Bad Guys go to heaven… Luke 23:32-43.

A number of movies for kids have the following plot line: — the one who is the bad guy at the beginning of the story becoming the good guy at the end – Darth Vader, Mega Mind, Shrek, Wreck-it-Ralph.

This passage from Luke is not like that. The bad guy who asks to be remembered by Jesus was still a bad guy at the end of verse 43. All that had changed (and it is a big change) was his relationship with God. The change was not due to anything in the bad guy. The change was all because of the only good guy in the story, the Lord Jesus Christ. What Jesus did on the cross saved the bad guy.

Firstly, the guy was really bad. He is described by Matthew and Mark as a robber. The Greek word implies he was a thug. He was not a sneak thief. He was not a scammer. He was the type of guy who’d hide behind a tree waiting for you to pass, and then hit you over the head with a brick, take all you had, and then leave you for dead.

His philosophy of life was

  • get what you can for yourself
  • other people are to be used as a way getting for yourself.
  • this a normal way of life
  • God is just like me. (The other bad guy even said as much, thinking that the ‘real’ Christ must be out to serve himself – ‘if you are the Christ, save yourself’.)

Sadly, such attitudes are not rare. Advertisers depend on people being like this. “The most important person in the world is you” is the sort of line they use to get you to buy … whatever.

Secondly, this bad guy came to see things in a very different way while he was hanging on a cross. It was not fear of death, nor the pain that brought him to his new way of thinking. The other bad guy was unmoved by these things. What changed this bad guy was the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit who applied the Gospel of Jesus to him in an effective way.

How did he hear the Gospel? He heard it from the mockers.

What did the mockers about Jesus?

“He saved others….”

This was undeniably true. Even Jesus’ enemies admitted it. Jesus raised dead people to life. He gave sight to blind people, restored the ability to walk to lame people. No doubt Jesus ‘saved others’.

“Save yourself, if you are the Christ, the chosen of God.”

The word ‘Christ’ means ‘anointed one’ – a king, a prophet, a priest. A person of great authority. The saviour of God’s people. This is joined to the fact that ‘Jesus saved others’.

The bad guy had also heard Jesus ask his father to forgive bad people – those who had nailed him to a cross. The Christ, the king and saviour, the one who saved others, also forgives.

How does one of the bad guys react to this information?

  1. He stops mocking
  2. He respects God
  3. He admits, for the first time, that he is a bad guy who deserves a bad guy’s end.
  4. He sees that Jesus is a good guy – He has done nothing out of place.
  5. He believes Jesus is the Christ who saves others.
  6. He asks for mercy

This is faith; faith that comes from the work of the Holy Spirit. The bad guy believed that the one who was in the same mess as he was could and would save him – not from crucifixion, but from the Judgment of God. Against hope, in hope, he believed.

Jesus’ replied as follows: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise”.

Jesus makes an oath ‘Amen’ – true! – you will be with me.

Jesus was not in the habit of jollying people along. If he has bad news, he would tell it like it is.

The rich young ruler was sent away sad, the hopeful followers were told it would be tough, and Paul was told how much he would suffer for the sake of Christ.

But to this self-confessed bad guy, Jesus says, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’

Paradise is a Persian word for a garden. The hanging gardens of Babylon were, we are told, built by the king for his wife. It was a refreshing place in a desert, a place of safety and comfort. It was built for the one the king loved.

Jesus told his disciples that it was necessary for him to go away (via the cross) to prepare a place for them. Into that place, this bad guy would enter immediately upon his death.

Until his death, he was still a bad guy – but a saved-by-grace bad guy. After his death, he was made perfect in righteousness (for Jesus’ sake) and is now no longer a sinner. He no longer experiences guilt or shame or pain. No more tears. He is in paradise with Jesus.

How do we respond to the message of Jesus?

Of these two people, which one really knows God?

It came to my attention a while back that there are two men in the Bible who claimed to know God. They told God that they knew him. One is Jonah and the other is the last guy in the parable. The one that Jesus told about the master and his three servants (Matthew 25:14-30). Jonah said that he knew God is good, but Jonah did something very wrong in response to that knowledge. The last of the three servants said that he knew God is bad, and that servant did something very wrong in response.

In the parable, the master represents God and the servants are people in this world. The master’s rewarding of the first two slaves (that’s what they were) is quite extraordinary. Their job was to do as they were told, to slave for their master. A reward was not to be expected (see Luke 17:7-10). This master was a very good master, but the third slave didn’t see it that way:

Lord I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. And I was afraid, and went and hid your money in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.

In the ancient world, people generally became slaves because they had lost everything, either by being captured in war or by going broke and getting into debt. In short, it was slavery or death. All they had after becoming a slave was provided by their master. Now, some masters were good, others were bad. Some slaves recognised that their life had been spared and served as well as they could, others looked at everything with a hard stare. This third slave had the hard stare. He was right in thinking his labour deserved no reward. He was wrong in thinking that his particular master was bad. His master’s free, open and generous rewarding of the other two slaves shows how wrong the third slave was. By doing nothing, the third slave was not only stealing from his master, he was showing utter contempt for him. The slave had his life, a place to live, food and clothing all because of his master. The parallel between this story and the relationship between God and human beings is right there. God supplies freely all the good that we have. It might be little or much, but whatever it is, it comes freely from our creator; from the one who is good and who does good. Many people take it all, and then say they know that God is bad.

How about Jonah. He was told to go to Nineveh and tell them that they were doomed. In three days time, he was to tell them, they and their great city will be destroyed. The Assyrians were not nice people. Their brutality was well known — in fact they advertised. When they captured a neighbouring city (which they did often), many of the inhabitants were beheaded or left to die slowly while impaled on stakes.

Jonah’s own country had experienced the horrors of the Assyrian war machine. On the face of it, he might have been glad at the news that God’s judgment was to fall on them at last. But he knew God. So he ran. He was not afraid of Assyrians, he feared God’s grace. This is what Jonah said to God after Nineveh was spared:

Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled to Tarshish; for I know that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness. One who relents from doing harm.

Jonah knew God. He knew that he was merciful and gracious. How? Because God had been gracious to him. Jonah was a bad person, like all humans, but God had been gracious and had shown mercy to Jonah. Jonah knew that he had a good eternity to look forward to; he knew his wrong doing was forgiven. Knowing that God is like this, Jonah knew what God was planning.

You see, God did not need to send a warning if he had no intention of showing mercy. The hard message was a call to repentance, and Jonah knew it. He ran in the hope of preventing God’s mercy coming to those sinners of Nineveh, to people who were bad like he was bad. Jonah really knew God; he knew God is gracious and merciful but his response to those great truths was very bad. God had shown mercy to one who had been his enemy, that is, to Jonah. This is why Jesus tells Christians to love their enemies. It is because He first loved them while they were still his enemies.

Two people said that they knew God. One was right, the other was wrong, but they both were bad. The good news of Jesus Christ comes to bad people like us. Do we know God? We ought to see his goodness in Christ Jesus, admit our badness, and happily serve our Creator — even if it means taking good news to people we don’t like.

You call that a miracle?

Paul and Barnabas were early Christian missionaries to Cyprus. In Paphos they were called by the Roman proconsul, Sergius Paulus, because he wanted to hear the word of God from them. One problem, though, was a fellow called Elymas (or Bar Jesus). He was a false prophet who’d gained influence with the proconsul by claiming to be a magician. We are told in Acts 13 that this Elymas opposed the missionaries and tried to turn the proconsul from receiving their message. At this point, Paul used what some might call impolite language, but he was moved by the Holy Spirit to use it. He publicly identified Elymas as one ‘full of deceit and fraud’, as a ‘son of the devil’ and as an ‘enemy of righteousness’. Paul said these things because they were true. Paul then told Elymas that the Lord had his hand on him and he would be blind for a while. What Paul said immediately happened to Elymas.

Now, the proconsul heard and saw all this and believed the message, but his belief did not result from amazement or fear inspired by the miraculous blinding of Elymas. Now, there is no doubt that the temporary silencing of the false prophet was scary. It was fit to cause sudden fear. I’m sure Elymas was terrified. But it was not this that amazed the proconsul. The Roman official was bowled over by the teaching of the Lord. Why might that be? Well, the Romans had gods for everything, and the main purpose of worship was to prevent the gods from zapping the Romans for any offence or mistake that they might have made. The Roman sacrifices were pre-emptive or reparatory attempts to ward off the anger of gods who were not into showing mercy.

The message that Paul brought, the word of the Lord, was utterly unexpected. What Sergius Paulus had expected was to be told of a new thing that Sergius Paulus had to do to appease yet another god. What Paul told him was that God had acted to fix what we had done wrong, and God’s acting was done for people like us (Romans 5:6-8), who were utterly opposed to all righteousness, sons of the devil and full of fraud and deceit (compare Ps.14 and Romans 3:9-18). In fact, Paul had told the proconsul about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God, and how this doing and dying and rising of Jesus alone saves completely those who trust themselves to his mercy. This was something new; something undreamed of; unimaginable. It was not the miracle of blinding, but the miracle of grace that amazed the proconsul. It should continually amaze us too, but don’t only be amazed. Trust yourself to this Jesus.

Galatians Chapter 1 part 2

Continued from part 1.

This is how Paul’s letter to the Galatians starts. Not with a boast about his own greatness, but an assertion of the greatness of the one who sent him to bring Good News.

Paul made this point directly to oppose other messengers who had been sent by people in Jerusalem.

These came with another message. And that other message was not good news.

These men had a message, too. It was that trusting Jesus was a good thing to do, but you non-Jewish Galatians needed to become Jews as well as trust Jesus.

In this way they added to the Good News of Jesus.

For these men, the Good News was not simply a message of who Jesus Is, and what Jesus had done.

The sinner, according to these people, had to do things too, in order to complete that rescue that Jesus had begun: –

If the sinner was a male, he had to trust Jesus AND be circumcised and keep the law of Moses to be sure of salvation and freedom from judgment.

If the sinner was female, she had to trust Jesus AND keep the law of Moses to be sure that she was right with God.

Paul had no sympathy with these men or their message – their message was wrong.

Versus 1-4

An apostle – one who is sent to deliver a message for someone else.

Both Paul and these men were, in one sense at least, apostles – they had both been sent by someone else.

These men had been sent by people in Jerusalem who wanted the non-Jewish Christians to become Jews as well as Christians, so they could become ‘proper’ Christians. Paul himself had once been sent by men in Jerusalem to arrest Christians and hand them over to be condemned. But Paul’s trip was cut short.  The risen Lord Jesus gave him a completely different mission.  Jesus sent him out with Good News of how he, Jesus, rescues bad people like us. His news was not bad news of how bad people must somehow rescue themselves.

So Paul was no longer proud; rather he was profoundly and happily humbled.  The Lord Jesus had rescued him from sin and the death he deserved, and his job was to tell others that they too can enjoy the benefits of this same rescue, which comes simply and only by trusting Jesus Christ.

But, if Paul was now so humble, why did he insist on his being sent by Jesus, and not by mere men, or by means of men, but by the Lord Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Jesus from the dead?

Well, it wasn’t to impress the Galatians with his own importance, but to impress upon the Galatians that the authority for his message did not came from impressive people in Jerusalem.

His authority to speak came from the eternal God whom we all have offended.

God’s message is about Jesus Christ, about what God has done in order for people to be saved from their sin and death we deserve.

God’s message is not at all about what we must do to save ourselves.

So Paul puts this reality right up front in his letters.

Grace (which is the love of God) and peace (which replaces our continuing war against God and creator) comes by Jesus Christ. How? Jesus Christ acted for us. He gave himself for our sins – that is, he took our place in the judgment of the cross. He became our sin bearer.

We deserved to die, but the eternal Son of God became a human being, and as God and Man became our substitute – the condemnation of Jesus and his death on the cross for our sins is regarded by God as the final condemnation and death of all those who trust him.

The death and curse that all people deserve was removed at the cross for God’s people – for those who come to trust Jesus Christ.

This is God’s will for our salvation.

There is no other way to be safe from God’s judgment except the way God has provided.  Because God has acted in Jesus, there is nothing more to be done. Jesus Christ did it all for his people.

So, there is no more judgment for those who trust Jesus, nothing more to achieve.

All glory goes to our God for his mercy to us.

Continued in part 3.