The Two Criminals
Luke 23:38 says,
38 Now there was also an inscription above Him, “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.”
We commented on this earlier, showing how the inscription was written in four languages and how the Hebrew version was written with the acronym, YHVH. Luke mentions the inscription without comment. He then launches into an account of the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus, one on either side of Him.
Two Kinds of Sinners
Luke 23:39-41 says,
39 And one of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” 40 But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
Although this is the first we learn of these two criminals, it is apparent that they knew something about Jesus’ case. They knew enough to know that Jesus was innocent. Perhaps they had been tried and condemned the previous day and were brought out again at Jesus’ trial. If they had witnessed some of the proceedings of the trial, they would have known for themselves that Jesus was innocent. Perhaps the second one had heard Jesus teach during His ministry.
We know nothing of them, other than that their crimes were considered serious enough to warrant their crucifixion. We know that Pilate himself had sentenced them, since the Jews were not allowed to sentence anyone to death.
The two criminals represent the two main divisions of men on the earth: the repentant ones and the unrepentant ones. One of the men echoed the mockers who were using the name of Yeshua (“salvation”) as the proof test of His calling as Messiah. If He had been able to save Himself by coming down from the cross, then they supposedly would have believed in Him.
One would think that the unrepentant criminal would not join the mockers, for anyone in His position might have clung to a final hope that Jesus might actually save Himself and them. But this short account does not make this clear, nor do we know the tone in which the words were spoken. What is clear is that the repentant criminal rebuked the other and did not take it as a sincere request. His response suggests that the unrepentant criminal had lost all hope and that his request to be saved from the cross was spoken with sarcasm.
The repentant criminal, too, had lost hope of being released. Obviously, he did not expect Jesus to save Himself—or them—from the cross. In fact, Matt. 27:44 indicates that at first both criminals were unbelievers, for we read, “And the robbers also who had been crucified with Him were casting the same insult at Him.” In other words, both of them were unbelievers. But at some point one of them repented and his heart was changed, for he showed faith that Jesus was the Messiah. Did Jesus’ quotations of Scripture (such as Psalm 22) reveal to him a new truth that he had not known previously?
When Jesus quoted Psalm 22:7, “all who see me sneer at me,” this prophecy was fulfilled in Luke 23:35, which says, “even the rulers were sneering at Him.” Did the repentant thief understand this?
When Jesus quoted Psalm 22:16, saying, “dogs have surrounded me; a band of evildoers has encompassed me; they pierced my hands and my feet,” did this sinner receive divine revelation that this Scripture was being fulfilled that very day?
When Jesus quoted Psalm 22:18, “they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots,” did the thief connect this to the scene taking place at the foot of the cross, where the soldiers cast lots for His garment (Luke 23:34)?
Jesus also quoted Psalm 22:19-21, expressing faith that He would be delivered and saved.
19 But Thou, O Lord, be not far off; O Thou my help, hasten to my assistance. 20 Deliver my soul from the sword, my only life from the power of the dog. 21 Save me from the lion’s mouth; and from the horns of the wild oxen Thou dost answer me.
We know, of course, that in spite of the mocking “dogs,” Jesus would indeed be saved from death, but not until He had spent time in the grave. This was a prophecy of resurrection, not of deliverance from the cross. We do not know all the details of pained conversation that took place between the three on the cross. But it appears that the final turning point in the heart of the repentant sinner came as Jesus came to Psalm 22:27, 28,
27 All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will worship before Thee. 28 For the kingdom is the Lord’s, and He rules over the nations. 29 All the prosperous of the earth will eat and worship; all those who go down to the dust will bow before Him, even he who cannot keep his soul alive.
No man, including Jesus, could “keep his soul alive,” but all men could still have faith in the divine plan and God’s ability to establish His Kingdom on earth. Jesus’ confidence of His own resurrection and of the ultimate victory of His Kingdom appears to have inspired one of the criminals to repent by the time He finished quoting Psalm 22.
So Luke shows us the two kinds of sinners on earth. The first sinner (“criminal,” or lawbreaker) requested salvation without having faith, and in so doing he was no better off than the mockers at the scene. The second showed faith, and Jesus assured him that he would be rewarded accordingly.
Meet Me in Paradise
Luke 23:42, 43 continues,
42 And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!” 43 And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” [NASB]
The repentant sinner did not request immortality but entry into His Kingdom. Jesus responded that the sinner would be with Him in “Paradise.” Here Jesus equated the Kingdom with Paradise. John Lightfoot tells us that this was a common Jewish reference to the Garden of Eden. He quotes someone named Aruch, who says, “It is called paradise, under the signification of the garden of Eden, which is reserved for the just.” He says further that “this place is in the heavens, where the souls of the just are gathered together.”
Such was the concept of paradise in Jesus’ day. Paul himself mentions “paradise” in 2 Cor. 12:2-4, where he equates it to “the third heaven.” Is the Kingdom, then, in heaven? Yes, certainly, but heaven is coming to earth. The Kingdom is all of God’s domain, that is, all that God has created. Genesis 1:1 defines it as “the heavens and the earth.” Earth was once a paradise (Garden of Eden), but then it was lost through sin. In the end the earth will be restored fully.
Later church doctrine dreamed up an elaborate idea that “paradise” was one of two compartments in hell: Paradise was said to be for Old Testament believers, and the torture pit for the unbelievers. But such a view is the result of men’s imaginations, coupled with mistranslations and misconceptions.
First, men have thought that Jesus would meet this sinner in Paradise-hell that very day, based on the placement of a single comma. The KJV of Luke 23:43 reads, “Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise.” By putting the word “today” at the start of the sentence, they make it appear that the Jesus would meet the thief in paradise that very day. The NASB corrects the word order, but still places the comma after “today” rather than before it. This only perpetuates the problem, for it still conveys the idea that “today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
Jesus was actually saying, “Truly I say to you TODAY…” This was a Hebraism used often in the Old Testament when someone wanted to emphasize that this was a day to be remembered. For instance, in Gen. 4:14 Cain says, “Behold, Thou hast driven me this day from the face of the ground.”
Likewise, Moses says to Israel in Deut. 4:26, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today…” This was the Hebrew manner of speech. We do not normally speak this way in the English language, but this expression occurs 42 times in the Old Testament.
So Jesus was not telling that repentant criminal that he would be with Him that day in a compartment of hell. He was telling the man THAT DAY that he would be with Him in the Kingdom, which He called Paradise. The correct way to read Luke 23:43, as Dr. Bullinger explains in his notes on this verse, is:
43 And He said to him, “Truly I say to you today [or “this day”], you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
His notation reads:
43 I say unto thee, To day = “I say unto thee to day”. To day. Connect this with “I say”, to emphasize the solemnity of the occasion; not with “shalt thou be”. See the Hebraism in note on Deut. 4:26.
So we see that Jesus actually answered the criminal’s request. The criminal had asked to be with Him in His Kingdom. Jesus did not deflect the request by telling him that they would meet in a so-called compartment of hell. Paradise is the Kingdom, where they would be together, and Jesus gave him this promise “today,” the very day when, given their situation on the crosses, such an event seemed impossible.