Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Model Church

The Baptist Faith and Message says, “A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is a local body of baptized believers….” Although its definition contains much more, this brief partial statement provides a starting place. Most theology books or Bible studies on the subject of the church will then generally begin their discussions with reference to the Greek word translated “church” in the New Testament, e,kklhs,ia (ekklēsia). The word “church,” they will tell you, comes from the word ekklēsia, meaning “called-out ones,” making the church a body of called-out people. In fact, Baptists usually define the New Testament church as an “assembly of called-out believers,” a fact which is certainly true, but only in part.

“Church” does translate the word ekklēsia, but it does not come from that word. Instead, the word “church,” in a round about way, comes from another Greek word, kuriako,s (kuriakos). Kuriakos literally means “belonging to the Lord.” Although this word is not used in the New Testament specifically of the church, it is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the linguistic source for our word “church.” This bit of information changes the focus of our study significantly. No longer should we focus on ourselves as just an assembly, but rather on the Lord to Whom we belong and Who called out the assembly.

The character of the church as a unique possession of God gives it an importance far above any “called-out assembly.” Other assemblies have been called out for various reasons. In fact, the term ekklesia was used by the Greeks before New Testament times to designate their city councils, assemblies called out to discuss and legislate the laws governing their cities. The New Testament borrowed this word from the prevailing culture and gave it a new meaning, an assembly called out by God to worship Him. As a result of this new meaning coupled with the significance of kuriakos, no other assembly has the distinction of being called out by and of belonging to the Lord.

In addition to our calling out by and our possession by the Lord, what marks distinguish the church from other assemblies? In 1 Thessalonians 1:6-10, Paul offers a few characteristics.

1. The Word of God dominated their assembly. Paul says they “received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” (v. 6) Further, “the word of the Lord has sounded forth from [them].” (v. 8) In 1 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul adds that he thanked God for them because they did not receive God’s Word as the word of men, “but for what it really is, the word of God.” If we belong to the Lord, we will love His Word, we will live by His Word, and we will fill our hearts and minds with His Word so that His Word literally saturates our lives both individually and collectively.

2. They recognized the Lordship of Christ. Paul repeatedly called Him, “Lord Jesus Christ,” “Lord Jesus,” or just “Lord,” as he discussed their faith in Him and their response to Him. This is not a concession to the so-called doctrine of Lordship Salvation, but recognition of a relationship that follows our maturing in the faith as we grow and get to know Christ in all His glory. Paul; describes that Lordship even more clearly when he commends their repentance. In 1 Thessalonians 1:9, Paul notes that they turned to God from idols, an excellent description of what repentance really involves. They turned to God “to serve [because He is Lord] a living and true God [not dead, false idols].” Again, they serve Him because He is Lord.

Their response to Him is first one of love, then a response of obedience, obedience because of love and gratitude, no doubt, but obedience nonetheless. He is Lord and Savior at this point, not merely Savior. In our salvation the Father “rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:13-14; see also 2 Peter 1:11) Our salvation not only places us in this kingdom, but also makes us servants as well as sons. Salvation begins with receiving the gift of eternal life through Christ, but it also eventually includes submission to the King of kings and Lord of lords.

3. They “mimicked” the apostles and the Lord. That is, they lived lives that transparently revealed the power of Christ living in them. They did this by first imitating the example of the apostles (cp. v. 6). Christ’s power working through the church showed the world that they were truly Christians—“little Christs,” they truly were a kuriakos, a prized possession of the Lord.

I’ve given you here only a few characteristics of the model church at Thessalonica for you to think about and meditate on. Read all of 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 and see how many more characteristics of the model church you can find. There are more, many more. How many of them does your church measure up to? How many do you measure up to?

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible, 1995 Version.

Monday, December 5, 2016

A Christmas Love Story

Note: The following article was originally published in The Prophetic Round-Up, Abilene, Texas, November-December, 1987, edition. My thanks to Editor, Sam "Shmuel" Peak for permission to reprint articles I have written for the Round-Up. I have slightly edited this version to tighten some parts and to clarify others.  May the Lord use it to encourage and edify many. (All Scripture references in this article are from the King James Version unless otherwise indicated.)

Valentine Michael Smith came from Mars with a whole new idea about love and inter-personal relationships. When he tried to explain his idea to earth people, he developed an almost cultic following. And he incited a great deal of opposition. Particularly since his idea was not too different from many of the modern group sex philosophies. Robert Heinlein tells about Smith's cult and its influence in his revolutionary novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. (1961, 1991)

Another stranger in a strange land reveals a deeper, more profound, more lasting concept of love. A young woman named Ruth, a worshipper of the Moabite god Chemosh, left the only homeland she knew to come to Israel. There she became a noteworthy ancestor of Jesus Christ Himself. Ruth did not bring a new concept of love with her. Instead, in her experience in the house of Naomi and in the grain fields of Boaz, Ruth discovered a new kind of love and a new kind of life transcending all boundaries--racial, ethnic, geographic. And ultimately her love story is the story of God's love revealed in Christ Jesus. Check out some of the similarities.

For example, in the last chapter of the Book of Ruth, the author describes her marriage to Boaz. Among the characteristics similar to the story of Jesus there is first the focus on the divine activity surrounding the birth of her child. Before Ruth and Boaz even consummated their marriage, the people prayed for a special offspring, and openly acknowledged that her seed would be a gift from God. Repetition in the text reinforces the conviction of divine activity surrounding the conception and birth of Obed. "Let thy house be like the house of Pharez...of the seed which the Lord shall give thee..." (Ruth 4:12, italics mine), the people cried out to Boaz. Later, when Boaz "went in unto [Ruth], the Lord gave her conception and she bare a son." (Ruth 4:13, italics mine) While the conception of Obed was not a miraculous virgin conception like that of Jesus, yet it did result from a direct act of God within the womb of Ruth. God had  intervened to assure a male offspring that became an ancestor of Jesus; and as a result, significant in the Messianic teaching of God's Word.

A second characteristic is the significance of the offspring. In the hope of Israel, Ruth's seed had to be a son so he could "raise up the name of the dead...that the name of the dead be not cut off from his brethren...." (Ruth 4:10) The Hebrew Scriptures which we call the Old Testament contain little teaching about immortality and eternal life as we understand them. The patriarchs believed in a literal resurrection, as Job 19:25-27 indicates, but knew or understood little about it. To them, immortality meant perpetuating one's name and inheritance through one's offspring. And for this kind of immortality, only a son would do. This explains the prayer of Boaz in Ruth 4:10. It further explains the gravity of Onan's sin in Genesis 38:8-10, because unlike Boaz, Onan essentially cut off his brother's name. It was not a "sexual sin" as such, but rather a willful refusal to honor the inheritance of his dead brother. Boaz, on the other hand, intentionally chose to continue the name of Mahlon, Ruth's dead husband by marrying Ruthann producing a child in the name of Mahlon. More important in the history of Israel  is the fact that any son born to a household might in fact be the promised Messiah. As the last few verses of Ruth indicate, Obed was not the Messiah; but he kept the line alive in the providence of God and became an ancestor of Christ. Thus he insured, or rather God insured through him, that the "son that is given" (Isaiah 9:6) would eventually appear.

The place of Obed's birth provides yet another important analogy. "Do thou worthily in Ephratah," the people said to Boaz, "and be famous in Bethlehem." (Ruth 4:11) As the first part of the book shows, the home of Boaz as well as the home of Naomi lay in the little village of Bethlehem. So, although the text does not explicitly say so, it implies through this blessing of the people on Boaz that Obed was born there, too. Bethlehem, five miles southeast of Jerusalem, held fond memories for all Israel. Jacob buried Rachel there. David held his coronation there. Here Ruth and Boaz settled there to raise their family. And later the prophet Micah would proclaim of Bethlehem, " though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting." (Micah 5:2) Not only was Bethlehem to become famous, but Boaz's son was to become famous in Bethlehem, meaning he would receive great acclaim, renown, or appellation. Nowhere does the Scripture reveal Obed achieving renown. But from Bethlehem, his grandson David rose to become the most famous king of Israel. And from his seed came Jesus, the most worthy character in all history. And both these ancestors of Jesus were born in Bethlehem (see 1 Samuel 20:4; Matthew 2:1; Luke 2:4)

Fourthly, surrounding the birth of the child were two items of vital significance in redemptive history. The women of Bethlehem said to Naomi, "Blessed be the Lord, which hath not left thee this day without a kinsman...." (Ruth 4:14) In Old Testament theology, the term kinsman is one of the most important terms. It refers to more than just a relative of any kind, but to one who is a close relative. Robert Strong translates it "next of kin" to stress its importance. Some commentaries note that in many contexts the writers combine the ideas of relationship and redemption and indicate the kinsman is a "kinsman-redeemer." It is used in the Book of Ruth this way; and in subsequent Jewish theology, ga-al (the kinsman-redeemer) is one who buys back the property of a relative who may have lost it through negligence, debt, or some other means. The ga-al buys it back to keep it in the family. He delivers his relative from danger, from judgment, or from his enemies. So, in Ruth, the people blessed the Lord because he has provided Naomi with a redeemer. And He has provided us with a Redeemer in the ancestor of Ruth, Jesus Christ, who adopts us into His family so He can actually be our "Kinsman- Redeemer."

The second aspect of redemption history in the story of Obed is the effect of redemption. The kinsman-redeemer becomes "a restorer, and a nourisher of... old age." (Ruth 4:15) These terms indicate that God has caused life to strengthen as it aged, or more literally to "turn back" as though becoming youthful again. And "to nourish" means to maintain and to guide. In Jesus Christ, we have one who redeems life, restores its power, maintains its vitality, and guides it unto Himself.

Finally, the child of Ruth and Boaz contributed to building up of the house of Israel (Ruth 4:11). God had promised Abraham a seed that would number as the sand of the sea. Not only was Israel to grow in number, but also to develop a quality of life surpassing that of the surrounding nations. God had commanded them to be holy as He is holy (Leviticus 19:2). Obed, whose name means "worshipper," was to aid in the development of Israel along these lines, lines of holiness and quality of life. And since he fell into the lineage of the Messiah, he contributed to the greatest building up of Israel spiritually. He was the grandfather of David to whom God had made the promise of an everlasting kingdom. And of his descendant, Jesus, the wise men from the East came to Jerusalem inquiring "Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him." (Matthew 2:2) Jesus, the Son of David (Matthew 1: 1) inherited that everlasting kingdom; and even before His birth, the angel told Mary, "the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end." (Luke 1:32b-33, italics mine)

At this Christmas season, let us, too, worship Him who in love came to Bethlehem to inherit that everlasting kingdom and to be the Kinsman-Redeemer of all who trust Him for life.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Just a Closer Walk with Thee

Can Christians caught up in the rush of modern life really enjoy the presence of God?  Can they enjoy fellowship with Him, the pleasure of getting to know Him better?  Can they really experience the pleasure of His company as believers of previous generations have?

Yes, they can.  You can.  If you really want to, you can walk with God as Enoch and Noah and Levi did centuries ago.  Or as D. L. Moody or G. Campbell Morgan or Chuck Swindoll or others of this century.  Let's take Enoch again as our model.  Enoch built a life characterized by walking with God in intimate fellowship.  He could do this because God desires fellowship with human beings.  Some would even say He pursues it.  As a result, He provided the way for us to respond to Him in faith and to walk with Him by faith.  All we have to do is learn what it means to walk with God and get in step.

As we have already seen, a walk with God begins with reconciliation to God.  Remember the words of Amos 3.3:  "Can two walk together, except they be agreed?" (KJV)  Agreement with God requires reconciliation.  Sin brought alienation, isolation, and enmity.  Enoch inherited these qualities just as we all have.  For him to walk with God, the sin must be cleansed and the enmity removed and the man reconciled.  Only God can do all three, and we know He did it for Enoch because Hebrews 11.5 tells us that Enoch "obtained the witness before his being taken up he was pleasing to God."

To walk with God requires a correspondence of nature; it requires godliness.  To walk with Him, we must be like Him.  The two go hand in hand; as Matthew Henry expressed it, "What is godliness but walking with God?"  But to be godly, to walk with God, we must "become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1.4).  We must be "conformed to the image of His Son" (Romans 8.29).  For, you see, godliness is very much also God-like-ness.  And we can't become God-like all by ourselves.  Only after the Lord has placed His Holy Spirit in us can we obey the command to "consecrate yourselves...and be holy; for I am holy" (Leviticus 11.44).  With His Spirit empowering us, we then cease taking our own way.  We abandon the way of the world.  Instead, we walk with God, following the divine way, because the divine nature He's given us enables us to look at life the way the Lord looks at life, desire what He desires, enjoy the company He provides.  We learn how He looks at things and what He desires by getting close to Him, by getting to know Him.  And we get to know Him by walking with Him and by fellowshipping with Him through His Word and His indwelling Spirit.

To walk with God is to make God's Word our rule and His glory our end in all our actions.  Enoch had a word from God in his day: the promise concerning the seed of the woman, probably passed on through Seth from generation to generation until it came to him.  To believe God's Word brings glory to God.  To live by God's Word brings even more glory to Him.  And Enoch believed it and lived by it.  He obeyed God's Word and proclaimed it faithfully to his generation (Jude 14-15).  He preached God's judgment on the ungodly and pursued a godly life because only a godly life would please God.  And Enoch, remember,  "obtained the witness before his being taken up he was pleasing to God" because he walked with God by faith.  His faith was not given to him to improve the world or even to improve himself but just to walk with God.  God gives us faith by His Holy Spirit so we can walk with Him and His Word as a guide to show us how

To walk with God means we set God always before us.  It means we make it our constant care and endeavor to please Him in everything and to offend Him in nothing.  It means we surrender our will to His will.  We submit ourselves to be workers together with Him.  To walk with God means we become more and more like Him in holiness and righteousness and moral fitness.  Oswald Chambers said, "Holiness means unsullied walking with the feet, unsullied talking with the tongue, unsullied thinking with the mind--every detail of the life under the scrutiny of God.  Holiness is not only what God gives me, but what I manifest that God has given me."

We manifest what God has given us by walking with Him before the world as Children of God.  Because we are His children, we walk before Him in sincerity as Abraham did (Genesis 17.1).  We walk after Him in obedience to His leadership and commands (Deuteronomy 13.4).  As the Apostle Paul taught, we also walk in Him revealing our union with Him that has been rooted and established in faith (Colossians 2.6).  Finally, we walk with Him, as the saints of old did, in fellowship and love.  This is life's ideal and the culmination of God's glorious purpose for man--no, for you and me.  No wonder the hymn writer prayed
                                                "Just a closer walk with Thee.
                                                 Grant it, Jesus, is my plea!"

Friday, October 21, 2016

"Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God's grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God's grace."     ~~ Jerry Bridges
Disciplined by Grace

When I was a freshman in college, I signed up for an introductory course in philosophy.  I'd read somewhere that a good liberal arts education is a good basis for proper interpretation of the Bible, especially an education rich in studies in literature, history, and philosophy.  So, I took my first step toward that kind of education with philosophy 1101.  But what made this philosophy course so interesting was not the subject matter, but the professor.  Dr. Charles Lovett had an unusual philosophy of education.  When he gave an exam, he believed his students should be exposed to more truth than error.  Because of the size of the class, he mostly gave multiple choice exams.  But, unlike the usual multiple choice exam where you identify the correct answer out of four or five possible answers, Dr. Lovett's exams offered three or four correct answers and one incorrect answer.  The student had to spot the error, identify the incorrect answer.

How like the Spirit of God!  He fills our hearts and minds and lives with truth, equipping us to identify and avoid error in the world around us.  He even provides a teacher to guide us through this truth. He gives us Grace, who teaches us first to identify and to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions.  But Grace also teaches us how to live --- "sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age." (Titus 2.12)  In a nutshell, to live a life pleasing to God.  And to  please God, we need to do all three: think right, do right, live right.

First, Grace teaches us to think right, to live sensibly.  The King James Bible translates this word as soberly.  It comes from a Greek word that means with sound mind, sober-minded, self-controlled.  According to W.E. Vine, the word suggests "the exercise of that self-restraint that governs all passions and desires, enabling the believer to be conformed to the mind of Christ."  To live sensibly means we exercise our minds.  We use our minds to make sound judgments concerning the situations of our lives.  Sound judgments that enable us to distinguish between good and evil, even in the subtle situations or gray areas.  Sound judgment that enables us to determine what we should do, how we should act, how we should respond to the influences and temptations we encounter every day of our lives.  You see, the  battle with worldly passions and ungodliness, even the battle with the devil himself, is lost or won in our minds.  That's why, when Paul pleads with us to present ourselves, body and all, to God as a living, holy sacrifice, he adds the admonition " not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is...." (Romans 12.2, italic mine)

When confronting ungodliness and worldly passions, we should exercise self-control over our body as well as our mind.  Jerry Bridges says that self-control of our bodies "should be aimed primarily at three areas of physical temptation:  gluttony (in both food and drink), laziness, and sexuality or impurity."  The Apostle Paul offers sound advice on how to do this, sensibly.  He says, "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things." (Philippians 4.8).  Let your mind dwell on godly things, bring your body under the control of your mind, and live your life accordingly.

Next, Grace teaches us to do right, to live righteously.  Righteous means to be just and upright, without prejudice or partiality, according to God's standard.  It means to live so that the judgment of God approves the life we live.  To do this, we need to be God-like in our character; and that means first to be righteous, to be holy, because God's standard says, "Be holy, because I am holy." (1 Peter 1.16)  Let's look at an example.  When Paul wrote to the Ephesians to stop living like the Gentiles and to start living a life of holiness, he addressed three general areas of morality:  Honesty, peaceableness, and purity.  He said, "...laying aside falsehood, speak truth, each one of you....  Let him who steals steal no more [honesty]....  Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice [peaceableness]....  But do not let immorality or any impurity...even be named among you [purity]...."  (Ephesians 4.25,28;5.3)

Finally, Grace teaches us to live right, live godly.  In the Bible, godly means to exercise piety characterized by a Godward attitude, to be devout.  A godly person lives a life characterized by devotion to God, a devotion so intense you can almost see it on their faces.  Such devotion is found in the cry of David to God: "I shall seek Thee earnestly." (Psalm 63.1)  The Lord Himself reminds us in Jeremiah (29.13), "And you will seek Me and find Me when you seek for Me with all your heart."  If ungodly means to not regard God, godly means to have regard for Him, for His glory, for His will in every aspect of our lives, doing everything out of love and reverence for Him.

At the Alamo in San Antonio, on a wall near the main entrance is a portrait with the following inscription:  "James Butler Bonham --- no picture of him exists.  This portrait is of his nephew, Major James Bonham, deceased, who greatly resembled his uncle.  It is placed here by the family that the people may know the appearance of the man who died for freedom."  No literal portrait of Jesus exists either.  But by His Holy Spirit, each of us should "greatly resemble" Him. The likeness of the One who makes us free should be seen clearly in the lives of everyone of His true followers. And, by the discipline of grace, it can be seen.

Monday, September 26, 2016

A Declaration of Dependence

One look at those eyes, dark, alert, brimming with life, and I was hooked. M'Kala looked so tiny and fragile in my arms as she dropped her head against my shoulder. Then she dribbled on my jacket lapel. She didn't even smile at me afterward. Just raised her head and nonchalantly gazed around. Her cheeks held the faint blush of pink so characteristic of infants. And as I stroked her chin, she paused, scrunched up her nose as if preparing to cry, then smiled and began to gaze around again. Tiny fingers wrapped around my thumb and would not let go. She never blinked nor made a sound even when I gently pried her fingers free and returned her to her mother.

As she turned to rest her head against her mother's breast, I thought, what a gentle picture of our relationship with the Lord. Like little M'Kala snuggled in her mother's arms, safe and warm, we lean on the Lord in simple trust. A wise man once said, " Trust in the Lord with all your heart And do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight." (Proverbs 3:5-6) What does it mean to trust in the Lord? Solomon uses the Hebrew word batach, one of two words in the Old Testament expressing trust and dependence. Franz Delitzsch says it means to "lean  with the whole body on something, in order to rest upon it." Trust in the Lord, then, equals "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms."

It begins with life itself, life that comes from the Lord and depends on Him for its endurance. M'Kala, before emerging from the womb, received life from her parents. Her mother's body nurtured that life as she grew and developed. Now, at three months, she still depends on her mother for life and sustenance. For every breath we take, for every cell that grows in our bodies, we depend upon the Lord, "for in him we live, and move, and have our being...." (Acts 17:28a, KJV) Job said, "The Spirit of God has made me, And the breath of the Almighty gives me life." (Job 33:4)

M'Kala is still resting in her mother's arms. What a sense of security this must give a little child, to calm her fears and to assure her of protection and safety. "I will say to the Lord, the Psalmist cried, "'My refuge and my fortress, My God, in whom I trust!' For it is He who delivers you from the snare of the trapper.... He will cover you with His pinions, And under His wings you may seek refuge; His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark." (Psalm 91:2-4) With all these resources to protect us, who can harm us? When we feel threatened, we can run to our Father for safety. You see, batach is a child-like, unwavering confidence in our Father's wisdom, faithfulness, strength, and love (2 Chronicles 20:15). It just means I can depend on Him for all my needs.

We also depend on the Lord for guidance. As M'Kala grows, her parents will teach her to walk and to talk, guiding her growth along the way with their wisdom. They will show her how to dress herself, how to behave properly, how to treat others. If we trust in the Lord as Solomon advises, acknowledging Him in all our ways, He "will direct [our] paths" (Proverbs 3:6b, KJV). He will show us what we need to help us grow up in Him. The Lord  "will continually guide you, And satisfy your desire in scorched places, And give strength to your bones; And you will be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail." (Isaiah 58:11)

The ancient Hebrews knew a God whose chief characteristic was faithfulness, trustworthiness. (Deuteronomy 7:9) They knew themselves to be utterly without resources, personal or otherwise. How much better to be utterly dependent on a dependable God!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Theology of a Thief

Let's talk about theology.  Now there's a heavy word for you.  But every one of us has one, you know.  Sometimes we shy away from the subject because we think it's difficult or we just don't understand it.  Or we don't think it's important.  So, let me start by sharing with you Cooper's definition.  Theology is basically what we believe about God.  And what we believe about man and what we believe about relationships between God and man.  It's a simple definition.  Yet it comprehends all the intricate and complex facets that theologians have constructed over the centuries.  Put simply, all the formal "branches" of theology can fit into this definition and amplify its meaning.

With this in mind, let me introduce you to a conversation in which a convicted thief expresses a simple theology.  When Jesus died on the cross, His biographers tell us that two thieves died with Him.  At first, they both joined with the crowd around the crosses in reviling, mocking, and cursing Jesus.  "The robbers also who had been crucified with Him were casting the same insult at Him" (Matthew 27.44).  Then something happened - we are not told just what - that changed the heart of one of them.  While "one of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him..., the other answered, and rebuking him said, 'Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.'  And he was saying, 'Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!'" (Luke 23.39-42).

In less than fifty words, this thief expressed a whole realm of theology.  Not a collection of theories or abstract ideas, but a vital expression of faith in the living God, who was dying with him and dying for him only a few feet away.  In these few words, we can find ten or twelve facets of theology.  Let's look at two or three.

The first recorded words from the thief reveal that he believes in God: "Do you not even fear God...?"  While he may not have understood it fully, he knew the man on the center cross was God.  And in that man Jesus, he saw at least a few attributes of the infinite God.  Just in mentioning the name of God, he touches the eternal (Psalm 90.2).  From what he said to Jesus, he indicates he expected Him to last beyond His final breath into eternity.  Furthermore, God is sovereign (Revelation 19.6) and omnipotent (Isaiah 44.24).  The penitent thief believed Jesus had the power to come down from the cross as well as the power to summon legions of angels to destroy His enemies if He chose to.  This insightful thief seemed, however, to know there was something more important at the moment than any visible display of power.  He believed Jesus knew what He was doing, and trusted Him to handle the circumstances.  Looking at his present situation, the penitent thief inferred God is just (cp. Acts 17.31).  "We indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds...." 

Evaluating his deeds in this way, the penitent thief also saw himself as a sinner, worthy of condemnation.  His relationship with God was obviously impaired.  Sin does that.  It began as rebellion against God, and God continues to decribe sinners as rebels (cp. 1 Timothy 1.9).  Sin is a violation of God's law, disobedience of the divine will, moral failure.  "Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness" (1 John 3.4).  Just a few paragraphs further, John adds, "All unrighteousness is sin...." (1 John 5.17).  Sin is missing the mark of God's standard.  Lewis Sperry Chafer once wrote, "Sin is any want of conformity to the character of God, whether it be in act, disposition, or state."  The ultimate revelation of sin is faithlessness, refusing to believe God, refusing to trust Him to do what He says.  "Whatever is not from faith," Paul said, "is sin."  (Romans 14.23)  The thief agreed, because he said, "we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds...."

But...  This thief also believed he could be saved.  The one thief railed on Jesus to deliver them all from the condemnation of crucifixion.  The other thief saw beyond the cross to the eternal Kingdom of God and believed Jesus would take him there.  "Salvation is of the Lord," the Bible says (Jonah 2.9).  God Himself takes the initiative in providing salvation.  Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, declared, "Blessed be the Lord, God of Israel, For He has visited and accomplished redemption for His people, And He has raised up a horn of salvation for us...." (Luke 1.68-69)

In the early days of the American frontier, an Indian chief heard the gospel and was saved.  Later, another chief visited him and asked him about this Jesus.  Who was He?  What did He do?  The first chief made a circle of wood chips on the ground and put a worm in the center.  Then he set the chips on fire.  The worm vainly tried to escape the ring of fire.  Then the chief suddenly reached in and lifted the worm out of the ring, out of danger.  Then he turned to the second chief and said, "Me that worm."  The penitent thief saw God's horn of salvation on the center cross, saw himself as the "worm" in danger on his own cross, and cried out, "Jesus, remember me!"  And Jesus said, "Today you shall be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23.43).  Simple but vital theology.