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.

Monday, August 22, 2016

    The Dedication
Thanks to Thee, God,
Who brought'st me from yesterday
To the beginning of today.
Everlasting joy
To earn for my soul
With good intent.
And for every gift of peace
Thou bestowest on me,
My thoughts, my words,
My deeds, my desires
I dedicate to Thee.
I supplicate Thee,
I beseech Thee,
To keep me from offence,
And to shield me tonight,
For the sake of Thy wounds
With Thine offering of grace.
Carmina Gadelica
Celtic Invocations
Waving the White Flag

The following is a revised version of a message I wrote for the College & Career students at my church in a newsletter called emmaus report, in February, 1984. It's message is still relevant today for those of us who wish to follow Christ as disciples. Read and heed.

And the king of Israel answered and said, My lord, O king, according to thy saying, I am thine, and all that I have.  I Kings 20:4, KJV)

Can we learn anything good from a wicked king? Sure we can. In 1 Kings 20, Benhadad, King of Syria, decided to attack Samaria, take all the silver and gold, and all the women and children. Ahab, the cowardly King of Israel, surrendered without a whimper. After all, all he had to depend on was Baal, and Elijah had shown him how dependable Baal was. So, when Benhadad said, "Give up!" Ahab gave up. He gave in to an earthly king rather than commit his life to the King of kings.

Although he was wrong to surrender to Benhadad, Ahab still provides us with an excellent example of how we should commit our lives to God. He does this by the way he yields to the Syrian King. His answers to Benhadad's messengers contain four phrases that reveal how we should respond to God:

            "My Lord, O king...."

Ahab acknowledged the superior position of Benhadad. He revealed respect for the other ruler's power and authority. The phrase, "My lord," in this case, merely indicates respect for the other person; but "O king," refers to his exalted status. Likewise, when we surrender our lives to Jesus Christ, we must begin by acknowledging Who He is. Submission to His Lordship is not required for salvation. Salvation is a gift. But we are talking about submission to Christ as a disciple to his Master. As you read through the New Testament, you will notice a number of references to Jesus as "Lord and Savior." Whenever you see these two terms together, you can be certain of two things:

1. They always appear in this order--first, Lord; then, Savior. Jesus is always Lord. It's Who He is. He became Savior when He sacrificed Himself for our sins. So, now He is Lord and Savior.
2. They inseparably go together.

In other words, you cannot acknowledge Jesus as Savior without eventually submitting to Him as Lord. Note: eventually. Lordship is a relationship that comes after salvation, sometimes long after. You may wonder, "I never heard of this before. I was only told I had to receive Him as Savior. Since I did not even acknowledge Him as Lord at that time, does that mean I am not saved?" Absolutely not! Submission to His Lordship is not required to become a child of God. But to follow Him as a disciple does mean submission. Remember what Jesus said to the rich young ruler, "If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." (Matthew 19:21, NAU) Perhaps you need to do the same in much the same way Ahab did to Benhadad. First, acknowledge His Lordship. Jesus is Lord. Then acknowledge His claim. This was Ahab's next step:

            "According to your word...."

Ahab based his commitment on the word of the Syrian king who subjugated him. He did not make up his own mind either on what to surrender or how much to surrender. Furthermore, he did not consult his advisors, priests, prophets--or even his wife in this case. In his situation, Ahab might have been wiser if he had consulted someone else. Still, he didn't; but rather committed himself according to the word of Benhadad. In other words, his conqueror determined the terms of surrender. Here again, in spite of himself, Ahab reveals a good example for Christians. How often do we decide for ourselves how much of our lives we are going to turn over to Jesus? In a pamphlet entitled, "My Heart, Christ's Home," Robert Munger likens the heart of a Christian to a house with many rooms. Say it has six rooms, and you tell Jesus He can have five of them, but you reserve the playroom for yourself. This will never do! First, it means you have not submitted to Him at all. You are still in charge of the entire heart because you have decided which rooms Jesus can have and which He can't. Second, and perhaps more important, you have ignored His Word. He hasn't left us in the dark as to what He expects of us. His Word clearly spells out the terms of surrender; and if we intend to fill our lives with His fullness and blessing, we must submit to His terms. "According to [His] word," we must, like Ahab, respond first with

"I am thine...."

Before we commit our substance to God, before we give Him either one day of our time or one tenth of our money, we must surrender ourselves to Him. Turn to the Apostle Paul for the classic detailed passage on Christian stewardship and giving. You'll find it in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. Before he gets too far into his discussion of giving, Paul commends the believers in Macedonia because they "first gave their own selves to the Lord, the will of God" (2 Corinthians 8:5, KJV). This is ever the Biblical order. Substance comes later as a token of your commitment. But God wants you first. What difference does it make if you give Him a tenth of your money and then give the other nine-tenths to the devil? Or if you give God one day of the week, and live for the devil the other six days? God doesn't want your money or your time nearly as much as He wants you! Your first commitment to God must, therefore, be as Ahab's to Benhadad--"I am thine...." Then, you can legitimately add...

"and all that I have."

Here, Ahab presents a supreme example. Unlike Abraham and the other patriarchs, Ahab does not offer only a portion or a proportion of his goods. He turns it all over to the king. And God wants you to acknowledge His Lordship over all that you have. It's a principle of ownership and possession. You may have possession, but God has ownership. He has only given you the use of the things He has entrusted to your care. He may require you to give a portion of it back to Him, but He certainly expects you to recognize that it all belongs to Him. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul asks them, "What do you have that you did not receive?" (1 Corinthians 4:7, NAU) God gave us everything we have. And there are strings attached to these gifts. He insists that we use them according to His Word for His glory to accomplish His purpose. We do that by first  submitting to Him completely, all that we are and all that we have. Surrendering ourselves and our possessions to be used for His glory.(cp. 1 Corinthians 10:31; Philippians 1:11)

Submission is not a popular subject. Yet it is a reality we all must face. Daily, we submit ourselves to our employers, to the rules and regulations of our jobs, as well as to the laws of our community and our country. Why, then, do we find it so difficult to submit ourselves to the Lord Jesus? Let's overcome that difficulty. Let's turn our lives over to Him by saying to Jesus what Ahab said to Benhadad: "...according to your word, my Lord, O King; I am yours, and all that I have...."