Several years ago myself and others leaders from our church were involved in doing prison ministry at a local county jail. What was unique about our time in that county jail was that there were two other churches working with us. If we had made an appeal to have different churches to come together and to do joint prison ministry together, it probably would not happen because of differences in church doctrines or denominations. However, because all three of our ministries saw our time as an assignment from the heart of the Lord, the spirit of unity operated helped us to work together as one team.
As the men were brought into the chapel by the correction officers on the Sundays that we had services, there were some who came in fully restrained while there were others who wore no restraints at all. There were even some men who chose to come to service because they wanted to get out of their cell for at least one hour. If the men did not take the opportunity to come out to the services they would be in their cells lockdown for twenty-three out of twenty-four hours the entire day. The only other time that a man was allowed to leave his cell would be to take shower and to go out and stretch his legs in the yard. However, when came to these men freedom of religion they were granted the extra time to come to a Sunday morning service if they wanted too.
I watched each time as the men gathered together with us to worship the Lord, the power of the Holy Spirit began to transform their hearts into believing it was not too late for them to change. Not only did we witness this with the men there but we also saw the correction officers who stay for the services though their shifts working in the jail had ended. The transformation of these men lives reminded me of the two thieves on the cross who were both being crucified along with Jesus. During all three of their crucifixion we saw one thief reject who Jesus was and another thief who’s heart change toward Christ in his dying moments. The thief who life was eternally changed happens because he acknowledged the fear of the Lord, his heart and expectation needed to be changed.
There were also two others, criminals, led with Him to be put to death. And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left.
Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise (Luke 23:32-33 and 39-43).”
The fear of the Lord
When we look at the two portions of scriptures which are found in the Gospels of Matthew 27:44 and Mark 15:32 we find that both thieves on their crosses were both mocking Jesus. However, in Luke’s Gospel, we learn that at some point the second thief conversation began to change and was different from those who passed by wagging their heads reviling Christ. The thief’s conviction about who Jesus was began to change and was no longer the same as the other thief who reviled Christ saying, “If you are the Christ, then save yourself and us also”. You ask what was it that cause the thief on the cross to change toward Christ, I believe it was from him having a fear of God. In verses 39 and 40 the thief on the cross rebuked the first thief for reviling and verbally attacking Jesus. “Then one of the criminals who were hanging blasphemed Him saying, If you are the Christ save yourself and us”. “But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation?”. When I talk about having a fear of God I am not speaking about a person being afraid or fearful of God. However, I am talking about having a reverence or a respect for the LORD.
And unto man he said, Behold, The fear of the LORD, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding (Job 28:28).
I encourage you, parents and relatives, that it is not too late for your sons and brothers to change that are incarcerated. To the sons and daughters who have fathers, grandfathers, and uncles who are incarcerated, the Lord can reach their hearts as He touched the heart of the thief on the cross. The key to our men conduct and conversation changing must first start by them having a fear of the Lord in their lives. We must visit them, write them and pray for them that they allow the Holy Spirit to help them to better sons to the Father as their serve their time behind bars. We also must admonish them that they will not necessarily get the same opportunity as the thief on the cross did in his dying moments. Nowhere in the scriptures will you find that another person had the same chance to wait until the last moment at the point of death to say Lord remember me as the second thief on the cross. The lesson that our sons and fathers must grasp is every opportunity that the Lord makes available for them to be the man of God He called them to be they must seize it at that moment.
The Heart of a man
In verse 41 the second thief on the cross said “And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong”. In this verse, we see the hearts of both men during their own time as they are being crucified. One thief is prideful and insulting toward Jesus only wanting to be rescued from his judgment that he deserved. The second thief, on the other hand, had a heart that was contrite before Jesus and was willing to accept full responsibility for his actions. Every second Sunday that we came before the men we would ask them the question which thief on the cross represented their heart before God? Did they have a heart that was filled with pride and arrogance toward Jesus or did they have a heart that was repentant and broken before the Lord?
Psalms 51:1-10, 17 and 2 Samuel says “Create in me a create heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me”. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise”.
As I stated before this text does not encourage a person to put off repenting of their sins to God until they are at their dying moments. However, this record regarding the two thieves being crucified it encourages us to know that we are in need of a Savior and that Savior name is Jesus. If we choose to be like the other thief who was prideful on the cross and allow our hearts to be hardened we can miss what God has for us. Did the thief on the cross whose heart was broken before God still have to accept responsibility for his crime? The answer is yes, however it was not too late for him to change and surrender his heart to Jesus.
The Expectation of a man
Finally, in verses 42 and 43, it reads “And Jesus said to him. Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise”. In the Greek language, the word paradise means a place of future happiness. Despite the thief past and all that he had been found guilty of, he would not allow it to cause him to doubt if he could be with Jesus in paradise. The thief on the cross would not allow his expectation of being in paradise with Jesus to be destroyed by the sentence of the Roman government for him to be crucified. If someone said he has always been a criminal and he deserved to die that would have been a true statement. However, none of those statements that people could make about him would stop him from turning his heart and expectation of being with Jesus for eternity.
The final question that I would ask you, my brother, is do you possess a kingdom expectation? We are not to have a worldly, religious or church expectation but a kingdom expectation. Despite what you may have gone through in your past and the mistakes you have made it is still not too late for you to change. Despite what your circumstances look like right now you can still be a godly man of integrity. You still can be a responsible father to your children and a respectable to son to your mother and father. The Lord has had me to write this piece to families who have men incarcerated that it is not too late for your sons, your fathers and your husbands to change. It is not too late for them to be men who would desire to become men after God’s own heart, take responsibility for their lives and stop blaming others for the failures in their lives.