And He said to him, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise."
"Today You Will Be With Me in Paradise"
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Have you ever had a really bad headache? The kind I am referring to is the kind where you cannot remember what you are doing from one moment to the next and you are not able - or willing - to be kind to anyone, that's how bad it hurts? The kind of headache I mean is the kind where you are afraid you might live, and the pain will go on and on. Have you ever had that kind of headache?
If you have, you can understand what perfect self-control Jesus had as He hung on the cross. In the midst of all of that pain, tired, whipped with a cat-O-nine tails so that hunks of flesh hung from His back, beaten with fists, nails through hands and feet, and now hanging, naked in front of the whole world, from those nails driven through His hands and feet, Jesus could still focus and listen to the prayers of another. He could still care and love, and could and would bring the comforts of the gospel to another in spite of - no, make that because of the very pains He was suffering. We have trouble dealing rationally with others on account of a stomach upset or a headache. Just imagine crucifixion — if you can.
And Luke 23:43 says that when one of the criminals realized who Jesus really was and that He had been crucified though innocent, he asked Jesus to remember him when He came into His kingdom. "And [Jesus] said to him, 'Truly I say to you, Today you will be with me in paradise!'"
What a precious word of our Lord. It dispels doubt and ends uncertainty. Here Jesus indicates that what He speaks about in these words is absolutely, positively, and one hundred percent surely the truth. He comforts the dying thief, and, if we listen with faith, also each of us when we face the death of a loved one, or face death for ourselves. This is God's own truth. Men may speculate and theorize all they want, God's Word stands true, and Jesus tells us that this word is also surely true.
But why do I make such a big deal of this word being true? Because it is this word that tells us that there is no sleep of the soul, no period of unconsciousness or rest in the grave for the long centuries between death and resurrection! And there is no uncertainty about eternal life and salvation! Here Jesus tells us that when we die, we go immediately to be with Him in glory.
Today you shall be with me in paradise!
Men quibble and argue when the Scriptures teach that "It is appointed unto men once to die and after this, the judgment." Those words are found in Hebrews 9:27. But some men say that this passage does not mean that we proceed immediately to judgment upon our death in this world, only that one thing follows the other, eventually. The Roman doctrine of purgatory depends on that. But when we hear these words of our Lord, we know that this coming before our Lord for eternal life or eternal death is immediate. Today, He says, not eventually, or at the end of time, or some other time. And remember, the day ended at sundown for the Jewish people! To deny the force of these words requires one either to deny that Jesus was the Son of God or that He really knew what was going on -- which is the same thing, in reality.
Of course, some people will do that, but they do it to their own damnation. Many people never think about that. Words mean things. Jesus' words mean so much that I can preach on them. Your words also mean something. People often say, "Oh, that isn't what I meant!" What they fail to realize is that if it is what they said, what they were intending to say is not always important. Besides, when people speak incautiously, they often mean precisely what they say - they just don't mean to say it out loud. "Oh, that isn't what I meant," often means, "Oh that isn't what I meant to say out loud."
Jesus meant what He said, and He knew what He was talking about. Jesus knew clearly who He was and where He was and why He was there. It was this suffering and this death that made Jesus bold to promise to the dying thief that He would be brought to the eternal joys in paradise that very day.
It also meant that the thief would die, in this world, that very day, but that was no news to the thief. He knew where he was too, and he knew that it was the Passover, so his own people would not allow him to hang on his cross for the three or four days it normally took to die of crucifixion. He was going to die quickly and die in an ugly way. It wasn't pretty, and the thief didn't look forward to enduring what he knew lie ahead, but he also knew he had no choice in how and when he would die. That was already set, and clear. But he had found his Savior, and trusting that Jesus could rescue him and bring him to His kingdom, the dying thief cried out for mercy. And Jesus granted it, to the great comfort of the dying man.
And we can take comfort from that gracious word of Jesus. Death is not the end. Like the dying thief, when our hour comes, it may not be pretty. It will probably not be under our control, and we should not try to seize control of it. Our path is chosen for us and laid out already, just as his was, we just cannot see it as clearly now as he could then. These words of Jesus should help us as it helped the dying malefactor, and we should set our minds to face that day and hour in faith, and endure what we must endure to pass through death with confidence in God and hope for eternal life and salvation. For now we know that when we die we go to be with our Lord in paradise. Judgment happens immediately. The final day is but the public pronouncement of the righteous judgement of God. But immediately we go to be with our Lord.
Neither can we find a clearer text to teach the justification of the sinner by grace through faith. What else can explain this? The thief did no good works. He was demonstrably evil. The Bible describes the man as a criminal. He was dying, according to his own words, justly - he deserved it. And, if we examine ourselves honestly, so do we.
But then, having clearly seen and confessed his own guilt and unworthiness, He looked to Jesus. We don't know what he knew about Jesus. We don't know exactly what he thought. But he recognized in Jesus that there was, for Jesus, a kingdom to come - one where he understood Jesus was going, and where Jesus could also bring him. Don't we know the same thing? Isn't that part and parcel of the Gospel we preach and confess each week?
Isn't it remarkable that the only one who really understood what was happening with Jesus was a dying criminal? He alone saw the Messiah. He alone matched the prophesies with the events he saw. Though priest and rabbi stood and witnessed this death, only the sinner who clearly saw his sin could also clearly see that this was not death and defeat for Jesus but victory, and life, and ascending the throne of glory, and taking His place in His kingdom. The truth is, it still works that way. Only the penitent see Jesus for what and who He is!
So the thief prayed. The thief repented and looked for forgiveness. And Jesus answered, and forgave Him, and gave Him life and salvation. No works. No earning or deserving or deciding. The thief saw his sin, and saw his Savior, and then was assured that he was saved. He wasn't even baptized, as far as we know. He believed in Jesus in spite of the significant evidence before him. He believed that Jesus, though crucified, could save, and would save.
It wasn't natural. It wasn't something learned by the evidence of the senses or the glory of the moment. The other "thief" was still busy justifying himself. He was still cursing the world and trying to feel superior to someone, even if it was that religious guy next to him, who was dying, crucified just like him.
Shows you, that "religion stuff" doesn't really do you any good!
It is the gift of God, not of works, Saint Paul writes in Ephesians. Here we see it clearly. God opened the eyes of the man who repented and showed him his Savior and gave to him eternal life. But even that did not stop the pain or the coming death - it just gave it new meaning, and gave the dying man a hope and a comfort that would not disappoint. That should tell you something about how knowing Jesus isn't necessarily going to change your pains, either. It is only meant to give comfort and hope.
But what takes my breath away is that Jesus could be so focused on the welfare of another even while He was dying this tormented kind of death. He was born to die this death. He was appointed to this death to save sinful men. And through it all, He remembered why He was there.
When we face our share in the glory of God, which He has given to us by making us fellow-participants in this salvation and by giving us the good news of forgiveness and life to proclaim, we often don't seem to take it that seriously -- particularly from the vantage point of the comforts and rich blessings we enjoy. Where is our concern for one another? Where is our evangelism? Where are we at work to bring the lost to Jesus and to know His love and His salvation?
Jesus was hanging there, giving His all. He was dying for mankind. Did He say that He was already doing enough? No. He heard the prayer of even this public sinner, even at this extreme of life, and He preached to Him the whole Gospel.
Yes, the whole Gospel. He said, "Today you will be with Me in paradise." He told Him that he was saved. He didn't need to tell him any more. The work the thief needed done for his salvation was being accomplished right there, before his eyes. There was nothing to preach except that the thief was included in that salvation and could fully expect to stand with Jesus in heaven. And the thief believed!
Even in pain, even at the door of death, even being murdered by men, Jesus would not let one single soul slip by, but brought comfort and hope to the dying criminal. He was doing precisely what He had come to do, and what He was dying to accomplish. He was doing what He has commanded us to do, and thereby giving to us a share in the glory of salvation for others by bringing them the good news of Jesus Christ.
Jesus was confident, even in His torment. He did not allow the circumstances to shake His certainty of what He was doing or who He was, or where He was going! That is why we describe the theology that says "trust God no matter what it may look like" as the theology of the cross. We learn it from Jesus as He hung on the cross. It looked like death, but it was the foundation for life eternal. It looked like defeat, but it was victory! It looked like failure, but it was crowned with success. It looked like shame, but God turned it into glory!
This Wednesday night let us learn to view things with the eyes of faith, as did Jesus and the dying, repentant thief. Let us draw comfort from the assurance that death is the doorway to eternal life immediately with Jesus. And let us learn to share our Lord's love and compassion for the lost and, like Him, be unwilling to let any soul be lost but rather preach the Gospel in whatever circumstances we may find ourselves.
What a precious word from the cross: Today you will be with Me in paradise.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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