I use to think that paradise sounded like a palm tree on a glistening white sand beach, the pristine aqua waters of the Caribbean lapping at my feet. Yet, the older I get, I find my idea of paradise looks quite different. It looks a lot like heaven!
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? 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, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Luke 23:39-43 – NIV
What was it like to watch the events of Jesus’ crucifixtion unfold, not from the vantage point of the crowd on the hilltop, but from the height of a similar cross beam? What thoughts were running through the minds of the two criminals who hung on the nearby crosses? Scripture doesn’t offer many specifics, but we can make a few assumptions based on the brief descriptions we find in the text.
We know that those condemned men were on eye level with Jesus. They certainly saw and heard it all: the jibes, the catcalls, the casting of lots, the sign placed above His head. They heard the cries of the crowd mixed with the sobs of the women. They watched as darkness eclipsed the sun, the light of day obliterated, just like their hope.
One of the criminals appeared angry and unrepentant. No doubt he blamed his accusers for his predicament, refusing to admit his poor decisions had put him there. Nails pierced his flesh, the weight of his body making it hard to breathe. He had come to the end of his road, beaten, battered, broken and bitter. Darkness consumed him, and he could see no way out.
The other criminal faced a similar fate. His poor choices had landed him there. He knew there was no escape for him now. What was it like to stare into the gates of Hell, to feel the flames of eternal damnation licking at your heels? The physical pain must have been excruciating, but the inner turmoil must have been even harder to bear. All hope was lost. He had reached the end of things.
But then came Jesus, battered and beaten, trudging up the hillside, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. When did the second criminal realize that this was no common execution? When did he realize that this was no ordinary man? What made him pay attention to the unfolding events? Was it the words he heard? Was it the sky growing black? What sight or sound opened his mind, or did he just sense the divinity in Jesus, just as so many others had done before him?
The first criminal witnessed the sane sights, heard the same sounds. He hung there a stone’s throw from Jesus, but he failed to recognize Him. His mind was closed, his thoughts turned inward, his emotions raging in a violent storm. He had the opportunity to turn toward Jesus, to embrace a hope that could save him, but He turned away. He turned his back on the grace being offered him, and he sealed his fate.
But the other criminal took a different path. He opened his mind, and then his heart. He saw Jesus for who He was, and is. He reached out and begged for mercy. He could have turned away too, but he turned toward Jesus instead. He chose to believe.
That choice sealed his fate. That choice landed him in paradise.
One Friday, one hilltop.
Three crosses, three men.
Two criminals, one innocent.
Two sinners, one Savior.
Purple robe, Crown of Thorns, the sign read, “King of the Jews.”
The crowd jeered, the soldiers sneered, the women shed bitter tears.
Two criminals, both mired in sin.
One hurled insults, one closed his mind.
The other had eyes to see, ears to hear, an open heart.
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today, you will be with me in paradise.”
The sky grew dark, the earth trembled, and it all came down to a choice.
The choice to believe.
Believe that Jesus is the Son of God.
Receive His gift of salvation.
Receive His promise of eternal life.
Centuries later, the choice remains.
Trust and believe, repent and receive.
The question is: “Will we have eyes to see, ears to hear, an open heart?”
Let it be so.
For then, when that day comes, for you and for me,
We will hear our Lord say, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
O Lord Jesus, You are our Savior, our Redeemer, the Christ. You endured the horror of our sin and shame to set us free once and for all. You took the punishment so we wouldn’t have to. You made a way through the wasteland of our iniquity. You wiped the slate clean with Your tears and Your blood. With nail-pierced hands, You opened the gates of heaven. Paradise is no longer lost to us, for Paradise is found in You. All hail the power of Jesus’ Name, now and forevermore!
In the Holy Name of Jesus, we give thanks and praise,