If you were to dramatize this word, or rather the fulfillment of this word, how would you do it? If you were given the reins in the production of a movie, how would you visualize what Jesus is promising this thief? You see, this is the only word among the seven that actually explicitly contains a promise.
And this is also the only word that contains grammatical and socio-cultural difficulties – one of each type. On the grammatical front is the possibility of two readings. First, Jesus could have said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Second, Jesus could have said, “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise.” Just a matter of where to place a comma!
Was Jesus saying that the promise would have been fulfilled on that very day when the two of them hung from their respective crosses? Or was he simply asserting that he is making a promise on that very day? This is no idle difference because where God is concerned both the making and the fulfilling of the promise are important. This is why we observe Maundy Thursday and partake of communion – it was the occasion when Jesus made a promise to all his followers, that he would be present when we remember him. And this is why we are here to observe Good Friday – it was when Jesus fulfilled his promise of being the Son of Man who would give his life as a ransom for many.
On the socio-cultural front is the word ‘paradise’. Is paradise like the recent Idea advertisement in which Bacchhan the younger floats before some gates in the clouds? Is paradise a way of talking about heaven, the realm which is the abode of God?
The word ‘paradise’ strictly refers to a garden. If you know a Muslim or Parsee named Firdaus, you have encountered the word ‘paradise’. Firdaus is the most beautiful garden in the afterlife.
Our difficulties are compounded by the fact that, apart from this passage, the word appears in the New Testament in only two other places – 2 Corinthians 12.4 and Revelation 2.7. In the first passage, Paul writes, “I know that this man was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.” A verse before this Paul speaks of someone being caught up to the third heaven.
In Revelation, to the church in Ephesus Jesus writes, “To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” This seems to indicate a garden, for where else would a tree grow?
If we are honest, we will have to say that neither of the verses really tells us what paradise is like. Paul’s use pulls us in the direction of heaven while Revelation pulls us in the direction of a garden.
So if we try to interpret this word in a grammatical or socio-cultural manner, we simply get bogged down with questions that cannot be resolved.
But if we interpret this word by placing ourselves in the shoes of the thief, we reach a different conclusion. If we were dying on a cross, what would be going through our minds? If I were a Jew dying on the cross, I would have thought of Deuteronomy 21.23, which says, “Anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse.” What would have been at the forefront of his mind is the fact that he had done something that had resulted in his being in this accursed situation. What he would have been yearning for at that point is for the situation to be reversed, for the curse to be lifted.
And now we are in a position to see that no matter when the promise is fulfilled – on that day or at some point in the future – and no matter where – in an earthly garden or in the heavens – paradise was a place in which no accursed person would be found.
And so what Jesus does here is brilliant. The thief has just stated that Jesus is an innocent man by saying, “This man has done nothing wrong.” And so, when the thief turns to him, Jesus responds, “You will be with me in paradise.”
The thief has just stated that Jesus is innocent, meaning that Jesus will go to the place where the righteous go. Jesus uses the word paradise as a means of affirming the thief’s faith. No matter how you imagined paradise to be, it was where all the righteous people would go. By declaring Jesus innocent, the thief had already declared that Jesus would go to paradise.
Jesus does not introduce anything new in his use of the word paradise. He could have said ‘heaven’ or ‘in God’s kingdom’ or ‘in Abraham’s bosom’ or any of the numerous ways in which Jews referred to the place where the righteous go.
What is specific to Jesus is his words ‘with me’. To the dying man, the dying Jesus offers the assurance that he will be with Jesus. You see we can get bogged down by grammatical issues. We can debate what the nature of paradise is.
But frankly, when you strip everything away, if we imagined the next world to be a garden, would we rejoice if we found ourselves in a garden, but without Jesus? If we imagined we would be in a throne room or in a palatial house or in a beautiful city with gold streets, would we be happy if we found ourselves in such an environment, but without Jesus?
It does not matter when it will happen – at the moment I die or many years after that. It does not matter where I find myself – in a garden or in a city. What matters eventually is that I find myself with Jesus.