Article by: Nathan Brooks
And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
As we consider the events of the week of Jesus' crucifixion, let's also consider one of Jesus' final acts of mercy on the cross; a pardon and a promise given to a criminal.
This raises a question not just for repentant thieves, but for all believers. What is paradise? Does this promise to the thief apply to all Christians? Where do Christians go when we die?
Where Did the Thief on the Cross Go?
The biblical answer is "paradise." This Greek word (paradeisos) is the word for a "garden" or a "park". It is only used two other times in the New Testament. It is used once by the Apostle Paul to refer to the place he was "caught up into" (2 Corinthians 12:1-2). Paul refers to paradise as the “third heaven”, commonly believed to be a reference to the invisible realm where God dwells.
The other use is in Revelation 2:7, as Jesus writes to those in Ephesus who conquer through their faith; "'I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.'" This indicates that believers who persevere in their faith will be in paradise as well (not just the thief on the cross).
Paradise and the Tree of Life
But notice also that in this “paradise” we also see the "tree of life". Where else in the Bible do we see the tree of life? That's right. In the beginning of the story. In the Garden of Eden.
Genesis 2:9 says,
"And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden,"
In the beginning, God placed Adam and Eve inside of a Garden where they could eat freely from the tree of life and live. But, in disobedience to God's command, they ate from another tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and fell into sin and it's condemnation. As a result, God sent them out of the Garden of Eden, away from the presence of the tree of life (Genesis 3:22-24). And since then, all of mankind has been trying to get themselves back to the garden.
But the tree of life is also referenced at the end of of the story. In Revelation 22 in v.1-2, the Apostle John says,
“1Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”
God is preparing a new garden where his redeemed people will be fed forever from the tree of life again. It is a garden prepared for people from all nations who have been redeemed by Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross ("the Lamb", v.1).
So, in Luke 23:43, Jesus, in a sense, is saying to the thief, “I will take you back to the Garden of Eden”. Jesus on the cross is telling the thief that he will be with him in a "garden", where he will await the future "garden" in the New Heavens and the New Earth, the physical garden where the righteous will dwell with God after the resurrection of the dead.
Putting it all Together
I do not mean “purgatory”, the Roman Catholic teaching of a state of suffering and "self-cleansing" for sinners who are finishing off paying for their sins before going to heaven. There is no biblical teaching to support the idea of purgatory. Christ paid for our sins fully on his cross and he himself will cleanse us for heaven! Jesus is telling this man that he would be with him, kept in death, awaiting the final, physical resurrection of the dead.
Paradise's Most Beautiful Feature: "With Me"
So what is it that makes paradise paradise? That's easy. The most beautiful feature of paradise is found in two words in Luke 23:42 when Jesus says; “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise."
As John Calvin reminds us, “We ought not to enter into curious and subtle arguments about the place of paradise. Let us rest satisfied with knowing that those who are engrafted by faith into the body of Christ are partakers of that life, and thus enjoy after death a blessed and joyful rest, until the perfect glory of the heavenly life is fully manifested by the coming of Christ.”
Whatever paradise is, wherever it is, what makes it pleasurable is that Jesus is there.
John Piper asks, “If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?”
It is not its lushness and splendor that makes paradise pleasurable, it's the presence of Christ.
Paradise by Grace
What makes paradise pleasurable is that Christ is there. What makes it gracious is that the thief is there.
On his cross, Jesus promised to take this repentant criminal with him from The Skull to The Garden. Note that; Jesus saved a criminal on his cross by grace alone through faith alone. No one in this unnamed man’s life would have looked at what he had become, a common bandit and thought; “Just watch, he’ll come around!” Not one of his friends would have stood under this man’s cross and said, “I knew it! I knew he would trust Jesus!”
And yet, Jesus is the King who gives new hearts to thieves and sinners to love and trust Him. He is King that confers citizenship on whomever he pleases. He is the King who pardons and exonerates all who understand that they have no hope other than the mercy of Christ; even criminals.
You may be far from God, far from Christ. You may be a thief who would rail against Christ even from a cross if you had the chance. But you have never been further away than these men. And just as he did with this thief, he can convict your conscience, give you a new heart to see your sin and his righteousness, grant you repentance, pardon your sin and give you the assurance of being with him in paradise, where you will wait with Christ for the resurrection of your body unto life forevermore!
Friend, repent of your sin and ask Jesus to remember you when he comes into his Kingdom!