The Thief on the Cross
By Charles L. Ives
Excerpts from: The Bible Doctrine of the Soul; or, Man's Nature And Destiny, As Revealed. - 1878
Luke 23:43: "And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To-day thou shalt be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43)
As generally read, this is a statement that our Lord and the penitent thief were that day to be together in Paradise. In so, the inferences growing out of that fact are, fully stated, as follows: 1st, Christ himself did not die, it was his body only that ceased to live; 2d, the same was true of the thief; 3d, nobody dies, when said to die, the body only dies; i, e. everybody that has died is now living, necessarily in a disembodied state. Such inferences we may hesitate to accept, till we ascertain that the statement is certainly what it purports to be.
Examining into this, we find that the received understanding of the passage is after all a question of grammar! It depends upon how the Gr. adverb of time, semeron, to-day, or this day, as it is more generally rendered in the N. T., is to be construed; whether with the preceding verb, "say," or the following, "shalt be." From its position in the sentence, it may qualify either.
It may be thought the comma decides it. Not at all; the comma is no part of the original Greek. The New Testament MSS. were originally written entirely without punctuation, which was not introduced into the Greek text till the 15th century. Surely, the punctuation of a period just emerging from medieval darkness, when churchly traditions were paramount, and independent thought untolerated, can scatcely be relied upon to settle a point in dispute, or to build up a doctrine. The Bible Societies have found it necessary, in Matt. 19:28, to alter the punctuation, and in other places it is still in question.
How then shall the true position of the comma, and the consequent correct reading of the passage be ascertained? Evidently, as in the case of the parable just considered, we are to be guided by the light of other Scriptures, and by the context itself.
First, then, if we locate the comma before to-day, and make that adverb qualify "shalt be," thus giving the meaning that Christ and the thief, when they died, did not cease to live (i. e. did not really die), but merely changed their place from earth to paradise, we encounter the fatal objection that thus the passage conflicts with the rest of Holy Writ, which so explicitly, as we have seen, declares that the dead are unconscious, are actually dead.
But besides this, such cannot be the correct reading, since the Scriptures elsewhere tell us where Christ 'was these three days, and it was not in paradise. On this point we have the united testimony of men, angels, and our Lord himself. In Matt. 28:5, 6: the angels say, "Ye seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, FOR he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay." Jesus predicted of himself, Matt. 12:40: "As Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly,"- Jonah was there himself, was he not? - "so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." An inspired Apostle says, Eph. 4:9, 10: "He descended first into the lower parts of the earth. He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens." Could words be framed more unequivocally to state, that during those days Christ was not in paradise, but in the grave? And who are we, to set aside the concurrent testimony of such witnesses?
Moreover, we find the connection of thought requires that the adverb be joined with "I say." The prayer of the penitent thief is, "Lord, remember me when thou comest [not into, the Greek is not eis but en] in thy kingdom." This Israelite has recognized in the patient sufferer beside him, the promised Messiah, the Anointed King of his People. The accusation, the King of the Jews, over his head is no unmeaning title. In Him, though now yielding up his life in strange humiliation, shall yet be fulfilled the prediction of the prophet; "Saith the Lord, I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth;" Jer. 23:5. And, looking through the present darkness on to that Coming in triumph, the dying thief prays that the companion of this lowly hour of anguish may be remembered by the Royal One, when he shall come in his kingdom:
"When thou shalt in thy Kingdom come, Then, Lord, remember me."
Does the King grant the humble petition? He returns a clear, direct affirmative; "Verily, I say unto thee this day," an emphatic Biblical form of most solemn asseveration, "thou shalt be with me in the Paradise." Note the Greek article, the Paradise,- the Paradise of which thou hast spoken, the Paradise of God with its restored tree of life (see Rev. 2:7, 22:2), the pledge of life everlasting. A right Royal response! In the unending glory and joy of that Paradise yet to be, thou shalt not only be remembered by the King, but thou shalt be with Him, for, the King Himself THIS DAY has said it! "So," says Paul, 1 Thess. 4:17, speaking of that Same Second Coming, "so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words."
But on the common understanding, how irrelevant the response, how niggardly the promise! Irrelevant, because it ignores the Royal Coming of which the suppliant speaks; niggardly, because it promises but a few hours of companionship with the Lord. For, if it is assumed that Christ and the thief were that day in Paradise, then he left Paradise and returned to earth, the third day. At that time he told Mary Magdalene (Jn. 20:17), that he had not ascendid to the Father; but the Father is in heaven, therefore that Paradise, where we suppose to have been, is not heaven. Afterward he did ascend to the Father and is now in heaven (Heb. 9:24), leaving the thief in that hypothetical, not the real, Paradise. And so, if we adopt the common reading, we must logically conclude that Christ, whose presence is essential to Paradise, is not in Paradise personally, any more than now on earth. It has been said, that to connect "this day" with the preceding verb, is but a quibble, a trifling evasion. But where is really the trifling; is it not in that reading which contradicts Scripture, which makes the reply so irrelevant and meagre, and which has so unscriptural a conception of Paradise?
As illustrations of the Biblical use of "this day" qualifying the preceding verb, see Deut-. 30:16; "I command thee this day to love:" Deut. 8:19: "I testify against you this day, that ye shall perish:" Deut. 15:15: "I command thee this thing to-day:" Acts 26:29: "I would that all that hear me this day, were as I am;" and so everywhere. It is said that in the Septuagint and the N. T., this is far the more common grammatical relation of semeron, to-day, but the writer has not verified the statement.
Enough, surely, has been adduced to show that an inference, whose only footing is, at the most, an open question of grammar, cannot stand against the direct statements of other Scriptures.