Jesus, stripped naked and hanging on a cross before a mocking crowd, was flanked by two criminals. A sign, bearing an inscription identifying him as “the King of the Jews” accomplished several things. First, it identified the charge which brought on his death sentence. Second, it mocked the claims of Jesus’ royal authority. Third, it revealed to everyone who read it what Rome would do to anyone who got any thoughts about defying the empire’s power.
One of the thieves joined in the scorn the crowd was hurling at Jesus. “If you’re the Messiah, save yourself… and us!” Even with his death near, the thief was gleeful that he had someone to look down upon. He himself may have been a criminal, but Jesus had hopes—and ended up in the same place.
The other thief rebuked the mocker, and called upon Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. On one hand it’s a simple statement, on the other… huh?
Jesus was on a cross. He was about to die. And the one criminal didn’t just tell the other criminal to leave him alone, he expressed that Jesus was going to rule a kingdom. The one thief’s supplication was an act of faith—a confession that he believed Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah. A Fifth Century Christian writer, Maximus of Turin, described the thief’s confession this way, “The penitent thief is not ashamed of Christ’s suffering and does not see it as a stumbling block, and so he makes a confession of faith in the suffering, innocent Messiah.”
This is when Jesus responds, “Amen.” He opens his pronouncement with, basically, “This is going to happen.” And then adds, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Not tomorrow. Not some day, Not in the future. Today.
And “paradise” wasn’t simply an offer to “go to heaven when you die,” which is a terrible reductionist view of the majesty of Christ’s salvation. Rather, “paradise” was a Persian word which meant something like “an enclosed park.” And among Jewish folks, particularly those who spoke Greek, it began to be used as a way to describe the Garden of Eden.
What Jesus offered the thief wasn’t a generic “heaven.” Rather, he promised a return to the place from which humanity had been exiled all the way back in Genesis 3. Today, Jesus said, “You’re going back to where humanity has always been meant to be.”
How does Jesus’ work on the Cross bring about this return? The early church pondered this. Jesus’ death broke the power of death, it conquered sin. His cross became the gateway by which the doors to paradise were opened once more.
And it’s “Today.”
It’s always “today.”
Today, embrace the suffering of Christ on the cross. Don’t allow it to cause you to stumble, understand that his weakness brought about the greatest victory ever won, and embody that suffering with your own lives—so our very existence is oriented toward the paradise Jesus re-opened to us—spreading his life wherever we go. To Christ’s glory, Amen.