Luke 23:43

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39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

In Act I of Samuel Beckett’s enigmatic play, “Waiting for Godot,” the two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, are in conversation when Vladimir alludes to the penitent thief on the cross.

VLADIMIR: Ah yes, the two thieves. Do you remember the story?


VLADIMIR: Shall I tell it to you?


VLADIMIR: It’ll pass the time. (Pause.) Two thieves, crucified at the same time as our Saviour. One—

ESTRAGON: Our what?

VLADIMIR: Our Saviour. Two thieves. One is supposed to have been saved and the other . . . (he searches for the contrary of saved) . . . damned.

ESTRAGON: Saved from what?


ESTRAGON: I’m going. (He does not move.)

VLADIMIR: And yet…(pause)…how is it – this is not boring you I hope – how is it that of the four Evangelists only one speaks of a thief being saved. The four of them were there – or thereabouts – and only one speaks of a thief being saved…

ESTRAGON: (with exaggerated enthusiasm). I find this really most extraordinarily interesting.

VLADIMIR: One out of four. Of the other three, two don’t mention any thieves at all and the third says that both of them abused him…

ESTRAGON: Well what of it?

VLADIMIR: Then the two of them must have been damned.

ESTRAGON: And why not?

VLADIMIR: But one of the four says that one of the two was saved.

ESTRAGON: Well? They don’t agree and that’s all there is to it.

VLADIMIR: But all four were there. And only one speaks of a thief being saved. Why believe him rather than the others?

ESTRAGON: Who believes him?

VLADIMIR: Everybody. It’s the only version they know.

It is a fascinating conversation to overhear, and one that raises an interesting question. In reality, three of the gospels, the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), don’t mention the two thieves at all and, yes, only one mentions that one of the two repented. Vladimir, looking at that fact from a purely numerical vantage point, is bothered by this fact. His suggestion is that the episode with the penitent thief is a minority reading and therefore has less weight.

Of course, that is not a good way to do Bible interpretation. The four gospels highlight different things throughout, and the absence of a scene from one gospel that is present in another does not mean that the scene did not happen. On the contrary, I would propose that we see Luke’s inclusion of the thief’s repentance is a fortunate and, indeed, a beautiful thing, for it provides us with an amazing insight into the nature of Christ, the nature of His love for lost humanity, the nature of saving faith, the nature of the cross, and the nature of eternal life.

The audacious certainty and immediacy of eternal life in Jesus.

The first thing we notice is that there is a kind of audacity about our text. This is found in the amazing response of Jesus to the thief’s dying appeal. Before we get to that, though, let us consider the thief.

39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

In truth, we do not know much about this condemned criminal. He is known traditionally as “the penitent thief,” a title that contrasts him with the unpenitent thief that hung on the other side of Jesus. William Barlcay has passed on some of the legends that have grown up around this thief.

Legend has been busy with the penitent thief. He is called variously Dismas, Demas and Dumachus. One legend makes him a Judaean Robin Hood who robbed the rich to give to the poor. The loveliest legend tells how the holy family was attacked by robbers when they fled with Jesus, as a little child, from Bethlehem to Egypt. Jesus was saved by the kindness of a youth who was the son of the captain of the robber band. The little baby Jesus was so lovely that the young brigand could not bear to lay hands on Him but set Him free, saying, “O most blessed of children, if ever there come a time for having mercy on me, then remember me and forget not this hour.” So, they say, that the robber youth who had saved Jesus when He was a baby, met Him again on a Cross on Calvary; and this time Jesus saved him.[1]

That is all very interesting…and very fanciful. On the basis of our text, we know this about him: (1) he was a criminal, (2) he initially mocked Jesus with the other condemned criminal and the crowd, (3) at some point during his crucifixion he came to see the truth about Jesus, changed his mind, and rebuked the other thief, (4) he saw himself as guilty, (5) he saw Jesus as innocent, and (6) he saw Jesus as one having authority, and (7) he cried out for Jesus to save him.

I mentioned that there is a glorious audacity in our text and that it resides largely in Jesus’ response to the thief, but there is something audacious in the thief as well, namely, his cry for Jesus to save him. First, the thief on the cross makes bold to cry out for remembrance and `salvation when just some moments before he was mocking Jesus. It takes a radical change of heart and a daring faith to mock in one moment and cry out for mercy the next. Furthermore, Richard John Neuhaus points out that the thief referring to Jesus simply as “Jesus” in verse 42 marks “the only time in any Gospel account that someone addresses Jesus simply by name. Otherwise it is always ‘Jesus Son of God,’ ‘Jesus Son of David’ or some other form of particular respect.” Neuhaus concludes, “Dying together is a great social leveler.”[2]

It is interesting, is it not? When we reach the end of our ropes and the end of our lives, suddenly we lose our pretensions and are ready for raw honesty. The thief calling Jesus “Jesus” was not demonstrating insolence, he was demonstrating the raw, naked reality of the moment in which he realized that death had come for him, that this Jesus truly is the King, and that he is not in right relationship with him. Notably, instead of screaming out justifications for his actions and behaviors, and instead of crying out that he had been misunderstood, he confesses his guilt and boldly calls Jesus by name.

I am using the word “audacity” here to refer to shocking and unsettling boldness, not foolish arrogance. There is indeed a glorious and disarming audacity about this man, of all men, on this cross, on this hill, on this day presuming to say the name: “Jesus.” It is the cry of faith that must pass the lips of all who will be saved. It is the “end of your rope” plea for mercy, the evidence of a realization of the stark and inescapable reality of impending judgment and, significantly, of one’s undeniable guilt. It is a guilty man turning to an innocent King and saying, “Could you possibly have mercy on even a wretch like me?”

And in response, Jesus offers the second word from the cross.

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

There is an audacious certainty about this promise: a man dying on a cross guaranteeing paradise to another man dying on a cross. Behold the gospel! The audacious certainty is found in the first word of this second word from the cross: “Truly.” It is a common refrain with Jesus, this “truly.” New Testament scholar Darrell Bock notes that “the ‘truly I say to you’ formula represents Jesus’ most solemn way to reassure his neighbor.”[3]

It is Jesus’ guarantee! It is Jesus’ word! It is Jesus’ promise!


This is the very opposite of the evasive tactics I employ when I am asked something awkward or something I am not ready to answer or something that I simply do not want to answer. In such cases, I tend to say, “Well, let us ponder that further,” or, “Let me get back to you on that.” To my daughter I sometimes say, “We’ll see…”

We may thank God that Jesus did not indulge in such obfuscation, such evasive fog. On the contrary, in answer to the thief’s plea to be remembered, Jesus boldly says, “Truly…This is going to happen!”

In reality, this bold proclamation is not only unlike my evasive dodging of uncomfortable or inconvenient questions, it is also utterly unlike my own promises! In reality, even when we intend to express certainty, who among us can do so in truth? Even our promises tend to be subject to the external realities that besiege us. This is true of all human beings precisely because uncertainty is one of the many tragic consequences of the fall. This is why Jesus warned us against worrying about tomorrow, for we do not really know what is going to happen tomorrow. We do not even know what is going to happen today.

But Jesus knows what is going to happen today: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

In the prayers of the ninth hour in The Daily Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians

O Master, Lord Jesus Christ our God, thou hast led us to the present hour, in which, as thou hung upon the life-giving Tree, thou didst make a way into Paradise for the penitent thief, and by death destroyed death…We implore thine unending goodness: Spare us, O Lord, according to the multitude of thy mercies, and save us for thy holy name’s sake, for our days are passing away in vanity. Take us from the hand of the adversary and forgive us our sins…[4]

Such cries for salvation depend upon the audacious certainty that Jesus exhibited in His answer. There is also a startling immediacy to Jesus’ answer.

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Jesus pronounces that the dying thief will be with him “today.” Today!

There is a bit of hermeneutical or interpretive problem here, or at least a textual (relative) uncertainty. In a very perceptive article entitled, “The Believer’s Intermediate State After Death,” Larry Waters explains the problem of the comma.

The major interpretive problem here is whether a comma should be placed before or after the word “today” in Jesus’ sentence. Some say Jesus said, “I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Others say Jesus said, “I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” No punctuation is in the Greek, but the natural reading of the verse agrees with the second rendering. “Today” means “this very day,” and “with me” means a beautiful place associated with genuine, close fellowship with Christ (cf. John 17:24).

Waters then quotes Bock as saying, “This emphasis on the current day involves an immediacy that Luke likes to use (2:11; 4:21; 5:26; 13:32-33; 22:34, 61)…It seems…that some sense of moving immediately into an intermediate state, conscious of God’s blessing, is alluded to here.”[5] This has certainly been the dominant reading of the Church throughout the ages, and it fits both the character of Jesus and the tone of the scene.

He is not saying, “Yes, eventually, we will all be together.” He is saying, “You and I will be together in Paradise today!”

What makes it so audacious is the way in which that “today” contrasts with the thief’s life of wickedness and the horror of the crucified moment that the two of them found themselves in when Jesus said. That word “today” is like a shaft of sunlight that breaks through an otherwise impenetrable cover of thick clouds. “Yes, you have lived a life of sin and crime. Yes, we are hanging, each of us, on a cruel and violent cross. But…today you will be with me in Paradise!”

Dear friends, the Lord Jesus Christ does not offer purgatory, does not offer a close examination period, does not offer a waiting period, does not offer a heavenly foyer, and does not offer second-class citizenship in the Kingdom on the basis of the heinousness of the thief’s crimes. No. He offers salvation today! Life today! Forgiveness today! Mercy today! Today! Now! Here! Right now!

Why would you wait when life is offered to you today?!

Jesus offers certain and immediate fulfillment…and that points us to the beautiful unfairness of forgiveness.

The beautiful unfairness of forgiveness in Jesus.

What do I mean by “beautiful unfairness”? I mean that, from a human perspective, there is something profoundly unfair about Jesus’s promise.

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Jesus promises the penitent thief Paradise “today.” Now, theologically, this has raised some questions about how we are to understand the nature of heaven. We know that our bodies will be resurrected at the end of all things and we will live for all eternity with our resurrected, transformed bodies in Heaven. But here Jesus promises, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” This suggests that there is a realm of conscious bliss with Jesus that exists before the final resurrection. Theologian James Leo Garrett, Jr., explains.

Unless one should affirm that resurrection in its completeness occurs for every human being at the time of death or unless one should hold that human death effects a cessation of existence, the Christian thinker faces as reality some kind of postmortal, preresurrection state – unless the eternal is to destroy all semblance of meaning for time…Protestant theologians have commonly referred to this state as “the intermediate state,” since it seemingly stands between death and resurrection, but, so as to emphasize the non-corporeal nature of the state, it has also been called “the disembodied state.” Alvah Hovey called it “the middle state,” and James Robinson Graves “the middle life,” consisting of Paradise and Tartarus.[6]

In Millard Erickson’s consideration of the intermediate state, he concludes that “upon death believers go immediately to a place and condition of blessedness, and unbelievers to an experience of misery, torment, and punishment,” but that, while these two places will end up being their final abode after the resurrection of their bodies, “the experiences of paradise and Hades are doubtless not as intense as what will ultimately be, since the person is in a somewhat incomplete condition.”[7]

Well, that is a provocative thought, to be sure, and perhaps there may be justification here for appealing to some sort of disembodied pre-resurrection intermediate state called Paradise distinguished from Heaven by virtue of it being a disembodied state, but it is indeed difficult to understand how being with Jesus in Paradise before the final resurrection could be less “intense” than being with Jesus in our resurrected state in Heaven. I hasten to add that I do understand why Erickson makes the argument, for, in such a scenario, there is a kind of incompleteness in Paradise for our bodies have yet to be raised. Even so, the incompleteness would be on our side, not on Jesus, and being with Jesus in Paradise would a blissful condition the intensity of which it would be impossible to measure.

All of that is interesting, and it holds relative importance to be sure, but let me suggest that the most astounding theological conundrum is not the exact state of the post-mortem, pre-resurrection state, but rather the fact that a scoundrel and a thief can cry out to Jesus in his final dying moments and, just like that, all of the accumulated wickedness of his life can be covered by the blood of Christ and he can be saved!

Neuhaus puts it nicely: “The first one home is a thief. Jesus is not very fastidious about the company he keeps.”[8]

Indeed He is not…and for that we may thank Almighty God!

It must be admitted, again, that from a human vantage point this is staggeringly unfair. Why does this guy and his life of crime get as much Paradise upon death as a man who dies without ever having been in jail? Why does a thief get to be with Jesus as much as your saintly Grandmother? Why does the one comes into the Kingdom at the end of the day get given just as much as the one who came at the beginning of the day? It reminds us, does it not, of the words of Jesus from Matthew 20.

1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”

Ah! This is what the Kingdom is like. Thieves and vagabonds and murderers and terrorists, if they cry out in true repentance and faith, even if it is in their last moment, will be as saved the saintly elderly woman who was on the cradle roll of the church eighty-five years ago and has never missed a morning worship service.

It is so unfair…it is so beautifully unfair. I say beautifully unfair because “fairness” is not really a standard we want. Want to know why? Here is the secret: because we are all thieves and vagabonds and murderers and terrorists, and “fair” does not result in the you getting a little more than the dying thief, “fair” results in Jesus coming off the cross and you and me and the dying thief all being cast into hell.


I do not want fair. You do not either. That will not work out for any of us. I want mercy. And here is the thing about mercy: it is, by definition, for the undeserving, and it does not count the measure of the degree of “undeservingness.”

The Kingdom of God is therefore not like an account who scrupulously goes over the books, it is like an accountant who finds a massive debt, pays the debt out of his own pocket, then throws a massive party for all his clients in which they all are invited: those who owed a lot and those who owe a little. The thief is invited to the party just like the saint, and only a fool stands in the middle of a party watching the door with a scowl on his face.

The penitent thief gives hope to penitent thieves like us. The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy once compared himself to the thief on the cross. I leave you with his words and with an invitation to come to Jesus with just the same audacious hope and plea with which the penitent thief came. Here is what Tolstoy said:

            The thief on the cross believe in Christ, and was saved…Like the thief on the cross, I believed in the doctrine of Christ, and was saved. This is not a vain comparison, but a most accurate expression of my spiritual condition of horror and despair in the presence of life and death, in which I found myself formerly, and of that condition of happiness and peace in which I find myself now.

            Like the thief, I knew that my past and present life was vile; I saw that the majority of men about me lived the same way. I knew, like the thief, that I was wretched and suffering, that all those about me suffered and were wretched; and I saw before me no escape from this condition but in death. As the thief was nailed to his cross, so was I nailed to this life of suffering and evil by an incomprehensible power. And as the thief saw before him, after the senseless and evil sufferings of life, the horrible shadows of death, so did I behold the same prospect.

            In all this I was absolutely like the thief. But there was a difference in our conditions; he was about to die, and I was still alive. The thief might believe that his salvation would be beyond the grave, while I had not only that before me, but also life this side of the grave. I understood nothing of this life, it seemed to me frightful; and then suddenly I heard the words of Christ, and understood them; life and death ceased to seem evil, and instead of despair I tasted the joy and happiness that death could not take away.[9]

[1] William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke. The Daily Study Bible (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1970), p.299.

[2] Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon. (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000), p.36.

[3] Darrell L. Bock, Luke. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Vol. 3 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), p.375.


[5] Larry J. Waters, “The Believer’s Intermediate State After Death.” Bibliotheca Sacra. 169 (July-September 2012), p.295, 295n.51.

[6] James Leo Garrett, Jr., Systematic Theology. Second Edition. Vol. 2 (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), p.739.

[7] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology. Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), p.1189.

[8] Richard John Neuhaus, p.35.

[9] Leo Tolstoy, The Complete Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi (New York, NY: The Kelmscott Society Publishers, 1899), p.77-78.

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