Today I’d like to paint a broad picture around this second word of Jesus from the cross. Some of what I say is speculation because we simply don’t know enough detail from the gospel stories. Some is a reasonable guess based on what we do know. I want you to try to picture the larger event as the context of Jesus’ words.
What Did the Thieves See and Hear?
Luke tells us  that the thieves were led away with Jesus to be put to death. Tourists to Jerusalem will often traverse the Via Dolorosa which is supposedly one of the possible routes taken by Jesus to the cross. Whether or not that was the actual route, it appears the thieves were there too. As such, they would have at least taken in something of what they saw and heard.
Picture this walk happening in an English village: most people would be standing in orderly rows to watch, some would be sitting in their deck chairs with an umbrella and cup of tea, and you might get the occasional “Jolly poor show old chap.” The contrast to that scene would have been huge. I’ve not personally experienced a milling crowd in the Middle East, but I’ve seen them on TV and they sure don’t hold anything back. It would have been a completely chaotic scene. A lot of people were following and crowding around , while the women followers of Jesus were beating their breasts and wailing . It would have been an indecipherable hubbub of noise.
The noise was added to once they were on their crosses. Here’s how I picture it. Luke says the people stood by watching . We shouldn’t think of them as being quiet while they stood there, but I do picture them as standing back a bit from what was happening. Meanwhile, I picture waves of people entering the circus ring near the cross and firing off their verbal attacks and accusations:
- The passers-by reminded Jesus he’d said he would destroy the temple and build it again in 3 days. You claim to be God’s son and you reckon you can do that with the temple, so get down off the cross and save yourself [Mt 27:40; Mk 15:29].
- Meanwhile the religious leaders, taking offence at the sign Pilate had placed above Jesus’ head—The King of the Jews—taunted him to also save himself. If you’re the Son of God and the Messiah, King, come down off the cross so that we can believe in you [Mt 27:42-43; Lk 23:35; Mk 15:31-32].
- Not to be outdone, the Roman soldiers also got in on the act. If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself [Lk 23:37]. They were also offended by the sign but for a different reason: You reckon you’re a king? This is what happens to so-called kings living under Caesar’s rule and authority.
- Finally, we have the thieves who a couple of the gospels record as both hurling insults at him, one of them taunting him to save both them and himself if he really was the Messiah [Lk 23:39]. It’s a little bit strange that they were having a go at Jesus because he didn’t have anything to do with putting them up there.
So it’s as though there was a cacophony of noise and words coming from every direction, almost as though people were in a frenzy in an effort to offload their derision and taunts.
Over time—we don’t know how long—something changed. Nothing changed for one of the thieves; presumably he kept up the anger and insults until he no longer could. But the other one seemed to undergo an about face. Instead of continuing his insults to Jesus he turned his attention to the other thief [40-41]. “Listen mate. All three of us are about to die, and that means we’re going to come face to face with God himself. Doesn’t that bother you at all? We’re only getting what was coming to us because of what we’ve done; but this bloke in the middle hasn’t done anything wrong.”
We can only guess at what happened for him. Even though the pain would have been horrific, it would appear he did some reflection on what he was seeing and hearing.
- Maybe he was paying attention to Jesus and how he was handling it.
- He could possibly have heard his words of forgiveness.
- Did he take note of how the women were responding and that triggered something in him?
- Was it simply Jesus’ demeanour?
- Maybe he did know something of Jesus prior to all these events.
These aren’t unreasonable speculations, but the fact is that we simply don’t know what brought about the change in him. But what is clear is that something happened.
We have no idea what crime the man had committed to get him crucified, but he acknowledged his guilt. Unlike the other thief, he didn’t ask Jesus to prove he was Messiah by getting him off the cross. He simply asked that Jesus would remember him when he came into his kingdom. That’s a faith statement because it carries the explicit implication that he knew Jesus really was the Messiah and was able to bring him into eternal life.
In the response of the two thieves we see a graphicly stark picture of humanity: two men, both in the same situation, reacting in ways that couldn’t stand in starker contrast. One of the thieves turned his life around literally at the last minute; as far as we know the other one went to his grave still cursing God. That is the two poles of response to the gospel; some will embrace it while others will be angry towards it and reject it, even in the face of death. We shouldn’t be surprised when that happens.
Today you will be with me in paradise.
Finally we get to Jesus’ word! The thief’s expression of faith was warranted. Even in the clutches of the cross here was a word of hope for the thief – although there was only one way he was going to be in paradise (although that was inevitable anyway)!
What did he mean by paradise? I often took that saying as meaning the thief would be with Jesus in heaven and with eternal life. However, the Jews understood paradise as the state in between death and the resurrection, because resurrection in their understanding was something that would happen at the end of the age when all the faithful would be resurrected to a restored creation.
In the scripture paradise was associated with the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life and we should see that behind Jesus’ promise to the thief. Humanity was in the garden in the beginning, and had fellowship with God and full access to the Tree of Life. God walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day. With the advent of sin Adam and Eve were barred from the garden and all its delights, including the Tree of Life. In fact, God placed cherubim with flaming swords at the entrance to the garden to guard the way to the tree of life (Gen 3:24). Now the way was opened back to the garden and the Tree. Fellowship was to be restored—through and with Jesus. That is Paradise. Paradise is to be where Christ is; to walk again with Him in the garden; to be in fellowship with Him and the Father.
Paradise and the tree of life are again mentioned in Revelation.
Revelation 2:7 (NRSV) 7 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.
The tree of life also features in the new Jerusalem:
Revelation 22:2 (NRSV) 2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
The Greek language has two main words for tree. One is dendron, which refers to trees as we know them. The other is zulon, which obliquely references trees, but more means wood or timber. We picture the tree of life in the new Jerusalem as being a normal type tree because it produces fruit of all kinds, but it’s actually the second use of the word. The tree of Life in paradise is a lump of wood, the life-giving cross of Jesus. The Tree/Cross gives life to all who eat the fruit which it constantly bears i.e. as we, like the thief, come in repentance and faith and continue in faith in the work of the Cross.
This is part of the power of the Cross - to salvation; eternal life. For all those who come in faith, Jesus says, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’