“Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise” – Luke 23:43
1. “Cross-Word” sermon series
In case you weren’t here last Sunday, I want to let you know that I am preaching a series of sermons during this Lenten season on Jesus’ words from the cross. Some of the significant words from each of these ‘Cross-Words’ will be filled into our crossword puzzle, and at the end of the series there will be a special surprise message. Last Sunday’s word from the cross was, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” The key word was ‘forgive.’
2. The two criminals
The context for today’s word from the cross is the conversation of the criminals who were crucified with Jesus. One of the men obviously had heard about Jesus’ reputation of healing people, doing miracles, and His authoritative teaching. Perhaps he had heard about Jesus through the grapevine, or perhaps he just picked up on this news from the people below his cross who mocked Jesus, ridiculing Him and challenging Him to come down from the cross. This man joined in the jeers and insults, sarcastically asking Jesus to save them all if He was indeed the Messiah. He obviously didn’t really believe it, but rather taunted this ‘good’ man who didn’t have the criminal reputation that he himself had.
At this point the other criminal chimed in. He must have had some sense of faith in God for he chided the other man: “Don’t you fear God since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” This criminal, too, must have heard about Jesus for he had a sense of Jesus’ own righteousness – He has done nothing wrong – especially compared to his own unrighteousness. After scolding the criminal on the other side of Jesus, he turned his gaze to Jesus and begged, “Jesus, remember me when you come into Your kingdom.” [Sing Hymn 767??] Then Jesus spoke His ‘cross-word’: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” The two words we need to fill into the crossword puzzle are ‘truth’ and ‘paradise.’
3. The two words
Let’s take a closer look at these two words…
‘Truth’ – I did a study a number of years ago on this phrase “I tell you the truth” – a phrase that Jesus said so many times in the Gospels. Perhaps you remember this phrase from the King James Version of the Bible, where Jesus was reported to say, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee…” In the Revised Standard Version it was translated as “Truly I say to you…” The New International Version says, “I tell you the truth…” In Greek the phrase uses the word “Amen”, and this is the word that is translated as ‘verily’, ‘truly’, or ‘truth’. Sometimes Jesus is reported to have used the word ‘Amen’ twice, sometimes once. Sometimes he spoke to an individual – I tell you… singular- sometimes to a group of people – I tell you… plural. Altogether this phrase was used in one of its forms 75 times in the four Gospels. Each time it indicated that some significant message was to follow.
I guess when you think of it, it is the very nature of Jesus to speak the truth, for He is truth. In John 14:6, He said, “I am the Way, and the TRUTH, and the life…” It is, or would be contrary to Jesus’ nature to lie, to break a promise, to tell an untruth, or a half-truth. How different that is from us. When it is convenient for us, when it is to our advantage, then it’s easy to lie, to break a promise to tell an untruth or a half truth. I’m sure you can think of a few that you have told. The sad thing is… we can get so used to doing this that, after a while, we don’t even feel guilty after having done it. Or we can get so used to telling lies or half-truths that we don’t even realize we’ve done it. Jesus told us about the source of and the motivation for lies when, in John 8, He said that the devil “is a liar and the father of lies.” Lies are of the devil… they are evil, they are wrong, they hurt people, they destroy relationships and, like a cancer, they seem to grow. I remember a Lutheran Hour sermon from a long time ago by Dr. Oswald Hoffman. The sermon was entitled “The Big Lie.” Hoffman said that once you’ve told a lie, you’re often required to tell a little bit bigger lie to cover up the first one. Then you have to tell another one, still bigger, to cover up that one. The lies get bigger and bigger as time goes on, all so that the first one isn’t found out. St. Paul affirms in Titus 1 that God does not lie… it is His very nature to tell the truth and to be the truth. For that we can be thankful!
The second of our “Cross-Word” words is ‘Paradise.’ Perhaps when we hear the word ‘paradise’, especially in the cold, dreary, rainy winter weather, we think of Hawaii, or Jamaica, or Tahiti, or some other tropical island with lush green plants, white sand beaches and gentle waves, sultry temperatures, and little or no responsibilities. But today, let’s be more Biblical… let’s think of Eden, the original, the perfect paradise, where Adam and Eve were created and lived. While there may not have been any sand beaches and gentle waves, there were probably lush green plants and sultry temperatures – Adam and Eve didn’t even need to wear their swim suits. There was perfect harmony among all the creatures, and their only responsibility was to tend and manage all that God had given. Eden was certainly paradise, and Adam and Eve lived there until they sinned. Ever since that day, sinful humans have been banned from paradise. The paradise that Jesus spoke of from the cross is, of course, not the paradise of Eden at the beginning of time, but rather the paradise of heaven at the end of time, the paradise that is reserved for all who believe in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus for their forgiveness and salvation. Jesus, who is the truth, made a promise to the repentant thief on the cross that he, too, would be in this beautiful, eternal paradise. We don’t know a lot about this heavenly paradise… the Bible doesn’t tell us much. It doesn’t tell us where it is, and the descriptions of heaven seem to be picture images rather than literal realities. The Bible does tell us that in heaven there will be no more hunger, thirst, suffering, sadness, sorrow or tears. It also tells us one more important thing that I will get to in a couple of minutes.
c. A bonus word: Today!
One other word which is significant in this “Cross-Word,” but isn’t in our crossword puzzle, is the word ‘today.’ (It’s a bonus word… three for the price of two.) Jesus says to the thief, “I tell you the truth, TODAY you will be with me in paradise.” Now the Bible of the Jehovah’s Witnesses – the New World Translation – records this differently. It reports Jesus as saying, “I tell you the truth TODAY… you will be with me in paradise.” This almost makes it sound like Jesus didn’t tell the truth every day, but on that day and on that occasion He did. The significance of moving the comma in Jesus’ “Cross-Word” is striking. First of all, in all the occurrences of this phrase, Jesus never said, “I tell you the truth today…” The phrase Jesus uses 75 times is “I tell you the truth…” What follows after that phrase is the truth that Jesus wants to communicate. Secondly, when Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” He is affirming that, for the believer, we don’t wait for paradise, and our souls don’t sleep until Judgment Day. That very day, even though his was your proverbial ‘death-bed conversion’, when the thief died he was immediately transported into heavenly glory. Eternal life and paradise is an immediate blessing after one’s death. In fact, for the believer in Christ eternal life has already begun in this life on earth. It simply continues after one’s death. Psalm 16:10 agrees: “You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.” Although this psalm was ultimately fulfilled in and for Jesus, it was also true for David who wrote the psalm and for all believers. Another example of this concept of being in heaven before the last day is found in Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus. When Lazarus, the poor man, died, the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was in torment in hell. This was not judgment day, for the rich man wanted his brothers, who were still alive on earth, to have an opportunity to change their life and their belief and to end up in the comfort and paradise where Lazarus was.
d. And the VITAL words: with me!
Although we have recorded two of these words in our crossword puzzle today, and although we have talked about three words altogether – truth, paradise, and today – we can be fooled into thinking that these are the most important words. It may even be likely that we have missed the little but most important VITAL words… ‘with me!’
Yes, the key concept of this “Cross-Word” is the idea of being ‘with Jesus.’ It’s important that Jesus is telling the truth, and it’s comforting to know that death is not the start of years of limbo, but that today! is our entrance into eternity, and it’s exhilarating to contemplate the guarantee of paradise… BUT… paradise wouldn’t be paradise without Jesus! The Truth that Today (on the day of our deaths) you and I will be in Paradise, would be absolutely meaningless if not for the presence of Jesus, the Almighty, the King of kings and Lord of lords, the one who conquered death and ushered in the possibility and the promise of life that doesn’t end. “You will be with me,” Jesus said. That’s more than important, more than comforting, more than exhilarating. When we consider that our lies, our failures in life, our inability to live according to God’s standard all establish a separation, a gap, a barrier between us and God, a separation that, by human standards, is insurmountable, a barrier that, by human standards, is unbreakable – when we consider that, and then consider that, by virtue of God’s grace shown in Jesus on the cross and Jesus of the empty tomb, we have, through our faith in Him, the inheritance of being with God forever… now that’s incredible, fantastic, stupendous. Mary Poppins would say “supercalifragilisticexpialadocious!” You need to hear that again! It’s supercalifragilisticexpialadocious that despite our sinfulness, and by God’s grace through faith, we can be with Jesus forever!
4. To be with Jesus… a simple confession
What does it take to be with Jesus forever?? In his letter to the Christians in Rome, in chapter 10, (last week’s Epistle) St. Paul gives a concise but profound answer to that question. This is what he wrote: “If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.” The story of the thief on the cross shows that a last-minute, death-bed conversion and confession is enough to hear Jesus’ words, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise!” Now, I wouldn’t recommend that for you, or for those you know and love. You never know when your last minute will be.
There’s a story of two Christian women from a church who went out to visit a couple in their home and tell them about Jesus. Because his wife wasn’t home, the man asked them to come back the next evening. The man died that night without hearing the good news of Jesus. How sad!!
On the one hill of Calvary there were three crosses, and three men died. One man cursed, one man prayed, one man promised. One died condemned, one died forgiven, one died innocent. One died in sin, one died to sin, one died for sin. One was held by death, one was released by death, one conquered death. One lost life, one gained life, one was life.
Although a death-bed conversion is sufficient for salvation, we do well to take Paul’s advice in 2 Corinthians 6 when he says, “Now is the time of God’s favour, now is the day of salvation.” I like to say, “If you want to be a friend of Jesus after you die, you’ve got to be a friend of Jesus before you die.” Or using today’s ‘Cross-Word’, “If you want to be with Jesus after you die, you’ve got to be with Jesus before you die.”
A missionary to the South Sea islands wanted to tell the people to trust in Jesus, but the language of the people seemed to have no word for ‘trust’ or ‘faith’. One day he offered his chair to a native. The man sat down, but he kept most of his weight on his feet. He did not trust the chair. The missionary asked the man to get up. Then he sat down in the chair with considerable force and lifted his feet off the floor. “Lean your whole weight on the chair,” he said. Suddenly the missionary realized he had found a way for communicating the word ‘trust’, and so he added: “And lean your whole weight on the Lord Jesus.”
As he hung there on the cross, the criminal finally found someone trustworthy to lean on. He confession of faith was a very simple one: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Entering paradise with Jesus is not a matter of understanding and accepting every complex theological premise of Christianity. The thief simply said, “Jesus, remember me.” Other New Testament creeds or statements of belief were equally simple. Romans 10:9 says, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’” 1 Corinthians 12:3 affirms, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” It’s pretty simple, isn’t it? Even Martin Luther didn’t complicate matters much as he explained the article of the Apostles’ Creed that deals with Jesus. The bottom line, he said, is that I believe that Jesus Christ is my Lord.
Is that what you believe? Does the weight of your whole life lean on Jesus? If you can say ‘yes’ to those questions from the bottom of your heart, with all sincerity, then like the thief on the cross, your sins and crimes against God are not held against you, and Jesus’ words from the cross are for you: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” May God grant it to you, in Jesus’ name. Amen.