Two Tickets to Paradise, Only One Redeemed

Have you ever noticed how frequently it storms on Good Friday between 12-3pm? My family and I comment on it every year. Regardless if Easter falls in March or April, if we are home in Ohio, visiting grandparents in Florida or traveling elsewhere, there is always a gloomy part of that time frame. Scripture shares that “at noon, darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock” (Matthew 27:45). I think of it as God’s way to remind us of the cost of the gift that was given.

As a parent, I cannot imagine agreeing to sacrifice my child and watching the pain and cruelty as it unfolds. As a sinner, I cannot be grateful enough for Jesus giving His life to save mine. As a believer, I can’t help but wonder about the two prisoners being crucified beside Jesus at Calvary. Did they know who He was? Could they sense holiness just by being in His presence? Even in His weakest human moments, was there an aura around Jesus? My wondering prompts me to explore the conversation among the three of them:

The soldiers also came up and mocked Him (Jesus). They offered Him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 

But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with Me in paradise.” Luke 23:36-43

One criminal, even while facing certain death, rejects Jesus and whether he realized it or not, follows Satan. The other, acknowledges his rebellion, admits his poor choices, accepts the justice of why he is dying, and displays his faith. What does Jesus do? In His last recorded conversation with a human, He is still in the business of saving lives. He grants salvation and promises paradise to this rebel. In his final moments, this criminal is giving the ultimate second chance. Grace Wins. Mercy Wins. Freedom!

How are we like the prisoners? What are we choosing in our daily life instead of Jesus? I pointedly ask this because we also have to acknowledge that Satan wins the other criminal. For Eternity. Why? Because even at the end of his life, when there was nothing left to gain, nowhere else to go, nothing else to do, criminal #2 didn’t choose God.

Rebellion wasn’t supposed to be part of our genetic make-up, but since the serpent in the Garden of Eden, it became part of our generational DNA. And until our own final day, we will continually be faced with choices oscillating between good and evil. We can choose rebellion or freedom. I’ve heard people talk about salvation like it’s an insurance policy, saying they wish they knew when they were going to die, so they could cover all their bases and accept Christ in their final moments. Please don’t risk living-for-self at the cost of being too late to accept Christ. It breaks my heart that some don’t understand the joy and peace, the blessings and goodness that come with living a life with God in control. We don’t know our final hours, but we should live as if today is our final day:

“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12 

Fortunately, no one is beyond redemption. We see this at Calvary. Sinners can get into Heaven when they seek Jesus’ freedom. We are all broken, have failures and disappointments, and we are all offered the choice to run away from or run to God’s purpose.

What’s your form of rebellion? Do you give into temptations like Eve? Do you desire power like Haman? Do you desire control over a situation like Abram and Sarai? Are there little rules you commonly break, areas of authority you choose not to follow: from running red lights, cushioning your expense account, telling little black lies to “protect” others? What can you lay at the foot of the cross and begin picking good over evil? How can you begin picking God over self?

Earlier I stated that we are drawn to rebellion because of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. Another piece of our DNA is that we are drawn to good; it was created within us. God set heavenly eternity on our heart. He gives us purpose. He gives us the yearning for satisfaction that comes only from Him.  

As spoken by king Solomon, a man who had every material thing, power and was known to be the wisest man ever, yet describes his life as empty without God: 

“What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yetno one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live.That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him”. Ecclesiastes 3:9-14

As I started outlining this blog, I shared my desire to write about the two criminals with my cousin Denny. His quick text response summarizes the story perfectly:  

“That particular story is the gospel in one small place. To one Satan wins, the other grace wins. Even when facing death Satan can still have unbelievable presence in our life. It also goes to show you can do nothing for God other than receive his free gift. Because the criminal couldn’t even lift a finger to help with the kingdom of God”

Readers, as you’ve been following along on my Denny journey (you can meet him at The Family Wins) since I first “found” him on a podcast as Brian Tome’s spiritual mentor, let me share what freedom means to me, as written in my personal journal entry from January 30, 2021:

“Once I was able to track down my second cousin Denny Pattyn’s email (48 hours later!!), I was overwhelmed with peace. I cannot find earthly words to describe it, but as I sat down to write him, no knowing if he was still alive, if he would read it, let alone respond, the peace felt like a huge clear bubble surrounded me – one that nothing could penetrate – not sound or distraction. It was almost as if time was standing still, but in fact 45 minutes went by. It felt like anointed time and space. And I sat and typed out an email letter, tears streamed down my face. My mind kept processing through this Truth: If I believe all that is needed to go to Heaven is acceptance of Jesus, and Denny has lived his entire adult life as a believer and racing after people to bring them to Christ, then there is no doubt Denny is going to heaven…and soon. To know he’ll be with Jesus, God the Father and the Holy Spirit. Wow, let that sink in. This Truth changed how I wrote my letter to Denny. I felt like I was penning it directly to God. There are very few people I know for CERTAIN are in Heaven, and to know Denny was going to be with them soon too, it’s a thought I can’t get my arms around.”

To me, freedom is my absolute confidence and assurance that Denny is going to Heaven. (Hebrews 11:1)

How fortunate are we that our God doesn’t respond to our rebellion with revenge? Instead, He responds in love. God provides us chances (and more chances) to change. He brings people around us to teach us about our sinful and rebellious ways, even unknown family members to deepen our faith. God provides grace and mercy. He forgives and grants us eternal freedom. I pray that you will embrace the freedom His death provides to all and that you will share the offer of salvation and good living with others.

Please pray with me: Lord, please continue to prompt us to remember You and Your sacrifice. Thank You in advance for the gloomy weather on Good Friday and for the people You bring into our lives to help us live more like You desire. As we begin Holy Week, please encourage us to read about Your Son’s final days on earth. Thank You for prophesy fulfilled in riding donkeys, casting lots for clothing, and no broken bones. Mostly, thank You for Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday. Amen.

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