(Luke 23:43) “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Jesus’ second “last words” were similar to his first in that they were concerned with the forgiveness of sins, this time for the sins of an individual instead of the sins of mankind in total.
Two robbers were crucified with Jesus. As they hung on their crosses of death beside Jesus, one of the robbers joined in with the crowds and rebuked Jesus saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other robber immediately rebuked the first saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man had done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:39-41). Then he said, “Jesus remember me when you come in your kingly power.11 (Luke 23:42).
Full of compassion for the sins of this repentant robber, Jesus speaks the second of his “last words”. Proof again that, despite his bodily afflictions, his mind remained centered on his one purpose in life.
The only thing more outlandish than the request was that it was granted. Just trying to picture the scene is enough to short-circuit the most fanciful of imaginations: a flatnosed ex-con asking God’s son for eternal life? But trying to imagine the appeal being honored, well, that steps beyond the realm of reality and enters absurdity.
But as absurd as it may appear, that’s exactly what happened. He who deserved hell got heaven, and we are left with a puzzling riddle. We need to learn what Jesus intended us to learn from this situation.
While Jesus hung on the cross, He never once uttered a defense. He didn’t yell out, “You’ve got the wrong man. I didn’t commit an offense worthy of death. You are crucifying an innocent man.”
In fact, not only did Jesus utter no defense…none of His disciples protested His persecution. Not one disciple spoke out on Jesus’ behalf. They all remained silent as they watched their friend and teacher suffer intense pain.
Interestingly enough…the only person who spoke out in defense of Jesus was a convicted criminal…a thief…a robber…an unrighteous, sinful man.
We are told in the Bible that while this thief was hanging on a cross next to Jesus, he told the other thief, “this man (talking about Jesus) has done nothing wrong.”
This thief had the courage and the faith to stand up for Jesus. And this impressed Jesus so much that He told the man that he would join Him in paradise. This is a wonderful story.
HERE ARE SOME LESSONS THAT WE CAN LEARN FROM JESUS’ SECOND SAYING FROM THE CROSS.
(1) FIRST, FROM THIS STORY WE LEARN THE TRUE MEANING OF SALVATION BY GRACE.
This condemned unworthy thief received salvation. He didn’t deserve it. In fact, in Matthew’s account of this event, this thief had earlier heaped insults upon Jesus (Matthew 27:44). He had verbally abused and attacked Jesus. But as this man hung on the cross, his heart softened and he obtained a penitent heart. He wanted Jesus to forgive him…to remember him in the kingdom, which Jesus did.
But I ask you…how in the world could this criminal be saved? He was a convicted robber who was sentenced to death. He had probably been a thief for many years…taking things that did not belong to him. He had lived a sinful life. So how could he receive salvation? He received salvation through the unearned gift of God’s grace. And it is through this wonderful grace that we can be saved as well.
In 1944, Bert Frizen was an infantryman on the front lines in Europe. One day, his patrol reached the edge of a wooded area with an open field before them. Unknown to the Americans, a battery of Germans waited in a trenches about two hundred yards across the field.
Bert was one of two scouts who moved out into the clearing. Once he was halfway across the field, the remainder of his battalion followed. Suddenly the Germans opened fire, and machine gun fire ripped into both of Bert’s legs. The American battalion withdrew into the woods for protection, while a rapid exchange of fire continued.
Bert lay helplessly in a small stream as shots volleyed overhead. There seemed to be no way out. To make matters worse, he now noticed that a German soldier was crawling toward him. Death appeared imminent; he closed his eyes and waited. To his surprise, a considerable period passed without the expected attack, so he ventured opening his eyes again. He was startled to see the German kneeling at his side, smiling. He then noticed that the shooting had stopped. Troops from both sides of the battlefield watched anxiously. Without any verbal exchange, this mysterious German reached down to lift Bert in his arms and proceeded to carry him to the safety of Bert’s comrades.
Having accomplished his self-appointed mission, and still without speaking a word, the German soldier turned and walked back across the field to his own troop. No one dared break the silence of this sacred moment. Moments later the cease-fire ended, but not before all those present had witnessed how one man risked everything for his enemy.
Bert’s life was saved through the compassion of a man whom he considered his enemy.
The undeserved grace that the thief received on the cross is the same grace that is available to us today. If you have not received this marvelous grace of God, please do so today. To receive salvation, you must believe in Jesus Christ…repent of your sins…confess faith in the Lord…be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins…and live faithfully to the end.
(2) WE LEARN THAT NO MATTER WHAT WE HAVE DONE IN OUR PAST WE CAN STILL BE SAVED.
I don’t know for sure, but chances are the thief had not lived his life for God. But while on the cross, He changed. He became a spiritually minded person. The afterlife became important to him. As he was approaching death, he got his life right with God. Because of his faith in Christ, this thief received salvation although his past was full of sin and unrighteousness.
No matter what we have done in our past, God will accept us and give us another chance if we are willing to follow His will.
God is not interested in what we once were; instead, He is interested in what we can become. Many people in the Bible overcame a turbulent past, and became great and faithful servants of the Lord.
- Abraham, the father of the Hebrew nation, at one time worshipped other gods (Joshua 24:2).
- David, the third King of Israel, although he committed adultery, became a man after God’s own heart.
- Paul, the great apostle of Jesus Christ, at one time had Christians arrested and killed.
Although at one time these men lived ungodly lives, they were given another chance and eventually they became great servants of the Lord, and so can we. We must forget our past failures and focus on our future successes.
Paul put it this way in (Phil. 3:13-14) “But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
(3) WE LEARN THAT WE MUST ACCEPT GOD’S SALVATION BEFORE IT IS TO LATE
The other thief on the cross-had an opportunity to get his life right with God, however, he chose not to. His life ended without salvation. Maybe if he had a few more years he would have eventually made the decision to follow Christ. But his time ran out.
Our values are messed up. Someone broke into the store and exchanged all the price tags. Thrills are going for top dollar and the value of human beings is at an all-time low.
One doesn’t have to be a philosopher to determine what caused such a sag in the market. It all began when someone convinced us that the human race is headed nowhere. That man has no destiny. That we are in a cycle. That there is no reason or rhyme to this absurd existence. Somewhere we got the idea that we are meaninglessly trapped on a puny mud heap that has no destination. The earth is just a spinning mausoleum and the universe is purposeless. The creation was incidental and humanity has no direction. Pretty gloomy, huh?
The second verse is even worse. If man has no destiny, then he has no duty. No obligation, no responsibility. If man has no destiny, then he has no guidelines or goals. If man has no destiny, then who is to say what is right or wrong? Who is to say that a husband can’t leave his wife and family? Who is to say you can’t abort a fetus? What is wrong with shacking up? Who says I can’t step on someone’s neck to get to the top? It’s your value system against mine. No absolutes. No principles. No ethics. No standards. Life is reduced to weekends, paychecks, and quick thrills. The bottom line is disaster.
“The existentialist,” writes existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, “finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend on within or without himself.”
If man has no duty or destiny, the next logical step is that man has no value. If man has no future, he isn’t worth much. He is worth, in fact, about as much as a tree or a rock. No difference. There is no reason to be here, therefore, there is no value.
And you’ve seen the results of this. Our system goes haywire. We feel useless and worthless. We freak out. We play games. We create false value systems. We say that you are valuable if you are pretty. We say that you are valuable if you can produce. We say that you are valuable if you can slam-dunk a basketball or snag a pop fly. You are valuable if your name has a “Dr.” in front of it or Ph.D. on the end of it. You are valuable if you have a six-figure salary and drive a foreign car.
Value is now measured by two criteria, appearance and performance.
Pretty tough system, isn’t it? Where does that leave the one challenged mentally? Or the ugly or uneducated? Where does that place the aged or the handicapped? What hope does that offer the unborn child? Not much. Not much at all. We become nameless numbers on mislaid lists.
Now please understand, this is man’s value system. It is not God’s. His plan is much brighter. God, with eyes twinkling, steps up to the philosopher’s blackboard, erases the never-ending, ever-repeating circle of history and replaces it with a line; a hope filled, promising, slender line. And, looking over his shoulder to see if the clas is watching, he draws an arrow on the end.
In God’s book man is heading somewhere. He has an amazing destiny. We are being prepared to walk down the church aisle and become the bride of Jesus. We are going to live with him. Share the throne with him. Reign with him. We count. We are valuable. And what’s more, our worth is built in! Our value is inborn.
You see, if there was anything that Jesus wanted everyone to understand it was this: A person is worth something simply because he is a person. That is why he treated people like he did. Think about it. The girl caught making undercover thunder with someone she shouldn’t-he forgave her. The untouchable leper who asked for cleansing–he touched him. And the blind welfare case that cluttered the roadside-he honored him. And the worn-out old windbag addicted to self-pity near the pool of Siloam-he healed him!
“Why do you insist that baptism is essential for salvation? While hanging on the cross, Jesus pardoned the thief who was crucified with him. And that forgiveness was granted without baptism (Luke 23:43). Surely this is a clear example of salvation by faith, not by baptism.”
To argue that the example of the thief on the cross is a pattern of salvation today involves: first, an unwarranted assumption; and second, a faulty view of biblical chronology. Here are the basic facts of the case.
When the Lord was crucified, he was positioned between two robbers, both of whom, at some point during the six hours of agony, reproached him (Matthew 27:44; Mark 15:32). The Greek grammar suggests a repeated verbal assault. However, as the ordeal proceeded, a change occurred in one of the thieves. This aspect of the case is recorded by Luke alone (23:38-43).
“And there was also a superscription over him, THIS IS THE KING OFTHE JEWS. And one of the malefactors that were hanged railed on him, saying, Art not thou the Christ? Save thyself and us. But the other answered, and rebuking him said, Dost thou not even fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said, Jesus, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom. And he said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.”
(1) By comparing Luke’s record with that of Matthew and Mark, it is obvious that there was a change in the man’s view regarding Jesus. Instead of reviling the Lord, he glorified him and petitioned the Savior; and Jesus graciously responded to him.
(2) The penitent thief had a good deal of information concerning Christ; exactly when he learned these facts is not specified.
Note some things about the man’s beliefs.
He acknowledged the existence of God. He believed in a standard of right and wrong, he confessed that he and his companion had transgressed divine law, and he conceded they were being punished “justly.”
He asserted the innocence of Christ. The Teacher had done “nothing amiss.” And remember, the Lord was being crucified for his affirmation of being the “Son of the Blessed One” (Mark 14:61,62). The robber’s statement, therefore, is basically an acknowledgement of the truth of Jesus’ claim.
The penitent thief believed that Christ was a “king,” and that this act of murder would not terminate the Savior’s life; rather, the Lord would “come in [his] kingdom.”
He was confident that Jesus would be able to bless him in that regime. At the very least, these expressions indicate that the thief believed it was possible to have association with the Lord after both of them were dead.
In view of this principle, consider the following facts.
During his personal ministry, Jesus possessed the authority to forgive men’s sins personally and directly, upon whatever terms he chose. For example, once while in the city of Capernaum, the Lord encountered a man who was paralyzed. The unfortunate gentleman had been conveyed to where Christ was by four of his friends. When Jesus saw “their faith,” he said to the palsied man, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). Then, in order to establish his “authority” in the matter of personally forgiving sins “on earth” (2:10), Christ healed the man of his malady.
(2) The fact is, while Jesus was on earth he had the authority to dispense blessings directly based upon the circumstances at hand. At the time of his death, however, his authority was made resident in his testamentary “will” (Hebrews 9:15-17). And the terms of that will specify baptism as a condition of pardon (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21, etc.).
No one has the legal right to eliminate that condition by appealing to something the Lord did while he was implementing his earthly ministry. The heavenly regime takes precedence over the former.
It becomes very apparent, therefore, that those who appeal to the case of the “thief on the cross,” as a specific example for conversion today, are mistaken in several particulars.
(a) They do not comprehend the difference between the Savior’s earthly operations and his current reign from heaven
(b) They have thrust aside the plain demands of the New Covenant economy.
What Happens To A Person At Death?
When the human body dies, it goes back to the dust of corruption (Genesis 3:19; Ecclesiastes 12:7; 2 Corinthians 5:1) where it remains until the “last day” of earth’s history (John 6:44, 54). At that point it will be raised in a new form, an immortal body (Daniel 12:2; Matthew 10:28; 1 Corinthians 15:54).
The body has been endowed by the Creator with a “soul” or “spirit” — the terms being used interchangeably at times (cf. John 12:27; 13:21). The soul leaves the body at death (Genesis 35:18; cf. James 2:26), and remains in a separate state until the general resurrection. This spirit-state is called Hades (10x NT). Hades comes directly from Greek into English, letter-for-letter. Some derive the term from the negative prefix a (“not”) and eido (“seen”), hence “the unseen,” (i.e., from the earthly vantage point).
In the KJV, the Greek term hades is rendered as “hell,” but this is incorrect. Hades is the generic name for the state of the spirits of the dead, whether righteous or wicked.
Jesus’ spirit was in Hades, elsewhere designated as “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22) or “Paradise” (Luke 23:43), while his body lay in the tomb (Acts 2:27).
Likewise, the selfish rich man (mentioned by Christ) was tormented in Hades (Luke 16:23). Most likely, this is the same state as that called “hell,” tartarus, a condition of rebellious angels who are “chained by darkness” (2 Peter 2:4), and reserved until their ultimate deposition in “hell,” gehenna. This state is the final receptacle of all the wicked—both rebel angels (including Satan) and evil humans (Matthew 25:41; Revelation 20:10).
At the time of Christ’s return, all bodies will be raised from the dead (John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15). When the Lord descends from heaven he will bring with him the righteous spirits of those whose bodies “fell asleep” as they died (1 Thessalonians 4:14, 16). Hiebert observed: “Those now in heaven in a disembodied state, will Christ bring with him” (1971, 200-201). Elsewhere in this letter the apostle speaks of “the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (3:13). Most scholars appear to believe that “saints” embraces angels as well as the redeemed, though the latter is the common meaning in the New Testament. Lenski argues there is “no support” for a reference to angels in this passage (1961, 301; cf. Vincent, 1972, 939). The two texts (3:13; 4:14) certainly complement one another. For more, see below (4).
(Note: The term “sleep” is never used of the soul; only of the body (Daniel 12:2; John 11:11ff).) “Hades” then will surrender its meaning (Revelation 1:18; 20:13-14), since both the righteous and the wicked will be assigned their final destinies—with their incorruptible bodies (1 Corinthians 15:53-54), and immortal souls, reunited (Daniel 12:2; Matthew 10:28; 2 Corinthians 5:1ff).
One must remember, however, that no single text contains the full picture of the disembodied state of human spirits. The complete collection of information must be assembled from various passages, each of which contributes its own deposit of data.
One of these is in Second Corinthians, where Paul affirmed that fourteen years earlier he had been “caught up even to the third heaven” and “into Paradise,” not knowing whether such was “in the body” or “apart from the body” (12:2ff). There is an obvious proximity, or relationship, between the “third heaven” and “Paradise” (cf. Revelation 2:7; 22:2). A number of scholars see the two expressions as synonymous (Hodge, 1860, 282; Barnett, 1997, 562).
One should not argue, therefore, that the Christian who dies will not see Christ until after the resurrection; such denies the testimony of the New Testament, both explicitly and implicitly (Acts 7:59; Philippians 1:23; 2 Corinthians 5:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:14b, 16a; 5:10; Revelation 6:9). Let us consider these passages for a moment.
Stephen’s Prayer – Acts 7:59
As Stephen was being stoned, he looked “into heaven” and saw Jesus standing on the right hand of God. Calling on Christ, he petitioned: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). Surely he anticipated that his prayer would be answered, just as Jesus did on the brink of his death (Luke 23:46), and that his soul would be with the Lord.
Very Far Better – Philippians 1:23
During his two-year Roman imprisonment (Acts 28), Paul wondered how his appeal to Caesar might go (cf. Acts 25:11). He wasn’t sure (cf. Philippians 2:19-24). Yet of one thing he was certain. If he were executed, his non-earthly state would be “very far better” for he would “be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). The preposition “with” [ syn ] “is not simply spatial proximity to Christ but active communion with Christ” (Harris, 1971, III.1207). Gordon Fee argues that the language “implies a period in which one is with the Lord in ‘body-less’ existence” (1995, 148).
At Home With the Lord – 2 Corinthians 5:8
Similarly, Paul says that when the Christian is “absent from the body,” i.e., his spirit has left his body (and he is dead), he nonetheless is “at home with [ pros ] the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). The preposition pros in this context, as in the case of John 1:1b of the pre-incarnate communion between the Word [Christ] and God, implies a “dynamic interpersonal communion, a settled mutual fellowship” (Harris, op. cit., 1205). A.T. Robertson depicted it as a “face-to-face converse with the Lord … a living relationship, intimate converse” (1919, 625). As another scholar, commenting on Second Corinthians 5:6-8, suggests: “bodily existence is absence from the Lord … full fellowship is possible only” without “this bodily existence” (Grundmann, 1964. II.63-64; emp. WJ). The apostle longed for an “intimate, open, and total relationship with Christ himself” (Melick, 1991, 85).
Noted scholar Charles Hodge, of Princeton Seminary, commented: “The Christian’s heaven is to be with Christ, for we shall be like him when we see him as he is. Into his presence the believer passes as soon as he is absent from the body, and into his likeness the soul is at death immediately transformed; and when at the resurrection, the body is made like unto his glorious body, the work of redemption is consummated” (1860, 123).
Brought With Him – 1 Thessalonians 4:14
In his first letter to the Thessalonian saints, Paul stresses that Christians who have died still enjoy their “in Christ” relationship (4:16b), and that at the time of the Lord’s return, those whose bodies that have “fallen asleep” would be brought “with him” (4:14b) “from heaven” (4:16a). While there is some controversy over the construction of the text (some contending that “with him” refers to an entrance into heaven after the time of the Second Coming), after discussing the options carefully, Hendriksen declares that God “will bring their souls [the righteous] along from heaven [‘with Jesus, from heaven’], so that these may be reunited quickly (in a flash)” with their bodies (1979, 113-114; cf. Morris, 1991, 140).
All faithful saints—the living and the dead—maintain their “with the Lord” experience. Again, as Harris, notes: “The difference between ‘the dead in Christ’ and living Christians is not in their status (‘in Christ’ in both cases), but in the quality of their fellowship with Christ and the degree of their proximity to Christ” (1971, III.1207; emp. WJ).
Saved Unto His Heavenly Kingdom – 2 Timothy 4:18
In his final written words Paul expresses confidence that the Lord “will deliver me from every evil work, and will save me unto his heavenly kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:18). The term “heavenly” is a compound term, literally meaning “in heaven.” George W. Knight says “it appears that Paul is speaking of Christ’s kingdom ‘in heaven’ and saying that when he dies he will be brought safely into that kingdom and remain in it from then on (cf. 1 Thes. 4:13-18)” (1992, 472; cf. Lenski, 1961, 880-881).
Under the Altar – Revelation 6:9
In Revelation 6:9ff John sees a group of souls “underneath the altar”; they had been murdered for the word of God and their testimony. They are distinguished from those on “earth” (v. 10), and the “altar” motif identifies the locale as heaven (8:3, 5; 11:1, 19; 14:15, 18). If there are no souls in heaven, the imagery is baffling. See also the “great multitude” that is “standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (7:9ff; cf. 14:1-4). And, as noted earlier, elsewhere in the book of Revelation the “tree of life,” identified as being in “Paradise” (2:7), is located in heaven (22:2).
As one scholar has observed, with reference to Paul’s discussion of his heavenly journey fourteen years earlier (2 Corinthians 12:1ff):
“Paul’s reference to the vision given him early in his ministry, in which in one instance he says that he was ‘caught up even to the third heaven,’ and in another that he was ‘caught up into Paradise,’ II Cor. 12:2-4, shows that Paradise is to be identified with heaven” (Boettner, 1956, 92).
Would it not be best, therefore, to speak of Hades as a state of disembodied souls (whether righteous or unrighteous), prior to the resurrection, with “Paradise” depicting the state of the righteous in the heavenly realm, though as yet without their new bodies? This view is consistent with the ample evidence of a celestial reward at the point of death. As Prof. Erickson has expressed it:
“On the basis of these biblical considerations, we conclude that upon death believers go immediately to a place and condition of blessedness, and unbelievers to an experience of misery, torment, and punishment. Although the evidence is not clear, it is likely that these are the very places to which believers and unbelievers will go after the great judgment, since the presence of the Lord (Luke 23:43; 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil 1:23) would seem to be nothing more than heaven. Yet while the place of the intermediate and final states may be the same, the experiences of paradise and Hades are doubtless not as intense as what will ultimately be, since the person is in a somewhat incomplete condition” (Erickson, 1998, 1189).
And don’t forget the classic case study on the value of a person by Luke. It is called ‘The Tale of the Crucified Crook.”
If anyone was ever worthless, this one was. If any man ever deserved dying, this man probably did. If any fellow was ever a loser, this fellow was at the top of the list.
Perhaps that is why Jesus chose him to show us what he thinks of the human race.
Maybe this criminal heard the Messiah speak. Maybe he had seen him love the lowly. Maybe he had watched him dine with the punks, pickpockets, and pot-mouths on the streets. Or maybe not. Maybe the only thing he knew about this Messiah was what he now saw: a beaten, slashed, nail-suspended preacher. His face crimson with blood, his bones peeking through torn flesh, his body heaving for air.
Something, though, told him that he had never been in better company. And somehow he realized that even though all he had was a prayer, he had finally met the One to whom he should pray.
“Any chance that you could put in a good word for me?” (Loose translation.) “Consider it done.”
Now why did Jesus do that? What in the world did he have to gain by promising this desperado a place of honor at the banquet table? What in the world could this chiseling quisling ever offer in return? I mean, the Samaritan woman I can understand. She should go back and tell the tale. And Zacheus, he had some money that he could give. But this guy? what is he going to do? Nothing!
That’s the point. Listen closely. Jesus’ love does not depend upon what we do for him. Not at all. In the eyes of the King, you have value simply because you are. You don’t have to look nice or perform well. Your value is inborn. Period.
Think about that for just a minute. You are valuable just because you exist. Not because of what you do or what you have done, but simply because you are. Remember that. Remember that the next time you are left bobbing in the wake of someone’s steamboat ambition. Remember that the next time some trickster tries to hang a bargain basement price tag on your self-worth. The next time someone tries to pass you off as a cheap buy, just think about the way Jesus honors you… and smile.
I do. I smile because I know I don’t deserve love like that. None of us do. When you get right down to it’ any contribution that any of us make is pretty puny. All of us–even the purest of us –deserve heaven about as much as that crook did. All of us are signing on Jesus’ credit card’ not ours.
And it also makes me smile to think that there is a grinning ex-con walking the golden streets who knows more about grace than a thousand theologians. No one else would have given him a prayer. But in the end that is all that he had. And in the end, that is all it took. No wonder they call him the Savior. (later comments by Max Lacado, No Wonder They Call Him the Savior)