HOUSMAIL HM#060 - A THIEF'S "DAY IN PARADISE" WITH JESUS. (Luke 23:43) 20 July 2000
It was the day before the Passover feast in Jerusalem, probably in AD30. Three men hung on crosses outside the city. They were in terrible agony, suffering what must be one of the most fiendishly cruel punishments ever devised for criminals. It was customary for the Romans to place a sign above each man's head, with his name, and the name of his crime. No details are preserved about the sign which was most likely above two of the men, but if present it would have said simply - "thief". It is not unreasonable to speculate that perhaps they knew each other. Perhaps they had been arrested together for the same crime.
There was definitely a sign above the third man. It proclaimed this man to be guilty of TREASON against Rome. It was written in three different languages, Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin. (These were the three languages most commonly heard in Jerusalem - the Romans were making sure that everyone understood how Rome dealt with treason!) It read simply, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews".
Of course EVERY ONE had heard about the new prophet in town! Most likely this thief had even been present himself in one of the crowds which had gathered around Jesus to hear themselves called to repentance, and a new way of life which would have required HIM to earn an honest living!
Alas ..... if only he had listened then, instead of turning away in rejection, and then going on that last "job", which had earned him this terrible retribution!
There was one "bonus" though. The ghoulish crowds which seem to have such an unhealthy fascination with "blood sports" involving the suffering of fellow humans, (Note - essentially the same emotions at work as in the crowds who watch 20th century prize fighting, or football, or increasingly violent movies!) were directing their "attention" towards Jesus, instead of himself and the other thief.
The fickle crowd who only a few days before, were welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem as the expected Messiah, were now saying things like - "He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God". The soldiers joined in. "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself." The first thief joined in with the railing of the crowd with: "If you are the Messiah, save yourself and us." And then the second thief also joined in.
But before we listen to what he actually said, we should take note from the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, that this is spoken in the spirit of the same angry railing as that expressed by the first thief. There is nothing at all in Luke, which would authorise us to change the information provided by Matthew and Mark, alerting us to THE SPIRIT AND TONE OF VOICE, IN WHICH BOTH THIEVES SPOKE.
(We all know about TONAL language
Even in English, a simple shift in TONE OF VOICE
can result in a complete reversal of the meaning
of exactly the same words!)
Responding to the first thief's unfriendly words with his own RAILING SARCASM, but really hitting out at Jesus, and speaking in anger born in dreadful fear and suffering, he said to the first thief - "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 has done nothing wrong." (Remember TONE OF VOICE from Matthew!)
Not an unusual statement even today! A visit to the average modern prison will quickly confirm the grim humor of the saying commonly heard amongst prisoners! "There are no guilty men in prison!" Most loudly protest their innocence! So this sarcasm from the second thief is a predictable enough reaction from one who is all too well aware of the inescapable dreadful end of their suffering!
Then he turned directly to Jesus and continued his reviling ....... yes, reviling, Matthew says!! "Jesus remember me when you come into your Kingdom".
Let us hear it again ..... the meaning of these words depends totally on the TONE OF VOICE in which we hear them spoken! They are NOT friendly words! They are the sarcastic, angry railing of a frightened man, dying in dreadful agony, and trying desperately to shut out for a few brief moments, the relentless pain from which there was no escape.
Jesus turned to him, almost certainly in compassion and sorrow for his lack of understanding, especially at this point of no return! "TODAY you shall be with me in Paradise".
WAS IT A PARDON FOR SIN? It is important to our understanding of this event, to notice that the thief was neither pardoned by Jesus, nor saved from the penalty of his sin! HE SUFFERED IT! If he had really been forgiven, we should expect that he would have somehow been saved from the cross! God does NOT pardon a DEATH PENALTY and then extract it anyway! (Ezekiel 33:14-16)
WAS IT A PROMISE OF SOME FUTURE "BLESSING" in the Kingdom of God?
Certainly it was not for that SAME day, in Heaven! Neither of them went there that day. Nor, given the thief's railing attitude against Jesus, could it be for "tomorrow" in a future Kingdom on earth!
But, if we will receive it, it was a simple statement of fact about what was happening "TODAY", right there and then, in Golgotha .....
The events surrounding the CROSS were the very BEGINNING of "Paradise". (the future Kingdom of God). But they speak to us of a seldom understood aspect of the Kingdom which is NOT for the future, but for the "here and now"! Golgotha is where the king paid the high price which established his right to rule, and captured to himself the love and loyalty of His subjects.
But alas ..... This "TODAY" was ONLY the beginning of PARADISE - not the final stage. And for the thief, "TODAY" was all there was ever going to be! He had spoken in ignorance, and in railing sarcasm! But ignorant or not, he did share with Jesus, for THAT DAY ONLY, what he had asked for.
Just before sunset, a Roman solder came and used his heavy spear to break the legs of the thief. He died, suffocated by the constriction on his lungs caused by the weight of his own body.
His ONE DAY of questionable "fame" IN “PARADISE” WITH THE KING, was over .....
For additional background, read the companion article about the incident in Mark 10:35-45 - "CORONATION DAY IN PARADISE"