarnating Himself again in this evil world through us. Everything we do, let’s do it in Christ’s name with thanksgiving (Col 3:17) for God’s glory. (1Co 10:31)

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Give Them Repentance

Repentance is a change of behavior based on a change of mind (Eze 18:30); it’s believing something different (Mk 1:15) and acting accordingly. (Ac 26:20)

As God commands us to repent (Ac 17:30) it sounds easy enough, but it isn’t actually something we can do on our own (Je 13:23); God must give us repentance (2Ti 2:25), turning us from darkness to light, delivering us from Satanic power and bringing us unto Himself. (Ac 26:18)

In order to repent we must first hear truth, then God must open our hearts to recognize it as truth  (Ps 119:18) and help us believe and obey it. (Ps 119:35)

This process generally requires that we’ve already received some related truth that the new revelation connects to and extends; it’s a growth process. Without sufficient context to build on, we can’t always receive new truth. (Jn 16:12) God must help each one of us grow up in Him in a way that’s unique to our own particular frame and disposition. (1Th 2:7)

Since we can’t know the weaknesses of others, or even our own very well, it’s impossible for us to tell for sure what particular truths any given person is able to receive at any given time. (Ga 6:2) Like the layers of an onion, each of us has many issues for God to heal and repair (Is 28:10); only He knows what we can handle and when. (Ps 103:14)

We must bear patiently with one another (2Ti 2:24), and with ourselves, presenting that which is holy to those who are seeking (Mt 7:6), asking God to teach us all His way (Ep 4:21)not judging anyone (Mt 7:1), and leaving the results to Him. (Ro 12:19)

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Be Persuaded

Repentance is central to spiritual life (Ac_20:21), but exactly what is repentance?

Stairway2LightRepentance is God’s gift causing us to change our minds, to become convinced of truth (2Ti 2:25), or to be persuaded (Lk 16:30-31) such that our behavior changes from within. It’s different from confessing sin, admitting guilt, being sorry and trying to obey. (2Co 7:10) It’s a renewing in our heart, a new way of thinking, and only God can do it. (Ps 51:10,  19:13)

Repentance is what sets us free from the stranglehold of sin in our lives, delivering us from Satan’s power to hold us captive (2Ti 2:26), so we should immediately seek this gift whenever we find ourselves not acting, feeling, thinking or believing as we should (Is 55:6); any other response is loving our darkness instead of His light. (Jn 3:19) God never tells us to set aside time to repent … that’s like setting aside time to take antidotes; the longer we hold on to the poison of sin within us the more damage it does. Thinking any other way about repentance reveals we’re missing God in a big way.

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Let Us Draw Near

Jehovah, being central in all things (Ro 11:36), calls us to Himself. But most of us don’t seek after God as He is (Ps 53:2-3); we’re content with shallow sentiment and ritual when our hearts are far away. (Mt 15:8)

Mt Ararat, Turkey

It’s tempting to deceive ourselves into thinking we’re close to Him (Ja 1:26), imagining a god we can be fond of (Ro 1:21), as if He were a doting grandpa or a cute puppy … when in reality He’s a consuming fire (He 12:28-29); it’s an awesome thing to fall into His hands. (He 10:31)

Being close to God is not about feeling fond of Him; it’s not in sentimentality. “Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.” (Ps 24:3-4) If we are not pursuing holiness as a manner of life, we’re nowhere near God. (1Jn 3:10)

Let’s draw near to God! (He 10:22) Value what He values; love what He loves and hate what He hates. (Mt 16:23) Pursue truth (2Th 2:10)seek His face (Ps 27:8) and keep His commandments. (Jn 14:21) Serve Him with fear … and rejoice with trembling (Ps 2:11), humbly thanking Him for everything. (Ep 5:20)

Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.(Ja 4:8-10)

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The Terror of the Lord

In all His public teaching Jesus never once mentions God’s love*, yet He speaks of Hell often and without apology. (Mt 18:9) He warns of God’s justice and wrath, and exhorts us all to fear Him (Lk 12:4-5); He’s a consuming fire. (He 12:29) The terror of the Lord is the divine default in appealing to souls (2Co 5:11), not love and compassion (Jud 1:22-23), yet we’ve lost our holy trembling. (Php 2:12)

VolcanicLightning
Calbuco Volcano Eruption

Why is God so angry with unbelievers? (Jn 3:36) He treats them like hardened criminals rather than victims. Is God unjust, or are we missing His perspective? (Is 55:8-9)

God’s anger implies the lost are without excuse (Ro 1:20-21); in our free will we’d rather rebel against God than submit to Him. (Re 16:9-11) Men glady submit to gods of their own making, but not to the God of Heaven.

I think we forget that sin harms God; it grieves Him … He hates it. (Gen 6:6) If Hell is no more than God disarming His enemies in order to end His own suffering, how can we complain against it? And if God’s heart has always been open-armed (Ro 10:21), offering His oppressors relief if they’ll just humble themselves and repent (Eze 33:11), why wouldn’t He keep doing so throughout eternity? He doesn’t change. (Ja 1:17)

From all appearances, Hell is a prison defended from within — by depraved souls and spirits who lunge at any opportunity to resist and damage a merciful, benevolent, loving God … no matter what the cost to themselves or others. If there are no victims in Hell, only deliberate fiends and devils, how is God being unjust? (Ez 33:11)

Those who know Jehovah worship Him as He is, in all His works and ways. (Re 15:3) I think it’s high time we stop apologizing for God’s anger, downplaying His indignation, vengeance, hatred and wrath. (Ps 50:21-22) He’s not being unfair; Man is. Let’s encourage joyful trembling (Ps 2:11), and as ol’ John Baptist, tearfully warn the disobedient to flee the wrath to come. (Mt 3:7-8)

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* See 1st comment below