“TODAY YOU WILL BE WITH ME IN PARADISE”
Peter S. C. Pothan
Chu Li was a hit man of a notorious criminal Triad Gang in Hong Kong. He became tired of his life on the run and decided to opt out of gang life. Filling his knapsack with the gang’s money, he skipped out of town and changed his name. After all, he reasoned, they owed this money to him for all the assassinations he’d carried out for them.
He booked into a hotel in another island and lived a life of luxury and anonymity under an assumed name. Going for a stroll one evening, he heard lively music coming from a large tent; looking inside, he was amazed to see a crowd of young people clapping and singing at the top of their voices. “Are they on drugs?” he wondered. He sat in the back row and listened as an evangelist related how God had saved him from a criminal life. “Saved? What kind of language is this?” he thought. After the meeting, he talked to the evangelist who told him how Jesus had died as a criminal in order to save all who believed on Him. Somehow this went straight to the young thug’s heart and he accepted Christ. He went back to his room a changed man—not just Chu Li, but a redeemed Chu Li. He spent the next couple of days reading the Gideon Bible he found in his hotel room. He couldn’t understand the transformation in his life. In place of anger, he now had inner peace, as if he‘d been searching for it all his life. And he wasn’t on ecstasy drugs!
“What of the money I’ve stolen?” he wondered. According to what he had read in the Bible about confession and walking in the light, he’d have to take the money back to the gang and confess. The Triad code vowed death for anyone deserting the gang, but even if it meant that, he’d have to do it. Now at least he knew where he’d be after death. When he walked into the gang’s hideout back in Hong Kong, they waved their sawed off shot guns and pistols in salute of their hit man. Where had he been? Chu the killer stood in the middle of the room and quietly told them he’d found Christ as his Saviour and so had come back to confess he’d stolen their money. He was sorry and he’d leave everything he had to repay the money he had stolen. “But guys, I don’t belong here anymore,” he announced, “I’m leaving the gang!” Dropping to his knees he prayed for the gang members. Eyes closed, he awaited the inevitable bullet through his head. Instead, only silence. Cautiously he opened his eyes and looked around the room. The gang members appeared stunned. Several bowed their heads.
“Tell us, how does this work?” they asked incredulously. They’d never had a Triad member, let alone their toughest hit man, confess anything. And he was quitting the gang! Killer must have run into some powerful stuff! If Jesus could give their hit man assurance of sins forgiven, of eternal life, anyone could find peace. One by one they too dropped on their knees and ended up trusting Christ. They asked Chu to start a Bible study for them. They got involved in a local church and soon started a Jesus rock band. They wanted to give the good news to gangs they used to shoot it out with.
When we look at Golgotha, what do we see? The blazing sun shines down from a sky of azure blue on the three crosses on the hill of Golgotha, the hill shaped like a skull. Two criminals occupy the outer crosses. They were murderers and insurgents. They belonged to a band of brigands and rebels against the Roman rule, what we would call ‘terrorists’ today. Their leader, Barabbas, should have occupied the centre cross but the Governor Pilate had freed him at the request of the mob, the same mob who had cried, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” for Jesus Christ. Yes, Barabbas was free and in his place on the central cross hung the man Jesus, the gentle carpenter turned rabbi who had walked the country roads preaching about the kingdom of God, a kingdom of love, a kingdom in which we are to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, a kingdom where the poor, the unwanted, the sinners would be welcome, a kingdom not ruled by the powerful of society or the leaders of the temple, but one where the poor would have an equal chance. Now this Man hung on the central cross, deserted and alone. The women were weeping at a distance. John was watching from afar.
Three crosses. The centre one is the cross of redemption. The one on the left is the cross of rebellion. The one on the right is the cross of repentance. Each has a lesson for our lives.
When we look at Golgotha, we tend to see each of the seven words from the cross as separate. Yet they have a common theme that we often miss: forgiveness. Let us therefore consider briefly six points on God’s forgiveness.
1. God’s forgiveness depends on the sacrificial death of Christ. Jesus died there for your sins and mine. Kahlil Gibran in his poem has Barabbas saying, “They released me and chose Him. Then He rose and I fell down. And they held Him a victim and a sacrifice for the Passover. I was freed from my chains and walked with the throng behind Him, but I was a living man going to my own grave. I should have fled to the desert, where shame is burned out by the sun. Yet, I walked with those who had chosen Him to bear my crime. When they nailed him on His cross, I stood there. I saw and I heard, but I seemed outside my body. … I know now that those who slew Him in my stead achieved my endless torment. His crucifixion endured but for an hour. But I shall be crucified unto the end of my years!” We need not take this attitude of despair and defeat. In truth He hung on that cross for you and me as well as Barabbas. And we can receive the benefit of it and find salvation today. John says, “But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin.” (1Jn.1:7). It is the blood of Jesus that saves us. As someone said, “If Jesus had not prayed the prayer of forgiveness, His blood would have had no effect on us!” Jesus taught His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, “But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matt.6:15). He put it into practice on the cross.
2. Looking at the cross of rebellion, we must face the fact that some sinners die in their sins (Jn.8:21-23). Both the criminals were near Jesus. One of them remained hard and stubborn. He was up in arms against the world. Jesus came to show us the way to the kingdom of God, the kingdom of love. But this man couldn’t see it. His way of achievement was by rebellion. He blamed God for his problems. He cursed Jesus with the last breath God gave him, hurling insults at him shouting, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” He failed to see that was just what Jesus was doing on the cross—saving all of us. This criminal represents all the people that reject Jesus to the end.
3. Looking at the cross of repentance, we note that some sinners soften in the presence of Christ. I have related to you the true story of Chu Li. One of the thieves on the cross confessed his sins and repented. He said he deserved to die. He cries, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” It was a cry from the heart; a cry of a lost man crying for help and salvation. His attitude showed that he had truly repented. Seeing Jesus dying on the cross, but believing that He would come into His kingdom, shows the amazing faith of the thief. He saw not a dying man but a Saviour and a victorious King. And Jesus grants his request. This criminal represents the thousands of sinners who repent and trust Christ for forgiveness.
4. Jesus forgives all sinners who turn to Him. The criminal who repented was an evil man. Perhaps he, like Barabbas, was guilty of murder and rioting. He was at the end of his life. What did he have to offer God, except a long list of his sins? But Jesus does not care how long our list of sins is. He cares only that a person’s heart softens and repents. Then He receives anyone who comes to Him.
John Newton was a sea captain and a slave dealer. He had done every imaginable bad deed. Then one day he found forgiveness and salvation in Jesus Christ and turned over a new leaf. He became a pastor to tell others of the good news of salvation. And he wrote that marvellous hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ which many of us love. Do you know this amazing grace of salvation?
5. It is easy to receive forgiveness. Jesus did not ask the criminal to read any book. The Lord did not require him to pay for his sins by doing a penance or going on a pilgrimage. It is Jesus, not us, who pays for our sins. It is His blood, not our good deeds, that brings us forgiveness. He receives us just as we are or where we are. His promise is, “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (Jn.6:27). Receiving forgiveness is as easy as asking for it as the thief on the cross found. Have you found this mercy, forgiveness and salvation?
6. When a believer dies, he is immediately with Jesus. Jesus told the dying criminal, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with Me in paradise.” In 2 Corinthians 12:4 Paul describes his heavenly vision thus, “I was caught up to paradise.” Paradise conjures up a place of rest and beauty. It is used of the Garden of Eden where God walked with Adam and his wife. The word paradise is a Persian word meaning a ‘walled garden.’ The Persian gardens were places of beauty with beautiful flowers, avenues of trees and fountains of water. The Persian kings created these beautiful gardens within a closed wall and it was only available to them. When a Persian king wanted to greatly honour one of his subjects, he made him a ‘Companion of the Garden’ which meant he was chosen to walk in the garden with the king. It was this immortality that Jesus was promising the penitent thief. He offered him an honoured place as a companion in the courts of heaven! What a privilege! But it is a privilege that Jesus offers to all of us!
We will not have a new body until the resurrection (1Cor.15:42). But a believer’s spirit leaves his body at death and goes to be with Jesus. As Paul says, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2Cor.5:8).