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Why Did Jesus Tell the Thief 'Today You Will Be With Me in Paradise'?

Jesus' words to the thief on the cross, "today you will be with me in paradise," may be the most shocking thing he said on Good Friday. Can we really receive salvation at the very last minute? Here's what we know about the thief on the cross, and what Jesus' words meant.

Contributing Writer
Updated Nov 29, 2022
Why Did Jesus Tell the Thief 'Today You Will Be With Me in Paradise'?

What did Jesus mean when he said, “Today you will be with me in paradise”? Who was involved in the conversation, and what is paradise? Scripture tells of the trial, torture, and death of Jesus Christ on the cross. As Jesus spoke about paradise, He gave hope and promise to those who believed. 

When Did Jesus Say, 'Today You Will Be With Me in Paradise'?

When Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” he had reached the end of his earthly ministry. Jesus had been teaching and sharing the gospel with many people. Some believed while others did not believe Him.

As the Old Testament prophecies foretold, Jesus was arrested, put on trial, and sentenced to death. He was hung on the cross to die a horrendous death. The torture and anguish Jesus experienced before being nailed to the cross was more than we can imagine. His agony continued as His body endured horrific pain.

Jesus knew the plan of His Father was being fulfilled. Even as Jesus knew earthly death was coming, He looked to God for help. While walking in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked God to take away what was about to happen.

“Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39 NIV)

Jesus acknowledged that the plan of His Father was best. Jesus shared that the will of His Father was perfect.

As the trial commenced and Jesus’ fate unfolded, two other men were sentenced to death. The judgment was given, and Jesus and the two would be crucified. Crosses were erected. Jesus was made to carry His wooden cross to Golgotha, the “place of the skull.” During the slow walk to the designated spot, a man named Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus carry the cross.

Jesus and the two men were nailed to the crosses and waited to die. As the people gathered, weeping could be heard throughout the land. While some cried, others shouted for Jesus to save Himself. 

“He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.” (Matthew 27:42 NIV)

Even then, people were putting conditions on believing in God. If Jesus came down from the cross, they would believe. They were not living by faith, only by sight.

As one man spoke to Jesus and mocked Him, the other man believed Jesus was the Messiah and asked to be remembered by Him.

“One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:39-41 NIV)

The man spoke. “Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43 NIV)

Do We Know What the Other Man on the Cross Did?

Biblical scholars have speculated about the other two men on the crosses. Some sources list their names as Dismas and Gestas, though their names are not given in Scripture. The Gospel writers don’t record their specific crimes, calling them “criminals” (some translations use “thieves,” others “rebels” or “malefactors”). Since Romans generally reserved crucifixion for violent crimes, we can assume that the men weren’t just petty thieves.

One man was on the left and the other on the right. Jesus was placed on the middle cross. Traditionally, Dismas is known as the good thief who asked Jesus to remember him in paradise (Luke 23:43 NIV). Gestas is known as the man who didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah.

Although we don’t have the two criminals’ physical descriptions or family histories, and we may not know their real names, they play a vital role. Their actions show that the opportunity to change and repent can happen anytime, even moments before death.

What Word Does this Bible Story Use for 'Paradise'?

What was Jesus talking about when He said “paradise”? When we hear or read the word “paradise,” thoughts of beautiful landscapes, glorious weather, bountiful food, and clear running water may come to mind. No worries or pain. No anger or sadness. Joy filling everyone’s hearts, minds, and souls would be paradise. The word paradise often refers to Heaven, as it does when Jesus sends his message to the church in Ephesus.

“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 NIV)

Jesus told the man who believed Him that he would be with Him in paradise. We can trust that Jesus was referring to being with God in Heaven.

Did the Thief Receive Salvation from Jesus?

As Christians, we know there is an opportunity to acknowledge our sins, repent from those sins, and ask God for forgiveness. The two thieves on the cross each took a different path. One man chose to mock and ridicule and not believe Jesus. The other man chose to believe and have faith. The Bible doesn’t describe how this man came to believe. Did he have an earlier experience with Jesus that wasn’t recorded? Did the man who asked Jesus to remember Him silently confess and ask God to come into his life? Those details aren’t shared. However, this affirms that forgiveness is possible, whether the words are spoken aloud to a crowd or silently to God.

The believer on the cross had not seen Jesus rise from the dead. So, how did his belief form? Other people had not seen Jesus raised from the dead, yet they believed Jesus was the Messiah.

Without the life story of the criminal being recorded, how do we know his belief was real? Jesus knew, and that is what matters. The thief was ready to change his ways, even at the last moment. 

As Jesus was on the cross sweating blood, He continued to pray to His Father. Perhaps the example of Jesus was what filled the criminal with faith. 

“And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:44 NIV)

The thief was saved through repentance, not through work. Salvation is a personal decision. Through our choices, we may be able to lead others to a relationship with God.

When Jesus told the man that he would be with Him in paradise, Jesus accepted Him into God’s kingdom.

What Can We Learn from this Bible Story?

The Bible is filled with lessons and wisdom that give opportunities for learning and deepening our faith. This story reminds us that deciding to give our life to Christ is available at any moment. The door is open, and God awaits conversation and relationship with His children.

Acknowledge God, ask Him into your life, repent of sins, and thank the Father for His forgiveness. Even a thief on the cross could enter paradise because he believed.

Prayer for Those Who Are Seeking God

Father, thank You for loving us. Thank You for the opportunity to know You. Please forgive our sins. Please help those who do not believe. Guide us to show Your love to others so they may draw close to You. In the name of Your Son Jesus, Amen.

In His Name,

Melissa Henderson

Photo Credit:  ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/MichaWolf

Melissa HendersonAward-winning author Melissa Henderson writes inspirational messages sometimes laced with a bit of humor. With stories in books, magazines, devotionals, and more, Melissa hopes to encourage readers. 

Melissa is the author of Licky the Lizard and Grumpy the Gator. Her passions are helping in the community and church. Melissa is an Elder, Deacon, and Stephen Minister. 

Follow Melissa on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and at http://www.melissaghenderson.com

This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.

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