“And he 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.” (Luke 23:42, 43)
This is the second utterance of Jesus on the cross. It was spoken in response to the request of the dying thief. Jesus hung on the cross between two thieves. One rejected him and the other received him. Both were equally near Jesus. Both of them saw and heard all that transpired during those fateful six hours. Both were notoriously wicked; both were suffering acutely; both were dying and both urgently needed forgiveness. Yet one of them died in his sins, died as he had lived – hardened and impenitent; while the other repented of his wickedness, believed in Christ, called on him for mercy and went to Paradise.
The salvation of the dying thief demonstrates that the Lord is willing and able to save all who come to him. If Jesus received this penitent, believing thief, then none need despair of a welcome if they will but come to Christ. If this dying robber was not beyond the reach of Divine mercy then none are who will respond to the invitations of Divine grace. The Son of Man came “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).
Jesus Christ our Savior came into this world to save sinners, and he left it and went to Paradise accompanied by a repentant, saved criminal — the first trophy of his redeeming blood.
In our Lord’s gracious response to the thief’s request we have a striking illustration of how Divine grace exceeds human expectations. The thief prayed that the Lord would remember him in his coming Kingdom, but Jesus assures him that before that very day had passed he should be with the Savior. The thief asked to be remembered in an earthly Kingdom, but Jesus assures him a place in Paradise. The thief simply asked to be “remembered”, but the Savior declared he should be “with him”. Thus God does exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.
Not only does Jesus’ reply signify the survival of the soul after the death of the body, but it tells us that the believer is with him during the interval which divides death from the resurrection. It was this prospect of going to Jesus at death which cheered the martyr Stephen in his last hour. Therefore did he cry “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit (Acts 7:59). It was this expectation that moved the apostle Paul to say, I have “a desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better (Philippians 1:23). Not unconsciousness in the grave, not soul-sleep, not Purgatory, but with Christ in Paradise is what awaits every believer at death.
In Fellowship we reach the climax of grace and the sum of Christian privilege. God has called us “unto fellowship of his Son” (1 Corinthians 1:9). We are saved for fellowship. God had innumerable “servants” before Jesus came to die. The angels do his bidding. Christ came not primarily to secure servants but those who should enter into fellowship with himself. As did the repentant thief that very day and as did all the saints before us.
Jesus tells us in John 14:2, 3 “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go to prepare a place for you I will come again, and receive you to myself that where I am, there you may be also.”