The Promise of Paradise

August 11, 2002 / No. 3110

Dear radio friends,

As we come to the conclusion of our series on Death, today and next week we want to focus our attention on the words of our Lord Jesus Christ from the cross. In Luke 23:42, 43 we read, “And he (that is, the malefactor) said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.”

There were, of course, seven words our Lord spoke from the cross. You will find them in Matthew 27Mark 15Luke 23, and John 19. Today we want to consider this second word that was spoken from the cross: “Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.”

The first word which our compassionate Savior spoke was, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” The third word was the amazing word of filial love: “Woman, behold thy son; (and then to the disciple) behold thy mother.” The fourth was that piercing cry of hellish agony, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Then He said, “I thirst,” drinking the vinegar mingled with gall, something which at first He had refused to do. Then the burden He had come to bear being over, He cried out with a loud shout: “It is finished!” And the last word before He gave up His ghost, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Although we focus our attention on the second word from the cross, “Today thou shalt be with me in paradise,” just a few words about those seven words in general.

Our Lord, you will notice, began and ended His words on the cross with “Father.” “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And then, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Notice, too, that there were seven words, surely symbolic, in Scripture, of perfection. But notice also that three out of the seven cries from the cross – while He Himself was enduring such awful agony, enduring the curse of the cross on behalf of His people – were for others. Yes, for His sheep: “Father, forgive them,” “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise,” Woman, behold thy son.” What a way to prepare to die willingly as we hear the words of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself from the cross.

Dark and perilous times have come upon us: terrorism, abounding apostasy, increasing immorality. There are several ways men try to deal with that fear and agony and suspense that we experience in life more and more. Some like to take the happy-go-lucky approach: Eat, drink, and be merry, ignore the assaults of the enemy and just live. Others fall into the different extreme and cower in desperation and run away in anxiety, watching news, asking, “What next?”

But there is, you know, a far better way, not only to overcome fear, but to deal with all the events of life with a biblical perspective. I say to you, it is the way of the cross. It is the way of contemplating what, after all, was the darkest hour of history. For when one knows what Calvary was really all about, then one can truly face life and, yes, death itself.

This is the good news, my friend. Listen! The amazing wonder of the cross is that the holy One of Israel fellowships with sinners such as you are, such as I am.

No doubt the fact of the two malefactors, one on the left and the other on the right, emphasize this deep humiliation of Jesus Christ. God sent His only begotten Son into the world that the Just may lay down His life for the unjust. And here we have it. At the eleventh hour, so to speak, the miraculous conversion of the dying thief. This is the gospel regarding the death of the child of God. Paradise is promised to repentant sinners. The repentant sinner cries, “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom.” And the Lord’s answer, “Verily I say unto thee, Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.” With such a promise one can surely be prepared to die willingly.

We consider the Promise of Paradise. Notice with me the sinner’s cry. By way of contrast we hear, of course, the one who reviled the Son of God. The cry of bitter rebellion, of wicked rejection, foolish unbelief, and wicked pride. Although the conversation between that thief and Jesus Christ is recorded in verses 42 and 43, the context begins in Luke 23 at verse 32. “And there were also two other, malefactors (we read), led with him to be put to death. And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left.” And we read, as the verses follow in this passage, the reviling of all those that surrounded the cross: “If thou be the Christ, save thyself and us.” They railed at Him, mocked Him, denied and rejected Him as the Messiah. Not surprising, of course. This was what the majority did. In fact it was a united voice at Calvary. And this is what these malefactors did, too.

Fix in your mind the scene. One criminal on the left, another on the right. They had heard, now, the first word of Christ: “Father, forgiven them for they know not what they do.” They saw the inscription above His head, “This is the King of the Jews.” And they cry out, “If thou be the Christ, save thyself and us.” According to Mark 15:32 we read that both of them that were crucified reviled the Christ. “Let Christ the King of Israel descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” The parallel passage in Matthew 27:44 describes them as thieves. Luke describes them as malefactors or criminals. Surely they were sinners who had committed such crimes that were worthy of the awful death of the cross.

What is amazing, however, is that one of the thieves, who at first had joined in reviling the Son of God, now denies agreement with the other thief and, in fact, rebukes him. Notice in verse 40 and 41, “But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds.” And further, “But this man hath done nothing amiss.” This man, Jesus, hath done no sin. He is holy. Somehow the eyes of this thief were opened to the knowledge of who He was who was hanging there at his side on the accursed tree of the cross.

How did he know? And why now this change? What happened? I submit to you, he heard the word of the gospel in the prayer of Jesus, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Moreover, he saw the little Bible and read, did he not, the words, “This is the King of the Jews.” Above all, and without doubt, it is the Spirit of God that worked in the heart of this elect. For the other heard, too, but hardened his heart, whereas this thief heard, saw, understood, and acknowledged. After all, except for the Spirit of God, no man can acknowledge Jesus to be Lord. Not really – even though there be many who cry out, “Lord, Lord,” but do not His will. Such who boast of Him in word but deny Him in deed must only await the awful judgment of God. But those who do sincerely cry out, “Lord,” as this thief did, acknowledging Jesus as the only Savior, do so by God’s grace and Holy Spirit. John 1:13, these are “born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” These are saved by grace, through faith, which is the gift of God, as clearly stated in Ephesians 2:8.

And surely, this cry, “Lord, remember me,” was not something that originated from the thief himself. Why, a moment earlier he had joined the crowd to revile the Son of God. And now he cries, “Lord.” What happened is clear. The sinner’s eyes were opened by the grace of the Holy Spirit of the almighty God. He now, in repentance, turns to the Lord. “Lord,” he cries, “remember me.”

This surely represents the cry of all God’s people throughout the ages. This dying thief looked at Christ on the cross and he saw and he understood. And he said, “Jesus, Lord.” This Jesus had nails in His hands. His crown was of thorns on His head. Blood was dripping from His side, and He faced the mockery of sinners. Very soon, for the next three hours, darkness would descend upon the face of the earth. And out of that darkness the Son of God would cry out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Hanging there on the accursed cross for malefactors, for sinners – can He be Lord? Could He be Lord? Yes, yes, yes. Absolutely and undeniably, yes! He is the anointed of Jehovah Himself. Wonder of the gospel – He comes to save sinners. Yes, murderers, adulterers, blasphemers. As Paul would later acknowledge in I Timothy 1:15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” Remember this. You will never see nor acknowledge Jesus Christ until, by grace, you see yourself as that guilty sinner.

Lord, I do not deserve that You hear me! But I ask You to pity me, to remember me in Your mercy. This is the cry of the elect child of God who acknowledges that he is a sinner, that what befalls him he deserves. But God is just and the justifier of all those who call upon Him in truth.

The thief cried out, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” What kingdom? This Jesus is about to die on the cross. All His so-called promises were about to be lost, gone forever, vanquished in the way of death. But, no, somehow, in this way of the cross, the thief knew, and we must know, that Christ will be glorified. It is possible that the thief might have thought of a future kingdom that Christ would usher in. But surely also this thief knew, he had to, that the kingdom that Jesus Christ would usher in would not be an earthly kingdom. He is about to die.

Somehow he understood that Christ would usher in a spiritual kingdom, a glorious kingdom. And in spite of all that was contrary to the naked eye, he had the eyes of faith and he embraced Christ, the Son of God, his Savior. “When Thou comest into Thy kingdom, Lord, remember me. When, in the way of this cruel death, you merit salvation for Thy people, and come in Thy glory, think on me.” And the Savior’s promise – no, not only when I come in some distant future, but today thou shalt be with Me in paradise.

Earlier, remember, when He was being nailed to the cross, He had cried, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Enemies had hurled such injustice against the Son of God. But the meek One knew the purpose of the cross was to save His own. So He prayed that prayer. No, it was definitely not the purpose of Christ to save all sinners on the cross. He laid down His life for His sheep, the sheep that the Father had given to Him. Not one of them would go lost, for He had prayed for them and He had laid down His life for them, and for them He would merit eternal life. So He prays on the cross, “Father, forgiven them.” Think, for a moment. If Christ had meant, “forgive them all,” then why did not the Father forgive them all? Why, then, did the other thief continue in sin and unbelief and wicked rebellion to the end?

Oh, no. The Father heard the prayer of His Son. Amongst the wicked, Christ saw His own. The centurion later would confess. The soldiers and the women would smite their breasts. Yes, without a doubt, Christ saw this thief.

And how did this thief cry? The Savior’s prayer was heard and God worked by the Spirit in the heart of this thief. And the Father forgave him also. Filled with that amazing enduring love for the murderer, did Christ respond, “Truly, verily I say unto thee, I hear you, thief “? No, “I hear you, my dear child. I will not cast out any of the sheep given to Me by My Father. You have the forgiveness of My Father. You have the favor and the honor that God gives to all His people in His kingdom. Others may not think this possible. But I, the Son of God, say unto you, truly, verily, amen, without a shadow of a doubt, for that very purpose I have come into the world and for that very purpose I am dying on the cross – for sinners like you – for those who by the grace and the Spirit of God know and acknowledge their misery have I come. For those who in their misery know that their only deliverance is in Jesus Christ and Him crucified I am come. For those who respond with humble gratitude, calling upon the Christ as their only Lord and Savior, I have come.” Do you hear the Savior? Do you understand the words above the cross? Jesus is indeed the King of the Jews.

But why had this to be written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, the then-known languages of the world? Because this gospel must be preached to all the world. Also today, to all nations. That is why the risen Lord commissioned the church to go into all the world and to preach the gospel to every creature.

Do you say, “If you are God, why do I suffer? Why is there death? Why war? Why sorrow? Why surgery? Why suffering? Why this pain?” Do you say, “If you are God, why not come down and save us? Prove thyself even from the cross”? Oh, that was the cry of the multitude, the wicked rebellion that was heard there at Calvary. I beseech you today, you and I ought to say, “All this we deserved, but He, the Son of God, is just.” And we ought to cry out, “Lord, remember us, pity us, forgive us, and save us from our sin and death and hell.”

The promise of Christ was to the thief and to us, “Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.” Not only in the future, when I finally return to establish My eternal kingdom, but today, with Me in paradise. When I go to My Father, He said to the thief on the cross, you will be the first one, the privileged place will be for sinners, sinners saved by the amazing grace of God.

Paradise today. That is, of course, the description of heaven in comparison to the original Garden of Eden, which now is lifted up so that the glory of Paradise is far greater than the original paradise of Eden, where there is no sin, there is no suffering, there is no death, there is no sorrow, there is no pain; where there can be no sin, no suffering, no death, no sorrow, no pain. That original Garden of Eden was only a picture, only a picture for us, so that in the way of the fall, and in the way of our redemption, we may realize that God has promised to us in Jesus Christ something far more glorious, even the new heavens and the new earth, there to be present with Jesus, the Son of God in the flesh. “Today, with Me in Paradise.” There, with Christ and through Christ, to glorify God forever.

Let us learn through the thief’s cry and the word of the Lord Jesus Christ: King Jesus has entered into His kingdom. And His kingdom is not of this earth. His kingdom is a heavenly, glorious, eternal kingdom. Soon He will cry, “It is finished!” And then He Himself will die saying, “Into thy hands, Father, I commend my spirit.” So also can the child of God die in that way. He can die with that triumphant knowledge of victory. He can die in the knowledge that immediately he goes to be with his heavenly Father and with Jesus Christ in Paradise.

That is the only way to die – calling upon the name of the Lord. That is the only way to be prepared to die willingly. Never forget. There are only two ways to look at Jesus Christ. Often Christ is preached and received as if there are many ways to handle Him. “I respect the Christian faith,” some say. “But I personally do not believe. I’m not a Christian.” Or, like the Pharisees, “I’m a Christian, I live nobly, see. I’m not a thief and adulterer.” Or preachers who themselves lie and who proclaim a message that God loves all men. Then sinners imagine that they can continue in their sin or contribute to their own salvation – those are lies. There are only two kinds and two ways to look at Jesus – the elect and the reprobate, the way of unbelief and the way of faith.

The reprobate who hear the gospel harden their hearts and mock at the truth of God’s Word. But the elect who hear are humbled to the dust and they cry out, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” Which are you? Remember, the vilest sinner Christ can and does save. No, this last minute conversion may not be used to continue in sin. Of course not! Today, the Scriptures say, harden not your hearts but repent. Turn to the Lord while He may yet be found and while you still breathe. But, remember, God saves whom He wills and when He wills. His own will cry unto Him, “Remember me.” And in Paradise they will be with all the saints who join in glory to sing salvation to our God. By grace alone, Christ alone, faith alone, through revelation alone. And then glory to God alone. This is the gospel of grace, knowing which you may live and die willingly and cheerfully.

May God grant you and me to know the promise of Paradise today. Amen.

Grant us, Father, ears to hear and hearts that believe in the wonderful promise of the gospel that Christ Jesus came into the world, sinners to save. Amen.