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A Word Of Assurance

JESUS’S SEVEN LAST WORDS FROM THE CROSS:
2. A WORD OF ASSURANCE

“Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
(Luke 23:43)

The Mocking of Jesus and the Penitent Thief’s Rebuke

As Jesus was hanging from the cross, many people hurled insults at Him, including:

  • those who were passing by
    (Matthew 27:39-40, Mark 15:29-30)
  • the chief priests along with the scribes and elders
    (Matthew 27:41-43, Mark 15:31-32, Luke 23:35)
  • the Roman soldiers who were crucifying Him
    (Luke 23:36).
  • the two robbers who were being crucified with Him
    (Matthew 27:38, 44)

At one point, “one of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, ‘Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!’” (Luke 23:39). This convict had little to gain from this mockery besides joining the crowd in scornful unbelief. Perhaps by mocking Jesus, this thief felt superior to the rejected Messiah and drew solace that even though he was being tortured and put to death—that he wasn’t as bad as Him. Or perhaps by parroting the chief priests’ mockery of Jesus (Luke 23:35b), the scornful thief was grasping for a smidgeon of solidarity with them, or to earn acceptance from those who despised both him and Jesus.

Apparently, the other criminal seems to have had a change of heart about mocking Jesus earlier (Matthew 27:44). Either that, or Matthew was generalizing when he wrote “the robbers who had been crucified with Him were also insulting them with the same words.” In either case, the other thief rebuked the first thief for his insolence:

“Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
(Luke 23:40-41)

The penitent thief’s rebuke revealed that he recognized three key truths.

  1. That God is just and will judge all people for their actions.
  2. That the thief himself was justly condemned for his evil deeds.
  3. That Jesus was innocent.

The Penitent Thief’s Humble and Bold Request

After humbly acknowledging the due penalty of his sin, between his gasps of air, the thief addressed Jesus by name and then made a bold request of remarkable faith.

“And he was saying, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!’”
(Luke 23:42)

The thief’s request revealed two things:

  1. The thief believed Jesus was the Messiah.
  2. Unworthy as he was, the thief entrusted himself to Jesus’s protection.

Every hope the thief had in this life was crushed and crucified. So, as the thief’s life slowly seeped away on the cross, he had one Person left in whom he might place his hope—the Man who was being crucified beside him.

The thief’s request presumed that Jesus was the Anointed King of Israel. His faith rested on the hope that Jesus was the Christ. Of all the people the Bible records who addressed Jesus that day, only this dying criminal had the faith to acknowledge Jesus for who He was. How ironic that the only person to address Him with the humility and due reverence was a convict, while the priests and elders and upright citizens were putting their King to death. And when we consider Jesus’s response to this thief’s request—it is a personal demonstration of what Jesus told the chief priests (Sadducees) and elders (Pharisees) when He taught in the temple: “Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you” (Matthew 21:31).

The desperation of the thief’s circumstances may have emboldened his hope and dared him to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and that even while being crucified, He had the power to save a penitent sinner and criminal into the Messianic kingdom. But circumstances alone do not explain this thief’s faith. Recall that there were two criminals who were being crucified on either side of Jesus (Matthew 27:38, Mark 15:27). Both were suffering identical circumstances. But whereas one thief chose to ridicule and mock Jesus, the penitent thief chose to hope and believe in Him.

The thief’s faith in Jesus demonstrate that even in the worst of circumstances there are still three things we have control over and that these three things can make a considerable impact within our lives.

  1. Our perspective.
    One thief chose to despair. The other chose to hope.
  1. Who we trust.
    One thief chose to follow the unbelieving crowd. The other chose to believe in Jesus.
  1. How we will act.
    One thief chose to look down upon and ridicule Jesus. The other chose to request to be remembered in His Kingdom.

Jesus’s Profound Promise

Jesus answered the penitent thief’s humble and bold request with an unforgettable promise of boundless mercy and blessed assurance,

“Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
(Luke 23:43)

Before we go into the details of Jesus’s promise, we will first point out two general truths this statement presumes or asserts.

  1. This short promise demonstrates the infinite love of God.

God’s love extends to the depraved thief, and to every sinner who entrusts their hope upon Jesus. There is no sin or level of depravity that a person can sink to that puts them beyond the reach of God’s love. Jesus came—and He was on that cross—to die for sinners such as this thief so that he may not perish but have everlasting life. Jesus’s remarkable and personal promise to the thief on the cross helps us better see the beautiful embodiment of Christ and Paul’s teachings regarding the wonder of salvation,

“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
(Matthew 20:28)

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
(John 3:16)

“For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
(Romans 5:6, 8)

“It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life.”
(1 Timothy 1:15-16).

  1. Jesus’s promise demonstrates that the simplicity of salvation as a Gift of God’s grace is received by faith in Christ alone—and nothing more.

The thief had done nothing to earn the right to be remembered in Jesus’s kingdom. His misdeeds had earned quite the opposite, as he confessed to the mocking thief about their just condemnation (Luke 23:40-41). The only thing that could save this undeserving criminal was God’s mercy in grace offered through His Son, Jesus.

It is the same with us when it comes to the wages of our sin and our hope of salvation from death to life. Jesus is our only hope:

“And there is no other God besides Me,
A righteous God and a Savior;
There is none except Me.
Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth;
For I am the God, and there is none other.”
(Isaiah 45:21b-22)

“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.’”
(John 14:6)

“And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.”
(Acts 4:12)

To learn more about the Gift of Eternal Life see The Bible Says article: “What is Eternal Life? How to Gain the Gift of Eternal Life.”

While Jesus’s promise to the dying thief is yet another revelation of God’s infinite mercy and love, and of the profound simplicity of the Gospel of grace through faith, there is more to unpack within His words.

“Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
(Luke 23:43)

There are two phrases to this promise.

The first phrase is “Truly I say to you.”

Jesus begins His promise upon the authority of Himself. It was common in Jewish culture for rabbis and teachers of God’s law to cite their authorities whenever they made an assertion that was not widely understood. Their oral tradition, “The Mishnah,” is filled with an endless number of these types of expressions: Rabbi so-and-so says this”—or—“Rabbi such-and-such says that.” But Jesus did not teach this way. When He taught and made assertions, Jesus appealed to the highest authority there was—Himself (Matthew 5:18, 5:26; 6:2; 6:5, 6:16, 8:10, 10:15, 10:23, 10:42, 11:11, 13:17, 16:28, 17:20, 18:3, 18:18, 19:28, 21:21, 21:31, 24:2, 24:47, 25:12: 25:40, 25:45: 26:13: 26:34). The people were amazed at the authority with which Jesus spoke as much as they were at the things He asserted (Matthew 7:28-29, Mark 1:21-22).

The proof of Jesus’s promise to the thief is grounded in the fact that Jesus is the One saying it. There is no greater guarantee that what was promised is true, other than that God spoke it. And yet, it took considerable faith to believe this promise because as Jesus said it, He was being tortured to death on a cross.

The next word in Jesus’s promise is the word “today.”

This word has traditionally been and is translated by the NASB 95 as the first word of the second phrase, which is “today you shall be with me in Paradise.” Some have interpreted the word “today” as being the final word of the first phrase: “Truly I say to you today.”

According to the alternative interpretation Jesus is emphasizing how He is telling the truth at that moment, rather than emphasizing that He and the thief will be in Paradise together later on today, as the traditional interpretation of this statement claims.

If Jesus is stressing the truthfulness of this claim rather than asserting the nearness of the promise’s fulfillment, this would be the only time He is recorded as doing so. And while Jesus did not use precisely the same phrase—“Truly I say to you today you will…”—when He warned Peter that His disciple would deny Him three times, He did use similar wording to emphasize the nearness of His disciple’s denials,

“Truly I say to you, that this very night, before a rooster crows twice, you yourself will deny Me three times.”
(Mark 14:30)

In Greek, the phrase “this very night” is literally the word normally translated as “today.”  And it is the same Greek word Luke used to express Jesus’s second statement from the cross when He made His promise to the thief.

All that to suggest that Jesus’s use of the word “today” likely belongs with the second phrase rather than the first. He appears to be indicating the imminent proximity of the promise’s fulfillment rather than using “today” to add emphasis to the truthfulness or veracity of His claim at that moment.

What did Jesus mean by telling the penitent thief—“Today you shall be with Me in Paradise”?

The key to understanding this promise is understanding what Jesus meant by “Paradise.”

It is often assumed that Jesus was referring to “Heaven” when He said “Paradise.” But He likely was referring to “Abraham’s Bosom.”

Jesus described Abraham’s Bosom in “The Parable of the Rich Man and Poor Lazarus” (Luke 16:19-31). Abraham’s Bosom is a compartment in Sheol (or Hades). Hades is the Greek word used to describe the Hebrew word of Sheol throughout the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament completed around 70 B.C.

Sheol/Hades is the place where the spirit/soul of a person goes when it leaves the body at death (Genesis 37:35, 1 Samuel 2:6, Job 7:7-10, Psalm 18:5, Psalm 30:3, Psalm 89:48, Psalm 139:8, Isaiah 14:9, Isaiah 28:18, Hosea 13:14).

In “The Parable of the Rich Man and Poor Lazarus” (Luke 16:19-31), Jesus teaches that within Sheol/Hades there are two compartments.

Sheol/Hades has a pleasant compartment called Abraham’s Bosom (Luke 16:22-23). It is described as a cool place with water and a place of comfort (Luke 23:25). Abraham’s Bosom appears to be the compartment where the souls of those who were faithful to God are allowed to enter and rest until the time of final judgement—at which point, Sheol/Hades will give up its dead to be judged by the Son of Man (Matthew 25:31-33, Revelation 20:11-15).

Sheol/Hades also has an unpleasant compartment that is separated from Abraham’s Bosom by a great chasm (Luke 16:26). This unpleasant compartment is described as agonizingly hot and fiery (Luke 16:24). It is a place of torment (Luke 26:23, 28). The unpleasant compartment of Hades appears to be where the souls of those who were unfaithful to God go when they die until the time of judgment (Matthew 25:31-33, Revelation 20:11-15). Peter may have also described the unpleasant place in Hades as Tartarus (translated as “hell” in 2 Peter 2:4).

To learn more about Hades, see The Bible Says article: “What is Hell? Hades and Tartarus in the Bible.”

All this to say, Jesus was likely referring to Abraham’s Bosom, not Heaven proper, when He promised the thief, “Today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). In many Christian circles, “Heaven” is used as a catch-all term for a pleasant afterlife/eternity, just as “Hell” is often used as a catch-all term for a miserable eternity in the afterlife. But these catch-all generalities are not the way the Bible uses these terms.

Biblically speaking, Heaven is the place where God resides and reigns (Deuteronomy 26:15, 2 Samuel 22:14, 1 Kings 8:22-49, Isaiah 6:1-4, Revelation 5:1-11), and His will is perfectly kept (Matthew 6:9-10). After the judgment, the Bible tells us that there will be a New Heaven and a New Earth (Revelation 21:1-3). Humanity will dwell in the new Earth, perfectly restored as God intended. Jesus will dwell with us in the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2-3, 22-23). And the servant-kings of the New Earth will enter Jerusalem (Revelation 21:24-26). When Christians speak of eternity with God in Heaven, they often are actually talking about the new Jerusalem on the new Earth (described in Revelation 21), and not Heaven proper.

Once again, Jesus was likely not referring to Heaven proper when He promised the thief that he would be with Him in paradise today. He was assuring him that they would both be together in Abraham’s Bosom later on that day when their souls departed their physical bodies for Sheol/Hades. He was assuring the thief that because of his faith he would no longer be in agony, but would be included in Paradise, and eventually in Jesus’s Kingdom on the new Earth where he would live forever after the judgement—for “unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

Apparently, this thief’s faith was sufficient to grant him access to the Messianic Kingdom as well as for him to receive the Gift of eternal life.

“Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
(Luke 23:43)

Read about Jesus’s third final word from the cross here: “3: A Word of Love.”




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