Today I’m sharing from John MacArthur’s Grace to You blog.
by John MacArthur
Have you ever considered the stark contrast between Judas Iscariot and the thief on the cross? One was a close disciple of Jesus Christ and gave three years of his life to the best, most intensive religious instruction available anywhere. But he lost his soul forever. The other was a hardened, lifelong criminal who was still mocking everything holy while being put to death for his crimes. But he went straight to paradise forever.
The difference in the two men could hardly be more pronounced—nor could the endings to their respective life stories be more surprising. Judas was a disciple in Christ’s closest circle of twelve. He preached, evangelized, ministered, and was even given power “over all the demons and to heal diseases” (Luke 9:1). He seemed like a model disciple. When Jesus predicted that one of the twelve would betray Him, no one pointed the finger of suspicion at Judas. He was so thoroughly trusted by the other disciples that they had made him their treasurer (John 13:29). They evidently saw nothing in his character or attitude that seemed questionable, much less diabolical. But he betrayed Christ, ended his own miserable life by suicide, and entered into eternal damnation laden with horrific guilt. Christ’s words about him in Mark 14:21 are chilling: “Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.”
The thief on the cross, on the other hand, was a career criminal—a serious enough villain that he had been sentenced to die by the slowest, most painful form of capital punishment known to man. He’s called a robber in Matthew 27:38—the Greek word there speaks of a brigand or a highwayman. He was crucified with a partner—both had been slated to be executed along with Barabbas, an insurrectionist and killer (Luke 23:18–19). All of that indicates that the thief on the cross was part of a gang of cutthroat ruffians who stole by violence and lived by no law but their own passions. He was clearly vicious, mean-spirited, and aggressive because in the early hours of the crucifixion, both he and his cohort in crime were taunting and reviling Jesus along with the mocking crowd (Matthew 27:44).
But as that thief watched Jesus die silently—“oppressed . . . afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7)—the hardened criminal had a remarkable last-minute change of heart. Literally in the dying moments of his wretched earthly life, he confessed his sin (Luke 23:41), uttered a simple prayer: “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42)—and was ushered that very day into paradise (Luke 23:43), clothed in perfect righteousness, all his guilt borne and paid for in full by Christ.
Those who think heaven is a reward for doing good might protest that this was throwing justice out the window. The thief had done nothing whatsoever to merit heaven. If it’s possible to forgive such a man so completely in the dying moments of a wretched life filled with gross sin, wouldn’t it also be proper for Judas’s one act of treachery to be canceled (or mitigated) on the basis of whatever good works he had done while following Christ for three years? People do occasionally raise questions like that. The Internet is dotted with comments and articles suggesting Judas was dealt with unfairly or judged too harshly.
Judas himself seemed to be the type of person who kept score on such matters. He protested, for example, when Mary anointed the feet of Jesus with a costly fragrance. He knew the precise value of the ointment (equal to a year’s wages), and he complained, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?” (John 12:5). He no doubt would have thought that the grace Jesus showed the thief was inappropriately extravagant as well.
People who have devoted their lives to religion do sometimes seem to resent it when God reaches out and graciously redeems someone whom they deem unworthy of divine favor.
Justice vs. Grace?
What we have to bear in mind is that all people are totally unworthy. No one deserves God’s favor. We are all guilty sinners who deserve nothing less than damnation. No one who has sinned has any rightful claim on the kindness of God.