This is a verse that is well known and famous, but it’s almost as equally well known that the text is actually a mistaken translation. The standard version goes:

Luke 23:42-43
And he [the thief] said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” {43} And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

This is sometime refered to as a ‘comma problem’, because in English whether the comma comes before or after “today” affects the reading. But in the original Greek it is actually an ‘adverb problem’, since the Greek adverb “today” is uninflected and could refer to “say today” or to “be today”. In fact, it is more likely from context that Luke 23:43 should read as follows:

And he said unto him – Verily, I say unto thee this day: With me, shalt thou be in Paradise. (Rotherham’s Emphasized Bible)

 

Context – where did Jesus go that day?

The problem with the traditional English punctuation of v43 is that Jesus did not go to paradise the day he died. Rather, he went to the grave for three days, as Jesus said himself in Matthew 12:40:

For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:40)

If the thief was going to be with Jesus on that very day, then that would make paradise = the grave, which certainly isn’t true (Luke 13:29 ≠ Ps. 6:5; 30:9). Also, even after Jesus was raised from the dead he said:

John 20:17
…I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”

Jesus didn’t ascend to heaven on the day he died; he didn’t even ascend to heaven as soon as he was raised from the dead: he probably didn’t ascend to heaven until forty days after he was raised (Acts 1:3,9-11).

So, Jesus didn’t tell the thief that he would be with him in paradise on the day that both of them died.

 

What is paradise?

The Greek word paradeisos used by the thief has a particular meaning in Jewish texts. It is the word for the garden of Eden. The Greek Old Testament begins with God planting a “paradise” in Eden (Genesis 2:8, LXX, Greek Old Testament). “You were in Eden, the paradise of God” (Ezekiel 28:13, LXX).

This is reflected in Revelation 2:7 where the promise to those who overcome to eat of the “tree of life” in the “paradise of God”, is exactly parallel to the “paradise” of Eden in Genesis 2:8, and the kingdom request of the thief.

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. (Revelation 2:7)

 

What does Luke 23:42-43 mean?

As we’ve seen above, v43 the reference of the adverb ‘today’ can be to either ‘say’ or ‘be’. Therefore in English the text can be punctuated in a different way, and in English this simple re-punctuation sorts the problem out.  There was no punctuation in the Greek to aid us. (Greek rarely used punctuation, nor different case letters, nor even spaces; see the Codex Sinaiticus, for example), so if a translator, like Rotherham, judges that ‘today’ belongs with ‘say’ not ‘be’, then he can legitimately in English re-punctuate Luke 23:43 as ‘I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise’.

What is going on in the dialogue is this. The time adverb of ‘remember me when’ in the thief’s request is replaced by the time adverb of ‘tell you today’ in Jesus’ answer:

THIEF : Lord, remember me when you come in your kingdom

JESUS : I tell you today, you will be with me in the garden

 

 

‘I tell you today’ sentences in Hebrew

This type of sentence — ‘I say to you today, …’ — is used in at other times, for emphasis, e.g.:

Deut. 6:6
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.

Acts 20:26
Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you

In Luke 23:42 the thief asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. But Jesus gives him more assurance than that: in v43 Jesus promises the thief on that very day when Jesus comes into his kingdom he (i.e., the thief) will be in paradise with Jesus. Jesus’ words are emphatic (like the passages above use ‘today’ to stress the point they are making). This puts the emphasis on Jesus’ immediate promise this day that the thief would be in paradise with Jesus, but it does not say when this would happen.

 

When will paradise be restored?

So, the thief is guaranteed a place in paradise, in the kingdom, with Jesus. But when will this promise be fulfilled? When will Jesus ‘come into [his] kingdom’? In the passage referred to above — Acts 1 — the disciples ask Jesus the same question:

Acts 1:6
…they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Jesus’ reply was (v7):

…“It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.

And then, after he had ascended to heaven, the angels said (v11):

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Taking this all together, we see that Jesus’ kingdom wasn’t established during his first coming, but that it will be sometime in the future, at his second coming. This, when Jesus comes into his kingdom, is when the thief will be with him in paradise. When Jesus returns he will turn the world into a paradise (Isa. 35:1-2ff; 51:3; Ezek. 36:35; Rev. 2:7; 22:12).

 

Conclusion : The thief sleeps

As we’ve seen from the context above thief is dead. He isn’t in paradise, and he isn’t in heaven; he’s where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all the other holy men and women of the Bible are; he’s dead, in the dust of the earth (Gen. 3:19; Job 34:14-15; Ps. 90:3; 104:29); but like them he will be raised to life again when Jesus returns.

John 5:28-29
Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.

1 Thess. 4:13-16
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.  For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.

This conclusion shouldn’t really be surprising. I Corinthians 15 is very clear about the order of the resurrection. And Jesus’ reply to the thief is not an outlier, it is consistent with all other Bible teaching on death and life.

22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. (1 Corinthians 15:22-24)

 

 

 

Footnotes

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See also: Rev. E. W. Bullinger, A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament 4th edn (London: Longmans, Green & Co.,  1895), p. 811:

“And Jesus said to him, Verily, to thee I say this day, with Me shalt thou be in the Paradise.” The words to-day being made solemn and emphatic. Thus instead of a rememberance, when He shall come in (ἐν, ver. 22) His kingdom, He promises a presence then in association (μετά) with Himself. And this promise He makes on that very day when He was dying…we also place this passage in harmony with numberless passages in the O.T., such as “Verily I say unto you, this day,” etc.; “I testify unto you this day,” etc. Deut. vi. 6; vii. 11; viii. 1; x. 13; vi. 8, 13, 28; xiii. 18; xix. 9; xxvi. 4; xxxi. 2, etc., where the Septuagint corresponds to Luke xxiii. 43.

Further reading:

The Thief on the Cross

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