When Jesus died, He hung on the cross between two criminals. In Greek, the word is kakourgos, a compound of evil+doer. This refers to someone who’s employment is practicing wrong things. While we might not have personally broken laws that would make us criminals in our societies, we have more in common with at least one of these two men than you might think.
Every human being has “sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23, KJV). Because “sin is the transgression of the law,” this also makes us all law breakers (1 John 3:4, KJV). Like these criminals, we have practiced things that were not right. And when we recognize that fact, we also realize that “the compensation due sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23, LEB). Like the criminals, we’re facing death and Jesus is there. But how do we respond to Him?
Pride v. Humility
One of the criminals who was hanged insulted him, saying, “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39, WEB)
One criminal resented what was going on and attacked his fellow sufferer. Matthew Henry describes him as “hardened to the last.” Even his own agony “did not humble his proud spirit nor teach to give good language.”
In contrast, the other criminal was “softened at the last.” He acknowledges the justice of their punishment as “the due reward for our deeds” (Luke 32:41, WEB). He’s much more humble, willing to accept the consequences of his actions and admit their wrongness. This basic attitude difference sets the stage for other differences between these two men.Read more →
Who responded to Jesus best when He walked on this earth? It wasn’t the religious leaders or the pious folk or the wealthy and powerful. It was the ordinary people, the sinners and the outcasts of society. But why is that? The Christian message carries good news for all people. What made some receive it joyfully and others want to kill Jesus?
How Big Is Your Debt?
There’s a story in Luke 7 that might shed some light on this. One of the Pharisees, a man named Simon, invited Jesus over for dinner. A woman known in her city as “a sinner” followed them and started crying on Jesus’ feet. She washed His feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with oil.
The Pharisee’s mind instantly went to a place of judgement. If Jesus were a prophet, he thought, then He would know what sort of woman this was and stop her from touching Him. Jesus wasn’t too impressed with that line of thought, so He told this story:
There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?” Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most.” And he said unto him, “Thou hast rightly judged.” (Luke 7:41-43, KJV)
Jesus went on to list the ways this woman demonstrated her love for him (which, incidentally, highlighted Simon’s deficiencies in hospitality). He finished His conversation with Simon by saying, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little” (Luke 7:47, KJV).
One reason the sinners responded so well to Jesus is that they knew they needed what He offered. The people who viewed themselves as righteous thought they were good enough already and found His call to repentance offensive. Read more →
When we were in Joel last week, the final verse started me thinking on the subject of God’s power to cleanse sin. We know God forgives sin, but do we believe that He will really forgive us? Our sins have separated us from God (Is. 59:2) — will He really take us back? Or if we don’t think that about ourselves, maybe we think someone else’s sins are too big for God to forgive.
And Jesus answered and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”
So he said, “Teacher, say it.”
“There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?”
Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.”
And He said to him, “You have rightly judged.” (Luke 7:40-43)
This isn’t to say we should commit sins so we can love God more, but when we have sinned God delights in forgiving those who turn to Him. He wants to turn seemingly impossible situations and seemingly irredeemable people into something good. (As a side note, this is the verse that always pops into my head when I hear people say they doubt God could forgive someone like Hitler).
Invitation to Forgiveness
God’s goal is for all the people He created to repent and be saved. There will be some who out-right reject Him (Rev. 20), and they will be punished, but what he wants is a restored relationship with all men.
“Come now, and let us reason together,” says the Lord, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword;” for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Is. 1:18-20)
This is an amazing passage. It’s like God is inviting His people to sit down and talk things over with Him. That’s one thing I love about Isaiah — the honesty and genuineness of God revealed in His messages to Israel. He really bares His heart, telling them how much He cares and how much He wants them to come back to Him so He can forgive and bless them.
I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake; and I will not remember your sins. Put Me in remembrance; let us contend together; state your case, that you may be acquitted.” (Is. 43:25-26)
He doesn’t cleanse us because we deserve it, but because He is love and because He’s in the business of restoration.
Asking For Purity
Probably the most famous prayer for spiritual cleansing is David’s Psalm 51. This records how David asked for forgiveness after he committed adultery and murder, and because of his truly repentant heart God continued working with him even after these horrible sins.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (Ps. 51:7)
Hyssop is an interesting herb in the Bible. It’s used ritualistically as a cleansing or purifying symbol (Lev. 14:1-7, 33-53; Num. 19:1-6), likely because it was literally used as a cleaning agent. Today, we’re finding out that hyssop oil has measurable antibacterial, antimicrobial, and antifungal properties. Perhaps this connection with purification is why it was used at the first Passover.
Then Moses called for all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Pick out and take lambs for yourselves according to your families, and kill the Passover lamb. And you shall take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. And none of you shall go out of the door of his house until morning. For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike you.” (Ex. 12:21-23)
With the Passover picturing Christ’s death, the hyssop (John 19:29) and blood signify not just “passing over” sins, but also removing them completely. The means by which our “red as scarlet” sins are made “white as snow” is washing in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 7:14).
It makes sense, then, that the only sins we’re told God will not pardon involve rejecting Christ’s sacrifice (Heb. 6:4-6) and blaspheming God’s spiritual, redemptive Power (Matt. 12:31-32). You can’t be forgiven if you reject and hate the way to forgiveness. But that’s the only thing God can’t forgive. All those things we humans think of as the “worst” sins — the kinds of things David did, for example — those God can work with if we repent and ask Him to help us change.
I’ve been reading a series of three books by Liz Curtis Higgs titled Bad Girls of the Bible, Really Bad Girls of the Bible, and Slightly Bad Girls of the Bible. The first book was decided upon for a book club at church, and once I’d finished it I tracked down the other two from the library. Higgs’ writing style is a little more informal than I usually like (I found myself skipping some of her “Lizzie style” commentary), but I like the short fictionalized stories that begin each chapter and bring the woman’s story into a modern setting. I also appreciate spending an entire chapter discussing the Biblical accounts verse-by-verse, and sometimes even word-by-word, since I don’t always take the time I should to really think about the people in the Bible. I’ll talk about the first two books in the series now, but I have enough to say about Slightly Bad Girls that I think I’ll save it for another post.
Higgs’ reason for studying less-than-perfect women is that they can “show us how not to handle the challenges of life.” They can also be more relatable than women who seem perfect, and studying the weaknesses we share with women who stumbled can help us avoid pitfalls in our own lives.
The women discussed in this book are Eve, Potiphar’s Wife, Lot’s Wife, The Woman at the Well, Delilah, Sapphira, Rahab, Jezebel, Michal, and The Sinful Woman. I was really impressed with the fiction in this book. Eve becomes a sheltered rich girl, Delilah is a hairdresser, and Lot’s Wife a woman who refuses to leave her home near Mount Saint Helens. The fiction story for the Woman at the Well isn’t quite as well done, but it’s hard to come up with a modern fictionalized character to stand-in for Jesus so I think we’ll cut the author some slack.
I read these books slightly out of order, so this is the one I just finished. The title is a little misleading — it’s more like additional bad girls, rather than girls who are worse than those in the last book. Higgs describes the difference between the two books like this:
If the first Bad Girls of the Bible was all about grace, this second one is all about the sovereignty of God, the unstoppable power of God to accomplish his perfect will, no matter how much we mess up.
This book covers the Medium of En Dor, Jael, The Adulteress, Athaliah, Bathsheba, Herodias, Tamar, and The Bleeding Woman. What struck me most about this book was the Bleeding Woman’s story (from Matt. 9:20-22; Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:43-48). This woman was bleeding for twelve years — that’s 4,380 days, plus a few extra for leap years. According to Levitical law, she was ceremonially unclean the entire time (Lev. 15:19-27). She couldn’t touch anyone, and probably had to live alone because everything she came in contact with became unclean. Can you imagine people not even wanting to be in the same house as you for twelve years? I like solitude as much as the next introvert, but that’s way too much alone-time.
When Jesus healed her, He took away not only her physical infirmity, but also her separation from other people. And He talked to her in public — not something teachers normally did with women, especially women who were still ceremonially unclean (Lev. 15:28-30). She is also the only woman in the Gospels who Jesus calls “daughter.” What an incredible story!
When I started writing blog posts based on my study of Romans, I had intended each post to stand on its own. But this time, to avoid recapping half of last week’s post, I’m going to refer back to “Purpose of the Law.” As background for what I am about to write, the most important concept in that post is that keeping the letter of the law is not enough to earn eternal life. Obedience must be accompanied by faith.
But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. (Gal. 3:23-24)
In both Romans and Galatians, the life of Abraham serves as a case study to illustrate justification by faith instead of by works.
What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness (Romans 4:1-5)
It is worth mentioning that true faith cannot exist without works. In Romans and Galatians, the point is that we are made righteous as a result of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and our faith in Him. We cannot earn salvation by works, but works are a necessary part of faith. In the book of James, it is clarified that good works are an outward result of true faith, and that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).
Spiritual Children of Abraham
The importance of this concept is made clear in the following verses. The promises God made to Abraham and to his descendants had to be “through the righteousness of faith,” because “if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise made of no effect” (Rom. 4:13-14). This expands the promises to include those who follow in Abraham’s righteous footsteps, not just his physical descendants. It also shows that being a physical descendant of Abraham is not enough to give you a place in God’s family, a fact Jesus Christ pointed out to the Pharisees (John 8:31-40). Each individual must demonstrate a righteous heart and be faithful to God if they expect to inherit eternal life.
Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed.” So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham. (Gal. 3:7-9)
An Attitude of Faith
The people who stood out as examples of godly conduct in the Old Testament are not commended because they kept the letter of the law perfectly, but because they were faithful. Just look at David. He is described as a man after God’s own heart, yet his sins included adultery and conspiracy to commit murder. The point is that he did not continue in those sins, he repented and was forgiven, and moved forward in righteousness.
David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin.” (Rom. 4:6-8)
For us, as with David, righteousness “shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead” (Rom. 4:24). Jesus Christ’s sacrifice makes it possible for us to “have peace with God” and gives us “access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:1, 2). We are given a chance at eternal life, not because of anything we did, but because Jesus Christ’s sacrifice gives us the opportunity to be made righteous and live a life of faith and obedience.
Is there anyone we are not supposed to pray for? I recently heard a sermon on prayer, and one of the points discussed was “Who should we pray for?” From reading James 5, the speaker came to the conclusion that we should pray for people when they ask for prayer and when they are righteous (though he admitted there were a few exceptions: Acts 28:8). When I read James 5, however, that’s not exactly what I see.
Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms. Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. (James 5:13-16)
It is a sick person’s responsibility to ask for anointing, but there is nothing to hinder us from praying for one another unless specifically asked. In fact, there are numerous verses that give a clear instruction to pray for people who would not be asking for your prayers.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. (Mat. 5:44-45)
Jesus Christ did this when He was hanging on the cross and asked forgiveness for His murderers (Luke 23:34). Stephen did much the same thing, praying “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” as he was being stoned (Acts 7:60). I’d be tempted to say just from looking at these examples that we can, and should, pray for anyone who seems to need it. However, there are a very few verses that talk about not praying.
If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and He shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. (1 John 5:16)
I’m assuming this refers to a deliberate turning away from God as described in Hebrews 10:26-31. It’s probably a similar state to that of the nation of Israel when God told Jeremiah not to pray for His wicked people. (These are the only verses I’ve found that instruct someone not to pray. If you know of any others, please let me know.)
Therefore pray not thou for this people, neither lift up cry nor prayer for them, neither make intercession to me: for I will not hear thee. (Jer 7:16)
Therefore pray not thou for this people, neither lift up a cry or prayer for them: for I will not hear them in the time that they cry unto me for their trouble. (Jer. 11:14)
Then said the LORD unto me, Pray not for this people for their good. (Jer 14:11)
Choosing not to pray for someone definitely seems to be the exception rather than the rule, however. We are to pray for those who are friendly to us and for those who persecute and despise us. We pray when we’re asked for prayer, and we’re not hindered from praying when not asked. In fact, not praying can be a sin. Even after Israel sinned by asking for a king, the prophet Samuel said, “God forbid that I should sin against the LORD in ceasing to pray for you” (1 Sam. 12:23).
Christians are to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes. 5:17) and Paul makes it clear that such prayer is not limited to praying for fellow Christians.
I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4)
Now, this doesn’t mean we need to pray everyone’s hopes and dreams come true and they prosper in every endeavor. In some cases, particularly when praying for those who are in authority and “them which despitefully use you, and persecute you”, that could mean praying against ourselves or our fellow Christians. But I think we can pray that God’s will be done, that He would work things out for good and hold people back from doing evil, and that He would open a person’s eyes so they might turn from wickedness. That seems like the kind of thing to pray if you love (agape) someone. What do you think?