“Today You Will Be With Me in Paradise”

This is why God’s remembrance means divine blessing as he keeps his covenant promises to you. In joy and sorrow when we pray, God remembers his covenant with us. He remembers us from his throne in heaven, and he hears our prayers. And in the end, he will take us to God’s Paradise.

Text: Luke 23:39-43; Readings: Psalm 22:6-8, 16-18; Isaiah 53:12; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11

March 11, 2012
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Many Christians take this saying by Jesus as the example of the simplicity of salvation. They point out that in ten Greek words, Jesus declared the salvation of the one criminal on the cross. A person does not have to subscribe to a set of beliefs, be a member of a certain church, or partake of the sacraments to become a Christian.

The goal of presenting the gospel to others is to get as many people as possible to make a simple “decision for Christ.” The only thing he needs to do to be a happy Christian all the day long and to get to heaven is to accept Jesus into his heart and trust and obey. It’s that simple. This is why the famous evangelist D. L. Moody once said, “I can write the gospel on a dime.” In recent times, another popular evangelist said, “The only theology you need is whatever you can say to an unbeliever in an elevator.”

But God’s plan of redemption was a complex web of so many stories revealed to man over a span of 1,500 years in 66 books written by over 40 writers. How then can D. L. Moody and others boast that he could write the gospel “on a dime”? To bring a person to Christ means a lot more than squeezing a simple “decision” from the sinner, but making him a disciple of Christ by teaching him to observe all that Christ has commanded in Scriptures.

To be sure, the salvation of that one criminal on the cross is what is termed today as a “deathbed salvation.” A very simple prayer was all he needed to be saved, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He did not need to be baptized, was never a member of any church, hardly knew anything about Scriptures, and had no good works after salvation.

Some people scoff at the idea of the urgency of salvation precisely because of this story. Look, if the thief could postpone his salvation until his deathbed, why can’t I? I will enjoy the world first before I consider becoming a Christian with all its rules and restrictions against a fun-filled pursuit of the pleasures that the world offers.

But this criminal is not the norm; he’s an exception. Deathbed salvations are very rare. Moreover, the two most important days of a person’s life is unknowable: the day of death and the day of Christ’s return. On either day, whichever comes first, the end of the world happens for all people, and there are no second chances after these days, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb 9:27).

In the story of the two criminals on the cross, we see that every single person has one of two destinations on his last day on earth. Jesus promised Paradise for one, but not for the other. Thus, the other criminal did not enter into Paradise. The theme this Lord’s Day is Jesus’ second word, “Today, You Will Be With Me in Paradise” under three headings: (1) When Does a Person Enter into Paradise? (2) Who Enters into Paradise? and (3) Who Does Not Enter into Paradise?

When Does a Person Enter into Paradise?

"The Soul of the Penitent Thief in Paradise" by James Tissot, 1896 (click to enlarge)

"The Soul of the Penitent Thief in Paradise" by James J. Tissot, c. 1896 (click to enlarge)

The second criminal asked, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” To which Jesus immediately replied, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” With certainty, Jesus prefaced his reply with, “Truly, I say to you…” This first word, “truly,” is the same word that we always use to end a prayer or a sermon or song, “Amen.” It is “a strong affirmation” of Jesus’ promise to the criminal, so it means “truly,” “indeed,” “certainly.” 1 The repentant criminal will certainly be with Jesus in Paradise after he dies on the cross.

This verse is very important to some sub-Christian religions such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists. They believe that when a person dies, the soul does not leave the body, but both soul and body sleep until the day of resurrection, when Christ returns from heaven. As well, they argue that in death, the soul has no consciousness, unaware of anything.

How did they come to this conclusion? Mainly, through reading the word “sleep” for death over 50 times in the Bible. For example, David (1 Kgs 2:10), Lazarus (John 11:11), Stephen (Acts 7:59), and Christians (1 Thess 4:13) in general are said to be asleep at death. As well, these adherents also point out that there are some texts that describe a person as not conscious of anything at death: “the dead know nothing… there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol [the grave]” (Ecc 9:5, 10; see also Psa 6:5).

But these passages that seem to support soul-sleep are few and are contradicted by many other passages that clearly show two things that happen at death: first, the soul remains conscious; and second, the soul separates from the dead body. When interpreting Scripture, clear passages must always interpret obscure ones, and all the seeming contradictions have to be harmonized; the Bible cannot contradict itself.

The first set of clearer texts shows that souls of both unbelievers and believers continue being conscious after death. In fact, their destinations are defined in Scripture. Unbelievers go to a place of punishment, “[God keeps] the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment” (2 Pet 2:9; see also verse 4). In the parable of the rich man and the poor man Lazarus, the rich man “died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment” (Luke 16:22-23). Even before the resurrection, unbelievers are already suffering torment in hell.

In contrast, what happens to believers after death? The Bible teaches that their souls go to a better state and a better place in death. In 2 Corinthians 5:6-8, Paul says, “while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord… and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” This is not after the resurrection, since he is talking about being “away from the body.” And he is torn between living and dying, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain… My desire is to depart and be with Christ” (Phil 1:21, 23). Clearly, when a believer dies, his soul separates from his body and goes to the place where Christ dwells.

The second set of clearer texts also speaks of the separation of body and soul at death. Ecclesiastes 12:7 says that when a person dies, “the dust [body] returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” When a person dies, his soul or spirit leaves the body. Elijah prayed to God that the widow’s son would be raised from the dead by letting his soul “come into him again” (1 Kgs 17:21-22). When Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, it was described as “her spirit returned” to her (Luke 8:55).

In the third set of clearer texts, five clear examples of believers’ souls conscious and in a place of bliss also contradict “soul-sleep” teaching. In the Transfiguration, three men appeared in glory before the disciples: Jesus, Elijah and Moses. Jesus hasn’t died yet, and Elijah was taken to heaven without dying. But Moses died, yet he appeared in bodily form talking to Jesus even before the resurrection. In Jesus’ parable, Lazarus, the poor man, was in “Abraham’s bosom,” a place of comfort. In Revelation 6:9, John sees a vision of the souls of martyred believers in heaven asking for vengeance. Jesus and Stephen, when they were dying, committed their human spirit to the Father in heaven.

Lastly, our text says that Jesus promised the penitent criminal a place in Paradise the same day he died, that is, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” His body may have been buried in a tomb, but his soul went to be with Christ in Paradise.

Soul-sleep believers contend that the meaning of Jesus’ promise is better communicated with the comma placed after “today.” So the verse should say, “Truly, I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” But this is nonsense, because does anyone ever say, “I say to you today” or “I say to you tomorrow” or “I say to you yesterday”? Jesus never spoke in this way. In fact, in every place where he says, “Truly, I say to you,” the main statement follows right after “you.” Here are just three examples out of about 70 occurrences in the four Gospels:

For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away…” (Matt 5:18)
Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place” (Luke 21:32).
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

Thus, three things are clear about death: (1) the word “sleep” is a metaphor for death; (2) while the body goes back to dust, the soul goes to another place; and (3) the soul continues to be conscious after death.

Who Enters into Paradise?

"The Soul of the Penitent Thief in Paradise" by James Tissot (click to enlarge)

"The Soul of the Penitent Thief in Paradise" by James Tissot (click to enlarge)

Jesus assured the penitent criminal that he will have a place for him in his kingdom, which is also called “paradise.” The word paradise was originally borrowed from the Old Persian word pairidaeza, which means “walled” or “enclosure.” It was later borrowed by the Hebrew language as pardes and gan, to mean “garden,” as in the garden of Eden. Greeks also borrowed it as paradeisos, from which the English word paradise came. It refers to the garden of Eden, a transcendent place of blessedness, called the “garden of God” (Gen 13:10; Ezek 28:13, 31:8-9), “garden of the Lord” (Isa 51:3), “paradise of God” (Rev 2:7). And Paul says he was “caught up into paradise” itself (2 Cor 12:3). 2

In contemporary Western culture, “paradise” evokes images of relaxing on a lounge chair sipping coconut juice by a peaceful, tropical beach in Hawaii, Bali or Boracay. But Phil Collins also wrote a hit song entitled “Another Day in Paradise,” contrasting affluent lifestyle with homelessness: a scene with a a needy, homeless woman begging on the street sarcastically referred to as just “another day in paradise.” But Jesus’ promise of Paradise was a response to the penitent criminal’s plea, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The Paradise that Jesus was referring to was heaven itself, a place of perfect joy and blessing, without sin, homelessness, or suffering.

In the account of Matthew and Mark, this criminal at first also mocked and insulted Jesus (Matt 27:44; Mark 15:32). As Isaiah prophesied, God’s Suffering Servant “poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors” (Isa 53:12b). Perhaps because of what he heard and saw from Jesus and from the crowds of people, he had a change of heart. Now he believed in him as the King of the kingdom of God. He knew that Jesus’ kingdom is not an earthly kingdom—“not of this world”—but a heavenly kingdom after death. He believed that the kingdom of Christ is a place of blessing and the dwelling-place, after death, of forgiven sinners like him made righteous.

How could Jesus assure this criminal of entrance into Paradise? Because he holds the key to his kingdom. He is the judge of both the living and the dead (Acts 10:42). He opens Paradise and its joys and blessings to the righteous. He inaugurated his kingdom when he first came down to earth, and his kingdom is now here (Luke 11:20; 17:20-21). But there is still a perfect kingdom coming in the future when he returns from heaven (Luke 22:18, 30).

When God reveals the new heaven and new earth, only those who “conquer” will be granted to “to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev 2:7). Its roots are watered by the river of the water of life, its fruit are the eternal source of nourishment, and its leaves bring healing to all the world. The tree of life is Christ himself who gives eternal life to all those in Paradise. This imagery recalls the description of the garden of Eden in Genesis 2.

The people who dwell in Paradise are those who conquer the evil one and his temptations. Satan tempts and accuses believers not only at times, but all throughout their lives, so the goal of the Christian life is victory over Satan, sin, sufferings, and in the end, even over death itself. John says the Christian conqueror is the one “who keeps my works until the end” (Rev 2:26). Believers who persevere in their witness for Christ through sufferings, persecution, and even martyrdom conquer the dragon (Rev 12:11) and the beast (Rev 15:2), Satan’s servants in this world. Only the names of those who conquer “are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev 21:27). Christ, the Lion-Lamb, is the Conqueror who redeems people for God from every nation (Rev 5:5, 9).

Such comfort in Jesus’ promise to the criminal to remember him! He will remember us when we finally leave this earth, with or without our bodies. When God remembers us, it means that he remembers all his covenant promises to our forefathers Abraham, Moses and David. This is why we sang from Psalm 115:12-13, “The Lord has remembered us; he will bless us… he will bless those who fear the Lord” (Psa 115:12-13). He remembers that we are heirs of his kingdom because we are children of Abraham, children of promise. He remembers that we are members of his holy nation, the church of Christ, just as Israel was God’s chosen people. He remembers that we are citizens of an everlasting kingdom promised to David through his Son, Jesus the Messiah.

This is why God’s remembrance means divine blessing as he keeps his covenant promises to you. When Israel suffered as slaves in Egypt, “God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham” (Exod 2:24). Samson’s plea to God before he died was, “O Lord God, please remember me” (Jgs 16:28). When Hannah, Samuel’s mother, pleaded to God for a son, she prayed, “O Lord of hosts… look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant… and the Lord remembered her” (1 Sam 1:11, 19). In exile, Jeremiah prayed to God, “Remember and do not break your covenant with us.” Zechariah, on learning about the promised coming of his son John the Baptist, praised God for “the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant” (Luke 1:72).

What words of comfort! When the criminal repented of his sins, Jesus remembered him. In joy and sorrow when we pray, God remembers his covenant with us. He remembers us from his throne in heaven, and he hears our prayers, just as Isaiah foretold: “He bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors” (Isa 53:12c). And in the end, he will take us to God’s Paradise.

Who Does Not Enter into Paradise?
But the other criminal was unrepentant. He continued his rebellion against God and against Jesus the King of the kingdom of heaven. The Jewish rulers mocked Jesus, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself!” In God’s sovereign plan, these wicked people fulfilled David’s prophecy in Psalm 22:7-8. The criminal also “railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’” The word translated “railed” is actually the word blasphemeo, or “blaspheme,” which is also translated, “hurled insults,” and “hurled abuse.” He was insulting, reviling, slandering and disrespecting Christ the Son of God. 3 The rulers who accused Jesus of blasphemy were actually the ones who are committing blasphemy against God.

The criminal did not acknowledge that Jesus is the only One who could redeem him from his condemnation on earth and more importantly, after death. He received his just desserts, which is death on the cross, and because of his continuing impenitence, he will receive his due reward in eternal punishment in hell.

It is obvious that unrepentant criminals will not enter into heaven. But many people today are like the Pharisees, scribes and chief priests of Israel who believe that they are good people. So they are sure that Jesus will let them enter into Paradise because of their own righteousness based on good works. But they will be in for a big surprise when Judgment Day comes and they present to Christ their good works, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” (Matt 7:22) They will not hear the coveted words of welcome, ”Well done, good and faithful servant. Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. Welcome into Paradise” (Matt 25:21, 34). Instead, Jesus will turn them away with these terrifying words, ”I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matt 7:23).

When God created Adam and Eve, he placed them in Paradise, his garden in Eden. He provided them with all their needs and much more for their own pleasure. It was a place of joy and gladness, thanksgiving and the voice of song (Isa 51:3), precious stones (Ezek 28:13), and beautiful trees (Ezek 31:8-9). God’s commanded them to multiply and fill the earth with holy and righteous children like themselves, so the whole earth will become God’s temple filled with his glory. But after they fell into sin, they were thrown out of God’s holy garden-sanctuary in Eden. So, ever since Adam rebelled against God, man had always tried to re-enter Paradise with his own good works.

In God’s redemption plan, he will redeem a multitude of people, and the whole creation will be restored (Rom 8:19-21) as the new heaven and new earth (Rev 21:1-2). But evildoers like the impenitent criminal will not be part of this new creation, the coming kingdom of God, just as Paul says, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Cor 6:9; see also Gal 5:21; Eph 5:5). On Judgment Day, they will be thrown outside the gates of Paradise, like homeless dogs scavenging for food (Rev 22:14-15)—just like our first parents who were thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Then they will be cast into the lake of fire to suffer eternal torment (Rev 21:8).

Conclusion
Let us give to God praise and thanksgiving due him for his grace and mercy shown to us. We marvel at the question: Why did one criminal repent and believe, while the other did not? We marvel at his love for us: Why did God choose to give me repentance and faith, and not the other person? We marvel that of all evildoers, we are the ones whom he saved!

Let us also take comfort in Jesus’ promise to the criminal of dwelling in Paradise. But dwelling in Paradise is not all, because he promised, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” You will forever dwell with Jesus there. The Lamb of God himself will be with you as your God, Temple, and Light (Rev 21:3, 22-23).

But you do not have to wait for death or Judgment Day, because even in this life, on this earth, you already have a foretaste of Paradise. You can already partake of the Tree of Life whenever we come to the Lord’s Table. His body was broken and his blood was shed to atone for your sins and nourish your hungry and thirsty souls. Those of you who hunger and thirst for righteousness have already received a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom of God.

But for those who are still unrepentant, the important word is also “Today.” The writer of Hebrews warns us, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Heb 4:7). Because it may be your last day on earth, and then there will be no more second chances afterwards.


Notes:

  1. Walter Bauer, Frederick Danker, William Arndt, William, F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., (Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 53.
  2. Walter Bauer, Frederick Danker, William Arndt, William, F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., (Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 761.
  3. Bauer, et. al., 178.
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