There are few people mentioned in the Bible less than the two thieves on the cross. We don’t know their names, specific offenses, or backgrounds. We’re not told where they’re from or why they were chosen to be crucified on either side of Jesus. In fact, only five verses in Luke are dedicated to referencing them at all, even though they were strategically placed at the pinnacle of God’s plan of redemption for all of mankind.
Luke 23 tells us, “Two others also, who were criminals, were being led away to be put to death with Him… 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.’”
Matthew’s record of these events informs us that these men were known as “robbers” or “thieves”. No matter what their reason for fault and sentence, they obviously shared the commonality that they both had been deemed guilty by their peers and sentenced to die a cruel death upon a cross. The Scriptures explain them to be known as malefactors or evil doers. Matthew and Mark actually state that both of these men were insulting Jesus as we see in Matthew 15: 32 – “Those who were crucified with Him were also insulting Him.” So, we can only wonder, when we see Luke’s account of what transpired, what changed? Was it Jesus’ response to the insults that perhaps resulted in differing outcomes in these men? One, moved to become humbled and repentant. The other, hard-hearted and entirely justified.
These differing views of Christ’s actions on our behalf brings me to the point of this message as I thoroughly believe we have the same opportunity before us today, these many years later. We, too, are transgressors sentenced to die. We, too have a Savior and King who bore our sins and looked upon us with compassion, forgiveness and immeasurable love – declaring, as ones who are prideful and arrogant, who know not what we do. Today, we are beside Him, gazing upon His sacrifice. What will we do with it? Of course this is applicable to salvation and our embracing or rejecting the cross of Christ and His sacrificial gift of eternal life; eternal life that begins immediately, as we see in the repentant thief. We can embrace or reject this awesome gift or we can walk away, entirely justified of our actions and response.
That being said, what I write will almost always land in the hands (or should I say, on the screens) of Believers in Christ who are, at least on some level, seeking to mature and be transformed into the image of Christ. So, with that in mind, I’d like to surpass what could be presented as the “main” theme of this message and go a bit deeper and see how it applies to relationships within the Body of Christ. I surely don’t need to interview every reader to be assured that we’ve all been wronged at some point within the Church. I don’t even want to open up the box of examples and potential experiences that we’ve all had. Let’s keep it simple and focused, shall we? I’ve been in many gatherings and meetings where hurts were laid bare and healing came, that’s for sure. There is absolutely a place for this and it is often the proper approach for us to all to get to ground zero and properly address our correct role within the Body of Christ – in health and order. But we, of course, cannot stay there for we’re meant to face our error, repent and move upward and onward.
What I’ve seen little of however, are gatherings where the focus was our personal responsibility in these trying matters that arise, the other side of the coin, if you will. Even when we embark on discussing hurts and wrongs, percentages would lean 90/10 in favor of how we were wronged (often rooted in victim mentality) as opposed to taking proper responsibility for our own role in the matter. Yes, I can recall many instances where I was blindsided and had the best of intentions that resulted in unwarranted wounds, so there are, of course, exceptions. But nearly every time I’m a/the responsible party (shared or sole). So what do we do? How do we avoid this errant mentality that diminishes the unified power of the Body of Christ and make every effort to lay aside our individuality-based, self-promoting and preserving thinking (pride)?
Let us again look back to Calvary. The two crucified criminals are “hurling insults” onto Jesus. Berating him and justly so (from their position). We well know that the pattern of Jesus was humility and a laying down of His will and very life. Although this culminated on the cross, it was nothing new in the Godhead’s life in flesh and bone. These men were faced with the same opportunity we’re faced with when we encounter and look upon Jesus. As we gaze back upon the man that was Jesus (and the Spirit that now is) we too can be either as one man – hard and calloused, or as the other – softened and transformed.
We see the unrepentant thief say, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!”. The Scriptures, expounded, tell us that he was “hurling abuse, reviling and blaspheming” Jesus (as they may well both have been initially). Here we see striking similarities to what those who had Jesus crucified were always found to be saying of Him. Mark’s account even tells us clearly, ”In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes, were mocking Him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; He cannot save Himself.’” Let us look and acknowledge this pattern of blame-shifting, finger-pointing and self-righteousness that can entangle us all if we’re not cautious. It can quietly infiltrate the Body of Christ as we attempt to walk humbly before God and man – primarily because it originates within an unregenerated mind of selfishness (opposing the mind of Christ). Are we always waiting for others to excuse their own behavior or for them to be the confessor of issues within our relationships? Or are we, when confronted with the humility and forgiveness of Christ, willing to look deep into our own depravity and desperate need for His help and mercy? We cannot look upon Him, see our error and wickedness and then respond with self-righteous insults upon Him or any other – at least not if we have any hope of maturing into the image of Jesus and becoming a “one-man Body of Christ.” (This is so subtly dangerous because it often originates, and then remains, in our minds alone. It dwells in darkness and breeds death – in us and in His Body.) “We know love by this, that He laid down his life for us; we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” (1 John 3:16). He is our perfect example and in order to move deeper into Him and properly become His representation, we must endeavor to grasp this reality.
The other thief, despite his seemingly similar initial response, experienced some level of heart change, as we saw earlier. We see him say to the one on the other side of Jesus, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!”
Can we imagine this occasion? (Stop and revisit the accounts again if necessary.) Close your eyes and envision this event as it transpired. The repentant thief (I hesitate to even refer to him as “thief” in light of what took place in his nature as he began to embrace Jesus) had to look over, “through” Jesus, the Savior of all mankind in order to address this other man. I feel this is quite significant as I type it, admittedly previously overlooked by myself. Let’s stop and think on this reality. He had to look through Jesus to address this other criminal with a shared need for Jesus’ redemption and mercy. Oh friends, can we glean from this revelation? Not in a “well, of course we know that” sense but in a deep-rooted reality within the depths of our hearts. This man saw the ugliness of his carnality. He saw that he was desperately in need of saving.
So what caused these differing responses between these two men who seemingly shared so much in the natural? Why did one respond rightly in humility and why did one harden his heart and hate what he saw? This, of course, is a mystery (as it is the same today). Nonetheless, we have the same challenge before us today. And what we must understand rightly is that it’s not just for yours and my good! (This too is a selfish mentality that we must shed.) It is for the benefit of the entire Body of Christ, which, at the heart of it, is not really “for us” at all! We must move from individuality-based actions and responses to corporately-minded movements. Of course it must start within us, but we must move out and broaden our understanding to see how our own strongholds and personal sin inhibits the entire Body. My sin slows down the advancement of the Kingdom of God upon the earth! My rebellion cripples and sickens the Body of Christ that exists to reveal the glory of God.
In light of the true definition of the Body, which is not some nebulous thing, but a tangible entity that is properly unified under the headship of Christ Himself to demonstrate His power and reality upon the earth and into the heavens! The very expression of God Himself upon the earth! Fueled by humility and the relentless pursuit of laying ourselves bare - vulnerable - before God and the Body. This is why it’s of utmost importance who we place ourselves around in the context of sharing in this Christian journey. We’re all prone to adjust ourselves to the level of faith, expectation and views of those we position ourselves around. It’s simply how we’re designed. Therefore it’s imperative that we prayerfully seek God’s order – individually, for our households and for who we allow to influence our journey. The Lord must be our Guide and Helper in order to properly align us with others. Peer influence is strong – good and bad, spiritual and natural. It’s imperative that we learn to walk in the spirit above all else, at all times. This must become our constant goal!
Now is the time to step back and properly assess our function within the Body of Christ. If we’re not walking empowered by the humility and lowliness that we encounter when we see Jesus, we are destined to be found in pride and self, therefore robbing the greater Body of strength and vitality. Lacking the humility that only God can birth and maintain within us is dangerous in regards to our attempts to demonstrate the reality of Christ on the earth. When we deny our need and depravity, we risk being reviling and abusive blasphemers that oppose the redemptive power of the cross-just like those we read of in the Scriptures (who interestingly enough, we’d be quick to call out as in evil opposition of the works of Jesus). We must see ourselves likewise, if we’re ever found to be moving outside of the life-giving power of Christ within us.
In discussing this article with my wife, she pointed out that we also must be ready to build each other up, with a genuine heart – to be God’s extended hand of encouragement, not just correction or “tough words”. If we were to examine ourselves deeply, perhaps we’d see that we may be prone to avoid heaping acclamation upon others because we’ve been somehow deceived that it belittles us or even voids our own personal experience. For example, praising one’s endeavors or spiritual experiences may somehow personally insinuate that we’re spiritually failing (or in a “lesser” place). I’m learning to say, “So what if it does?!” If I’m walking rightly, in humility, then this will either reveal something lacking in my spiritual walk or a root of jealousy. And, in this specific case, either result bears good fruit! Thinking along these lines, I’m realizing that I have in fact seen this delusion play out. Seeing others endeavors through judgmental eyes can be so detrimental to the Body. It should never be allowed to become competitive so that we allow bitterness to feed our individuality and self-indulged mindsets. It’s generally entirely self-induced, in our hypercritical minds and has no place within the Body of Christ.
For most of my “seriously attempting to be a true Believer” life, I’ve been too individually focused in my attempt to see the Body of Christ manifest Itself (and errantly responded). What can I do? What can I say? What do I need to change in me? How can I change you? How was I hurt and why did “they” do this or that to me? Why don’t they like me enough? Value me enough? Esteem me enough? Love me enough? All of these individuality-based mindsets are just flat out crippling to the proper function of the Body (whether they’re valid assumptions or not). Self-justification and presumption, in my opinion, are murderers of achieving the proper order and function of the Body of Christ. In my experience, it’s kept me in bondage to self and pride for far too long. It can overthrow our thought-life and become a stronghold that often goes unnoticed, if not addressed and submitted to the Lord. There’s something often untapped about walking in the freedom and empowerment of the Spirit that frees us from the expectations that we, often unknowingly, set in place – over ourselves and then project onto others.
Let us not be found walking in the manner of the revilers of the humility and love of Jesus! May we be found looking upon His awesome works and respond properly, positioning ourselves to be moved to meekness which will lead us to a much greater vision of properly being a corporate demonstration of Christ upon the earth. May we embrace the redemption that is extended to us by the Great Rescuer. What is our reward? Residence with Christ Himself! Jesus stated, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” to the repentant one. This is the greatest reward that enables us to walk freed of the bondage we place upon ourselves and others. Releasing ourselves and, again, others, frees us to fully embrace our need for Jesus and His redemption – our only hope. In Christ alone is our confidence to rightly walk out our role within His Body that now inhabits this earth, on His behalf. May we willingly walk in a place of submission unto Him and humility unto others. In this place, we thrive, for in Christ, we find our true identity. A redeemed people walking in Body-increasing abundant life, with gazes off of self and set on Jesus Christ, fueled by the very Spirit of God. Let us look upon and through Jesus, friends. Through Him alone will we find our proper place. Amen.