A THIEF STOLE HEAVEN!
Roy E. Joy
This is a true story, the story of perhaps the most famous thief in the history of the world. However, it is not a story of the likes of Robinhood or Charles Sobharaj.
Every day we hear about thieves decamping with valuables from a house or a shop. The thief in question probably was one such person. He unexpectedly stumbled upon a great treasure and entered into heaven to grab it! Mind you, he didn't go there to steal and kill and destroy. What a day for the thief! Following his example, numerous thieves have boldly made their way into heaven over the years. As the story unfolds, we learn that a King gave a penitent thief a helping hand to have the treasures of life! The King and the thief, in a last minute effort in the predestined drama, proved to the whole world how one can enter into Paradise which was lost ever since Satan, the thief, entered the Garden of Eden.
A Serious Offence
Thievishness has its origin in Satan, "the father of lies." He confronted Eve and, before she could realise it, she fell for his stunning flattery and the lie he told her. Adam, as John Milton narrates deliberately, followed her to death because he couldn't imagine a life without Eve. Soon junior Adams and Eves were born, living with a terrifying display of their depraved nature. They began to lift and snatch whatever their eyes coveted. Man wanted to become like God and ended up stealing gods! (Gen.31).
That God views stealing seriously is clear from the frequent reference to it in the Scripture, besides one of the ten commandments with God's own handwriting: "You shall not steal" (Lev.19:11; Dt.5:19; Mt.19:18; Ro.13:9; 1Co.6:10; Ex.20:15). Those caught in the act of stealing or committing other sinful acts like giving false witness, etc., are dealt with very harshly. If a man steals an ox or a goat, he has to return five oxen and four goats - more than double the animals stolen (Ex.22). While habitual offenders are not to be treated leniently, the Word of God is considerate towards one who steals to fill his empty stomach (Pro.6:30). Here the story of Jean Valjean is interesting: "Released from a 19-year sentence in a French prison for stealing bread, Jean Valjean finds it difficult to give up his ways. He even ends up stealing from a kindly Bishop who provided him shelter when nobody would accept him, and is captured again. After the Bishop frees him from the grasp of the soldiers, Valjean reforms and builds a new life, and eventually becomes the mayor of a town." The Bishop in the story is an example of kindness to the poor. However, one cannot be sympathetic to somebody who siphons off money because his salary is not enough to meet both ends.
Our sick world is revolving with the ever increasing burden of sin, with the thieves having a field day for millennia. God's heart hurts terribly because of sin and its devastating consequences upon humanity. The Lord came down to fulfill His promise of redeeming a sin-sick humanity. He went from Jerusalem to Calvary, carrying the cross on His shoulder - the same cross He has been carrying in His heart ever since the Eden incident. While hanging on the cross, Jesus uttered seven "sayings" which are far more wonderful than the Seven Wonders of the world. The second saying, "I tell you the truth, today you'll be with me in Paradise" (Lk.23:43) reveals Jesus' authority to forgive. In other words, Jesus was saying, "My atoning sacrifice is just for you, dear thief!"
The Bible doesn't mention the background of the thieves on the cross. It is speculated that they were gang members of Barabbas who was a criminal. They deserved the cross as one of them rightly admits: "… for we're getting what our deeds deserve" (Lk.23:41). A sinner cannot continue sinning and live long. If at all he lives longer, that's because of the long-suffering grace of God, giving him opportunities to repent. The thief who came in direct contact with Christ at the last moment of his life didn't waste his only chance. He watched closely how Jesus reacted towards His tormentors. He had heard about Jesus but never seen Him before. But when he saw Him, He was in a pathetic condition. He noticed that the inhuman treatment was more directed towards Jesus, the innocent one. Jesus was writhing in pain but was extremely calm and composed like a lamb (Is.53). The thief knew that the kind of compassion and concern expressed for the women of Jerusalem wouldn't come from a criminal (Lk.23:28).
After he heard Jesus praying, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they're doing," the thief knew that Jesus was a prince of heaven. With the hope that he would receive a lenient hearing on the Day of Judgment, he made a feeble prayer: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He got immediate answer: "I tell you the truth, today you'll be with me in paradise" (23:43). Can someone struggling in his dying moments make such a categorical statement? The Saviour was not fighting a losing battle against death; He was conquering death and hell every moment on the cross (Col. 2:15). Though His hands and feet were nailed to the cross, the blood that flowed freely from the wounds was like a fountain that cleansed the penitent thief, opening for him the door to eternal redemption.
The Lord said, "Today you'll be with me…." That's very significant, because it nails the devil's lie that one needs to go through a Samsara chakra - numerous cycles of births and rebirths - to attain moksha (salvation). There is no purgatory in which the freed soul must wait to be prepared for glory. At once the spirit goes into the presence of Christ. 'Today' is the dimension of eternity. At Zachaeus' house Jesus said, "Today salvation has come to this house" (Lk.19:9). Yesterday, today and forever Jesus is the same (Heb.13:8).
The thief didn't get a chance to lead a model Christian life. Yet he objected to the insult of the second thief on the cross. He was a good thief! According to Mark 15:32, both the thieves mocked Christ. However, one of them realised his mistake. "Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts…" (Heb.3:7,15). It was providential that Jesus was crucified 'between' two thieves, for this gave both of them equal access to the Saviour, says Warren W. Wiersbe. The opportunity to be saved is equal for all, but the second thief represents those who reject it. "Now is the time of God's favour, now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor.6:2). Those who've been crucified with Christ and carry their crosses daily will enter the paradise.
Do We Rob?
Christians seldom entertain the thought of robbing somebody or stealing something. Yet some of us do things that are not acceptable in the light of God's word and the law of the land. To be frank, writers like me easily fall into the trap of plagiarism. Then there are "full time ministers" who have Sunday as a working day and the rest of the week more or less holidays! Money raised for God's work but used for personal benefits amounts to stealing. When one buys or sells a property, the normal practice is to register it with a minimum price in order to save on registration fees and income tax. Believers should remember the thundering question of the Holy Spirit: "…is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?" (Ac.5:8). When we hold back our resources of time, talents and money from the needy around us, we rob God! (Mal.3:8; Matt.25:41-45).
Enter The Paradise!
No matter how serious the offence, the Lord is willing to accept a penitent soul. Psalm 103 can be a great strength in our daily spiritual walk: "Praise the Lord, O my soul, who forgives all our sins…The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love…He does not treat us as our sins deserve…."
"When Jesus was arrested, a thief was released from the prison; when He was crucified, another thief was promoted to paradise." The Lord calls everyone with His outstretched arms that bled for us and opened the life gate of Paradise. Let's run into it and steal the thunder!