And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” – Luke 23:43
The sun beats down on the three as they hang on the hill. It smells of sweat, blood and dirt, of sour wine and urine. This is the stench of life pitted against the panic of death.
For one of the three, this panic is all-consuming. He cannot die. He must not die. All that matters is escaping pain, death, and his guilt.
He has heard great tales of the man to his left. This man is said to perform miracles. Named Jesus of Nazareth, He has even called Himself God. What an embarrassment, to die next to this lunatic.
“Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”, the man shouts at Jesus.
Impending death also overcomes the other thief. And in the midst of his pain, and the shouting of the crowds, the weight of his misdeeds envelops him. He wasn’t given much in life: never truly loved, never cared for, he was an outcast from the very beginning. And yet he made poor decisions; decisions that led to this day and this very moment. Harsher and brighter than the sun, the guilt bore down on him from his inescapable sin.
He, too, has heard of the man now hanging on a cross to his right. Now looking at Jesus, he sees a man who has done no wrong. He believes the stories he's heard about the man from Nazareth—that He had raised the dead to life, walked on water, and that He was not a lunatic, but who He claimed to be: God incarnate, the Messiah.
He trusts that as God, this man can save him—perhaps not in this life, perhaps not from this death, but that He has the power to do what He says He will.
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” the man whispers.
This is as Bo Giertz says, His first prayer—and perhaps his only one.
A prayer of faith in Christ given by Christ and a faith that trusts not in life nor death nor any deed outside of the work of Christ.
With this simple utterance, Christ responds just as He always does. Perhaps the man expected Christ to ignore him, or to condemn him further. Or maybe he hoped Jesus would save him from his current suffering.
Yet Christ promises the man something much greater:
“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Paradise: the eternal garden, the New Jerusalem, Christ’s dwelling place. There, the man will see not only see Jesus again but be with Him. Forever.
The truth is we are all robbers. We all deserve death for our misdeeds. We are liars, murderers, thieves, power-mongers, abusers, and adulterers, every one of us. And when faced with the certainty and panic of death, we, too, will stop at nothing to protect our own sufficiency. We make ourselves the judges of truth and fiction, justice and mercy. We mourn the wrongdoing of others without concern for our own trespasses and sins. As long as we can claim credit, we would gladly trade eternal life for one more breath of this life.
Through this promise, God does not let us escape death because in and through Jesus He overcame death.
It’s only when our eyes are turned to the Cross—to the suffering of Jesus for us—that the weight of the law we so desperately try to ignore or perfect gives way to the promise of the Gospel. Through this promise, God does not let us escape death because in and through Jesus He overcame death. Death is defeated, and paradise is ours! Trust in the faith given to you by Him who hung on the cross, for He has promised to see you in paradise.