What the thief can teach us

misconceptions about fruit and labor

So often we, as believers in Yeshua, strive to surrender our lives to Him in such a way that we are confident that He will be pleased with us. Every follower longs to hear those treasured words, “Well done my good and faithful servant.” but with what do we often measure our “spiritual success”? Especially when there are so many competing views? Some believe that we are to live wholly devoted to the Torah, while others vary on certain points. Still, those in mainstream Christianity seem to think that the entire Law was somehow canceled out, leaving them trying to follow Jesus, but without a solid foundation as to how they are meant to follow Him. And believe it or not, there is just about every facet of faith in between these two extremes. So what kind of faith is good enough faith? What kind is exemplary? How do we know for sure?

These sorts of questions, while not at all foreign to the devout believer’s life and walk, can absolutely drive us crazy if we let them and actually hinder our ability to hear and follow YHVH in the way that He has shown us. We can damage our spiritual health by way of worry, even giving it the possibility of turning into sin and malcontent. So what’s a believer to do? How do we handle it when we are in the thick of a spiritual wrestling and we can’t seem to hear the voice that we long so much to hear, the one that will give us approval?

We can remember the thief.

Everyone knows this story, but I think what we may fail to remember- possibly at a time when we most need to- is what the purpose of the thief beside the Messiah really was. (Interesting side note: In Hebrew, the word “thief” here means “revolutionary”. Something to think about.)

Here is the beloved Lamb of God, mercilessly beaten and dying for you and I. He hangs between two thieves. These are two men who, presumably, never amounted to much other than petty crime and poor decision making. Two men that most of society completely discounted, overlooked, and ran away from. And with good reason. They were bad men. Criminals even. They had no remorse for the life that they had chosen. That is until they were confronted with mercy in its most profound form. The Messiah, languishing in the midst of them. They were the only two human beings to ever see the full up-close weight of the passion of the Christ, undiluted by either love or hate. He was simply another criminal, face to face with themselves.

On one side we have the unrepentant man who mocked The Savior, right alongside the Pharisees and Roman Soldiers, but then, on the other side, we see something amazing. We see this criminal as he begins to see with spiritual eyes, maybe for the first time in his life, and we see the immediate and urgent calling of his spirit within him that compels him to cry out to the Son, “LORD, remember me when you enter your Kingdom.” (Luke 23:42)

This is often lost amid the noise of the Crucifixion Narrative just because there is so much going on and our hearts are already so wrapped up in the passion and death of Messiah, that if we aren’t careful and deliberate, we might miss it altogether.

So what about the repentant thief? Why is his story so important? Because we see his transformation, and because we can understand from it, at least a glimpse, of what Yeshua desires for us. Yeshua desires that we have a heart that is open and willing. A heart that, while imperfect, can be taught. A heart that isn’t full of pride, or self, or the false security that often comes with hubris. We can see this man, in full view of both the Messiah of the world and his unrepentant cohort, having a change of heart. He shifts from blind pride and arrogance to brokenness, with a sharp clarity for his need of the mercy of YHVH in the blink of an eye. He is changed. For his outpouring of sincerity and his plea for Yeshua to “remember” him, Yeshua pointedly tells the man, a criminal, that they will be together in paradise. He gets a first-class ticket to the good side of eternity to be with Yeshua and all the saints, forever.

But why?

Because he asked? Because Yeshua was enamored with his honesty before their deaths? Because He was feeling particularly generous? It was because of his BELIEF. He believed that Yeshua was who He claimed to be. He saw it, right there in from of him while no one else did. He did- and it caused an immediate change of his heart. It caused him to repent in his heart. His faith in Yeshua saved him! I know what you’re thinking… We know that someone’s faith saves them…blah…blah…blah… but look closer. He never did anything GOOD. He had no real good fruit.

I know that Yeshua told us to look at the fruit of a person to know them. He told us that there would be many who said to Him “Lord, Lord…” and He will say, “I never knew you.” He told us that obedience to the Father is our primary goal this side of the New Jerusalem. He told us a lot of things. Most importantly though, He told us that we are to surrender ourselves to His will. And what is His will? That we recognize Him for who He is and through that faith, to learn to walk in the commandments of YHVH. He wants us to know that He is who He says and while that isn’t the only thing that we will need to live a faith-filled life, it is far and away the most important step in the journey. It is the rock that the gates of Hell can’t overcome. “Who do you say that I am?”

So what we can learn from the thief on the cross is this: His only real act of obedience was mere moments before he cast off his mortal coil, but it counted for literally everything. He was never Torah Observant. God never used him as a vehicle to prophesy or heal or lead a people. His spiritual knowledge was presumably zilch. But YHVH still used him. YHVH used him to show us that we can work our whole lives, follow every written commandment, be as devout as humanly possible, and still lose everything when we fail to have a heart that YHVH can bend. We fail at all of it if we don’t surrender our hearts. Conversely, if we lack spiritual knowledge, are weak in the faith because we are taught bad theology, or just feel like we are floundering around in a newfound conversion and haven’t figured it out yet, we are still on solid ground as long as we turn our hearts over to the one who can teach us. He doesn’t want our rigid observance and loveless worship. What use is that to Him? He wants our imperfect, maybe a little confused but genuinely looking for the narrow path heart. All of it! That is something he can work with. That is the faith that saves us! No matter where you are in your spiritual journey, whether you are in a Christian Church, are Torah Observant, or anything in between, YHVH cannot use you if you don’t have a humbled, repentant heart. But if you do, it doesn’t make a difference where you are- He can teach you and He will use you!


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