Stealing into heaven

The second set of the seven last words of Jesus were addressed to one of the men being crucified with Him, the man commonly referred to as “the good thief.” Let’s take a look at Jesus’ response to that man and dive deeper into the possibilities of what prompted it.

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

Luke 23:43

Merriam-Webster defines amen as an interjection that is “used to express solemn ratification.” When Jesus uses it, it’s like putting the whole phrase on a billboard of flashing lights with lots of exclamation marks. It calls our attention in a big way and makes us take careful notice of what is being said. This is not just for the person being addressed, but rather for all of us.

“I say to you…” is very simple phrasing, but carries a great weight to it. The “I” in this case is really the great “I AM,”  the one who is the cause of all life. The word “say” is very humble and perhaps a more illustrative word to use is “declare.” Jesus makes it very clear that what comes next is absolute for this man, beyond any shadow of doubt. 

In this physical realm that is measured in time and space, having a delineation of time, the word “today,” indicates the immediacy of the action that’s about to take place. Jesus assures the man that He will be joining him in the most perfect state of bliss there is: the paradise that is heaven. This thief seems to be stealing one more thing, bypassing any purging and going directly into communion with God. 

For those still on earth, this can seem an outrage, after all this man even admitted to his crimes. Surely he must be punished! (As if being crucified was not punishment enough?) If we look at the preceding verses, 39-42, the man does three things that most people spend their whole lives trying to do. First, he acknowledges Jesus as God, but not in a statement of belief but in correction to the other man who is also being crucified with him. His chastisement is a teaching moment for all of us, that even in difficult situations, we can and should speak up for the Truth. Secondly, the man admits that the crucifixion is just punishment for the crimes he committed; he is indeed taking responsibility for the sins he committed. Lastly, he petitions Jesus, not for forgiveness or to go to Heaven, but humbly asks just to be remembered. Perhaps he is struggling to forgive himself for the actions that have put him on the cross. Since he believes in God, I don’t think he would doubt God’s ability to forgive, but rather seeks a lesser blessing. He is, before all the world, changing from a thief into a saint. 

Jesus’ powerful response reminds us all of what a life spent seeking a relationship with God is all about. It illustrates that while we have breath within us, it is never too late to turn back to God, acknowledge our sins, and pray. While the man still had to deal with the trauma of such a painful death, knowing that upon its cessation he would be welcomed into heaven must have restored his hope and eased his mind. Even in His final moments, Jesus brings healing and comfort to those who acknowledge Him. 

In this time of Lent, let us look at the example of this “good thief” and see where we need to humbly repent of our sins, turn back to God, and spend time in prayer — both for ourselves as well as for others. 

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