Jesus told the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” in Luke 23:43.
What did he mean?
On the hill of Calvary, also called, “The Skull” Roman soldiers led Jesus to the place where He would die for all mankind. Jesus was blameless, without sin, and was not guilty of such a horrific death, but two men who were guilty of their crimes hung next to Him that fateful day.
Both men spoke to Jesus, but only one would die to be greeted into the promise of Heaven. Jesus speaks these truthful words: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” The story of the criminals on the cross takes place in Luke 23:36-43 As the verse shares,
“The soldiers also mocked Him and came up to offer Him sour wine. “If You are the King of the Jews,” they said, “save Yourself!” Above Him was posted an inscription: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. One of the criminals who hung there heaped abuse on Him. “Are You not the Christ?” he said. “Save Yourself and us!” But the other one rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same judgment? We are punished justly, for we are receiving what our actions deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!” And Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
This sentence spoken in painful gasps holds true a promise for all who choose to believe in their hearts.
The Setting: A Crucifixion
Crucifixion was not a swift process, it was an excruciating day full of torture, which the Romans reserved only for the worst criminals (of which their own people were exempt). A week prior Jesus was greeted with a celebration as the people shouted gleefully, “Hosanna” and days later crowds demanded his death.
Flogged, beaten, and tortured Jesus did not resist for He knew this was what must happen, this was the greatest act of love the world has ever seen. The final destination of this Crucifixion road was a hill called Calvary, or “the Skull.” There next to Jesus hung two criminals, both guilty of the crimes they had been convicted for.
As the Soldiers mocked Jesus one of the criminals swung an insult to Jesus, but the second criminal changed course and took a different approach. Humiliated and hanging for his crime, this criminal acknowledged that he deserved to hang as he did, but Jesus did not.
Meekly he turned his face to and directed his sincere heart to Jesus, asking that he be remembered in the Kingdom. The second criminal believed Jesus was who He said He was, and it was clear to him that Jesus was dying for a crime He was not guilty of.
Even in his final breaths, this criminal came to salvation, showing us that as long as you have breath in your lungs you can be saved no matter how close to the end of your life.
The Promise: Eternal Life “In Paradise”
The response of Jesus in this instance was profound to the criminal, as He promised this sinner that he too would enter the gates of Heaven to live in Paradise, not later but that day! This was significant for it represented what Jesus was doing in that moment.
Jesus took on our sin, our debts, our guilt and died for them. He did not have to do this, but His entire purpose in coming to earth was to not only love us, not only to show empathy to us by taking on human flesh but to die for us in order to free us from the penitence of sin.
Because three days later He would rise, and the promise would be fulfilled that death had no hold on Him or those under His promise of salvation.
We are not told what this criminal stole to be convicted guilty of, but whatever it was it was worthy of the most severe punishment. Even a crime so terrible that man would consider worthy of death could be forgiven by Jesus. The death of Jesus on the cross and His promise to the sinner next to Him represents the compassion of Christ toward mankind.
The Takeaway: Jesus Paid it All
How Christ responded to the criminal next to Him has takeaways for Christians today. No matter how severe the sin, there is opportunity for salvation and forgiveness from Christ—even in the final breaths of life. Jesus died for our transgressions, and in that forgiveness, abides for us.
This guilty criminal acknowledged Jesus as Savior, for he acknowledged His Kingdom. Jesus knew his heart and granted the promise that despite earth’s sentence upon this man, he would enter the gates of Heaven that very day.
In a world that is quick to not only judge but to condemn it is a magnificent relief to know that at the end of it all God has the final say. If we choose to recognize Jesus as Lord and Savior we can rest assured that we too will enter the gates of Paradise, just as the criminal on the cross next to Jesus did.
The Hope: God Fulfills His Promises
There is hope in the promise of Jesus Christ that He is loving, full of forgiveness, and true to His word. He promised in prophecy that following Him and accepting Him as Savior would grant the freedom of eternal life with God. That hope is for all mankind, and it continues today.
Hebrews 13:8 reminds us that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, so in that the very promise given to those living when the words were spoken is available for us today. We can hope in the promise that confessing Jesus is Lord is the key to life and life eternal with Him in Paradise.
The second criminal reaching his own final moments croaked some of his final words calling out to Jesus in the flesh. He knew the misdeeds of his life had landed him at the place where he would deserve such a punishment. Yet, he knew within himself that the blameless man who hung next to him was pure and without blemish.
He sought Jesus as a lowly man to recognize his sin but to also recognize that Jesus was who He said He was; He believed Jesus was the Savior. Jesus promised this criminal that he too would be in Paradise with Him, just as He offers the same promise today.
It is up to us to come before Jesus, yes covered in sin, but also in the position of being able to receive His forgiveness, His promise of eternal life, and His love. No matter how detrimental your sins may be, just like the criminal on the cross, Heaven can await you as well if you turn to Christ.
So Did the Thief on the Cross Go to Heaven with Jesus Christ (Luke 23:43)?
Notice Luke 23:43 carefully. Jesus said that the crucified malefactor would be with Him in Paradise. If we can prove where Jesus went when He died, then we can prove if the malefactor really went to Paradise that day.
In I Corinthians 15:3-4, Paul tells Christians: “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the scriptures.”
Notice that Jesus was buried—it does not say the body was buried, and that the soul went to Paradise. It reads that He—Jesus, Himself, entirely—was buried. He was dead for three days. He died for our sins. Then He came to life, and arose!
John gives us further proof of where Jesus was. “Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulcher, wherein was never man yet laid. There”—in the tomb, the grave—”laid they Jesus” (John 19:41-42). It was Jesus who was laid in the tomb, not merely the body of Jesus. Jesus was dead!
To make this even plainer, read Acts 2:31 (KJV). Speaking of Christ, Peter quotes the prophet David as follows: “He [David] seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that His soul was not left in hell, neither His flesh did see corruption.”
This verse proves that Jesus was not in Paradise, but in hell. The word “hell” ought to be rendered “grave.” The inspired Greek word used by Peter is hades, meaning “the grave.” It does not mean a fiery, burning hell, for which the Bible uses another word.
Hell or the grave is not Paradise. Since Jesus did not enter Paradise that day—the day of the crucifixion—then neither did the malefactor enter it. Christ has “preeminence” in all things (Colossians 1:18). Therefore the malefactor who repented could not have preceded Christ to Paradise.
Whenever the repentant malefactor enters Paradise, Christ will be there too! He said so: “With me shalt thou be in paradise.”
Since we know where Jesus was when He died, we now need to locate Paradise. In II Corinthians 12:1-5, Paul speaks of one whom he knew who had marvelous visions and revelations from the Lord. In a vision he was “caught up to the third heaven”—God’s throne!
“He was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.” Paradise, then, is located in the presence of God’s throne.
In various passages, the Bible describes Paradise. Revelation 2:7 says, “To him that overcometh, to him will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God” (American Standard Version). Observe that the tree of life is in the Paradise of God.
Revelation 22:1-2 refer to “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:2, ASV). In this city, we find “a river of water of life, bright as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the midst of the street thereof.
And on this side of the river and on that was the tree of life. . . .” (ASV). The New Jerusalem contains the tree of life. In the New Jerusalem, then, is the Paradise of God.
Jesus said the repentant malefactor would be with Him in this Paradise, but the New Jerusalem is not yet finished. Jesus is still preparing a place for us in it (John 14:2), for it will not be fully ready until after the Millennium (Revelation 20:1-5). Not until then will it descend to earth—and not until then will the repentant malefactor enter Paradise!
Then what did Jesus mean by saying, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise“? Most have assumed that Jesus promised the thief that he would be with Him in paradise that very day. Nothing could be further from the truth!
Remember the thief had asked earlier, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (Luke 23:42). The plain fact is that Jesus has not yet come into His Kingdom (Luke 11:2; 19:11; I Corinthians 11:26; I Thessalonians 4:13-17; I Corinthians 15:23, 49-52)!
Additionally, proper punctuation helps explain Luke 23:43. Most translations are improperly punctuated to make it appear that Jesus would be in Paradise that day. However, as we saw above, the Bible proves Jesus was not in Paradise that day.
A comma placed before the word “today” is incorrect. The comma should follow it: “Verily I say unto thee today, shalt thou be with me in paradise.” By using the word “today,” Jesus was stressing the time of His promise—not the time He would be in Paradise.
Remember, punctuation was not used in the inspired Greek that Luke wrote. It was added into the Greek and English centuries later by men. Here is exactly, word for word, the order in the original Greek, which can be verified in any interlinear Bible: “Verily I say to thee today with me shalt thou be in the Paradise.” “Today” naturally follows “say,” the word it modifies.
The repentant malefactor crucified with Jesus is still dead and buried. Jesus alone is the firstborn from the dead (Romans 8:29; Acts 26:23; I Corinthians 15:23). Nevertheless, the time is coming when this man will be resurrected and eventually enter the Paradise of God promised to come to this earth.