Reflection for Good Friday – ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

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39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” ~ Luke 23:39-43 (ESV)

A reflection, from Luke 23:43, on one of Jesus’ last words. 
24th March 2016

And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

How will you die? What a question.

If, by it, we’re trying to pinpoint the exact time and place, then the question of ‘how will you die?’ is merely an invitation to indulge in fantasy, perhaps thinking about the ‘best’ way to die. Death is the tsunami that no one can outrun, outlast, or outlive, consuming everything in this world, and it engulfs all of us sooner or later. Every day, of every week, we live in a world held in slavery to death and corruption. Some of you, right now, are grieving over the effects of death and decay that are present among your family, friends, or yourself. What do you say to someone on their deathbed, before they exhale their final breath?

As we look at these last words of Jesus, we see what Jesus said.

And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Jesus says these words to one of the two criminals who is being executed next to Him, hung on a Roman Cross. But what happened before this? You can see in verse 39 that the first criminal calls Jesus ‘the Christ’, mocking Him. The Christ? The one, true, living God’s anointed King of Israel and the world? Surely if Jesus is this King then He will save Himself from dying, and rescue these men next to Him as well? So why hasn’t He done it yet?

But the second criminal rebukes the first one. He knows that they’re criminals. He knows that they deserve punishment. Jesus, however, doesn’t deserve punishment. Jesus, this man, has done nothing wrong. Jesus is innocent. The second criminal says to Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He recognises that Jesus will have a kingdom, because Jesus really is the Christ. But, unlike the first criminal, he doesn’t ask Jesus to save him from his crucifixion.

Can you imagine that!? There he hangs, nails through both wrists and his feet, dripping blood, slowly suffocating, and feeling such intense pain that they invented the word ‘excruciating’ to describe how unbearable the torture of crucifixion was. He recognises that he deserves it because, ultimately, his crimes weren’t against humanity – they are against God. (Do you see, how in verse 40, he says that God is the one who has condemned him?) He is dying, yet acknowledges who Jesus is and asks that He would remember him.

Church goers can be tempted into thinking that their salvation before God is based on how much they remember about Him. One reason we go to church is to ‘learn about God’, but don’t be mistaken into thinking that in God’s kingdom knowing God is all that matters. I’ll put it this way: if I went to Buckingham Palace and tried to walk past a guard, it doesn’t matter whether or not I tell them that I know the Queen. A lot of people know the Queen. But if the Queen came out and greeted me, invited me in, then that’s something entirely different. If the Queen knows me, and I know her, then I can have access to the Palace.

The criminal recognises this. It’s important that he knows Jesus, but it is more important that Jesus knows him. It’s important that Jesus remembers the criminal in His kingdom.

And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Jesus turns to the criminal, and says these words of comfort. What precious, glorious words. Jesus promises that the criminal will be with Him. Jesus is promising that He will not forget, and that death is not the end. Jesus is promising to bring him to Paradise.

You may wonder, what is this Paradise? If we look at where this word shows up in the New Testament it refers to the place where God dwells. But why didn’t Jesus just use the word ‘heaven’ instead of ‘Paradise’ – “today you will be with me in heaven”? The word ‘Paradise’ is also used as a reference to the Garden of Eden from opening chapters of Genesis, the place where God dwelt in love and fellowship with Adam and Eve. As many of you know, Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden because of their sin, leaving Paradise in the process. So when Jesus tells the criminal that he will be in Paradise we are driven to realise that Jesus is saying that the sin that kept humanity out of God’s dwelling place will be dealt with. This criminal, judged justly for his sin, will be with Jesus in the love and fellowship of the presence of God.

What a comfort! What a glorious word of encouragement. The criminal, presumably, was looking forward to a distant future day when Jesus would come into His kingdom. He was asking Jesus to remember him. But Jesus assures him that, today, he would be in Paradise.

That word, ‘today’, is tremendously significant. It means that Jesus wasn’t going to establish His rule and kingdom in some distant future – instead, Jesus’ kingdom would be established that day, by Jesus’ death on the Cross. Jesus truly is the Christ, God’s anointed King of Israel and the world. And the way in which God establishes His rule is not through conquest and sword, unlike how our world may view the act of asserting power over all. Instead, Jesus became King by suffering and dying, the innocent for the guilty, opening His arms with love as vast as an ocean to swallow up death and decay, so that petty criminals like you and I would be with Him in Paradise.

King Jesus, His kingdom established, is able to bring the criminal to His Father in heaven. Contrary to some teachings that say that ‘Jesus went to hell’ after dying, here we clearly see that Jesus was in Paradise upon His death, having swallowed up death and finally suffered the consequences as the innocent man. But if Jesus really did establish His kingdom by dying on the Cross, then why do we still see sin, and decay, and death? Why do we still grieve and suffer loss?

During World War II, the Normandy landings that began on the 6th of June 1944 were seen as the decisive battle that meant that the Allied forces were able to enter and begin to liberate north-western Europe from Nazi control. This date was known as D-Day, and it was a bloody operation that resulted in a key strategical victory for the Allied forces. Their victory at D-Day meant that they had essentially won the war – they had penetrated the defences and had the tactical advantage. But the war didn’t end on that day, even though it was just a matter of time. No – the war ended on V-Day, or ‘Victory in Europe Day’ on the 8th of May 1945. This was the day that the Allied forces accepted Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender.

You see, D-Day was, tactically, the day that the war had been won by the Allied forces. The Nazi’s had essentially lost the war because they couldn’t win after that. But there were still little skirmishes, battles, and lives lost until all the final forces could be mopped up. V-Day was the day when everyone knew that the Allied forces had won, and when there was no question of it.

Jesus’ death (and subsequent resurrection) is our D-Day. He has decisively defeated the powers and authorities that stand against God. But we await our V-Day, when all will see His rule and reign, and when He will renew this world and bring Paradise here. Until that day comes, we will still see the evil fight back and strike tragedy into the world we live in. But we wait, faithfully, and remember the tremendous sacrifice of our King.

And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Some of us may have heard the saying that there are only two ways to live. That is true, but what we’ve seen is that there are only two ways to die. Do you notice that Jesus never speaks to the first criminal? He only assures the second criminal of his future.

Beloved, how will you die?

Will you die with no hope for the future, no promise of seeing Paradise, and remain under the condemnation of God, like the first criminal? He didn’t recognise that he didn’t deserve to be saved, or that Jesus is to be honoured and not mocked.

Or will you die with hope, a promise that you will be remembered by the innocent King who died to bring you to His Father in heaven, like the second criminal? He recognised that he didn’t deserve God’s love and mercy, but honoured Jesus and trusted that He would remember him.

This criminal was on his deathbed. He was about to die. You can imagine that his family and friends may have given up on him and said that he was going to be lost forever. But this magnificent account assures us that if you’re still living, it’s never too late. And so some of you may be reading this and thinking to yourself ‘this sounds good, but I’m beyond hope. I am a lost cause.’ Beloved sinner, can’t you see the love that is here? Embrace the King, in humility cling to Him, and know that He will never forget you. And sisters and brothers, remember, today, that death has no power over you. After all, why is Good Friday, good?

On this day, your innocent King was crucified to bring you to Paradise.

James Chen

James is a Philosophy graduate from the University of Sydney and is currently a teaching and learning manager of a senior high school tutoring centre. James is a member of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Carlingford and loves reading and teaching the Bible.

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