Our study of things unique in Luke’s Gospel in our adult Bible classes comes to a close today. One of the passages we’ll look at today is the passage concerning “the thief on the cross” (Luke 23:39-43), meaning the one to whom Jesus promised “Paradise.” Ironically, the pinnacle of passages in Luke most illustrative of Jesus’ mission to save (cf. Luke 19:10), is also the Lucan passage most tortured through the years in our particular heritage!
I have almost always heard this account dealt with in only two ways among us: either in a negative light, on how not to be saved (that is, the thief was unbaptized) or as commentary on precisely where people go after death (no, not heaven, but to “a waiting room”, as it were; a place called “Paradise”). And yet, neither of these thoughts focus on the reason Luke penned this story to start with, whether for his original reader or even us today.
Bill Love, in his wonderful study of the essence of the gospel and preaching, The Core Gospel, dealt well with the first of these two issues and refocused our minds on the whole point of this text:
“Our religious neighbors continued to set forth the thief on the cross as an example of one who was saved without baptism. We answered that he died before the kingdom was established on Pentecost, under the old covenant. When pushed on that argument we said that the gospels recorded events prior to Pentecost and so were not really important for the church. Perhaps a more biblical answer would have been: ‘God is sovereign. He will save whomever he will. But we preach Christ crucified and Jesus told us to receive the gift of Golgotha in the waters of baptism. God will receive the thief on the cross however he will. As for you and me, Jesus told us to meet him at baptism to receive the redemption he provided at Calvary.'” (p.256)
Yes! That is the point – God can save absolutely anyone, anywhere, anytime, anyway he wants and no united gathering of people at the foot of his cross saying otherwise, such as the soldiers, the priests and the other thief here in the text, can change that! No one is beyond hope who will recognize Jesus for who he is and put their life into his hands. No one. Praise God, for I figure we would all do well, as did Paul (1 Timothy 1:16) to consider ourselves individually “the worst of sinners.”
And as for where the dead live until the resurrection, why would we dare put so much weight on a passage such as this one? Gasping for breath on a cross is not the time or place for intricate theological conversation on the details of the afterlife. Jesus simply summed up everything in a single word the thief (“terrorist” is a more accurate rendering!) could grasp and drink into his dying soul; a word for him to savor with his dying breaths. William Barclay paints the picture for us so:
“The word ‘Paradise’ is a Persian word meaning ‘a walled garden.’ When a Persian king wished to do one of his subjects a very special honour he made him a companion of the garden which meant he was chosen to walk in the garden with the king. It was more than immortality that Jesus promised the penitent thief. He promised him the honored place of a companion of the garden in the courts of heaven.” (The Gospel of Luke, p.287)
Which is precisely the promise where Luke presents Jesus’ ministry has having begun:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has annointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom to the prisoners . . . to release the oppressed . . .” (Luke 4:18 TNIV)
Praise God! This word from God through Luke to you and me speaks not of a how or a where so much as it speaks of a who – Jesus and each of us. And what can Jesus do? Jesus can save anyone he so wills, who seeks his salvation with all of their heart. That alone, to me, is “paradise” enough! This is what makes the good news truly ‘good.’ Jesus saves, no matter who thinks otherwise or whatever else it appears to be. The salvation of Jesus Christ is real and freely available to all, because of who Jesus is. Now go share him with all with whom you can!