How could Jesus promise Paradise “today” to the thief on the cross if he didn’t go directly there himself?

Q. If Jesus went right after his death to preach the good news to the “spirits in prison,” as 1 Peter describes, how could he tell the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise”?

We should indeed consider whether there is a discrepancy in chronology between Luke’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion and what Peter says Jesus did after he died on the cross.

Luke records how Jesus was crucified “along with two criminals—one on his right, the other on his left.” One of them began to mock him, saying, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other one said he should keep quiet. “We’re being punished justly,” he insisted, “we’re getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then this second criminal, often known as the “thief on the cross,” said to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

We know that all three men died that same day, because, as John explains in his gospel: “It was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus, they found that he was already dead, so they did not break his legs.”

So the plain meaning of Jesus’ statement to the criminal who defended him was that the two of them would be together in Paradise that same day after their deaths.

Peter, however, writes in his first epistle that “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.” This statement and some similar ones in the Bible have led to the doctrine of the “harrowing of hell,” that is, the idea that after his death, Jesus journeyed to hell, triumphed over it, and released its captives. (I affirm this doctrine in my post on this blog entitled, “What did Jesus do for three days after he descended into hell?“)

We should note, however, that it was actually not three days, as we would reckon that time period ourselves, between when Jesus died on the cross and when he rose from the dead. In the Hebrew idiom, today is the first today, tomorrow is the second day, and the day after tomorrow is the third day. The gospels record that Jesus warned his disciples in advance, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men; they will kill him, but on the third day he will be raised to life.” What he meant by that Hebrew expression was that he’d be killed and then after one full intervening day he would rise from the dead.

Sure enough, Jesus died on a Friday afternoon and rose on a Sunday morning. Even though we often speak of him being in the grave for “three days,” he was actually there for less than two days. Now the Bible also describes him leading the souls rescued from hell into heaven during that time. In Ephesians, Paul quotes from Psalm 68 and applies its words to Jesus: “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives.” Paul then asks, “In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the depths of the earth?” So the understanding is that at some point after his death, but before his resurrection, Jesus led these rescued souls into heaven.

If we were going to assign an earthly time to an event that admittedly takes place outside of time, we would have to say that Jesus did this sometime between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning, since he didn’t have these people with him when he reappeared to his disciples. And if we wanted to coordinate this account with the conversation Jesus had with the thief on the cross, we would have to conclude that this thief must have been among the ransomed souls Jesus led into heaven after his crucifixion. If we wanted to be very particular about it, we would insist that this must have happened on Friday, since Jesus promised the thief, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” (It does feel strange, however, to try to assign earthly times to events in heaven and hell.)

This may be the most we can say in response to this question. But let me  leave you with one last thought. Jesus seems to have led both the criminal who defended him on the cross and large numbers of people who perished “in the days of Noah” up into heaven after his own death. He would no doubt have stayed there with them long enough to ensure their acceptance and welcome. (In that sense, the thief was indeed “with him in Paradise.”) But Jesus then returned to earth for forty days so that he could teach and instruct his disciples, to prepare them for their work of spreading the good news about him all around the world. This question about the thief on the cross, in other words, reveals that Jesus left heaven and came to earth for us not once but twice, first in his incarnation as a baby, and then again after his crucifixion in a resurrected body. We can only imagine that after dying on the cross, where he suffered so greatly, Jesus was ready to leave this world and never see it again. But instead, he returned to the very scene of his suffering, for the sake of those he had died for. As the old hymn says, “Hallelujah! What a Savior.”

Where did Jesus go in his body after he was resurrected?

Q. If Jesus was resurrected, then where did he later go with flesh and blood?

I understand this question the way I’ve indicated in the title of this post: Where did Jesus go in his body after he was resurrected? According to Luke at the beginning of the book of Acts, “After his suffering [that is, his death], Jesus presented himself to the apostles he had chosen and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” So Jesus didn’t go very far at first; he stayed in Jerusalem and appeared to his followers, teaching and instructing them for forty days. It’s not too hard for us to imagine him doing this in a resurrected body, though his sudden appearances and disappearances, which the Bible also describes, certainly are unusual.

After that, however, as Luke then records, “He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” Two angels appeared to the apostles and explained to them that Jesus had been taken up “into heaven.” Now we might wonder a bit more—can someone who is “flesh and blood” really go right into heaven?

At this point we need to bring in the discussion of the resurrection that Paul offers in 1 Corinthians. There he explains, in answer to a question very similar to yours, “Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.”

It’s hard to understand exactly what a “spiritual body” is; we think of bodies as physical and material, not  spiritual. But whatever it is, a person’s resurrected spiritual body is different in significant ways, as Paul explains, from the physical body they have when die. Nevertheless, even though it is characterized by glory, power, and imperishability, the spiritual body is still a body. A resurrected person is not a disembodied spirit.

So, to offer a simple answer to your question, after Jesus was resurrected, he first went around Jerusalem teaching and encouraging his disciples, and then he went up into heaven. To answer what might be the question behind your question, he was able to do this because his resurrected body was not exactly flesh and blood. It was a “spiritual body” that was different enough that he could enter heaven in it.

A 15th-century Russian icon of the ascension of Jesus.

Does “disqualified regarding the faith” mean “unable to be saved”?

Q. I was reading Paul’s description in 2 Timothy of what people will be like “in the last days” and I found it very interesting. In my opinion, it is a perfect description of narcissistic personality disorder. That is rather complex, but the basics are that a person with this disorder is incapable of feeling empathy or thinking they have done something wrong and therefore changing. I’ve gone back and forth on whether it’s possible for them to be saved. (I know only God knows this.) The well-known passage in Romans never says we must repent in order to be saved, it says “believe in your heart and confess with your mouth.” But the 2 Timothy passage describes these people as “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” and it calls them “men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith.” What does “disqualified regarding the faith” mean?

To answer your specific question about the text, the word Paul uses, which the ESV translates as “disqualified,” is adokimos. That’s the negative of dokimos, a term that means “having been put to the test and proved genuine.” Paul applies it, for example, to a man named Apelles in his greetings at the end of Romans; the ESV calls him “approved,” while the NIV says that his “fidelity to Christ has stood the test.” The term dokimos is used in half a dozen other places in the New Testament and the ESV translates it as “approved,” “genuine,” or “stood/met the test.”

I think the most important thing to recognize is that Paul has just told Timothy, in the passage in 2 Timothy right before the one you were reading, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” The ESV has a footnote there explaining that “approved” (dokimos) means “one approved after being tested.” Paul’s use of adokimos in the next passage is a deliberate contrast. His description is actually of false teachers, who are “always learning” but “never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.”

So when Paul calls them adokimos, he means that their teaching has been tested—measured against the truth, which they oppose—and disapproved, so it should be rejected. These men have been “disqualified” in that sense: disqualified as teachers, since what they teach is false. Other translations say that their teaching is “counterfeit,” “worthless,” “to be rejected,” etc. Some older translations call them “reprobate,” but it’s important to realize that this word is being used in its former sense meaning “disapproved,” not in the technical theological sense of “predestined not to be saved.”

So Paul really isn’t saying anything about these men in terms of whether they can or cannot be saved. He’s identifying them as false teachers whose teaching should be rejected. By contrast, he’s encouraging Timothy to strive to be an “approved” teacher who handles the word of truth rightly. (After talking about these “evil people and impostors,” Paul tells Timothy, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” You yourself are reading and reflecting on the “sacred writings” yourself, and if you continue in this practice, you will become more and more dokimos yourself.)

But now let me briefly address the application question you also raised, whether a person with narcissistic personality disorder can be saved. I have no formal training in psychology, so I cannot address that issue from an informed perspective in that regard. But I would say on Scriptural authority that “God is not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” I would therefore believe that the Holy Spirit would continually use any and all means to help a person recognize their need for Jesus to be their Savior. I’d like to think that even if a person had an exaggerated sense of their own achievements and importance, they still wouldn’t be without a conscience, and they might still recognize when they fall short of doing what they should, even if they characteristically have an unrealistically favorable interpretation of their own actions. But in the end, as you say, only God knows. What I do know is that God would do everything possible to help them be saved.

How is God the “Savior of all people”?

Q. Paul writes to Timothy, “We have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.” Universalists use this as a backing for all being saved. What does Paul mean when he refers to God as being the “Savior of all people,” and why does he add “especially of those who believe?”

I think what Paul means is that there isn’t any other Savior for people. His statement here is equivalent to what Peter tells the Sanhedrin when they want him to stop preaching in the name of Jesus: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” So different nations or cultures aren’t saved by different gods; the living God (that is, the only God who truly exists) is the one that all people must look to for salvation.

But this God is the “Savior” in a more specific sense of those who already believe in him and have found salvation. That’s why Paul adds, “especially of those who believe.”

 

Why would the Magi have wanted to worship the king of the Jews?

Q. Were the Magi Jewish? I’m thinking they must at least have been students of the Jewish Scriptures (in particular, Daniel and Micah). Otherwise, they wouldn’t have known or cared that a king of the Jews would have been born around that time. They certainly wouldn’t have cared about it enough to have made the trip to see him and had a desire to worship him. I can’t see how they could have derived all of this information from some kind of astrology.

You’re right that there was likely a Jewish influence on the Magi while they were still in “the east” (whether that means Babylon or Persia or somewhere in that area). Not all of the Jews who were taken to exile by the Babylonians returned under the Persians. For many centuries afterwards there was a flourishing Jewish community in Mesopotamia. For example, that’s where the so-called Babylonian Talmud originated in Late Antiquity (though the term “Babylon” was archaic by then). There were also distinct scribal and devotional practices that developed in this community that eventually had to be reconciled with the different ones that developed in Palestine. So the continuing Jewish community in Mesopotamia left us much evidence of its existence and activity.

Indeed, we may see the visit of the Magi as another such evidence. They were not Jews themselves; their name indicates that, at least initially and by profession, they were “magicians” and followers of Zoroastrianism. However, the term “magic” at the time included alchemy and astrology, the forerunners of chemistry and astronomy, so we should see these men as scholars of both religion and science. It’s not hard to imagine that they would have taken an interest in the religious thought and traditions of the Jews, who, like them, were monotheists. As you say, they would likely have read the Jewish Scriptures, and they could indeed have developed a Messianic expectation by reading the prophets.

We don’t know exactly what the “star” was that they saw “in the east” (i.e., while they were still in the east) or “when it rose.” (Either translation is acceptable.) A little later in Matthew’s account of their visit, after the Magi have stopped at Herod’s court and been directed to Bethlehem, there’s the puzzling statement that “the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” So this wasn’t just a star that appeared in the sky in a new position, or was first recognized there, with some astrological significance. This is some kind of active agent of divine guidance. But we aren’t able to say much more about it than that.

What we can say, however, is that Matthew has a great interest in these Magi as Gentiles who have come to worship the Messiah. In the episode just before this one, an angel tells Joseph that Mary “will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” But ironically, the very next thing that happens is that Babylonians or Persians come and worship Jesus, while “his people”—and specifically Herod, who considers himself the “king of the Jews”—try to kill Jesus, and he has to flee to Egypt. (Where, by the way, there was another longstanding Jewish community. So there are two allusions to the Diaspora, and thus to Jewish influence on the surrounding nations, in this one episode.) This is in keeping with one of Matthew’s large themes, the inclusion of the Gentiles in the community of the Messiah’s followers. For example: “Many will come from the east and the west and take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”

So the Magi were not Jews, but under Jewish influences they did come to expect the Messiah. And then they came to worship the Messiah.

Why did Jesus say it would “fulfill all righteousness” if he were baptized?

This question was originally asked in a comment on my post, “Why did John the Baptist later question whether Jesus was the Messiah?” I thought the discussion would make for an interesting post of its own.

Q. What was the real reason why Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist? “To fulfill all righteousness.” If unrighteousness is sin, then righteousness is no sin. John the Baptist twice called Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” The Old Testament tabernacle was a mirror image of how Jesus would save us. The high priest would lay his hands on a goat and transfer all the sins of Israel onto it, and then the goat was led into the desert. Now John the Baptist being in the line of Aaron and being the greatest person to have arisen before the coming of the kingdom, what if John the Baptist laid his hands on Jesus and transferred all the sins of the world onto him, and then Jesus was also led into the desert?

The goat did not become a sinner, it only carried the sins; likewise Jesus  carried the sins, but he did not become a sinner. Scripture says that Jesus “came by water and blood” and that “the Spirit, the water, and the blood” testify to who he is. So at Jesus’ water baptism, the Holy Spirit came upon him, and later he shed his blood when he died on the cross.

No death on the cross—no salvation. No resurrection—no salvation. Jesus without being baptized—righteousness not fulfilled—no Holy Spirit descending on Jesus. Does this mean that if Jesus had not been baptized by John the Baptist, there would have been no salvation?

I think you have an interesting idea here and I have reproduced your  comment at length in this post so that readers can consider it. However, I understand the meaning of Jesus’ statement about fulfilling all righteousness a bit differently.

When Jesus came to John the Baptist to be baptized, John asked, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” John agreed and baptized Jesus.

I think Jesus was saying, “You’re out here in the wilderness saying that God is breaking into our world to do a new thing and that anybody who wants to be part of it should be baptized to show how they want to join in what God is doing rather than follow sin. Well, I’m ‘all in’ with what God is doing, so I’m here to show that by being baptized.”

This doesn’t mean that Jesus had any sin that needed to be washed away. But our duty to God is not just negative (don’t sin), it’s also positive (obey God and take our part in what God is doing). I think Jesus was saying that even if he didn’t need to be baptized for the negative reasons (to wash away sin), he still wanted and needed to be baptized for the positive reasons.

In other words, Jesus would “fulfill all righteousness” by doing positively what God was asking people to do at that point in redemptive history. John agreed to let Jesus demonstrate his commitment to God’s purposes in that way. And in response, God revealed, through the voice from heaven and the descent of the Spirit, that Jesus was the Messiah (the Anointed One) through whom his purposes would be accomplished. This opened up for Jesus a whole series of positive duties to fulfill in obedience to God as he fulfilled his vocation as the Messiah.

David Zelenka, painting, “The Baptism of Christ,” used by permission, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Have the majority of Christians gotten it wrong that it doesn’t matter how they live?

Q. Just recently stumbled upon your blog, and I’m definitely enjoying reading through everything and even the comments. I was raised in the Christian faith but now, as a young adult, for the first time in my life I’m really taking my faith to the next level by asking ‘why’ I believe what it is I believe.

One of the things I’ve been wrestling with recently is the idea of being saved by grace. I know historically, the Christian faith has led people to believe that once they accept Jesus as the Son of God, believe He died on the cross and rose again, and we accept the gift of the Holy Spirit, we’re saved, no matter how we choose to live our lives. I know our faith will show by the fruit we bear, but I can’t help but wonder if the majority of Christians got it wrong.

So much of Scripture and the NT is that after Christ we’re a new creation. Paul wrote in Romans, for example, “Therefore, do we go on sinning so grace may abound? By no means! We’re dead to sin, why should we live in it longer?” But, despite texts like that, I see so many Christians claiming the label of Christianity but choosing to live a life contrary to their faith. Makes me wonder if they’ll be saved by grace alone or if their blatant disregard for structure and living the Christian life will set them apart from God in the end.

With that, and I could be misinterpreting the parable, but the Parable of the Talents: I view it as a parable of salvation. In the end, the master doesn’t let the servant who buries his talents into his house. That’s all the more reason I wonder if there’s more to just grace for salvation.

My structured thought is this:

1) It was grace that made God send His son to die on the cross for mankind.
2) We are saved, if we chose to accept his grace.
3) Like in the parable, if we live a life contrary to our faith, then will that restrict our entrance into heaven?

There’s other Scriptures as well, like in Matthew when Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven being a narrow road not many will take. Not sure if I’m taking that out of context, but regardless, I’d really appreciate any insight you might have on this topic.

First of all, welcome to the blog, thanks for your encouraging words, and good for you for “taking it to the next level” and inquiring diligently into why you believe what you believe. Those who are raised as Christians (myself included) begin with a second-hand faith: We believe things because people we trust (parents, pastors, teachers) believe them and have taught them to us. It’s crucial, however, for this to become a first-hand faith at some point. We need to understand and believe these things on our own, as a matter of direct experience with the Lord.

I see you pursuing that course and I encourage you to continue it until you have satisfactory answers to all of your questions and you feel well grounded in a first-hand faith of your own. I call this blog Good Question because I firmly believe that there’s no such thing as a bad question, as long as it’s asked in a sincere desire to know and understand. You’re asking good questions that will lead good places, so keep at it!

In terms of your specific question, I have earlier shared some reflections on this blog in response to two very similar questions, and I invite you to read and consider those posts:

Don’t Our Works Actually Matter to God?

Are We Saved Simply by Believing, or Are There Works We Need to Demonstrate?

As you will see, you’re not alone in being uncomfortable with the idea that “once we accept Jesus, . . . we’re saved no matter how we choose to live our lives.” This is a serious misunderstanding of the gospel that is apparently being communicated, whether intentionally or unintentionally, quite widely today, so it’s good to “call it out” and question it.

One source of the misunderstanding is likely the conception that we are saved from something, rather than that we are saved for something. If we’re asking whether we can get into heaven just by trusting Jesus no matter how we live afterwards, we’ve misunderstood the point of the gospel, which is that God has “rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.” So yes, we are saved from something, the dominion of darkness, but this is specifically done to save us for something—to allow us to participate in the ongoing work and expansion of God’s kingdom, which begins right here and now; it’s not just in heaven. If we are still doing the works of darkness, we’re not living out the life of the kingdom of the Son he loves. And that’s a problem that needs to be addressed now, not just as a matter of deathbed assurance.

I would actually disagree with the statement that “historically, the Christian faith has led people to believe that once they accept Jesus . . . we’re saved no matter how we choose to live our lives.” That’s actually a false teaching that Paul and the other New Testament writers go to great lengths to oppose.  In your question, you quoted some of Paul’s remarks in Romans about this; in fact much of that epistle, and of Galatians as well, is devoted to countering this idea that the implications of salvation by grace are that it doesn’t really matter how we live in this world. Much of what Paul writes to the Corinthians in his first letter to them is also designed to counter that idea.

John addresses this same misunderstanding in his first epistle. I’ve also written a post about his teaching on the matter, which I think will speak further to your concern:

Does anyone has been born of God really not sin?

I think you will be encouraged to see that the question I’m answering in that post comes from a person who’s wondering whether their life as a follower of Jesus is pure and holy enough for them to be confident that they have truly been born of God. Clearly not all Christians have become convinced that it doesn’t matter how we live after we accept Jesus!