Meet Edwin Thomas, a master of the stage. During the latter half of the 1800s, this small man with the huge voice had few rivals. Debuting in Richard III at the age of 15, he quickly established himself as a premier Shakespearean actor. In New York he performed Hamlet for 100 consecutive nights. In London he won the approval of the tough British critics. When it came to tragedy on the stage, Edwin Thomas was in a select group.
When it came to tragedy in life, the same could be said as well. Edwin had two brothers, John and Junius. Both were actors, although neither rose to his stature. In 1863, the three siblings united their talents to perform Julius Caesar. The fact that Edwin’s brother John took the role of Brutus was an eerie harbinger of what awaited the brothers-and the nation-two years hence.
For this John who played the assassin in Julius Caesaris the same John who took the role of assassin in Ford’s Theatre. On a crisp April night in 1865, he stole quietly into the rear of a box in the Washington theater and fired a bullet at the head of Abraham Lincoln. Yes, the last name of the brothers was Booth-Edwin Thomas Booth and John Wilkes Booth.
Edwin was never the same after that night. Shame from his brother’s crime drove him into retirement. He might never have returned to the stage had it not been for a twist of fate at a New Jersey train station. Edwin was awaiting his coach when a well-dressed young man, pressed by the crowd, lost his footing and fell between the platform and a moving train. Without hesitation, Edwin locked a leg around a railing, grabbed the man, and pulled him to safety. After the sighs of relief, the young man recognized the famous Edwin Booth.
Edwin, however, didn’t recognize the young man he’d rescued. That knowledge came weeks later in a letter, a letter he carried in his pocket to the grave. A letter from General Adams Budeau, chief secretary to General Ulysses S. Grant. A letter thanking Edwin Booth for saving the life of the child of an American hero, Abraham Lincoln. How ironic that while one brother killed the president, the other brother saved the president’s son. The boy Edwin Booth yanked to safety? Robert Todd Lincoln.
Edwin and James Booth. Same father, mother, profession and passion-yet one chooses life, the other, death. How could it happen? I don’t know, but it does. Though their story is dramatic, it’s not unique. Abel and Cain, both sons of Adam. Abel chooses God. Cain chooses murder. And God lets him. Abraham and Lot, both pilgrims in Canaan. Abraham chooses God. Lot chooses Sodom. And God lets him. David and Saul, both kings of Israel. David chooses God. Saul chooses power. And God lets him. Peter and Judas, both deny their Lord. Peter seeks mercy. Judas seeks death. And God lets him.
In every age of history, on every page of Scripture, the truth is revealed: God allows us to make our own choices. And no one delineates this more clearly than Jesus. According to Him, we can choose:
• a narrow gate or a wide gate (Matthew 7:13-14)
• a narrow road or a wide road (Matt. 7:13-14)
• the big crowd or the small crowd (Matt. 7:13-14)
We can choose to:
• build on rock or sand (Matthew 7:24-27)
• serve God or riches (Matthew 6:24)
• be numbered among the sheep or the goats (Matthew 25:32-33)
“Then they [those who rejected God] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46, NIV). God gives eternal choices, and these choices have eternal consequences.
Isn’t this the reminder of Calvary’s trio? Ever wonder why there were two crosses next to Christ? Why not six or 10? Ever wonder why Jesus was in the center? Why not on the far right or far left? Could it be that the two crosses on the hill symbolize one of God’s greatest gifts? The gift of choice.
The two criminals have so much in common. Convicted by the same system. Condemned to the same death. Surrounded by the same crowd. Equally close to the same Jesus. In fact, they begin with the same sarcasm: “The two criminals also said cruel things to Jesus” (Matthew 27:44, CEV). But one changed.
One of the criminals on a cross began to shout insults at Jesus: “Aren’t you the Christ? Then save yourself and us.” But the other criminal stopped him and said, “You should fear God! You are getting the same punishment he is. We are punished justly, getting what we deserve for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus said to him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:39-43).
Much has been said about the prayer of the penitent thief, and it certainly warrants our admiration. But while we rejoice at the thief who changed, dare we forget the one who didn’t? What about him, Jesus? Wouldn’t a personal invitation be appropriate? Wouldn’t a word of persuasion be timely?
Does not the shepherd leave the 99 sheep and pursue the one lost? Does not the housewife sweep the house until the lost coin is found? Yes, the shepherd does, the housewife does; but the father of the prodigal, remember, does nothing.
• The sheep was lost innocently.
• The coin was lost irresponsibly.
• But the prodigal son left intentionally.
The father gave him the choice. Jesus gave both criminals the same.
There are times when God sends thunder to stir us. There are times when God sends blessings to lure us. But then there are times when God sends nothing but silence as He honors us with the freedom to choose where we spend eternity.
And what an honor it is! In so many areas of life we have no choice. Think about it. You didn’t choose your gender. You didn’t choose your siblings. You didn’t choose your race or place of birth.
Sometimes our lack of choices angers us. “It’s not fair,” we say. It’s not fair that I was born in poverty or that I sing so poorly or that I run so slowly. But the scales of life were forever tipped on the side of fairness when God planted a tree in the garden of Eden. All complaints were silenced when Adam and his descendants were given free will, the freedom to make whatever eternal choice we desire. Any injustice in this life is offset by the honor of choosing our destiny in the next.
Wouldn’t you agree? Would you have wanted otherwise? Would you have preferred the opposite? You choose everything in this life, and He chooses where you spend the next? You choose the size of your nose, the color of your hair, and your DNA structure, and He chooses where you spend eternity? Is that what you would prefer?
It would have been nice if God had let us order life like we order a meal. I’ll take good health and a high IQ. I’ll pass on the music skills, but give me a fast metabolism…Would’ve been nice. But it didn’t happen. When it came to your life on earth, you weren’t given a voice or a vote. But when it comes to life after death, you were. In my book, that seems like a good deal. Wouldn’t you agree?
Have we been given any greater privilege than that of choice? Not only does this privilege offset any injustice, the gift of free will can offset any mistakes.
Think about the thief who repented. Though we know little about him, we know this: He made some bad mistakes in life. He chose the wrong crowd, the wrong morals, the wrong behavior. But would you consider his life a waste? Is he spending eternity reaping the fruit of all the bad choices he made? No, just the opposite. He is enjoying the fruit of the one good choice he made. In the end all his bad choices were redeemed by a solitary good one.
You’ve made some bad choices in life, haven’t you? You’ve chosen the wrong friends, maybe the wrong career, even the wrong spouse. You look back over your life and say, “If only…if only I could make up for those bad choices.” You can. One good choice for eternity offsets a thousand bad ones on earth.
The choice is yours. How can two brothers be born of the same mother, grow up in the same home, and one choose life and the other choose death? I don’t know, but they do. How could two men see the same Jesus and one choose to mock Him and the other choose to pray to Him? I don’t know, but they did. And when one prayed, Jesus loved him enough to save him. And when the other mocked, Jesus loved him enough to let him. He allowed him the choice. He does the same for you.
- John Piper