“With Me in Paradise”
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
St. Luke 23:39-43 “One of the criminals who were hanged railed at Him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come in Your Kingdom.’ And He said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.'”
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… Sometimes we have a problem hearing that Christ died for all… Sometimes we need to hear “Christ died for me.” We heard last week that the first words which our Lord Jesus proclaimed from the cross were, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” This is our Lord’s merciful plea for all those who were responsible for His death.
The Word is proclaimed that Jesus poured Himself out and atoned “for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). This is great news for us and for the whole world. But sometimes there is a specific need to know that the reverse is true. The common, ordinary sinner might wonder if this is true for him or her: “Lord, I know you died for the whole world. But did You die for me?”
If this is you, then listen to the Word of God that speaks to the individual soul with the absolution that each one of us longs to hear. Behold, two evildoers are led away with Jesus to be executed, for they are all under the same sentence of death. Two of them deserve condemnation, and one of them – Jesus – permits the proceedings and takes the curse upon Himself.
The two men on either side of Jesus are criminals. Matthew informs us that they are robbers. Luke describes them as “evil-doers.” Both of them have broken the law. Both of them are receiving exactly what they deserve and are experiencing a foretaste of what eternity is like apart from the gracious presence of God. Early on both of these criminals rebuked Jesus. But in the end, one of them most certainly will enter Paradise and the other most certainly will not.
The phrase “the thief on the cross” causes most Christians to think of the contrite criminal who, while being crucified, pleaded to Jesus and was heard and saved. But what in the world happened between the reviling in the beginning and his being told that he would indeed be in Paradise with Jesus?
Simply put, he heard the Word of forgiveness. This wicked man cried out against both God and man, and heard Jesus petitioning God the Father on behalf of “them:” “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” This criminal was in a world of hurt and realized that if the Messiah could forgive “them” then there might also be hope for him. The Holy Spirit used this Word and the occasion of the man’s own impending death to bring him to faith in Jesus the Christ. Here this criminal – this sinner condemned to death – beheld with the eyes of faith the Son of God who had come to pronounce forgiveness for the world while lifted up on the tree of the cross.
The repentant evil-doer has been brought to faith in Christ for, surely God the Father hears and answers the perfect prayers of His Son. Forgiveness for the world has been accomplished by Jesus and is intended for all. This one man has been given the gift of God’s forgiveness; he believed that what Jesus said was intended even for him. Now he who is brought to faith in Christ is ready to be of service to the Lord. But how can a man who is pinned to a cross-beam and within hours of death do anything for the Lord and His Kingdom?
“He can do nothing,” you say? Not quite. “One of the criminals who were hanged railed at Him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.'”
Here is a perfect example of what Jesus meant when He said, “Whoever confesses Me before men, him will I also confess before My Father Who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32). The dying man confessed Christ to the other criminal in an attempt to bring the Word to him, as well as to any others who might be able to hear him. Truly the Son of God is well pleased with this confession before men and acknowledges him before His Father in heaven. This repentant man, a few hours before his death, has been given the greatest gift that can ever be given: saving faith in Jesus Christ.
Now, let me suggest to you that, in reality, the real “thief” on the cross is Jesus. Both of the others who are being crucified are incapable of either thievery or robbery in their present situation. Both are receiving exactly what they deserve – physical death and everlasting condemnation for one, physical death and eternal life for the other. Indeed, the penitent criminal has been gifted with forgiveness of sins and, as we learned in the Catechism, “where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”
But if understood properly, Jesus is the Thief, for without asking He has taken their death as His own, and without their permission He has taken their sinfulness upon Himself, and unbeknownst to them He has taken away all their sins. It is as Scripture declares in Romans 5 (8) “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” and 2 Corinthians 5 (19) “that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them.”
This is what the child of God believes. But then why, after he heard Jesus pray “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” why, after he had been brought to faith in Jesus, do we hear him pray, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your Kingdom.”?
Part of the answer is the reality of the Christian’s situation in this dying world. The penitent criminal had indeed heard and believed the general absolution, “Father, forgive them.” And it was indeed “good enough.” But even though he knew he was forgiven, still he needed to hear the Word applied individually and specifically as he asked, “Jesus, remember me.” He longed for something specific, he longed for something less general, he longed for something more pointed, something directly applied to his specific situation. Simply put, he could not get enough of Jesus or His absolution.
Another part of the answer to why this man asked Jesus to remember him is that forgiveness of sins is one thing and being with Christ in Paradise is another. Forgiveness is now. Paradise is coming, and Paradise is what you and I wait for and long to have. While we wait, we need and we have the opportunity for private confession and absolution; we hunger for the Lord’s Supper, each of us, individually looking forward to receiving the Body and Blood of the Son of God on Sunday morning.
We do this according to His invitation, for as often as we eat of this bread and drink and drink of the cup, we proclaim the sin-atoning death of Christ in our place and we receive, as He intends, the remission of sins and the strengthening of faith.
For us, forgiveness is now and Paradise is coming. How soon is Paradise for us? Only the Lord knows. What we do know is that, for the repentant man dying beside Jesus, his first Absolution and his entry into Paradise were much closer together in time. After having been crucified with Christ and after hearing the faithful man’s petition, Jesus “said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.'”
The man had Jesus’ Word. And sometime on that first Good Friday afternoon, the penitent man known as the Thief on the Cross, was with Jesus in Paradise. You, dear fellow redeemed, have Jesus’ word also. It may be today, it may be some time down the road, but you also, by God-given faith and trust in Christ will be with Him in paradise.
In the name of Jesus.