Hopefully, it has been a good week for you to meditate on our first statement of Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Did thoughts of forgiveness come to mind for you? Maybe it was about Peter asking if he should forgive 7 times, only to be told 70 times 7 by Jesus. Or maybe it was our experience of the forgiveness from God being conditional on our forgiveness of others. Or maybe it was centered around the idea that “I am they” from our first statement. I hope the Holy Spirit used the word of God to minister to you.
This week, we get to look at my favorite of the seven sayings. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first reason is that of the seven statements, this is the one that I have most studied. But the main reason is that early in my Christian life, I read this saying of Jesus on the cross: "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43) This statement answered so many questions for me as a new Christian. The setting that led up to the phrase, was Jesus was on the cross between two criminals. It is likely that though the other two are found guilty as thieves, they have likely committed some crime that would be considered seditious and against the state of Rome. Maybe they stole something from a Roman official.
While they are being crucified, Jesus and the two thieves begin an exchange of words. One thief tells Jesus to save Himself and them. The other thief rebukes the first thief, and says that the two of them deserve to be crucified, but not Jesus. On saying that, the thief is both penitent and recognizes that Jesus has done nothing wrong and does not deserve what is happening to Him. Then the penitent says something remarkable, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom.” The faith that is displayed is amazing, because the thief is saying that though Jesus is hanging on a cross and will die soon, the thief believes that Jesus will live again. Jesus will be a king, and Jesus will be gracious and remember the penitent thief. This is when Jesus says our statement for this week.
"Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise."
Breaking Jesus' statement down, we can start with the first phrase, “Truly, I say to you.” In the Greek, this is one word, from which we get the word “amen.” It is a way of saying, “so be it,” or “I assure you.” Then comes the word, “today.” This answered my question of soul sleep. The penitent thief would be with Jesus that very day. The word “you” in the Greek is singular. The promise was for the penitent thief only, not the other thief. Salvation is not universal, but personal. When salvation is experienced correctly, it is intensely personal. The words, “shall be” is one word and is in the future tense. “With me,” means just that, with Jesus. The last words, “In Paradise” are special. Surprisingly, the word is only found in three places in the New Testament. The word paradise itself comes from a Persian word that means garden. It was used to describe a park like setting in which the Sultan could relax.
The reason I love this statement by Jesus so much, is that it is a clear description of:
What a Person Needs to do to be with Jesus in Paradise
The penitent thief can do no work to earn what will be the greatest gift he has ever been given. But the thief also represents a gift from God to Jesus. Here, in what will be Jesus’ most difficult time, is a very real assurance that Jesus’ work is not in vain. There will be people who will believe. In this case, one person at a time, we are they who will believe.