God’s Word for You
Luke 23:39-43 today you will be with me in paradise
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, June 21, 2019
39 One of the criminals hanging there derided him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other one rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We’re condemned justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
The other Gospels agree that the thieves crucified with Jesus also mocked him. Only Luke shares this detail about the thief with faith. Either the other writers ascribed the mockery of the unbelieving thief to both of them, or else the direness of the moment and the agony of the cross led one of them to be changed based on what he had heard Jesus say before this terrible day. These are the two possibilities usually put forward by commentators. In view of Matthew’s clear words, that both robbers “who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him” (Matthew 27:44), the second position seems to be the only one that will hold up. One of them, after first mocking the Lord, was turned by the Lord’s words in faith to trust in him. He put all his trust in Jesus, first by declaring his belief that Jesus was innocent of all sin, and then asking Jesus to remember him.
What was the difference between these two criminals? Was one a worse sinner than the other? No. They were both labeled with the same crime; they were both sentenced to the same punishment; they were punished at the same time and in the same way. After their punishment had ended, they were treated in exactly the same way (John 19:32). The only difference was that one rejected Jesus and continued to reject him until he died. The other one, who had begun by rejecting and mocking Jesus, was stopped from continuing in his unbelief, first by his terror over what was approaching, namely death and hell, and second by his memory of who Jesus was and what Jesus promised, namely, forgiveness and eternal life. His words, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” prove this. He knew who Jesus was, what Jesus’ teaching, miracles, and other words meant, and now he trusted in those words. Only the Holy Spirit can work such a change in the human heart. Only the Holy Spirit can convert the damned sinner into the saved sinner. We are all sinners together, but by the grace of God, we who trust in Jesus have been given faith.
43 Jesus answered him, “Amen, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Jesus’ words here are a promise; they are the delicious promise of heaven at the moment of death. Here is the gospel for the dying man, the reason that a Christian may face death without terror, without fear of any kind. What had this thug, this robber, done, that I have not done? What punishment have my sins earned that this man’s sins had not? Here is a man who, we have shown, despised and rejected Christ, even mocked him on the cross, but then turned in horror followed by faith to trust in Jesus for salvation and rescue. He deserved nothing at all, but he was given the gift of salvation and everlasting life simply because of the grace of God. Jesus even assured him with the interjection, “Amen” (᾽Αμήν, “true / truly”).
Now the mockery and the jeers that were spat at Jesus by the onlookers were a source of increased pain to this new Christian. But he didn’t let their mockery shake his faith. He shut it all out and trusted in the words of Jesus. “Thus we, too, should shut out everything from our hearts, believe only the Word of God that Christ came into the flesh, and renounce the world” (Luther, LW 30:291).
There is a beautiful truth to be learned here about what comes after death. For the believer, the Christian, heaven is our soul’s location from the moment of death, as Solomon says, “The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). The Bible is silent about the “where” of heaven, likewise about the look or the geography of heaven, at least prior to the final judgment. As nebulous as it might be in our imaginations, it remains a real locale, a place of true peace and rest, for the souls of those who have gone before. Three human bodies reside there even now, united with their souls: Enoch, Elijah, and of course Jesus himself. While Jesus is omnipresent, filling “everything in every way” (Ephesians 1:23), Enoch and Elijah are not. There must be a location for their bodies there in eternity. But that place and the place for all mankind may change drastically at the world’s end, just as a man living alone in a barracks or an apartment building has the run of the place until others come to live there.
This passage shows us the truth of the transition of the human soul from death to life, that it takes place at the moment of death. We see this because Jesus says, “Today.” The repentant thief had no other context with which to associate Jesus’ words except for the ordinary meaning of “today,” which was Good Friday, a day which at the time of this exchange was about half over.
This passage shows that our human souls remain personal and distinct at the time of death. We see this because Jesus says “you” within the verb ese (ἔσῃ), “you will be.” The repentant thief had no other context than himself, since this “you” is in the singular. He was the only “you” that was being addressed.
This passage shows that our souls will have reunion with Jesus himself in heaven. We see this because Jesus says, “you will be with me.” There was no other way for the repentant thief to understand these plain words than the meeting of his spirit with Jesus in heaven.
This passage shows that our souls, that is the souls of Christian believers, will be located in heaven from the time of our death until they are reunited with our physical bodies in the final judgment. We see this in the phrase, “in (the) paradise” (ἐν τῷ παραδείσῳ). The Greek preposition en (ἐν) with the dative case places the human soul within and only within the sphere of heaven. If a soul is in heaven, it is not outside heaven. Therefore the use of ἐν with the dative case in this verse destroys the concept of Purgatory or any of the other limbos which might be imagined for the human soul. Either the soul returns to God the Creator, or it is condemned to everlasting punishment (Mark 16:16). There is no third, fourth, or fifth option.
We also see, since the Holy Spirit instructs us with the definite article “the” (τῷ, usually not translated), we see that there is only one heaven, one single place of joy and rest, one single location of peace and bliss. God’s heaven is The Heaven, and there is no other.
God blesses us with the use of the Persian term paradise (παραδείσῳ), which originally meant “park.” Some of the Bible’s descriptions of heaven are of a city with gates (Revelation 22:14). Some of the descriptions are of a park with streams and trees (Revelation 22:1-3). It has trees and yet it has a foundation. There are birds in the description of heaven, or at least in the judgment (Revelation 8:13, 18:2, 19:17) as well as horses (Revelation 19:14,19), bulls (Ezekiel 43:19,21), rams (Ezekiel 43:23, 45:23), sheep (Ezekiel 45:15) and lambs (Ezekiel 46:6,13), as well as fish and fisherman catching fish (Ezekiel 47:8,10) and “swarms of living creatures” (Ezekiel 47:9). Are some of these things figurative? Who is wise enough to say that a creature used in a figure of speech cannot possibly appear in the reality as well? What is it that Romans 8:20-22 teaches if not that the whole of creation (not merely men and women and angels) groans for liberation from its bondage to the curse of sin?
And there is the thief, yearning, groaning, begging for liberation. He does not desire so much to have his sentence of physical death to be overturned, but to have his sentence of eternal death to be removed. Jesus grants his request. “Today you will be with me in paradise,” and this leaves us with only one request:
Jesus, remember me, too.
Pastor Timothy Smith