“ ‘…today you will be with me in paradise’ ” (Luke 23:43, NIV).
We do not know much about the criminal who hung on the cross next to Jesus. Only a few of his words are recorded, culminating with his plea “ ‘…remember me’ ”(Luke 23:42, NIV). I suspect that this man had lived a life of crime. Likely, he was a repeat offender. Or maybe, he had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time, a victim of circumstance if you will.
Regardless of where his path had originated, he had arrived at this place called Calvary. And ironically, or more accurately, by divine appointment, this man was exactly where he needed to be to experience the mercy of God in the person of Jesus. Perhaps this was the only place where the man’s defenses could finally be broken down. Hanging on a cross, barely hanging on to life, this man experienced things he had likely never experienced before. Likely, for the first time in his life, he experienced an eternal hope, love without any sort of condition, and peace beyond anything he could understand. And in just a little while he would realize in their fullness Jesus’ words to him, “ ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’ ” (Luke 23:43, NIV).
Despite a lifetime of not knowing one another, Jesus and this criminal were about to begin a relationship that would last for all of eternity. And in Heaven, they would have the opportunity to make up for lost time.
It’s hard to imagine how anyone could experience joy while dying on a cross. But if ever there was such an occasion, I think it might have been during the exchange between this criminal and his new best friend, Jesus. At the criminal’s request “ ‘…remember me…’ ” (Luke 23:42, NIV), I imagine Jesus thinking to himself, “I thought you would never ask”. I even picture Jesus donning a subtle smile on his weathered face, a smile forced through the pain of the crucifixion. This moment must have brought a certain amount of joy to Jesus’ aching heart and suffering soul, however brief it may have been. Think about the encouragement Jesus would have felt over the criminal’s conversion. Imagine the validation he gained concerning the mission he was taking part in.
“ ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’ ” (Luke 23:43, NIV ). Notice what Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “Someday you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus doesn’t say “eventually” or “in the future” or “later this week you will be with me in paradise.” He says, “ ‘…today you will be with me in paradise’” (Luke 23:43, NIV). There’s an immediacy that is conveyed here and it gives followers of Christ great encouragement. As believers in Jesus, we do not need to fear death. The end of our life is the beginning of our time in Heaven. There is no line or waiting period to enter eternity. At the moment of our death, we are alive in paradise.
When a person comes to faith in Christ, Jesus claims that person as his own. The Gospel writer, John, records Jesus’ words, “ ‘I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand’ ” (John 10:28, NIV). Picture this: Jesus’ nail-scarred hand holding you tightly in its grip, protecting you and securing your salvation. The world and Satan, try as they may, cannot loosen the grip that Jesus has on you, on your life, on your eternal hope and confidence. These things are true for you just as they were true for the criminal who accepted Jesus in his dying moments on the cross.
While I have no doubt that the account of the criminal on the cross is true, I would like to examine the story in a figurative manner. In that regard, each of us is the criminal suspended on the cross next to Jesus. After all, each of us is a thief. We have mismanaged the gifts and resources God has given us. We have stolen the joy from the lives of others. We have taken the benefits of grace without paying the cost of discipleship.
We are guilty of other crimes as well. We are murderers, evidenced by our words and actions that wound people’s hearts and kill their spirit. We are adulterers, lusting after the world and its many attractions. Furthermore, our hearts are spotted with hatred and pride and arrogance and deceit. And while we hang on our cross, so close in proximity to the Savior, our hearts are miles from him.
But Jesus looks from the neighboring cross into our eyes and observes something much different. Jesus sees someone he has formed in secret places and has known even before we were born. He studies us, his creation that he prizes, not as a possession, but as a person. He fixes his gaze upon us and remembers every moment of our lives, the good and the bad. Jesus would love nothing more than to hold us, but is momentarily prevented by the nails securing him to the cruel device of his own cross.
Jesus’ reply to the criminal, who simply asked to be remembered, is an amazing lesson in grace. Jesus, with no questions asked, with no expectations, with no reservations, gifted this man with an eternal home in Heaven. And he does the same for each of us when we reach out to him in faith. Our understanding may be lacking. I’m sure the criminal had questions, too. Our doubts may accuse us, reminding us of things we’d rather forget. The criminal certainly had his baggage as well. Still, no matter how feeble our faith is, Jesus uses it as an entry point into a relationship with him. That’s what he did for the criminal. That’s what he does for us.
“ ‘…today you will be with me in paradise’ ” (Luke 23:43, NIV). These are the words of Jesus to a criminal undeserving of the gift Jesus was giving. These are the words of Jesus to us as well.