The Thief Next to Jesus

Good Friday. The day we remember our Savior and His cruel death on the cross. The day He TOOK MY PLACE in the death that I deserve, because He loved me. He knew when He came here the fate that awaited Him. Betrayal. Mockery. Torture. A slow, excruciating death. But He came anyway. Just to give us forgiveness that we don’t deserve. I can never thank Him enough. I can never repay Him for what He did for me.

But tonight, the one who is on my mind is the criminal who hung beside Him. A man who, unlike Jesus, had lived a life of sin. A man who society had deemed worthy of death on the cross, because of the crimes he committed. And as he hung there, nearing death, he confessed Jesus as Lord. “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom,” he said. And what did Jesus say? Did he tell him he was unworthy? Did he tell him his sins were too great, that he was condemned to die and go to hell because that was the punishment he deserved? No. “Assuredly, I say to you,” He told the criminal beside Him, “today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

I feel like sometimes, Christians, we’re missing the point. And when I say Christians, I’m including myself, too. It didn’t matter what sins that man had committed. It didn’t matter if he spent his entire life on the earth going against everything God ever said. The minute he confessed Jesus as His Lord and Savior – and that minute just happened to be one of the final moments of his life – He was forgiven. Heaven-bound. Did he deserve it? Of course not! But do I? Do you? Does anyone?

I have a past – one that does NOT include Jesus. I try to forget about it, because I know God has, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still have nightmares about some of the things I’ve said and done. And guess what? I’m still far from perfect, despite all the work He’s already done in me. It doesn’t matter how “good” I try to be now. It doesn’t matter how many hours I spend in church, how much I give to those in need, or how many times a day I pray or read my Bible. That’s all good stuff, of course, but it’s not what saved me. Jesus saved me when He died and rose again, and the only thing I did to receive that gift is BELIEVE in Him and ACCEPT Him into my heart. That’s it.

We’ve never been more divided than we are today. And with that division comes such powerful hatred and cruelty. But Christians, are we helping the problem? Or are we stirring it up even more? It’s not wrong to stand up for what we believe in – in fact, we’re commanded to do so. But look at the way we’re doing it! Sharing hateful Facebook posts and memes, shaming the other side because they sin differently than we do. We’re no better than the Pharisees who were so blinded by their religious rules that they didn’t see Jesus for who He was – the Messiah! They put Him to death because He didn’t fit their idea of what a “religious” person should be. You guys, the Pharisees were some of the most “holy” people out there. They MEMORIZED the first five books of the Bible BEFORE THE AGE OF 12. They took the laws of Moses very seriously and when they condemned Jesus to death, they truly believed they were doing it in God’s name. They let their own religious rules blind them to Jesus’s message. They judged everyone around them.

Are we becoming modern-day Pharisees? Are we so high and mighty because of all the “good” things we do that we think we’re good enough to judge the world, when we’re missing Jesus right in front of our faces? The reality is, God loves EVERY SINGLE PERSON on this earth. He wants everyone to receive the gift of His Son and will give us to the very last moment of our lives to do so, if that’s what it takes. As Christians, we’re called to share His message with the world, so they will receive Jesus and eternal salvation. Are we doing that? Are we really sharing His message when we share hatred and judgmental social media posts? Or are we turning people away from the Truth with our religious rules and hateful speech? Life with Jesus is about freedom. It’s about relationship with Him. It’s about love. It’s not about rules and being “better” than anyone else. It doesn’t matter how “wrong” or lost someone may be – Jesus died for him, too. And we’re called to love, not sit on our throne in judgment and bully someone into thinking like we do. It doesn’t work like that. It’s not how Jesus reached people, and we sure won’t reach anyone that way, either.

I’m thankful tonight for His sacrifice and His forgiveness. I pray that I will never be a hindrance to His love and His message. I want everyone to know that there’s nothing you can do to make Him not love you. He will forgive any sin, any mistake you’ve ever made. Don’t wait until you think you’re “worthy” to come to Him. You’ll never get there. Accept Him today, and let Him come into your life just as you are right now – flaws and all. He loves you despite your past or even your present. All you have to do is choose to believe, to accept Him. He wants to do big things in your life. All you have to do is let Him in.

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What I’m Worth

Just inside the entrance to my church is a beautiful stained-glass window depicting Jesus. He stands tall with his arms outstretched – just the way I hope that He will greet me one day. That window is visible from the road, and every time I drive by my little white church, I can’t help but turn and look at Him and marvel at His glory.

But even though I have seen that window more times than I can count throughout my life, my son brought something to my attention that I had somehow neglected. As we were leaving church one Sunday morning when he was just three years old, he walked over to that big window and “hugged” Jesus goodbye. When he pulled away and looked up at him, he said, “Mommy, why are his hands bleeding?”

I was speechless for a moment. How do you explain that to a three-year-old? Finally, I settled on, “Well, buddy, some bad guys did some mean things to him.”

I know. Pretty great answer, right? (Insert sarcastic eye-roll here.) I didn’t want to lie to him, but how do you explain the truth to such a young, innocent little boy?

Luckily, my answer satisfied him without further questioning, and to this day (he’s five now), he still sometimes looks at that window, points at His hands and says, “Bad guys did that to Jesus, Mommy.”

“I know, buddy,” is my standard reply. I can’t tell him that my own sins helped drive those nails in Him.

I have the privilege of working with an incredible youth group in my church each Sunday, doing lessons and activities to teach them about God and His love. With Easter approaching, I want to do something that will help them realize that the holiday is about so much more than Easter bunnies and egg hunts. After all, the Reason behind our Easter holiday is the very Reason that we are Christians. If Jesus hadn’t suffered that violent death on the cross and rose again, we wouldn’t have a Savior. We’d still be trapped in our sin, destined to an eternity in hell. And while I want the kids to grasp just what He did for us, those bloody details aren’t appropriate for such little ears.

So I asked God to give me a lesson that I could share with them, something that would help them realize the importance of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. I asked God for wisdom before I opened my Bible, and as I began reading His word, He decided to teach me something, not only about who He is, but about who I am as well. It still amazes me how I can read the same stories over and over but He can make them like new and help me to gain different things from them.

It’s no secret that death by crucifixion was intended to be the most painful, horrifying death possible, typically reserved for criminals. Jesus was beaten to the verge of death. Mocked. Tormented. And though He was blameless, though He had the power to strike down his attackers with just one word, He took it all in silence.

For me. For them, the very people who murdered him.

I couldn’t endure what Jesus did for very many people. But to go through it for sinners? For my own murderers? To save them from a fate that they deserved, even when I knew that I was innocent? Forget it.

And while Jesus deserves our praise and undying devotion for what He did, I can’t help but be even more in awe of God. Because the thought of sending one of my sons to that fate in order to save someone who had sinned against me? It makes me physically sick to my stomach. I couldn’t send one of them to take that fate for anyone, not even the most righteous person in the whole world, much less an undeserving sinner. When I think about Him watching it all transpire from Heaven, my heart aches for Him.

While I’ve thought about all of this before, one thing I’d never truly considered is just what I’m worth in God’s eyes. Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:4 that “He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight.” That means that even before He created the world, He already had a plan for me.  For me! It’s hard to comprehend that the God who created our intricate universe by merely speaking into the void even knows my name, much less loves me that much.

He knew that I would mess up, over and over again. He knew that I would be prideful. Hateful. Profane. A liar. Disrespectful. Disobedient. Neglectful.

AND HE LOVES ME ANYWAY. I am worth so much in His eyes that He allowed His Son to be tortured and put to death in my place, knowing He would rise again and redeem me from my life of sin. He CHOSE me to be one of His children. He bestowed His gifts upon me so that I can serve His kingdom.

And I did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to deserve it. It’s not because He looked down on this Earth, saw me, and thought to Himself, “She’s a pretty good person.” I’m sure if He looked at me before I gave my life to Jesus, He would have thought quite the opposite, in fact. Because before the Holy Spirit came to live in me, I was nothing. I was consumed by worldly, evil thoughts, on a path to destruction without even realizing it. And yet, for whatever reason, He loved me enough to open my heart to His Truth so that I could choose to die to my old self and accept His love and forgiveness. How much I must be worth in His eyes!

So this Easter, I hope that I can convey to my kids at church not only the importance of what Jesus did for us when He conquered death on the cross, but what that says about who we are to God. Because when we truly realize our worth in Christ, we can fulfill the purpose that He has for each one of us and call on His power to do incredible things for His kingdom.