“Today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Absolute clarity and clear as crystal – the word of Jesus Christ, “You will be with me.” Jesus did not say to the thief on the cross, when he asked Jesus to remember him, “Well, we’ll have to wait and see,” or “Let’s see how you do,” or “We’ll have to put your name on the list and see if a spot opens up.”
This promise was given to the thief. Is it for us too? How can I know it is for me? It is hard to imagine a more important question than this. Sooner or later your last day on earth will come. You may not know it as the thief on the cross did, when he woke up in the cell that morning, he knew he would be dead by sundown.
He could say, “This is it. This is the day that I die.” For someone here that day may be this week, this month, or this year. For others it may be a long way off. But nothing is more certain than this: For each of us that day will come. One day you will wake up, and whether you realize it or not, it will be your last day. And what will happen to you then?
Jesus speaks to us about heaven. He came into the world so that people could go there. Please remember this. Jesus did not come into the world to keep people out of heaven. He came to open it so that people could get in! And nothing matters more than that you should get into heaven.
This matters more than your work, your business, or your money. Jesus said, “Be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).
Then our Lord told a story about a man who was all wrapped up in his work. We all know how easy it is to get wrapped up in our work. Business was booming. He was working on a plan for expansion: “I will tear down my barns and build larger ones” (12:18).
There’s nothing wrong with expanding your business, but this man said something very interesting: “I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods” (Luke 12:18).
This man is a planner. He is planning for the future. But God said this man was a fool because in preparing for the future he missed the biggest part. Every time you look at your savings – your 401K, your IRA, or whatever it is, ask yourself the question: “How well am I prepared for the future that lies beyond this?” That’s the thing that really matters!
You plan for a future that may last 10, 20, or 30 years after you retire. Maybe even a bit more. But then what? To plan and prepare for the few years you have in this world is good and wise, but to neglect the eternity that lies beyond this world would be the greatest folly.
One day you will leave this world and all that you have. You brought nothing into the world and you will take nothing out of it. The ultimate questions of life and of death are about you and God, and your eternal future. The question before us today is of the greatest importance and the greatest urgency: “How can I be sure of heaven?”
The story of the thief on the cross gives us the clearest and the simplest answer in all of the Bible to this question. So, I invite you to turn to Luke 23, where we find this story.
The story of the thief
Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. (Luke 23:32-33)
We are told that one of these thieves said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42). And Jesus said to him “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (23:43).
I want us to focus in on what a person needs to do to get into heaven. The story of the thief on the cross blows away the myth that people get into heaven by living a good enough life.
Clearly, the thief had not done that. He was a criminal.
The thief is described in Mark’s gospel as a robber, and the scale of his crime was such that he was sentenced to capital punishment. It may be that his thievery involved violence or even murder. We do not know.
Whatever the circumstances, this man had not lived a good life. And clearly, he was not in a position to start living a good life either! His hands were nailed to a wooden beam, he could not use them to serve others. And this man’s feet were fastened to a cross, he could not run out and do good works. It is too late for this man to turn over a new leaf. He is out of time! Yet Jesus says to this man: “Today you will be with me in Paradise!”
Well, if this man can get into heaven, it must be open to all of us. The question is: What did he do? And what can I do that will lead Jesus to say these wonderful words to me? To whom does Jesus say, “You will be with me in Paradise?
I want to put this in the simplest language possible. There is one answer, and I want to give it to you in three words: Turn. Ask. Trust.
We know that the thief was on the cross for at least six hours, and during that time, there was a remarkable change in his attitude towards Jesus.
Matthew and Mark tell us that at first both of the criminals hurled abuse at Jesus: “The robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way” (Mat. 27:44). “Those who were crucified with him also reviled him” (Mark 15:32).
So here are two criminals – one on either side of Jesus – and both of them are hurling abuse at him. But then as one continued, a change came over the other one. The Bible calls this turning ‘repentance.’ One writer says that repentance is “Turning with as much as you know of yourself, from as much as you know of your sin, to as much as you know of God.” 
This is a very helpful definition, because it reminds us that, for the Christian, repentance gets deeper over time. The more you learn about who God is, and who you are, and what sin is, the deeper repentance becomes. But every process has a beginning and the story of the thief shows us where this turning begins.
You begin to fear God
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?” (Luke 23:39-40)
He had been shouting out hateful abuse at Jesus. But then he sees that eternity is right on the horizon, and very soon he will be face-to-face with God. There is a great God in heaven who sees and knows all things. Before God all hearts are open. From God, no secrets are hidden, and one day we will all give an account to him.
We can reasonably assume that the thief was brought up Jewish. He already knew these things about God. If he had given any weight to them, he would never have become a thief. But he pushed the knowledge of God to the back of his mind, which is so easy for us to do.
And the further he got from God, the less his conscience bothered him. But now, on the brink of eternity, the fear of the Lord comes back to him, “There is a great God, and soon I will stand before him.” Turning begins when you start to give weight to God in your life.
You recognize Christ as King
The soldiers also mocked him… saying “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’ (Luke 23:36-38)
The theme of Jesus being the King runs right through this story. In verse 42, the thief says,
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And it is to the person who recognizes that Jesus is King that he says, “You will be with me in Paradise.”
How can I be sure of heaven? Turn! Fear God, and submit yourself to Christ the King! Let his way be the way for you. Let his truth be the truth for you and his life be the life for you.
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42)
“Jesus, you are the King, but you are going into death. So, clearly this kingdom is not going to be in this world. But beyond death, I believe that you are coming into a kingdom, and when you do, will you remember me?” The thief asked Jesus!
Asking means that you don’t pretend to be righteous
“We are receiving the due reward of our deeds.” (Luke 23:41)
The thief does not pretend that he is really a good person. He does not say, “Well, I have done some bad stuff in my life, and nobody’s perfect, but I have some things to commend me as well! I have done some good as well as the bad, so please remember what I’ve done when you come into your kingdom.”
This man asks Christ with honesty and with humility. He faces the fact that he is a sinner. He has sinned against God and against his fellow man. And we are like him. We have failed to do what God has called us to do and we have done what he has told us not to do.
The Bible makes it clear that every single person on the face of the planet is in the same position. That’s why Jesus was on the cross.
Asking means you don’t try to make a deal
We don’t like to ask; we prefer to do deals. This is how the world works. It’s much more comfortable when we can be in the position of saying, “Here’s something I can do for you; there’s something I’d like you to do for me.” If you are in sales or doing a business deal, and you are negotiating, you know that you lead with what you can do for the other person.
One thing you never want to do, if you’re a negotiator, is come to the table empty-handed. But that is exactly the position of the thief. He is empty-handed. What can he offer? All he can do is turn like a beggar to Jesus and ask. And that is what he does.
This is important because our first instinct is often to think in terms of a deal with God, “If I give you my life… If I pray… If I go to church… If I’m generous… If I pay a price for doing what is right… Then you will save me and get me into heaven, right?”
Here is what happens if you come to God that way: You go through life feeling that God owes you, and you will always struggle. You don’t have a deal, because the only covenant God signs is the one he writes himself. You will go through life with a deal that doesn’t really exist. God doesn’t really make deals.
I have heard people say, “I’ve made a deal with God.” I always wince when I hear that. Not only because it sounds so arrogant, but because a person who imagines that he has made a deal with God is counting on a deal that God has not signed.
Asking means that you come to Jesus empty-handed, knowing there is nothing you can offer to him as an inducement or claim. All you can do is ask, because you come to him with empty hands: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And to the person who comes that way and asks, Jesus says, “You will be with me in Paradise!”
In his asking, the thief puts himself and his future into the hands of Jesus, “It’s all down to you, Jesus.”
Suppose you have a serious heart condition and you need to have open heart surgery. So, you go to the cardiologist and ask him about the procedure. “First,” he says, “I am going to make you unconscious. Then,” he says, “I am going to take a scalpel and cut you open.” He goes on and explains the procedure. “Then” he says, “here are the papers for you to sign and give me your authorization to do this.”
People actually sign these papers! Why? Because the cardiologist will do something for these people that they cannot do for themselves. And if this radical surgery is not done, they have no other hope, “Do it… I’m trusting you.”
The thief trusts himself into the hands of Jesus. And Jesus gives him this promise: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). That is the promise of the Savior to the person who trusts him.
The thief was in exactly the same position as we are today. If you turn to Jesus and ask him to save you, what do you have? You have his word. You have his promise. You have both the word and the promise of the One in whom you have put your trust.
Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). You come to him, you ask of him, and you believe his promise. You take him at his word. To everyone who turns to Christ and asks of him, Jesus says, “You will be with me in Paradise!”
Remember what happened next for the thief? Luke records immediately after the thief trusted Jesus, “It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour” (Luke 23:44). Think about what that meant from the point of view of the thief.
Trusting in darkness
The thief had to trust the promise of Jesus, when he was surrounded by great darkness. Matthew and Mark record that in the darkness, the one he had just trusted was crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” What in the world did that mean?
If you turn to Jesus, ask him to save you, and trust him to do so, understand this: There will be times when you find yourself hanging onto his promise in great darkness. People who trust Jesus often live with great unanswered questions. Don’t be surprised when this happens to you. The promise of Jesus is as sure in the darkness as it is in the light.
Trusting in pain
Think about the agony the thief experienced after he trusted Jesus. The pain of crucifixion got worse by the hour, as wounds in his hands and feet widened, and as fever raged through his body. The thief experienced more pain after he trusted Jesus than he did before! So trusting Jesus is never a passport to a pain-free life. Not in this world.
Trusting in death
We are not told in the Bible about the moment when the thief died. All the attention is on the death of Jesus. But he had to trust Jesus in the moment of death, as all of us will have to do when that moment comes for us.
Some years ago, my wife Karen and I had the privilege of having Joseph Ton in our home in London. Joseph was a distinguished pastor and leader in the Romanian church, and I learned a great deal from him.
He told me about a visit he had made to a fellow pastor in Romania. The pastor was seriously ill, and did not have long left to live. Joseph was a man who liked to get to the point, and he said to this brother, “I have come to tell you how to die,” and then he said to him these words: “Forget about your Christian life.”
Forget about your Christian life. If you lie there in your bed thinking about your Christian life and what you have done for Jesus, it will not be long before you begin to see what you have not done for Jesus, and what you might have done for Jesus, and what you should have done for Jesus, and you will soon find yourself surrounded by doubt and fear.
Here is how to die: Forget about what you have done for Jesus and fix your eyes wholly on what Jesus has done for you. That’s how to die, and I will never forget him saying, “And Colin, the way to die is the way to live!”
Turn. Ask. Trust. That is what the thief did, and to the person who turns and asks and trusts, Jesus says, “You will be with me in Paradise.”
 J. I. Packer, Keep In Step With the Spirit, p. 87, Baker, 2005
© Colin S. Smith
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