When Jesus was crucified, Scripture records that His cross was positioned between two others (Matt. 27:38; Mark 15:27; Luke 23:33; John 19:18). Luke tells us the men on these crosses were “criminals” (Luke 23:33), using a word that literally means ones doing evil. Matthew and Mark call them “thieves” (KJV) or “robbers” (ASV, NASB, NKJV, ESV). Brother David McClister, in his recent article “And With Him Two Other Men” points out that the word Matthew and Mark use could also mean, “insurrectionists” or “rebels.” (McClister, David. “And With Him Two Other Men” Focus Online April 12, 2016 [online] http://focusmagazine.org/and-with-him-two-other-men.php). Whether their crime was rebellion against Rome or simply theft, one of these men acknowledged, “we receive the due reward of our deeds” (Luke 23:41a, NKJV).
The Bible tells us that at first both of these men mocked Jesus (Matt. 27:44; Mark 15:32). Luke, however, records that at some point one of the men had a change of heart. As the other continued to mock Jesus (Luke 23:39), this man rebuked him, saying “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation?” (Luke 23:40). After acknowledging that they deserved their condemnation (Luke 23:41a), this criminal declared of Jesus, “this Man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41b).
We are not told why he said that. Did he know what Jesus had said and done during His ministry? Had he followed Jesus at some point, only to stumble into theft or insurrection? Or, was this the first time he had encountered Jesus, but saw from all that was happening around him that this was no ordinary Man? The Holy Spirit has not answered these questions.
Whatever the source of this man’s knowledge about Jesus, the Holy Spirit has preserved for us a very important request he made to Jesus. He begged Him, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). What a striking request! These men were both about to die. What kingdom could either expect to experience? Did this man realize what the modern religious world has missed, that Jesus’ kingdom would not be an earthly, political dominion, but a spiritual realm made up of those in submission to Him as King (cf. John 18:36; Luke 17:21)? That seems unlikely—Jesus’ own disciples did not yet understand that (see Acts 1:6). Did he believe that Jesus would rise from the dead, and at that time establish an earthly kingdom? That seems to have been the expectation of Jesus’ apostles. After His resurrection they asked, “Will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). If so, how would that have helped the thief? Did he hope that Jesus would resurrect him too? On the other hand, was he speaking of a kingdom in the afterlife to which he assumed they would both go upon their death? Once again, the Holy Spirit has not given us the answers to these questions, only the fact that this man saw in Jesus One who would be a King who would at some point “come into” His own kingdom.
What we are told is Jesus’ answer to the man’s request. He told him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). How are we to understand Jesus’ words? Where (or what) is this “Paradise” to which Jesus refers?
“Paradise” in the New Testament
The word “Paradise” is a transliteration of the Greek word paradeisos referring literally to an enclosed preserve, grove, park, or hunting ground. The New Testament uses this word only three times. The first is in our text in Luke 23:43. The last comes in a short letter in the book of Revelation directed to the church in Ephesus. After giving this church both praise and rebuke (Rev. 2:1-6), the letter ends with this charge, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God" (Rev. 2:7). This connection with the “tree of life” is interesting. This was what was said to stand in Eden before the sin of Adam and Eve (Gen. 2:9). It was accessible to the man and woman before their sin, but they were cast out of the garden in order to prevent them from having access to it, lest they should–“take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” (Gen. 3:22). The Greek Old Testament translated before the time of Christ used the word paradeisos 13 times in Genesis in reference to Eden (Gen. 2:8, 9, 10, 15, 16; 3:1, 2, 3, 8 [twice], 10, 23, 24). At the close of the book of Revelation when description was given of the dwelling place of those saved by the blood of Jesus after final judgment (Rev. 20:11-15) and the destruction of the present heaven and earth (Rev. 21:1), twice we are told that the “tree of life” will be accessible to the God’s people once again. In this place it does not stand as a lone tree, but grows on either side of the “river of life” yielding its fruit constantly (Rev. 22:2). Jesus declared, “Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city” (Rev. 22:14). This would suggest that the “Paradise of God” promised to the church in Ephesus refers to the place of final reward where the children of God enjoy eternal life. Was this what Jesus meant when He spoke to the thief or are there other ways the word is used?
A second instance is found in Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth. As Paul called upon the brethren to recognize the futile nature of boasting in fleshly accomplishments (2 Cor. 11:16-33), he then moved to speak “of such a one” of whom he said “I will boast” (2 Cor. 12:5). He calls him “a man in Christ” whom he claimed to have known “fourteen years ago” (2 Cor. 12:2), but it’s evident from the text that this is a humble way of speaking about himself. He describes this man as receiving “visions and revelations” (2 Cor. 12:1), but then goes on to describe his own “thorn in the flesh” which was given to him “lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations” (2 Cor. 12:7). Paul is talking about what he was allowed to see. Paul acknowledges twice that God had not revealed to him whether this had been a bodily transportation or an out of body experience (2 Cor. 12:2-3), but says this “man in Christ” was “caught up to the third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2). The Jews conceived of three distinct realms of heaven—The first where the birds and the clouds are, the second where the stars, sun, and moon are, and the third, where God is. Paul uses a parallel term to describe this same place declaring of the same man, “he was caught up into Paradise” (2 Cor. 12:4a). In this remarkable experience, Paul was allowed to see (as brother Melvin Curry puts it) the very “abode of God” (Truth Commentary on Second Corinthians Bowling Green, KY: Guardian of Truth Foundation, 2008. p. 409). Was this what Jesus meant when He spoke to the thief on the cross, or is there yet another way of understanding Jesus’ words?
Continued in Part Two: (http://www.olsenpark.com/qa/index.php?qa=67&qa_1=paradise-mentions-without-knowing-baptized-earlier-stealing&show=68#a68)