“This Day You Will be With Me in Paradise”: our Lord’s Second Word from the Cross
As we come to our Saviour’s second utterance from the Cross, we remind ourselves that we are on holy ground, amidst the sea of our wickedness. We acknowledge that we have no right to be here. We are conscious that momentous events are happening—holy transactions between the Father and the Son—that are not of our making or design. Human artifice has no place here.
Into this Holy of all Holies we are not permitted to look. Yet during the transactions of this great sacrifice that will become the atonement for our sin and which will turn away God’s wrath from us, we have been granted glimpses, pale reflections, to help us understand, for the encouragement of our faith. But let us not imagine we are doing anything else than seeing the mere fringe of His garment as we meditate upon our Saviour’s words from the Cross.
Each word, then, is for our benefit. Each word instructs us. Each has its own contribution of encouragement.
“This day you will be with me in Paradise.” The second word is spoken to one of the criminals crucified with Him. It is an utterance of sublime grace which has given hope to every repentant sinner from that time onwards. It gives hope to me today.
We are not told why two criminals were crucified with Him. We know that it was an act of prophetic fulfilment, for Isaiah had said that He would be numbered amongst the transgressors. It is possible that Pilate used the occasion to express once again his cynical hatred and despite of the Jews. He had determined that he would crucify their pathetic King (Whom he knew did not deserve to die) amidst his typical “subjects”. The criminals stand forth as a public statement of Pilate’s estimate of the Jewish people. Thus he insists that the placard, “King of the Jews” remains over Jesus.
When Jesus is lifted up to die we hear a loud outpouring of jeering and mockery. Those passing by, the onlookers, the chief priests, the scribes, and the soldiers all spat out their fierce hatred of Him. Even the two thieves crucified with Him joined in with this public humiliation and execration. (Matthew 27: 44; Mark 15:32)
We hang our heads at the shame. They are mocking Him Whom we love. But we also know that they serve a purpose—these hateful scorners—a redemptive purpose! For Christ is now entering the horrors and desolation of Hell. He is now entering the realm of complete forsakenness that comes from God, His Father, utterly cursing the Son of man in our place. He must taste completely the pains of Hell for us.
There is laughter in Hell. Isaiah tells us of the bitter mockery in Hell as the king of Babylon is brought down: “Sheol from beneath is excited over you to meet you when you come; it arouses for you the spirits of the dead, all the leaders of the earth; it raises all the kings of the nations from their thrones. They will respond and say to you, ‘Even you have been made weak as we; you have become like us.’" (Isaiah 14: 9—11) The citizens of Hell rejoice over others made like them. The joy of Hell is always a cruel hateful mockery.
As they mock and revile, as they jeer and insult, our Lord is hearing the welcoming chorus of Hell.
How utterly isolated and alone He is! He is now outside Zion, outside the gate, outside the Law—removed from its protections. He is now beyond the Covenant, under its curse. There is no mutual bond of commitment, no promises, no divine oaths to which He can appeal to His Father for mercy. The language of, “Lord hast Thou not said . . .” or “Lord, remember Thy promises . . . “ or “Lord, remember the oath which You swore unto Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” has no relevance, meaning or application for Him now.
But at another and deeper level the Father loves Him still. This is the “Deep Magic” which we cannot comprehend. Our Father brings Him comfort and consolation and encouragement, even as He enters Hell. It is the greatest comfort and deepest consolation that can come to our Lord, than anything else, apart from a word of approbation from the Father—which will not, which cannot, come in these hours.
The Spirit blows where He wills, and unseen, completely unexpected, a dying sinner is born again. The thieves had been joining the hellish chorus, one abused Him with bitter sarcasm: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” (Luke 23:39).
The other thief, who had been joining in the mockery, falls silent. Then, suddenly, he separates from the chorus of Hell and stands against it, and takes his stand with the Messiah. To Hell’s ambassador, which a few moments ago he also was, he says: “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
But to the Lord, he says, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom.” Miraculously, a stony heart, a heart of Hell, has been transformed into a heart of flesh. Jesus does not reply immediately. The original language indicates that the thief cried repeatedly to our Lord, before Jesus answered.
Finally, in response, Jesus utters these wonderful words, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise.”
We cannot pass by without at least observing some remarkable things in this transformation and transaction. Firstly, remember the name, Jesus means “Saviour”. “You will call His name, Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” The once wretched thief (now our beloved brother in the Lord), takes that name of our Lord upon his lips to express his plea and need—salvation from his sin.
Secondly, it is a prayer of abject humility. He asks that our Lord might have regard for Him—that there might be room in His heart and mind for himself.
Further, it is a prayer of the most astonishing faith in all history. He confesses Jesus to be the King. Here is our Lord, beyond the Law, under the curse of God, dying upon a Cross, utterly helpless, without hope and without God in the world. The air is filled with the sound of imprecation, of mockery and of spitting. Yet the thief speaks of Him as the King and asks that he might have a part in His Kingdom.
Of Jesus' response, much could be said, but three things stand out. Marvel, firstly, that our Lord does not hold back from taking upon His lips the formula that reflects the affirmation of the Covenant. Truly. Amen. All that God has said is true: therefore, I can speak with confidence and a sure certainty. God is faithful.
Jesus does not sin upon the Cross. He does not cease to believe in His heavenly Father as His Father. He does not doubt. It is now the third hour of crucifixion, but His faith in God does not fail—although all His experience now tells Him that God has stopped believing in Him. But He does not accept that. He believes in the “Deep Magic”—that though He is under the curse of the Covenant, yet He still believes, He has faith that God will not lie and that He can still speak as if the terms still applied, and that His Word carries complete authority in heaven and earth. His language is the language of faith: “Truly . . .”
Secondly, we are arrested by the word that Jesus uses for Heaven. It is not often used in Scripture—Paradise—and all that it conveys stands in the most graphic contrast to what was being experienced at that time. Paradise! “Paradise” alludes to the Garden of Eden, to the world of creation before sin, to perfection, to the hour when the Lord looked at all He had made and pronounced that it was “very good.”
Jesus has chosen this word deliberately. It is His affirmation of faith that the work He is now doing will result in the restoration of all things—and the first fruits will be tasted this very day.
Finally, the significance of the phrase “with me” hits us. “Today you will be with Me in Paradise”. This is the language of a priest. A priest, we are told, can only be appointed by God. He is appointed to come into the very presence of God, as the representative of the people. He is one of them. The priest comes into God's presence to appear before God's face, bringing his people with him. The identity of the priest with the people he represents is constitutive of priesthood. “For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God. (Hebrews 5:1). He can deal gently with the ignorant and the misguided since he himself is also beset with weakness. To the dying repentant thief, Jesus affirms His solidarity—you are of Me, you will be with Me. When I present my sacrifice for sin before My Father, you will be with Me. I will be representing you, your Advocate before my Heavenly Father and your Heavenly Father. "This day, you will be with me as I come to the Father. . ."
I spoke a few moments ago about comfort and consolation to the heart of our Saviour as He entered Hell—and to this theme we must now return. We know that one of the sustaining supports of our Saviour upon the Cross was the prospect of joy that lay before Him. It helped Him endure the sufferings of Calvary and despise its shame. But this joy is inextricably connected to Him being the author and perfector of our faith (Hebrews 12: 2). It was the prospect of redemption, of delivering those beloved-of-the-Father from sin and presenting them to Him, holy and complete, that filled His heart with joy.
The extent to which this motivated and encouraged our Saviour cannot be exaggerated. We see glimpses of it in the Gospels. Recall the scene at the well of Sychar. Jesus is wearied from travel and sinks gratefully down at the well to rest, while the disciples go into the town to buy food. They had been walking for several days. It is mid-afternoon. He is exhausted. A woman approaches and He asks for a drink. A conversation ensues, which results in the woman believing and returning to the town to announce that she had met the Messiah, and summoning people to Him.
The disciples meanwhile had returned and they were begging Jesus to take sustenance. But Jesus said, “I don’t need food any more. I have had something to eat. I have food that you don’t know about” He was now vibrant and alive; the tiredness had gone. The disciples were puzzled. Where had the food come from? Did someone bring it while they were away?
Then Jesus told them what had revived Him and filled Him again with vibrancy and energy: “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to accomplish His work. . . . Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes, and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest.” (John 4) He was thrilled to the core of His being about reaping the fruit of salvation from that Samaritan town. It was the work for which He had been sent. It was the work of His Father. If the angels in heaven rejoice over one sinner that repents, how much more did the heart of our Saviour rejoice over that beloved Samaritan woman, once lost, now found.
Now, at the hour of death, against all human reason and wisdom, a sinner repents. “Jesus, remember me . . .” The Saviour is harvesting, even upon the Cross. Our Father grants the Son of Man such food and sustenance in His hour of need that is beyond all earthly comfort. It is a sign, an indication, that redemption is being accomplished, and that God’s benediction, “This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased,” still holds.
We have commented upon the improbability of that conversion: how the transformation from hellish darkness to heavenly light happened so quickly, with means apparently so inadequate and weak. We realise that we, as well as the Saviour, are being given a sign. Our memories return to those words of Jesus uttered in John 10—words that have a ring of such flat, emphatic, declarative certainty about them that the only adequate response commanded is loud silence. Let the words echo through the ages.
“I am the good shepherd; and I know My own, and My own know Me,” (Yes, I know you, my beloved co-crucified. I have seen you from afar. And now, as you die, you recognize me, you know me) “even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. . . . . I know my sheep, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them; and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of My hand. (You are mine. Today you will be with me forever.) My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
The Father was giving a precious sheep to the Good Shepherd as He hung on the Cross. But the mode of this conversion is a sign of what will characterize the Kingdom of God, under the new Covenant. There is no power in heaven or upon earth that can or will thwart that harvest. Nothing will ever stop the sheep whom He knows from coming to Him.
Are the means of grace in our day weak? Not so weak as at Golgotha. Is the message we hear mumbled from so many pulpits today unclear? Not nearly as murky and confused and obscured as that day. Is unbelief strong and the hatred of God today like an adamant fortress of Hell? Not as implacable as that day.
For all time, the conversion of the thief upon the cross, serves as a beacon light illustrating without peer, the words of our Lord, “Everyone whom the Father has given me will come to me. And I will never cast out anyone who comes to me.” It is a sign of what will characterise the Kingdom of our Lord.
Even so, Lord. Come! Visit us with Thy salvation. Come quickly.