One engages the heart of God and one does not!
And Jesus, turning to one of the thieves next to him on the cross said, “Truly, I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise.” – Luke 23:43
In this one statement, it has been considered by some the most surprising, suggestive and instructive incident in all the Gospels! From this one verse the concept of . . .
- Purgatory is refuted – No waiting period to pay off sins.
- Universalism is refuted – Not everyone goes to heaven, one thief does and one does not.
- Soul sleep is refuted – Believers go into the presence of the Lord at death (Philippians 1:23)
- Works salvation is refuted – Nothing is done to earn salvation by the thief who goes to Paradise.
But as important as each of those concepts are, there is something more practical that we can glean from this incident. Jesus was crucified between two thieves. In them we are shown two different effects the Cross elicits when confronted with the truth of Christ. One influences the heart of God and one does not. The German theologian Helmut Thielicke said, “He who has influence upon the heart of God rules the world.” So what is it that engages the heart of God?
Matthew writes in his gospel about the same incident but suggests that initially both thieves were saying derogatory statements against Christ, but after hearing Jesus pray for their forgiveness of sins & how he responds to suffering, there is a change of heart in one of the thieves. Jesus says to him in verse 43: “Truly, I say to you, today, you will be with me in paradise.”
The thief with a hardened heart wants immediate deliverance. In verse 39 he says to Jesus, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
- He didn’t believe Jesus could give salvation, he wanted it, but not coupled with belief.
- He wanted salvation for himself, but without having to change.
- He conveys an attitude towards Jesus of: (1) What have you done for me? (2) Do what I want. (3) Serve me! It’s an attitude of self-centeredness, hard-heartedness with no acknowledgement of brokenness or humility.
Neither you, nor I, will ever engage the heart of God without belief (faith) and dependence upon God that carries beyond my capacity to control my life situations and outcomes.
The thief with a true sense of brokenness and humility responds to the hard-hearted thief in v. 40-41:
But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
Notice the words by the thief with belief:
- “we indeed justly . . . deserve” – True confession of sin means I agree with God that my sin is displeasing .
- “Do you not even fear God?” – He recognizes he is accountable to God for how he has lived his life.
- “has done no wrong.” – He implies that Jesus is who He says He is, the Messiah, the holy one without sin!
The thief continues in v.42, And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
- His faith exceeds and preceeds the apostles – He acknowledges that Jesus will usher in a spiritual Kingdom!
- “Remember me” – He doesn’t ask Jesus, what can you give me but he places himself at the mercy of God! He demonstrates Christ-dependence and not self-dependence.
And the Heart of God responds in v. 43 when Jesus promises him more than he asks for and sooner than he expected! And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Both thieves would have liked immediate deliverance but only one received it! One had a hard heart; the other a soft heart. One was self-focused; the other was Christ-focused. And only one engaged the Heart of God!
I may have put my faith in Christ and know Heaven is my destiny but it doesn’t mean I’m engaging the heart of God in my life at the moment. There are times that my life looks more like the hard-hearted thief rather than the soft-hearted thief. How about you? Which thief reflects your heart before God today? Can you trust God for your future? For the predicament you find yourself in right now? Can you trust God without knowing the outcome, even if it might not end as you would hope?
If you do, then you will engage the heart of God and He may not give you what you want but He will give you more than you ask and sooner than you expect!
Dirke Johnson has a doctorate in Church Leadership and is a professor for the Ministry Degree program at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He also teaches at Cru’s Institute of Biblical Studies and specializes in Leader Development, creating high performing teams. He has years of experience at ministering in urban cross-cultural and international contexts.