Not too long ago, I would have believed that I could find the simplest, most compact, message of the gospel through Jesus’ interaction with the brigand on the cross in Luke 23:42-43: And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in your kingdom!” And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in paradise.” This is it, the assurance of life after death. This is the revelation of the way to heaven. This is what the gospel is about...or so I thought I believed. The truth is, I was never personally motivated to follow Jesus because of a fear or a hope for the afterlife. I wanted to follow Jesus because I wanted to live life in the way God approves. I wanted then, and I still desire this today, to live life successfully, the way it is supposed to be lived. But for many of us, we have believed that the ultimate goal of life is arriving in heaven. We have believed that the reason Jesus came to earth is to show us the way out of this world and how to arrive safely in heaven. In the 1990s, we sang about this all the time in a popular worship chorus:
“You came from heaven to earth to show the way. From the earth to the cross, my debt to pay. From the cross to the grave, from the grave to the sky, Lord I lift your name on high.” Luke 23:42-43 seems to affirm this as the agenda for Jesus but it does not. The reason that I believed that this passage sums up a good deal of the message of the gospel is because that is what I thought before I ever read it. I have heard this message in hundreds of sermons before and I’d sung it in hundreds of choruses and hymns. But this is a classic case of seeing one tree and missing the forest. Up to this point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus has never spoken about “where we will spend eternity” or “where we will go when we die.” Jesus has never stopped and asked someone: “If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?” And Luke has never bothered to explain how we get to heaven. What Luke has talked about and what Jesus has claimed throughout Luke’s gospel, is the fact that the kingdom of God was breaking into the world. Please notice the reversal of direction. Jesus hasn’t come to show us the way out of this world and into a place called the kingdom of Heaven. Jesus has come to announce that the kingdom of Heaven is crashing into the world in which we live. This is a coming in, not a going out. The message to the brigand on the cross is indeed a message of assurance for the afterlife. But it is a message of consolation in the present for an individual, it is not a summarization of the gospel. The good news of the gospel is the news that God’s kingdom is arriving on earth as it is in heaven. The brigand is hearing the message that God will keep him safe in His presence until the final consummation of that gospel. It is fairly astounding that this little verse has obscured the entire chapter of Luke 23 for us, which is as Luke understands it, about the enthronement of Jesus as king...the Gospel itself. The brigand asked to be remembered when Jesus finally becomes king. That is a weird thing to say to a dying man. Most of us will assume that the brigand meant, “remember me when you enter heaven (aka the kingdom of God).” And we imagine Jesus has answered, “Indeed I will! And you will be there with me!” The problem with this reading, which seems so natural to us, is the fact that this is simply not how the language of the kingdom of God works. The Jewish people never understood the Kingdom of God to be a place a person goes when they die. If someone wanted to talk about where you go when you die, they would not have talked about the kingdom of God but about “Sheol” or in some cases, like the present, “paradise.” The brigand next to Jesus did not have some special revelation that Jesus is God and can take him to heaven. What the brigand came to believe was that Jesus was in the right and innocent of the crimes for which he suffered. The brigand believed that God would vindicate Jesus one day along with all the other Israelites who died in faith that God would one day fulfill His purposes for Israel and the world by raising them from the dead. The brigand was in the act of doing what Jesus has been asking people to do all along - he repented of his way of doing the kingdom and he recognized God’s heart and vision in Jesus’ own way. I don’t believe this brigand expected Jesus to rise again in three days, but he did believe that He would rise again one day and be vindicated by God. For himself, he did not have the same hope until Jesus gave it to him. The story of the thief on the cross is a message of comfort, encouragement, and the hope of heaven. But it is not the Gospel. The Gospel is not a message about how to get to heaven but about heaven coming to earth. The thief on the cross is in paradise, even to this day. But the day will come when all those who have died in Christ will come out of their tombs to live in God’s renewed creation in their renewed bodies.
Why is this important? It is important because we must not let the single hope of consolation in death subvert the powerful challenge and agenda of the Gospel of the kingdom of God on earth. Luke has spent most of his time telling us about the kingdom which challenges every part of the way we live life on earth here and now. Let us not subvert this agenda with an escapist mentality. Thank God that when we die in Christ, we are kept safe with Him in heaven as we await the resurrection. But let us not allow that truth to swallow up the message of a call to a changed life in the here and now. The Gospel is not about a better after-life. The Gospel is good news for the planet earth and the physical body, here and now. #TheKingdomofGod #TheGospel