The Murderer and the Thief: A Case of Two Sinners
When Christians in the 21st century contemplate their work to do here on Earth and the outcomes of it, there are differing views on how we are to live our lives for the glory of God. In order to stay as close as we can to the teachings of Christ, it seems best that we form our views based upon the traditions and the Scriptures passed down to us from the very beginning. From the Scriptures of the Bible, we can read about how Christ was quite strict and specific in the Beatitudes that He preached in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, Matt 6, & Matt 7). And Jesus summarizes:
Matthew 5:48 – “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
Now, that is a tall order for ALL of us to fill because all of us were going to fall short of that mark. Fortunately for us, we are also told in the Scriptures to rely upon the redemption and forgiveness of Christ to open the gates of heaven for us.
Micah 2:13 – “The One who breaks open the way will go up before them; they will break through the gate and go out. Their King will pass through before them, the LORD at their head.”
John 10:9 – “I am the gate. If anyone enters through Me, he will be saved. He will come in and go out and find pasture.”
John 14:6 – “Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
We are all sinners. And we must rely upon Christ for our redemption and our salvation; but, does that mean that we are all saved simply because we accept Christ as our savior? Let’s take a look at the first Christians in the Scriptures to see what their behaviors can tell us about how we should approach our desire for personal righteousness. In the Scriptures we have two individuals that took completely different approaches to the Christian faith, namely: Judas Iscariot and Paul of Tarsus.
Judas Iscariot was one of the original 12 Apostles. He was selected personally by Christ to be a Bishop in Christ’s Church on earth. Yet, as we all know, he failed miserably. Let’s look at Judas in the Gospel of John:
John 12:4-8 – “But one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was going to betray Him, asked, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Judas did not say this because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief. As keeper of the money bag, [Judas] used to take from what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “She was intended to keep this perfume to prepare for the day of My burial. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have Me.”
In 1st Century Jewish Society, Jesus was criticized by the Pharisees for surrounding Himself with individuals of dubious character. He chose low-born individuals who couldn’t read or write as He found them like Peter, James, & John. He chose the loathsome tax collector (the publican) Matthew. And even though Judas was a thief, Jesus chose Judas to accompany Him on His journey to spread His Gospel to the world.
Fast forward a few years and we come to Saul of Tarsus. Saul was a Jew, “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee;” first seen in Scripture persecuting early Christians. But, he would also answer the call of Christ Jesus to be an Apostle; and he would move away from his Jewish name and life to preach the Gospel of Christ by his Latin name: Paul. We know that Paul also started out a sinner like Judas. And where Judas was a thief suffering from the sin of greed, Paul suffered from the sins of pride and murder on his heart:
Acts 8:3 – “And Saul approved of their killing him. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.”
Acts 9:1 – “Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.”
If we compare the discipleship of thieving Judas to the murdering Saul. Both followed Christ after He chose them; but, this is about the point at which their two roads begin to diverge.
As Judas followed Christ on His journey to the Cross, he began to doubt in Christ. Jesus knew the heart of Judas:
John 6:70-71 – “Jesus answered them, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” He was speaking about Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. For although Judas was one of the Twelve, he was later to betray Jesus.”
The doubt of Judas coincides with the loss of the disciples of Jesus at Capernaum. Capernaum is where Judas and the disciples of Christ expressed serious doubts regarding the teachings of Jesus. Their doubts were focused particularly on on eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ in order to reach heaven and God the Father (John 6:32-70). Whether the doubt Judas held had been cast due to confusion over the flesh and blood of Jesus or a disappointment that Jesus had come not to be an earthly lord but a Lord in Heaven without a revolt against the Romans, Judas had given up. And when the disciples walked away, Judas the Apostle denied Christ in his heart. In his denial, Judas became spiritually blind to the Lordship of Christ (Matthew 13:15, 2 Corinthians 4:3-4, 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12).
By contrast, when Jesus stopped Paul on the road to Damascus and struck him physically blind, Paul would cease his persecution of the Church and turn to follow Christ (Acts 9). Not only did Paul stop doing the evil deeds of the Pharisees, he acknowledged his evil, repented for his sins against the followers of Christ, and then began to promote the Word of God to all mankind for the remainder of his life. Paul would take his zeal to Athens and the early Churches. He would end his travels in Rome while preaching the Gospel of Christ Jesus.
The contrition and zeal of Paul is not exhibited by Judas.
2 Corinthians 7:10 – “For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.”
And when Paul, seeing himself as imperfect, looked to Christ to be complete him as a man, Judas couldn’t see beyond himself. And, where Judas gave up on Jesus, Paul would continue to encourage Christians to bear the sufferings of Christ so that the faithful followers of Christ could reach eternal reward.
Romans 8:17 – “And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.”
Romans 8:18 – “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”
2 Corinthians 1:5 – “For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.”
Paul knew that he would suffer for Christ as well; and he did:
2 Corinthians 11:25 – “Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep;”
2 Timothy 3:11 – “my persecutions, and the sufferings that came upon me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. What persecutions I endured! Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.”
Whereas Judas would sin in the company of Christ in the flesh, after observing countless miracles, and still succumb to the devil in the presence of Christ:
Paul humbled himself before Christ:
1 Corinthians 9:27 – “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Colossians 1:24 – “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.”
And still after his journeys, sermons, and teaching, Paul always feared for his salvation:
Romans 11:16-23 – “For if the firstfruit be holy, so is the lump also: and if the root be holy, so are the branches. And if some of the branches be broken and thou, being a wild olive, art ingrafted in them and art made partaker of the root and of the fatness of the olive tree: Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root: but the root thee. Thou wilt say then: The branches were broken off that I might be grafted in. Well: because of unbelief they were broken off. But thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear. For if God hath not spared the natural branches, fear lest perhaps also he spare not thee. See then the goodness and the severity of God: towards them indeed that are fallen, the severity; but towards thee, the goodness of God, if thou abide in goodness. Otherwise thou also shalt be cut off. And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again.”
Paul knew that the Jews (Israelites of the flesh, e.g. Pharisees and faithless Jews), could be removed from the tree and how the wild branches (Israelites of the promise, e.g. Gentiles) could be grafted in and/or cut out of the tree after grafting. And he professed that his salvation hinged upon his faith and his works in this life. Paul always feared for his future and his ability to remain in the company of Christ:
Philippians 2:12 – “Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now even more in my absence, continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”
Whereas Judas, blinded by pride and greed, could see nothing beyond the earthly until it was too late:
John 13:27 – “As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. So Jesus told him, “What you are about to do, do quickly.”
Matthew 27:5 – “Then he threw down the pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself.”
Paul’s faithful, diligent, and dangerous work would culminate in 13 Epistles to members of the early Church, contributions to the Gospel of Luke, and preaching far and wide across the Roman Empire. He would end up in Rome with Peter near the end of his life. Both Peter and Paul would be killed for their faith in the purges under Nero. And yet, from his writings we can see that Paul expected nothing short of such an end (2 Timothy 2:10).
Figure 1: Paul’s Journeys – Image from Encyclopedia Britannica
Now Judas did not do as he was commanded to avoid sin; nor did he endure his sufferings in this life until its natural end (Matthew 27:5). But when Paul wrote to Timothy to explain what it was to be a Bishop in the Church of Christ, he gave him the following faithful words of advice:
2 Timothy 2:8-13 – “Remember that Jesus Christ of the seed of David was raised from the dead according to my gospel: Wherein I suffer trouble, as an evil doer, even unto bonds; but the word of God is not bound. Therefore I endure all things for the elect’s sakes, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. It is a faithful saying: For if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him: If we suffer, we shall also reign with him: if we deny him, he also will deny us: If we believe not, yet he abideth faithful: he cannot deny himself.”
The moral of the story of the two sinners relevant to us all. And it shows us definitively that not one of us knows whether or not we shall see our salvation in heaven until the judgement of Christ occurs, regardless of how well we think we are doing in our present fight against sin. And so it is that until our day of judgement, each of us has been commanded to endure all physical and emotional ills that befall us no matter how tumultuous or deadly (Matthew 10:22, Matthew 24:13, Acts 14:21-22, James 1:2-4, James 1:12, 1 Peter 4-12-19).
My fellow Christians: Let us do as Paul did and Suffer for Christ. And, let us persist in our earthly turmoil in righteousness and joy with Christ at our side until the end so that we too may be saved by our Lord and Savior.