Finding Paradise on the Cross
“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.'”
– Luke 23:42-43
In Christ Alone
I praise God that this account was included in scripture. What a merciful thing the Lord has done by allowing us to peer in to this intimate conversation of the crosses. What a joy it is to see Christ gathering men to Himself even as (and, indeed, because) He hangs, unjustly condemned, in humiliation on the cross.
Notice how this account highlights the centrality of the person of Jesus Christ in salvation. What does this criminal do to be saved? What reparation must he carry out for his sins? What penance must he complete? What rites must he undergo? Even baptism is not available to him. So, how is he saved? Only by casting himself wholly on the grace of the person of Jesus Christ. He sees in Christ – at the very least least – innocence, holiness, regality, and truth. In addition to this, he apparently believes that Jesus will, in some way, overcome death (“…when you come into your kingdom”), and – seeing this – he hangs all of His hope on the man hanging beside him on the cross. The man who is God. How is he saved? Simple and desperate trust in the person of Jesus Christ.
He doesn’t know how, he doesn’t know where, he doesn’t know when, but this thief knows that Jesus is truly the King of Israel and that He will unstoppably receive His kingdom. He knows that one day – in opposition to all the present evidence – Jesus will enter with splendor and authority into His own kingdom. This thief seems to know that, on that Day, the tables will be turned and the judgment and fate of the souls of men will be in Christ’s hands alone. What can this criminal do (what can any of us do?), but say to Him, “remember me…..remember me…..when all power is in your hands, when all authority is given to you, when manifest glory and splendor replace the blood and gore that rest on your brow today, on that day, remember me.”
And this appeal is enough. Jesus responds, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
His Presence is Paradise
The really glorious thing about Christ’s words here is not so much the mention of “Paradise” (though that is a wonderful allusion to an Eden-like state of existence), rather it is the statement, “you will be with me.”That is the thief’s reward. Indeed, this is the reward of all the saints: to be with Christ. Nearness to, communion with, and intimate knowledge of God in the person of Jesus Christ is the life of “eternal life” (John 17:3), it is the joy of eternity (Psalm 16:11), the vitality of Paradise (psalm 46:4 + Revelation 22:1-2) and the great hope of all God’s people (John 14:3). And the paradise of eternal fellowship with the Triune God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is opened to this thief because he called our three desperate words: “Jesus, remember me.”
How amazing. Isn’t all the world looking for entrance into “Paradise?” Isn’t everyone scrambling to get to a place – whether in this life or the next – where it will all be “ok?” Aren’t people in every social class and ethnic community all trying to satisfy the aches of their soul and to come to a place of final, vibrant, ever-increasing peace? The thief found it. The thief discovered paradise as he hung on a cross next to the bloodied and marred body of his Maker.
Our Lord and God on the Cross
But did he really understand who he was talking to? This thief knew Christ was innocent, knew He was a king, knew He would return again to judge and inherit a kingdom….but did he know He was God incarnate? There is a chance that he, in some sense, may have known this as well. Consider Psalm 106:4
“Remember me, O YHWH, when you show favor to your people; help me when you save them.”
There seems to be an echo of this Psalm in the thief’s plea on the cross. Now – this is speculation – however, if this thief was a Jew and raised in the traditional fashion, it would make sense that he had read and even memorized the lines of Psalm 106 before. If that’s the case, is it not possible that the Holy Spirit used something that he saw in Christ to dredge up Psalm 106:4 from the dustbin of his discarded youth? If that is the case, then his call to be remembered by Christ is more than an assurance that Jesus is the King, it is a confession of His deity.
Whether or not these things were in the thief’s mind that day, it would fit perfectly with John’s theology of the cross. How beautiful, how perfect, how true it would be for this thief to look at the beaten and dying man beside him and be granted the eyes of faith to see – in that marred form – “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corin thins 4:6).
Truly, it wold be in this moment that such a confession would, theologically, make most sense. Christ has gone to the cross to glorify and make known the name of YHWH (John 1:18, 8:28, 12:28, 13:31-32, 17:1, 26), and it is in His death – His innocent, sovereignly willed, sacrificial, substitutionary death – that Jesus communicates the Name of God most perfectly to creation. This dying man is our Savior, Christ the Lord.
Perhaps the thief saw something of this……saw it clear enough to cry out to Jesus with the desperation of Psalm 106, and clear enough to put Jesus’ name in place of YHWH’s in the appeal. And such name-swapping would not be a dishonor to God! Not in the least, because, the Father Himself has ordained that, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (likely a reference to the name, YHWH), to the glory of God the Father!” (Philippians 2:10-11). We know YHWH climactically in Jesus Christ, and to know Him thus does not rob the Father of glory but glorifies Him – it is His will that everyone honor the Son just as they honor the Father (John 5:23), since Father, Son, and Spirit are the One Triune God.
May our prayer today – and every day – be that of the thief on the cross, “Lord Jesus, remember us. Remember us, Oh Christ, when you come in blazing glory and judge the earth in righteousness! Remember us when you dissolve the skies in your majesty, when you scatter the proud and put the works of our flesh to shame, remember us, Lord, when you gather all people to yourself and judge between them, dividing the sheep and goats…..Oh, Lord…..remember us, and hide us in yourself on that day!” And, by God’s grace, He will remember us. Amen.