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To the dying believer, the promise of Paradise!

7 minutes to read

On the original Good Friday, two criminals were crucified with Jesus, one on his right and the other on his left. These two criminals represent two contrasting responses to the crucified Christ. And each of those responses will lead people to two very different destinations. We learn this from Lk. 23:39-43, a passage which ends with one of the sayings of Jesus from the Cross, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise”.       

Unbelievers seek another Christ

The passage begins with one of the criminals, “hurling abuse at [Jesus]” (Lk. 23:39). Jesus had already been on the receiving end of such behaviour. Luke’s narrative tells us how Jesus’ captors were also “blaspheming [or hurling abuses]” at Him when they were at the High Priest’s residence (Lk. 22:65). This places the abusive criminal in the camp of Jesus’ enemies. And what this criminal says next, makes this even clearer.

He says, “Are You not the Christ?” (v. 39). This was the same question that the chief priests and scribes were asking Jesus before accusing Him of treason, “If You are the Christ, tell us” (Lk. 22:67; 23:2). This was the same question that the rulers sneeringly asked as they watched Jesus on the Cross, “Let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One” (Lk. 23:35).

There are many people to fear in this world, but they are nothing compared to God whose wrath every sinner must face in Hell.

Jesus does not respond to the criminal’s inquiry. Probably because He knew that this criminal would not believe Him even if He told him the truth. That is why when the chief priests and scribes asked Him the same question, He told them, “If I tell you, you will not believe” (Lk. 22:67). Luke, like other Gospel writers, points out that angels (Lk. 2:11) and demons (Lk. 4:41) believed that Jesus is the Christ. But human beings would not believe it. Human beings in their servitude to sin and Satan had become so spiritually blind that they would only reject the truth (Jn. 8:44-45; 2 Cor. 4:4). Irrespective of what human beings thought about Jesus, He was indeed the Christ, the Anointed One of God (Lk. 2:26; 9:20), the promised son of King David, and the Lord God Himself, who had come to save the world from sin and all its consequences (Lk. 7:48, 50; Matt. 1:21).

But ironically, the unbelieving criminal adds a plea to his query. He tells Jesus, “Save Yourself and us” (v. 39). Although Jesus Christ had come to save the world from sin and its consequences, this criminal was not requiring that kind of saving. For he showed no knowledge of sin, or sorrow over sin, or resolve to overcome sin, which are elements of true repentance. He showed no sensitivity towards matters of sin, righteousness and judgment (Lk. 23:41). He just wanted a saving from the imminent death he faced so that he could continue to enjoy a sinful life here on earth.

Human beings do not want the Christ of the Bible (Jn. 1:10). They want a Christ who would save them from anything that hinders their life here on earth. They want to be saved from an impending lay-off at work, business losses, failures, sicknesses, strife at home, violence and death. They don’t want a Christ who would save them from sin and the consequent wrath of God. And this criminal was no different. Even at the very end of his life, his desires had not changed. He was still scrambling for life on earth with all its sinful pleasures. But what unbelievers do not realize is that death is not the worst thing that can happen to us, nor is a good life here on earth the best thing. So, they seek ‘another Christ’ who can give them what they need.  

The Promise of Paradise

But the other criminal, his partner-in-crime, who was also insulting Jesus from the Cross (Mk. 15:32; Matt. 27:44), had a dramatic change of heart. He rebukes the first criminal by saying, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Lk. 23:40-41).

This criminal begins to feel the weight of his own guilt. Not only was he justly sentenced to death for his own deeds, but he now faces a greater condemnation from God because of the way he treated the innocent Christ, Jesus. He began to experience something which the first criminal did not – the Fear of God.

This criminal realized that there is something far worse than death itself, Hell! Therefore, he feared God, who after death has the authority to cast him into hell (Lk. 12:4-5). He feared God who shows mercy to those who fear Him (Lk. 1:50).

There are many things to fear in this world, but those are nothing compared to Hell where a sinner will be tormented forever. There are many people to fear in this world, but they are nothing compared to God whose wrath every sinner must face in Hell. Therefore, all our actions in this world must be conditioned by that great reality. The first criminal did not realize this reality, but the second criminal did.

And therefore, he embraced Christ. He looks to Him and says, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Lk. 23:42). Jesus had come to establish a Kingdom, the Kingdom of God (Lk. 1:33). To those who received Him, He gave the right to become the citizens of that kingdom (Lk. 18:16; 22:29-30). But that Kingdom is yet to be consummated, therefore it is said that the Kingdom is coming (Lk. 11:2; 17:20-21; 22:18). One day Jesus will come back in all his kingly glory and establish that Kingdom (Lk. 9:26-27; 19:12, 15; 21:27). Therefore, this criminal bows to King Jesus and pleads that he might be made a citizen of His Kingdom.

But Jesus promises something more immediate to this dying believer. Jesus tells him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” The Kingdom will be fully established only at the Second Coming of Jesus when this believer’s dead body will be resurrected and he will have a glorious body like that of Christ (Phil. 3:20-21), devoid of sin and all its corruption.

But to the dying believer, he gives an immediate promise. He says “today” he will be with Him in Paradise. The word ‘Paradise’ is used by the Apostle Paul when he talks about the visions and revelations he had received from the Lord Jesus. He talks about being, “caught up to the third heaven… caught up into Paradise” (2 Cor. 12:2, 4). So, Paul locates Paradise in Heaven.

Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross, the believing criminal was reconciled to God and received the privilege of being restored into the presence of God.

Similarly, the Apostle John also received a revelation from Jesus Christ (Rev. 1:1), in which it is recorded that, “the tree of life… is in the Paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7). And towards the end of this revelation John records that the tree of life is located in “the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven” (Rev. 21:10; 22:2, 14, 19). And the author of Hebrews says that, in that city, the heavenly Jerusalem, the perfected spirits of the righteous will assemble before God (Heb. 12:22, 23). When a believer dies, his soul is made free from sin and all its corruptions. His soul becomes perfect and enters into the presence of God, the holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem. And he waits for the day when his body also will be perfected at the Second Coming of Christ (1 Thess. 5:23).  

This is an incredible promise of Jesus to a dying believer. And He could make that promise because on the Cross He bore the wrath of God, on behalf of every sinner who would believe in Him. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross, the believing criminal was reconciled to God and received the privilege of being restored into the presence of God (Eph. 2:16, 18). On the other hand, the godless, unbelieving criminal, would be cast into hell where he will be tormented forever (Lk. 16:24-25).

Two responses, two destinations. But praise be to God, who through His Christ, changes the heart of an abusive criminal and brings him into His holy presence forever!

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