Luke 23:39-43 “ One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us! But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’”
Do you remember earlier in Jesus ministry, when he came down from the Mount of Transfiguration, and he found his disciples trying to drive out a demon unsuccessfully? The father of the possessed boy pleads with Jesus, “If you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” And Jesus replies, “If you can? Everything is possible for him who believes.” The boy’s father exclaims, “I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.”
The criminal next to Jesus is in a situation no less desperate. Really, it is more so. Before the day is over he is going to meet God face to face. The challenge to his faith is not a foaming, convulsing child. It is a bleeding, dying Jesus. And yet there is no word of doubt in his simple prayer. There is no “if.” “If you are the Savior you claim to be.” “If you are going to take your place on your throne.” He speaks a confident “when.” “When you enter your kingdom.” “Remember me when you enter your kingdom.”
Jesus only reinforces the certainty. “I tell you the truth.” “Amen” is the word Jesus used in his native tongue. When you and I say, “Amen,” for us it is usually the conclusion to the matter. For Jesus it was usually the introduction. “I tell you the truth” means you can have full confidence that what follows is fact. No doubt Jesus had a sense of humor and could kid around with his disciples at other times. But the cross was no place to be kidding. Every word required heroic effort just to get it out. There was no time or energy for wasted words. Death and eternity were mere hours away. This was no place to be joking. This was the place for “Amen,” certainty, nothing but the truth, and that is exactly what Jesus promised this dying thief from the cross.
The promise itself is spoken in certainty. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Sometimes the further we can put our promises in the future, the less we fear we will be held to them if we can’t keep them. Time has a way of making people forget. But Jesus assures this dying man that before this day is over, the two of them will stand together in Paradise, the garden of God, the home of life. Jesus can speak with such certainty: “Today” this will happen.
Jesus can speak with such certainty because on this cross, at this moment, giving his life, opening the doors to heaven for us all. As the life slowly faded from his body, so did the crimes and sins of the criminal pleading for his mercy. So do ours. They shrink and fade until Jesus breathes his last, and they completely disappear. And as our sins shrink and fade from sight, the glow of heaven’s glory grows brighter and closer. Our own final “today” comes soon enough, and with it the certainty of Paradise.