In this Easter season, one of the more controversial sayings of Jesus is found in Luke 23:43, where Jesus told the thief on the cross, "Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise." This saying is controversial because we read later on in John 20:17, where Jesus told Mary after His resurrection, "Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father." It is therefore apparent from John 20:17 that Jesus HAD NOT gone to heaven on the day of His death or anytime between the time of His death and resurrection. Is this a contradiction in scripture? Is this a discrepancy? How could Jesus tell the thief that they would both be in heaven on the day of crucifixion, and then afterwards tell Mary that He had not gone up to heaven? Did Jesus lie to the thief on the cross or to Mary? Truly, this is one of the more difficult sayings of the Bible, and is therefore worthy of an explanation!
Before I begin to explain the above passage, let me first say that it is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18). We serve a God of truth, who gives us His Spirit to guide us into all truth (John 16:13). The above statements made by Jesus must therefore be truth, as God cannot lie; however, I have found from studying the Bible that whenever there is an apparent conflict in scripture, one must dig deeper to find the "hidden" meaning.
The above statement made by Jesus to the thief on the cross is what I call a Jesus-ism or Jesus-speak. Jesus used Jesus-ism or Jesus-speak whenever He was conveying a message or teaching to His followers in public, in the presence of others. He did this so that He could convey a hidden message to His followers and yet prevent the larger audience from picking up on what He was saying. He did this by using a lot of parables and symbolism in His speech, whenever He wanted to convey special instructions to His followers, in the presence of others who were not to be privy to this information. When Jesus was asked why He spoke in parables, He responded:
"Therefore speak I in parables because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand....For this people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed" (Matthew 13:13, 15a).
You see, many of the multitudes who had come to hear Jesus teach were not really interested in learning about God and the kingdom of heaven. They had hardened their hearts, stopped their ears, and closed their eyes against the things of God. They were mainly interested in getting healed of their diseases or in following a leader who would lead them to earthly prosperity. To them, the things of God were foolishness and offensive to their ideas of godliness. Because their minds were so far removed from spiritual things, Jesus had to use parables relating to everyday life to teach spiritual lessons. Those who were true believers would understand the spiritual message, but the unbelievers would just enjoy a good story.
Now back to the thief on the cross and Jesus' statement, Today thou shalt be with me in paradise. This statement from Jesus was in response to a request made by the thief to Jesus. The thief wanted Jesus to assure him a place in Christ's coming kingdom. He said, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom" (Luke 23:42). To which Jesus replied, "Today thou shalt be with me in paradise" (vs. 43). From Jesus' statement to Mary that He had not yet ascended to His Father, we must therefore conclude that Jesus was speaking spiritually, and not literally to the thief on the cross, about entering paradise that day. Make no mistake, paradise is a real place, but literal paradise is not to be established upon the earth until the end of the world. In Revelation 2:7 it says that the tree of life, which was in the garden of Eden is to be found in paradise. The apostle Paul also recorded how he was "caught up" in vision into paradise (2 Corinthian 12:4). Yes, paradise is a real place, but it also another name for the eternal kingdom of Christ, which, by the way, will be established on the earth, along with a new heaven and a new earth (Ezekiel 47: 1-12; Revelation 21 & 22). What Jesus was telling the thief therefore was Today you shall be with me in my eternal kingdom.
One must understand that one can be a part of Christ's eternal kingdom prior to getting to heaven, while here on earth! In Colossians 1: 12-13 we read,
"Giving thanks to the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son" (bold type supplied).
By accepting Jesus into your life, your citizenship into the kingdom of Christ starts right now (note the above scripture is written in the present tense). Take a look at another passage written in the present tense to the then living Hebrew Christians of the New Testament.
"But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect" (Hebrews 12: 22-23, bold face supplied).
Now read the words of Jesus Himself!
"And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not by observation: neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo here! For behold, the kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17: 20-21).
The kingdom of God starts within our hearts and soul. We are citizens of God's kingdom spiritually before we ever get there physically. Membership into the spiritual kingdom is our guarantee and assurance of a place in the future physical kingdom of Christ. Christ offered the thief on the cross a place in His spiritual kingdom that day, for salvation is immediate, and today is the day of salvation, "behold, now is the accepted time; behold now is the day of salvation" (2 Corinthians 6:2). Again the scripture says, "But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end; while it is said, To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation" (Hebrews 3: 13-15). By offering the thief an immediate place in His spiritual kingdom, Christ was guaranteeing the repentant and forgiven thief a place in His coming physical kingdom.
My dear friends, Christ offered the thief on the cross immediate salvation and a place in His kingdom. He is making the same offer to you today. Won't you accept it?