There is a beautiful and remarkable story from the Gospel of Luke about two men
who lived very similar lives, yet who had entirely different eternal destinies:

Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” The soldiers also came up and mocked him. 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 Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “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, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
(Luke 23:32-43, NIV)

Almost two thousand years ago, two little boys were born into this world. Who knows what hopes and dreams their parents had for them when they were babies? Who knows what dreams they had as children of what they might become when they grew up? Somewhere, somehow, a huge gap developed between those hopes and dreams and the reality of what came to be. Both those little boys grew up to become thieves who led lives that were a sorrow to themselves and to others. Both were to die a terrible death for their crimes. What choices did they make along the way that led them to such a fate? What was the first fork in the road where choosing right instead of wrong might have led them into the way of life rather than death?

I know how my wife and I have prayed over the years for our four boys. We ask God’s help every day to teach them what is right, and to keep them from what is wrong. We do not live in a pretty world. There is so much evil in our society today that reaches out to take hold of young lives, to take them down paths most never intend to take. Drugs, sexual immorality, abuse of alcohol, gangs, violence… how many lives, young and old, are messed up by these every day in our country? One of the most famous sayings of my childhood in the 1960’s was “I’m okay, you’re okay,” but you know something, we are not okay!

Two little boys… who grew up to be thieves. A father wrote a letter to his beloved son a long time ago, hoping to spare his child the trouble and sorrow that evil inevitably brings. In the book of Proverbs he wrote: “My son, if sinners entice you, do not give in to them. If they say, ‘Come along with us; let’s lie in wait for someone’s blood, let’s waylay some harmless soul; let’s swallow them alive, like the grave, and whole, like those who go down to the pit; we will get all sorts of valuable things and fill our houses with plunder; throw in your lot with us, and we will share a common purse’—my son, do not go along with them, do not set foot on their paths; for their feet rush into sin, they are swift to shed blood…”. And then comes the most telling line of the entire passage: “These men lie in wait for their own blood; they waylay only themselves! Such is the end of all who go after ill-gotten gain; it takes away the lives of those who get it.” (Proverbs 1:10-16, 18-19, NIV)

The Bible declares, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit (of God), from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Galatians 6:7-8, NIV) Many people think that they can do anything they wish with their lives—with no one to call them to account. In fact, people often do seem to get away with their evil deeds—at least for a while. But everyone of us, not just thieves and murderers, will one day stand before a Heavenly Judge who knows everything that anyone of us has ever done or thought. Nothing is hidden from Him! No president, movie star, or man on the street will escape. The Scriptures declare,

The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless. They say, “Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?” But the Lord responds, “He who walks righteously and speaks what is right, who rejects gain from extortion and keeps his hand from accepting bribes, who stops his ears against plots of murder and shuts his eyes against contemplating evil—this is the man who will dwell on the heights…”.
(Isaiah 33:14-16, NIV)

But what about these two thieves dying on either side of Christ? Their lives were over. They had done their evil deeds and there was no hope left. Can’t you just hear the bitterness and desperation in the voice of the thief who mocked Jesus? “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” He had lived his life and done his thing, and now he was dying for it! But Jesus had lived a life of love towards God and people. He healed the sick, the blind, and the lame—and He was dying for it, too! What difference does it make whether a man or woman chooses to do good or evil? We all die in the end! Even the Apostle Paul declared, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’” (1 Corinthians 15:32, NIV)


But listen for a moment to the words of the second thief. He was no better off than the first, but what extraordinary words he spoke! He rebuked his fellow thief: “‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘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.’” Ah, the notes of what the Bible calls true repentance! Repentance is a word that means to “turn around,” to realize that one is in the wrong, and then to change one’s heart and do what is right. This man wasn’t bitter at being unjustly punished! He was admitting that he was wrong, and that the judge who sentenced him to death was right! How often do you hear someone today say things like that? And the words he spoke next were even more extraordinary: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Not only did he understand that Jesus did not deserve to die, he knew who Jesus was! He knew that Jesus was the “King of the Jews,” that the sign tacked onto Jesus’ cross by Pilate, the local Roman ruler, was no accident. It was a sign to men for all time that the Son of God came down from heaven to lay down his life on a cruel cross so that you and I won’t have to die as a result of God’s just punishment for our sins. As John the Baptist proclaimed to all around him when he first saw Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” 

And how did Jesus respond to the second thief? Please notice that Jesus said nothing in response to the first! The first thief did not ask for heaven, so he got hell. And he got hell, not because God wanted him to, but because he chose it for himself in the face of all the mercy that was right there beside him. Truly, as the Scriptures declare, “You do not have, because you do not ask God.” (James 4:3, NIV) The second thief asked for better things, and Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” In Paradise… that very same day… right after death! What did the second thief do to deserve such a wonderful fate? Absolutely nothing… except what God asks of all of us to do, that we admit that we are sinners, and believe in God’s only Son who laid down His life to ransom us from the power of sin and death!

How did the second thief understand all this when so many others present at Jesus’ crucifixion did not? He must have heard at least something of what Jesus was saying as He preached the Gospel, the “Good News,” for three years in the dusty little towns and villages of Israel. On one such occasion, Jesus had declared to a large crowd, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty… For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:35, 38-40, NIV)

Thank God that the Judgment Day, when everyone will appear before the throne of God, won’t be like what many seem to believe. They hope that God will put their good deeds on one side of the scale, and their bad deeds on the other. And they expect that their good deeds will outweigh their bad! I don’t know about you, but I would be in big trouble if the Judgment Day were like that. And what about the second thief? The weight on the bad side of the scale would have been so overwhelming that the scale would have slammed down on the counter and dented it! No one will be able to stand before the Living God on the Judgment Day and claim for a moment to be righteous by their own efforts. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” No wonder Paul also wrote in that letter, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:16, NIV)

Do you hear Jesus calling to your heart today? He laid down His life for you so that you “might have life, and… have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) He is also the one who said, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:19-20, NIV) Do you hear Him knocking at the door of your heart? Will you open that door to Him and to the eternal life He will give you? Two little boys made a mess out of their lives a long time ago—but one of them made it into heaven! God had watched over both of them from childhood, more than even their parents did, because He wanted to have mercy on both of them, but one said no!

Do you know that the Apostle Peter wrote, “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:8-9, NIV, emphasis added) God did not make hell for man, but for the devil who, being the most beautiful of God’s angels, rebelled against God because he wanted to be greater than the Most High. If men end up in hell, it will not be because God wanted them to go there. It will be because of their own stubborn refusal to turn away from their sins, and because they reject the Son of God who shed His own precious blood to save their souls.

What will you say to Jesus? Will you mock Him as one of those thieves did, and die forever? Or will you say “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,” as the second thief did—and live forever, in heaven, with Jesus?



Copyright ©1998 Christopher N. White. Revised 2013.

NIV: The New International Version, The Zondervan Corporation: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1995.