Love that Transforms: Luke 23:32, 39-43
The second set of words spoken by Jesus on the Cross are “Today you will be with me in paradise.” They speak of the love of God that transforms. In these words, we have the heart of God displayed. They are words of grace and love.
Picture the setting. Three men had come to the most crucial point in one’s existence, that moment between life and death, lingering in life and yet about to exit this world. One was Jesus and the other two were criminals. They were going to die on a cross so as to suffer and become an example to others who might be contemplating a life of crime or rebellion.
The two men who died with Jesus that day were very much alike. Both had lived lives of sin and were known for their wickedness. The word that Matthew and Mark use to describe them was the common word for a terrorist or individual who led a band of outlaws known to prey on travelers and even whole communities. Both men had been arrested, tried and found guilty. Now they hung together dying and facing the same fears and uncertainties.
Both men had been eyewitnesses to some of the events of that day, especially the events that centered about Jesus. Both had walked with Jesus to the place of crucifixion bearing crosses like Jesus. Both had seen Jesus fall, unable to carry His Cross. Both had seen Jesus placed upon a Cross. Both had undoubtedly fought and cursed but they Jesus heard Jesus lift His voice upwards in prayer and ask His Father to forgive those who were killing Him. Both saw in Him someone special.
They were two men in a desperate plight, two men deep in sin and two men in need of divine forgiveness. How very much alike they were in life and yet how different they would be in death. One died as he lived, as a self-sufficient, hardened, sinner. The other recognized Jesus as one so different and special that he turned to Him and, in simple faith and complete dependence, asked to be remembered when Jesus came into His kingdom. By that act of faith, he entered eternity in a very different way than the other who died with Jesus.
It’s marvelous to see that God was in complete control of that crucifixion. Jesus was hung in the middle of the two thieves. It’s assumed that both men were companions in crime and sentenced to die together. If that was so, then the logical way to place the crosses would have been to put those two beside each other. But Jesus was placed in the middle so both men could talk to Jesus. In Jesus’ most agonizing hours God arranged it so those men could see that He was a King. God is not willing that any should perish.
One thief had come to the place where he could admit his own sin and thus his own guilt. He declared he was there justly for crimes that he had committed. Many throughout history, and in our society today, have not come to the place of acknowledging that they are sinners. Some acknowledge some failures but add quickly that for the most part they have lived well so they deserve heaven. That thief knew he was a sinner deserving death, even death on a cross. He saw the innocence in Jesus and declared He had done nothing wrong. It is easy to compare our righteousness to others and decide we are pretty good but that’s the wrong comparison. We must compare our supposedly righteousness with that of Jesus.
Keep in mind the setting in which Jesus answers that plea. He Himself was dying and in incredible agony. He had His disciples on His mind and He was concerned about his mother. He was utterly exhausted, having been up all night in illegal trials. He had been beaten and whipped and all manner of evil done to Him and now He hung in excruciating pain. He was weighed down by the incredible weight of humanities’ sins.
Jesus not only heard the plea of one dying with Him, but He sensed his faith. So, in mercy and love, He turned to him and declared, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus promised, “He that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” The answer to that request at the hour he made it, is a reminder that God is never too busy to hear our prayers or to reach out in love to meet our needs.
If a man with the character and background of that thief could come to Jesus when he did, and gain both the attention and pardon of Jesus certainly we can be confident that whoever approaches Him, not as one dying but as a risen Savior, will find a listening ear, mercy, love, and forgiveness.
The request of that man on the cross was a simple act of faith in what he believed Jesus could do for him and not in what he might do for Jesus. That thief came to Jesus with nothing. He was in no position to promise Him anything. He came totally dependent upon His mercy. It was too late to promise to turn over a new leaf and live better. It was too late to promise to walk in the path of righteousness, for he was already nailed to a cross. All that the thief could do was come, cut off from all self-righteousness and cast himself in faith on the mercy and love of Jesus. That is what saving faith is always all about. Casting ourselves totally on Him.
He asked simply to be remembered. We don’t know what he wanted, and probably he himself did not know, but he asked to be remembered and Jesus declared that that day he would be with Him in paradise. He was given so much more than he asked for but then that is the nature of God. God has promised to give far more than we ask for.
The word today is important. There are churches today that do not teach this. Some teach a soul sleep in which the souls of the departed are all sleeping until the day of Christ’s return. There are those who teach some intermediate state sometimes called purgatory where one goes awaiting further purification. But God’s Word teaches that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord and so that word “today” is important. For the believer, whose separation has been canceled because his sins were paid for on the Cross, the moment the soul departs the body he is with the Lord.
The word paradise is important. We wonder what heaven going to be like. The best we can say is that it will be paradise. Read I Corinthians 2:9.
The most important part of that promise is, “You will be with me.” Heaven can be described in many ways but, in the end, the real feature of heaven is that God is there, that we will spend eternity with our Savior. Being with Him is all the paradise we will ever need.
When God created man, He created us in His image so that we might have fellowship with Him. Sin destroyed that fellowship and man was not only cast out of the garden, but he could no longer walk and talk with God as he had previously done. Man became the sinner, and no one typified it more than that thief on the cross who had lived a life of gross sin. On the Cross sin was cared for as Jesus paid the price of that sin and thereby removed the barrier to reconciliation. Renewed fellowship was/is now possible. Because of that, Jesus was able to declare to that thief, “Today you will be with me.”
The prophet Isaiah wrote that in His death, the Messiah would save many. The thief on the cross that day was the first of the many His love would save. The account is a reminder that it is never too late to accept Jesus. One can wait until just before he dies, if he is sure he will be able to tell when that time will come. But since none of us really knows that, today is the day to make that commitment.
“Today you will be with me in paradise.” What a precious promise that was for one who was about to die. What a promise that is for all who know Jesus as Savior for it is appointed unto man to die. For those without Jesus that is also an appointment to judgment but for the Christian it is an appointment to paradise.