From Bitterness to Repentance:
The Story of the Thief who was Angry with God
IntroductionHave you ever been angry with God? Have you ever cried out against Him? Have you ever accused God of doing evil? If so, you are not alone.
When calamity strikes, it is almost a gut reaction to want to put God on trial. The instinct to accuse God is strong. This is true for all kinds of people. Even a Christian might cry out against God in the emotional heat of a tragic moment. He might accuse God of injustice and give full vent to his bitterness and disappointment with Providence. Certainly, it is wrong to accuse God like this.
However, that does not mean it is wrong to ask God the why-questions, for there is a difference between accusing God and questioning God. Indeed, there is a reverent way of questioning God, and the Bible provides several examples. One example is Jeremiah 12:1, "Righteous art Thou, O Lord, that I would plead my case with Thee; Indeed I would discuss matters of justice with Thee: Why has the way of the wicked prospered? Why are all those who deal in treachery at ease?" Here, we see that Jeremiah is able to ask his questions in a way that still affirms the righteousness of God. He asks his questions without impugning God's character.
Since it is okay to question God but wrong to accuse God, how should we respond when people cry out against God in the midst of the agony of their suffering?
As fellow human beings, we certainly want to be compassionate towards those who have experienced a great loss. We want to be gentle with them. By God's grace, in many cases, especially if the grieving person is a Christian, he will eventually ask God to forgive him for his sinful outbursts, and he will, on his own, seek to be reconciled to God.
But what if days and weeks go by, and the person never repents of his anger towards God? What if, instead, his disappointment with God is allowed to fester and allowed to grow deep roots of bitterness. It is one thing to be angry with God for a moment, but it is a very dangerous thing to be angry with God for the rest of your life.
Today we are going to be talking about the thief on the cross, the one we will someday meet in heaven, the one who repented. His story is about a journey from bitterness to repentance, from anger against God to reconciliation with God. I am interested in this story for four reasons:
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark tell us how his story begins. The gospel of Luke tells us how his story ends. And if you are angry with God today, I pray that your story will end the way his story ended, that your story will have a happy ending, and that you will repent and seek to be reconciled to God.
Please turn to Matthew chapter 27. We will be reading verses 37 through 44. There is a parallel passage in Mark 15:26-32, but the passage from Matthew will be enough to tell us how the thief's story begins.
Matthew 27:37-44, "And they put up above His head the charge against Him which read, 'THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.' At that time two robbers were crucified with Him, one on the right and one on the left. And those passing by were hurling abuse at Him, wagging their heads, and saying, 'You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.' In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking Him, and saying, 'He saved others; He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross, and we shall believe in Him. 'HE TRUSTS IN GOD; LET HIM DELIVER Him now, IF HE TAKES PLEASURE IN HIM; for He said, "I am the Son of God."' And the robbers also who had been crucified with Him were casting the same insult at Him."
From this passage, please note two things about those who were crucified with Jesus. First, there were two robbers. One was on Jesus' right, and one was on Jesus' left. Second, at this point in the story, both of them were blaspheming Jesus. Both were insulting Him. This is how the story of the thief on the cross begins.
Now, let's turn to Luke chapter 23. The gospel of Luke, like Matthew, tells us how the story begins, but it also tells us how it ends.
Luke 23:32-43, "Two others also, who were criminals, were being led away to be put to death with Him. When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. But Jesus was saying, 'Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.' And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves. And the people stood by, looking on. And even the rulers were sneering at Him, saying, 'He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One.' The soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, and saying, 'If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!' Now there was also an inscription above Him, 'THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.' One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, 'Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!' But 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 are suffering 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!' And He said to him, 'Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.'"
That is how one thief's story ends; it ends with him being reconciled to God. Now let us consider this thief's story in greater detail. I think you might be surprised over how much we have in common with him. We are going to consider ten things:
First, we consider his cross.
Although no one here has ever been crucified, many people here have experienced some aspects of this man's trial.
Such was his cross and, perhaps in some sense, such has been yours. So although you have never been crucified, you do know something of this man's suffering. You share some aspects of his trial.
You also know something of his anger. His was an anger against God. We can speak of his anger against God in two ways: anger as directly demonstrated and anger as commonly demonstrated. The Bible directly reveals his anger by telling us that both thieves joined the others in mocking Jesus. They especially mocked Him with respect to his deity and his power. When they mocked Jesus, they mocked God, even though at the time they did not realize He was God. This is how they directly demonstrated their anger against God.
There is also the common demonstration of anger against God. God is accused of being unjust, unfair, unkind, uninvolved, and indifferent with regard to the suffering and prosperity of people. I do not know how much of this the thieves would have said, but I do know that this is a common complaint among bereaved people today. I have heard this complaint on many occasions.
Have you ever known this kind of anger? Have you challenged the wisdom of God during a time of unexplained difficulty? Have you doubted the power of God when God said no to your petitions for help? Have you dismissed the love of God when a baby was born deformed, when a spark ignited a can of gas and a man suffered third degree burns over most of his body, when a young teenager died because of a drunken driver, or when a doctor said that horrible word: cancer?
Have you been disappointed with God, and have you cried out against Him? Have you made God the object of your wrath? Before you answer, let us consider that there are many ways in which people can express anger against God: many ways in people can defy God and insult Him
Have you ever expressed anger towards God in one of these ways? If you have, then in some sense, you know the anger that was expressed by the thief on the cross.
His change of heart.
Then one of the thieves had a change of heart. One of them humbled himself before Jesus. Why? For at least initially, it was clear from their conduct that neither of the thieves believed Jesus was who He said He was.
Indeed, the circumstances of the thieves were very similar. Both had been crucified; both were wicked; both were venomously angry; and both were writhing in continuous and excruciating pain. Why did only one of them have a change of heart, and why did the other remain the same?
It was because of God. God is in the business of changing hearts. He takes hearts that are against Him, and He changes them so that they are for Him. The fact that God changes hearts is validated in several scriptures, including Ezekiel 36:26-27: "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances."
So what exactly did God do to this thief on the cross who had a change of heart? Did God turn him into some kind of robot? Did God empty out the man's brain and turn him into some kind of zombie with no will of his own. Certainly not. We still do what we choose to do, but, first, God has to change us on the inside so that we will choose to do what is right.
Horatius Bonar, in his very good article God's Will and Man's Will, discusses how God's decisions and Man's decisions work together when a person is converted. In this excerpt from the article he says:
I do not deny that in conversion man himself wills. In everything that he does, thinks, feels, he of necessity wills. In believing he wills; in repenting he wills; in turning from his evil ways he wills. All this is true. The opposite is both untrue and absurd. But while fully admitting this, there is another question behind it of great interest and movement. Are these movements of man's will towards good the effects of the forthputting of God's will? Is man willing, because he has made himself so, or because God has made him so? Does he become willing entirely by an act of his own will, or by chance, or by moral suasion, or because acted on by created causes and influences from without?
I answer unhesitatingly, he becomes willing, because another and a superior will, even that of God, has come into contact with his, altering its nature and its bent.
So while one of the thieves became repentant, it was only because God had made him willing to repent. But why just one thief? Why not both? Only God knows. For as we read in Romans 9:18, "He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.
For many people, the main question here is this: Why doesn't God change everyone's heart so that everyone will repent and be saved? This is certainly a reasonable question to ask. However, there is another question that is even more sublime, a question that reflects the holiness of God and the intrinsic evil of disobedience to God. That question is this: Why does God save anyone at all. Why is grace ever extended to any human being?
This is your point of connection with the thief on the cross. Have you been brought to a saving faith in our Lord Jesus Christ? If so, why? Why you and not someone else?
Let the magnitude of the gift of salvation sink in. Even if God, for a season, has made you to live alone, in the deepest poverty, and with the most dreadful bodily afflictions, if He has, indeed, saved your soul, then He has dealt more graciously with you than with the richest and most pampered prince who enjoys this world for a season and, yet, has Hell for his future home.
In light of the richness of God's mercy towards you in granting you the salvation of your soul, can you really justify being angry with God?
We come now to the thief's question. Because the thief's heart had been changed, his eyes were opened, and he began to see his situation for what it really was. So in Luke 23:40-41 he questioned the other thief saying: "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."
What a change! He asked the other thief if he even feared God. We could ask this same question of almost every person who inhabits our nation. So much has any righteous fear of God been lost in our time that most people do not even understand what it is they have lost. However, there are also unrighteous ways in which people fear God. In fact, these unrighteous ways of fearing God are commonly practiced. The phrase don't fear, makes a convenient acrostic for remembering them.
And speaking of darts, the word darts provides another useful acrostic. It provides a convenient way for remembering how the righteous fear God. Those who have been born again continue to fear God in five ways:
So we are left with this convenient acrostic, DON'T FEAR DARTS. The unrepentant thief's actions reflect the "N" in the word don't: he seems to have no fear of God at all. On the other side, the repentant thief's actions reflect the "A" in the word fear. He is experiencing, due to a work of the Holy Spirit, that anxious fear that ultimately leads to his salvation.
Now, does anger against God imply anything about a person's fear of God? If a person is angry with God, how does this anger inform our understanding of how this person fears God with respect to dread, awe, reverence, trembling, and submission?
This is one of the dangers of being angry with God. You cannot be angry with God and have a righteous fear of God at the same time.
What kind of fear of God do you have? I submit that most people in our culture are more like the unrepentant thief. They recognize God as having some kind of power, but they have no dread of God exercising His power against them. So they mock God. They tell jokes about Him. They make the Name of God and the things of God a by-word in their speech. Then, when Sunday comes, they ignore the one day in the week that God has set aside for himself.
Or if they are not mocking God, they treat him lightly. They take the Lord of the universe and try to turn Him into their good buddy: a harmless chum who, even though He gets irritated with them once in a while, would never really do anything to harm them. Thus, they believe that everyone who dies goes to heaven, and they believe that God is too kind to ever send anyone to hell.
Their God is a God who is as tame as an elderly grandparent and as harmless as a person in a wheelchair. How different this is from the God of the Bible. Revelation 21:8 brings clarity to this confusion: "But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death."
We now consider the thief's confession. The work God did in the thief's heart especially changed two things: It changed the way he saw himself, and it changed the way he saw Jesus.
It changed the way he saw his own sinfulness. Never had he seen the evil of his own heart so clearly. Thus he says to the other thief: "We are receiving what we deserve for our deeds."
Perhaps some of you can remember when you first saw your sin for what it really was. Suddenly, it wasn't funny or cute anymore. Pride was turned to shame; arrogance was turned to remorse; and you cried out to God for forgiveness. No longer did you try to defend your honor or minimize your guilt. You stood condemned, and you knew that God would be fully justified in sending you to Hell. Yet, there was hope in Jesus, and you embraced that hope with all your being.
The thief's change of heart, in addition to changing the way he saw himself, also changed the way he saw Jesus. He saw His innocence, His deity, His eternality, His love, His mercy, and His power.
Perhaps it was these forgiving words that encouraged Him that Jesus might be willing to forgive him as well.
Thus, we now consider his petition: "Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom."
The simplicity of this man's petition should encourage every young person in this place. There may be a lot about the Bible and a lot about Jesus that you neither know nor understand. But if you know that you are a big sinner who needs a big Savior, you know enough to come to Jesus. This man knew that Jesus was able to save sinners, and he knew that he, himself, was a sinner who needed to be saved.
I wonder how much his petition differed from what I prayed as a third grade boy. I don't even remember what I prayed or how much I understood, but I did know this much--I knew that if I was ever going to go to heaven, I needed Jesus. And that same Jesus who said, "let the children come unto me," gave peace to my troubled and fearful heart when I came unto Him. He comforted my soul.
Now, we consider the comfort the thief experienced. His comfort rested in the words he heard from the Savior, the words we read in Luke 23:43: "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise."
How much could we endure if we knew that today we would be in Paradise with our Lord? How much pain, how much deprivation, how much shame, how much humiliation, how much loneliness, could we endure if we only knew that in just a few hours it would all be over.
Unlike this thief, most of us expect to live a few more days, a few more weeks, a few more months, or even a few more years. Yet, how quickly do these days disappear. Meanwhile, God gives us the Holy Spirit to comfort us, to lead us, to teach us, and best of all, to make Christ known unto us.
While we look forward to the comforts of Heaven, God has not left us alone. He has left us with the Comforter. He will comfort us in all of life, and He will comfort us in death.
We now come to the death of the thief. Because of Jesus, death went from being a dreaded assailant to being the servant who would escort the repentant thief to the gates of paradise. The sting of death had been taken away. Nevertheless, the physical process of dying was just as hard as it had ever been. John 19:30-34 describes how the thieves died: "When Jesus therefore had received the sour wine, He said, 'It is finished!' And He bowed His head, and gave up His spirit. The Jews therefore, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. The soldiers therefore came, and broke the legs of the first man, and of the other man who was crucified with Him; but coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs; but one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water."
The thieves died a horrible death. In their awkward position on the cross, they could not breathe very well unless they stiffened their legs. Once their legs were broken, it was just a few minutes before they suffocated.
Death is coming for all of us too. For some people, it will happen so quickly that it will be like walking from one room into another. On the other hand, for many of us, it will be the greatest trial we have ever experienced. But when it comes, the thief's comfort will be our comfort too--this day you will be with me in paradise.
His lesson for us.
So what does this thief have to teach us? Once the thief understood who Jesus was, he no longer challenged His deity or His power. Nor did he follow the common pattern of people today in accusing God of being unjust, unfair, unkind, uninvolved, and indifferent. Even though this man's suffering was severe and his emotions were on edge, he humbled himself before God.
Now remember, this is a converted thief we are talking about. We are not talking about Job here. I make this point, because when I encourage people to trust God unconditionally the way Job did, sometimes they dismiss my advice by saying, "I am not Job." Well, this thief was not Job either, yet he was able to stop being angry with God. In fact, if both Job and this thief could preach to us today, I believe they both would say, "Repent of your anger and humble yourself before God. God is not the one on trial--you are. God is not the one who is being tested."
Will we humble ourselves and seek to be reconciled to God? Or will we cling to our anger, our bitterness, and our disappointment. Will we entrust ourselves to the wisdom of God, or will we, like Eve in the Garden of Eden, trust our own observations and conclusions.
Two thieves, two different stories, two different decisions, two different endings, and two different destinies--now their story, as far is this world is concerned, is over. Their journey is done. They have arrived at their eternal homes: one in Heaven and one in Hell.
But your story is still in progress. Many trials are yet to be faced, and many decisions are yet to be made. How will your story end?
Let us pray:
Father, were it not for your grace, all of us would be like the thief who never repented, and were it not for the things you do to keep our faith alive, none of us would persevere to the end. Thank you for saving us, and thank you for preserving us. I pray for the unsaved who have heard these words, that they will seek to be reconciled to God. And I pray for the believers who have heard these words, that where needed, you will work in their hearts to replace their bitterness with repentance and their anger with trust. Amen.