As Jesus hung from a Roman execution stake, He endured the insults of the crowd gathered around Him. Additionally Matthew’s Gospel records that He was verbally abused by the two criminals who had been pegged up on either side, who also “heaped insults on him” (Matthew 27:44). But then something happened to one of those men.
As he watched Jesus endure the suffering, praying for persecutors, showing compassion for loved ones, the man was touched. The reality of his own guilt and the innocence of Jesus pressed on him and his tongue fell silent as through his own pain he reflected on these things. He could hear the man on the far side continuing to berate Jesus: “Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39) He raised his head and called out to his fellow criminal: “Don't you fear God, since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40-41). Then looking at Jesus he made a request: “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42)
Wracked with excruciating pain of His own, Jesus turned to him and answered: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Jesus’ comment has long been pondered and puzzled over.
By one theological camp these words are put forth as definite evidence that when a believer dies they are ushered immediately into the presence of God. The emphasis of the verse is “…today you will be with Me in paradise.”
According to other groups the words emphasize Jesus' truthfulness in that moment and the surety of a future promise. They emphasize “I tell you the truth today…”
What if both miss the point?
What if Jesus’ words have absolutely nothing to do with either ‘immediate ascension’ or ‘resurrection hope’?
In the course of my general reading I came across a thought which struck me as very profound, yet very simple. What if Jesus was directing His thoughts to something from the past being fulfilled in the present moment? What if Jesus was drawing attention to something about the event itself?
“Jesus, having compassion on [the repentant criminal] said: ‘I say unto thee to-day,’ –this day, above all others, –this day, when my prospects for a kingdom are apparently blasted, even ‘to-day,’ – under these most trying circumstances, – ‘I say unto thee…thou shalt be with me in Paradise.’”*
What a different lens through which to view these things! Jesus declares to the man that on ‘this day’ when all seems lost, salvation is secured!
While Jesus most likely spoke these words in Aramaic, Luke utilizes the Greek adverb semeron which can mean ‘today’ or ‘this day’. Where else do we find the day of Jesus’ crucifixion spoken of as ‘this day’?
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is Yahweh's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that Yahweh has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (Psalm 118:22-24)
In the Hebrew the phrase is zeh ha’yom (‘this the day’) and in the Greek Old Testament hautay hey haymera (‘this the day’) using the same root word as in Luke 23.
Rather than Jesus making a singular promise to one man, Jesus is making a declaration to all men: ‘This is the promised and long awaited Day! God has ordained this day that through Me, the rejected stone, Paradise is reopened! Rejoice and be glad!”
What He said to the thief, He says to us all: “At this present hour, though all the evidence would witness to the contrary, I am the victor and you indeed will share in My victory when My Kingdom comes.”
The discussion will continue on those other theological points but no matter which side of that debate you are on, I hope that all of us can step back and read this passage with fresh eyes.
When Adam and Eve sinned, they were cast out of Paradise with a mighty angel to bar the way back. Now, because of the Day of the cross, Jesus has reopened Paradise that all who believe may enter in! Rejoice and be glad!
*McKinstry, M. The World’s Great Empires. Advent Christian Publications, Inc. & The Delmar Companies: Charlotte NC, 1973. Print. p519