23:39-43 Only Luke records in detail Jesus’ interaction with the two criminals crucified with Him. Both Matthew and Mark state that both criminals reviled Jesus (Matt 27:44). The general consensus by commentators is that one of those criminals later repented. Luke would be particularly prone to not overlook the repentant criminal’s request, for the act of repentance is important to Luke’s theme and relates all the way back to the ministry of John the Baptist (Luke 3:3).
“Was hurling” is in the imperfect tense, indicating that the one criminal kept on insisting Jesus save them. The word “hurling abuse” is a strong word which the KJV translates “railing.” The word is blasphemeo from which we get the word “blaspheme.” In other words, the criminal was effectively criticizing and rebuking Jesus in an angry manner. Note, too, that his interest is really not in Jesus, but in himself: “Save Yourself and us!” What is interesting in this rebuke is the criminal is actually assuming that Jesus is indeed the Messiah: “Are You not the Christ?” There is no reason to believe that this criminal thought otherwise, making his rebuke all the more serious and poignant. The point is that factually believing that Jesus is the Christ alone is not sufficient to find salvation. One must not only believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that He can save us, but that we are willing to submit to Him as Lord of our lives. In short, putting one’s faith and trust in Jesus.
After the ongoing insistence by the first criminal, nothing has changed. Jesus remains on the cross. The fate of all of three of them is sealed. The second criminal apparently comes to his senses (like the prodigal son) and realizes that death is inevitable, and that Jesus is going to die just like the rest of them. He first turns on his fellow criminal and rebukes him (epitimao, to rebuke or reprove). His rebuke is poignant as well: “Do you not even fear God…?” The implication is that this second criminal also realizes that Jesus is the Messiah. He rebukes the first criminal because, if he really believes that Jesus is the Messiah, then to revile Him is to revile God Himself. He is thus adding to his sins by committing blasphemy and, as he is already justly sentenced to death, now is not a good time to be committing blasphemy. (“Sentence of condemnation” refers to a legal judgment [krima] issued by a court.)
That the second criminal is repentant comes out in verse 41: “We indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds….” The essence of repentance is acknowledging our sin, not only against God, but against others. We do not know exactly what sins these criminals had committed, but they must have been serious enough to warrant crucifixion, and if the Romans considered them criminals for violating Roman law, then one can assume that they had broken many of the Ten Commandments. The second criminal’s acknowledge of his sin is the essence of repentance. It is the act of taking an honest look at oneself, at one’s actions, behaviors and relationships, and comparing them to God’s standards. Just like this second criminal, we find that we cannot measure up. Therefore, as the apostle Paul states, “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). By acknowledging “we are receiving what we deserve,” he is confessing what every sinner on earth should confess—we deserve to die for our sins. He then acknowledges the contrast: the criminals are getting what they deserve, but Jesus is getting what He does not deserve. In summary, verse 41 could read, “We’re getting what we deserve, but He doesn’t deserve what He is getting.”
Verse 42 could be called “the sinner’s prayer.” Having acknowledged his sin, that he deserves to suffer and die, and that he has little time left on this earth, he calls for mercy. That the text reads, “he was saying” indicates that he may have repeated the request a number of times. The first criminal has demanded that Jesus get them down off the cross. That didn’t happen, so the second criminal realizes it is a futile request, and that they are all going to die. In desperation, therefore, and perhaps as a last gasp of hope, he turns to the only option he has left: to request to be included in the kingdom of God. All the elements for being saved are now complete: he acknowledged that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; he acknowledges that he is a sinner and worthy of his judgment; finally, he turns to Jesus for the only escape, which is life after death in the kingdom of God. What exactly the criminal was thinking when he requested “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom” is not known. However, what we do know is that he acknowledges that Jesus is the Messiah who will eventually establish His kingdom on earth. There is such irony here! Jesus’ disciples have abandoned Him. Their assumption that Jesus would establish His earthly kingdom is over. Their hopes have been dashed and they are wandering around in confusion and disillusionment, disappointed, discouraged and distraught. They have been unwilling to suffer with Him, and therefore have lost hope in His kingdom to come. But the criminal, who is suffering with Jesus, believes His kingdom is real and is yet to be manifested! Jesus will not let this criminal die without hope: “Today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
There are a number of things that need to be said about verse 43. First, the word “Paradise” is used in only two other places in the New Testament. First, 2 Corinthians 12:4, where Paul describes his journey to “the third heaven” which he describes as Paradise. (It is also found in Rev. 2:7, reading “I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.”) In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament), the word Paradise (paradeiso) is used to describe the Garden of Eden, and originally meant “an enclosed park” and “pleasure-ground.” In Jewish theology, it was the equivalent of “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22). But the key phrase here is not “in Paradise,” but “you shall be with Me.” The clear implication is that to be with Jesus is to be in Paradise. Therefore, Paradise is not just a place, it is a state of being with Jesus, close beside Him forever. It is the essence of what the apostle Paul refers to as being “in Christ” (Eph. 1:3) and “with Christ” (Eph. 2:5).
The second observation on verse 43 has to do with interpretation. Seventh-day Adventists, because of their doctrine of “soul sleep” (i.e., after death the soul of the believer does not immediately go to heaven, but “sleeps” until Christ’s return), place a comma after “today” instead of “you,” therefore rendering the verse, “I say to you today, you shall be with Me in Paradise.” Not only is this incredulous phrasing, but it is inconsistent with the rest of New Testament teaching regarding eternal life after death. Their phrasing is an excellent example of what is called “eisogesis”; that is, interpreting a verse according to one’s theology, rather than forming theology by properly interpreting Scripture through “exegesis.” Simply put, it is making the Scripture fit the theology rather than the other way around, as it should be in the literal-historical method of exegetical hermeneutics.
O! The evangelistic messages that can be preached on these few verses! By including Jesus’ entire encounter with the criminals while on the cross, Luke is, in effect, evangelizing. His point: anyone, at any time, can turn to Jesus for salvation. No matter the sin, no matter the guilt, no matter the punishment deserved, anyone can find eternal life through Jesus. Even while suffering on the cross, Jesus forgave the man of his sins and granted him the promise of eternal life. Whereas the first criminal died without hope, the repentant criminal died full of hope, and at this very moment in time—over 2,000 years later—still abides “with Christ” in Paradise, and will remain “in Christ” for all eternity.