Continued from Part One: (http://www.olsenpark.com/qa/index.php?qa=43&qa_1=paradise-mentions-without-knowing-baptized-earlier-stealing)
Jesus’ Death and Jesus’ Wording
To answer this we must consider two things: 1) What does the New Testament teach about where Jesus went upon His death? and 2) Is there anything in the wording of Jesus’ promise that helps us narrow its meaning?
On the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles and they declared Jesus as the resurrected Messiah, Peter appealed to Psalm 16 as a prophecy of the Messiah’s resurrection. He quotes verse 10 to say, “For You will not leave my soul in Hades, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption” (Acts 2:27). Peter then explained that this prophetically pointed to Jesus (Acts 2:29-32). Declaring that David, “spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades” (Acts 2:31). So where did Jesus go when He died? To “Hades” the place of all departed souls prior to judgment. Is this the “Paradise” to which Jesus refers?
On one occasion Jesus told an account of a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus and events that happened after their deaths (Luke 16:19-31). People often call this a “parable,” but it is never identified that way in Scripture. Like Acts 2 it describes all who die (prior to judgment) going to “Hades” (Luke 16:23). Yet, while final sentencing and judgment has not happened to them yet, we are told that there is a separation of the righteous and the wicked. Lazarus went to the region of Hades called “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22) where he was “comforted” (Luke 16:25). The rich man went to a region “in Hades” called simply “torments” (Luke 16:23). As Jesus describes it between these two areas is a “great gulf” preventing souls from going from one region to the other (Luke 16:26). Since Jesus is said in Scripture to have gone into “Hades” upon His death (Acts 2:31) is it reasonable to conclude that the “Paradise” where Jesus promised the thief “you will be with Me” (Luke 23:43) is the same region of Hades described as “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22).
Someone might ask, how do we know that Jesus wasn’t talking about “Paradise” in either of the ways Paul or the book of Revelation used the term? Let’s notice Jesus’ wording. He said, “Assuredly, I say to you, TODAY you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43, emphasis mine). We noticed in the example in Revelation 2:7 the connection with “the tree of life” and saw that this describes a condition after final judgment (cf. Rev. 20:11-15; 22:14). We should note something that is said to happen before final judgment. In order for the dead to appear before the “great white throne” of judgment (Rev. 20:11), we are told, "…Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death" (Rev. 20:13b-14). It is only after this that the “new heaven and new earth” are said to appear (Rev. 21:1) and “the tabernacle of God” now is said to be “with men, and He will dwell with them” (Rev. 21:3).
The “Paradise” of Revelation 2:7 is a place of eternal life with God after judgment. The “Paradise” of 2 Corinthians 12:4 is the present “abode of God”—something Paul was allowed to see, but no one can enjoy until after judgment (cf. Rev. 21:3). Since Jesus is clearly declared in Scripture to have gone into “Hades” upon His death (Acts 2:27, 31)—yet, “Death and Hades” must be cast into the “lake of fire” before final judgment—if Jesus promised the thief “today you will be with Me in Paradise” He must have been using this term to refer to the region of Hades also called “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22). We may see from this that “Paradise” should not be understood as the formal proper name of a single place or condition, but as a way of describing a wondrous place of beauty, joy, comfort, and peace—whether that be in the realm of the saved prior to judgment, the present “abode of God,” or the final place where God’s people with dwell with Him eternally after judgment.
Was the Thief Saved?
All of this tells us about where the man went upon his death, but what does this tell us about his soul? Was this man saved? If so, does that mean people can be saved now without being baptized?
We noted above we are not told how this man came to know that Jesus had “done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41) or that He was a King who would one day “cone into” His own kingdom (Luke 23:42). It is possible, of course, that this man had followed Jesus at some point and then fallen back into sin. The Bible tells us that Jesus’ disciples baptized people prior to His death (John 4:1-2). It is possible this man was baptized by Jesus’ disciples.
It is important to remember, however, that the command to “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19), did not come until after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Baptism in Christ, by which one is “buried with Him in baptism” (Col. 2:12) and “united together in the likeness of His death” (Rom. 6:5), was not even possible prior to the death of Jesus.
Scripture does not reveal to us the nature and purpose of the baptism Jesus’ disciples performed prior to His death. It may well have been like John’s baptism, “a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus” (Acts 19:4). Jesus’ disciples were teaching men to follow Jesus, but it’s unlikely they were teaching a baptism into Christ’s death. Their baptism, therefore, like John’s would have been a preparatory act, not a baptism into Christ by which one could “put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27).
The Hebrew writer reveals that for a “testament” to be in place there must be “the death of the testator” (Heb. 9:16). This makes it clear that until Christ’s death the New Covenant was not yet in place. When Jesus spoke to the thief on the cross the Old Covenant of Mosaic Law was still in place. If the thief was a Jew, Mosaic Law taught various principles of restitution that were required (Exod. 22:1-4). We are not told if this man had made such restitution or not. If he was an “insurrectionist” his crime might have been against Rome and thus under the jurisdiction of Roman authority to determine guilt and punishment.
Whatever the nature of the man’s crimes—whatever the man’s nationality or past contact with Jesus, Scripture reveals to us something about the authority of Jesus that resolves all questions we might raise. When Jesus healed the paralytic man He explained that He did so, “that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” (Matt. 9:6; Mark 2:10; Luke 5:24). As God in the flesh, Jesus knew “all things” (John 16:30; 21:17) and “knew what was in man” (John 2:25). He knew this man’s life, heart, repentance, and disposition. He had power to grant forgiveness to whomever He chose.
This does not show partiality on the part of Jesus, it shows that as God He knows man’s heart and has the right to make judgments and extend mercy. This does not dismiss us from our responsibility to do things that were commanded after the New Covenant was established. It shows that God is merciful even to those who least deserve it. The fact that Jesus promised this man that he would be with Him “in Paradise” (Luke 23:43) tells us that his soul was saved. The Bible teaches that we all give account for things done “in the body” (2 Cor. 5:10), not for deeds after the spirit has left our body. If this man was promised the place of comfort in Hades which awaits final judgment, we know that condition cannot be changed after death (Luke 16:26).
We can conclude, therefore that this man’s soul was saved by the mercy and gracious forgiveness of a dying Savior. The lesson to us is if Jesus (while suffering on a cross) was willing to forgive the sins of a man who mocked Him only a short time earlier, we may know that He stands ever willing to forgive our sin if we will only come to Him!
Kyle Pope, May 2016