[This article was contributed by Apollos]
“You will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
The title of this article only partially quotes Jesus’ words to the criminal who hung beside him at Golgotha. We have previously discussed the JW position on the choice of punctuation in this passage of scripture and Meleti wrote a fine article addressing this from at least one possible alternative angle. (See http://meletivivlon.com/2012/06/09/a-comma-here-a-comma-there/)
What I wanted to focus on in this article however, is what I consider to be the more important part of the promise that Jesus extended to this man. It is a perspective that can easily be overlooked by JWs who have been conditioned to focus on the matter of punctuation.
Let us put all that debate to one side for now and look carefully at what remains.
Jesus says to a sinful man “You will be with me in paradise”. Regardless of when this would take place, and regardless of the location of the paradise that Jesus had in mind, we can distill this promise further to “You will be with me”.
Note that Jesus did not say “you will be in my kingdom” or “you will be in my realm”, or “you will be in my paradise”. The promise was very clearly that the man who had just expressed faith in the Son of God could expect to be reunited with him upon his resurrection.
“But how could this be?” goes up the cry from the unbelievers. This man had no chance to show that he was really faithful. Only the truly faithful get to be WITH Jesus, and even then according to JW theology the majority of those do not expect to receive that privilege.
We are faced with the square peg of Jesus’ unambiguous statement, and the round hole of JW theology. We are not budging on the theology as that would create chaos, so the only way to make it fit is to trim down the edges from the solid square peg until it can be forced through.
An official explanation can be found in the Watchtower of March 1st 2013 page 9. In a nutshell the article attempts to persuade us that the evildoer was not worthy to be with Christ, and so Jesus could not have meant exactly what he said.
However, the article is built on a the premise that only those who rule with Christ could ever be with Christ. Therefore the writers of the article are really only judging whether the evildoer was worthy to rule with Christ, not whether he was worthy to be in the presence of Christ.
Regardless of whether it is appropriate for any of us to judge the evildoer in this manner or not, we can surely see the flaw in the reasoning.
To illustrate: if Barack Obama should send me notice that he should like to dine with me, I don’t leap to the conclusion that he will have to appoint me as his vice-president in order to facilitate this social experience. Where in the Bible are we told that Jesus cannot be with anyone other than his co-rulers? As a side note I would like to clarify that this article is not about whether all Christians will be co-rulers or not. I am simply pointing out that even within JW reasoning we cannot leap to the conclusion that Jesus denies company with anybody who is not thus appointed.
God’s Word tells us that “He [God] will reside [or tabernacle] with mankind” (Rev 21:3). It is another unambiguous statement that JW theology attempts to circumnavigate.
Jehovah tabernacled with his people Israel in the wilderness after they left Eqypt. A symbolic dwelling was made for him and he became present with them by somehow inhabiting that dwelling in a way that we cannot fully comprehend. Obviously the Almighty of the universe with his unlimited power could not be contained in a tent – no matter how well constructed. But the tabernacle – and the presence of Yahweh therein – was a foregleam of this wonderful promise that God would indeed reside with men. And this is the language employed in Revelation 21.
However before we leap from the ancient Jewish tabernacle to the future promise of Revelation 21, we must consider the outstanding period of history when God resided with men in a very real, wonderful, and tangible manner.
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel”, which means, God with us. (Matt 1:23, ESV)
God again tabernacled with humankind in the first century. His only-begotten Son gave up his former glory, and took up a dwelling place of flesh and blood – a son of man. Yet even though he had “emptied himself” (Phil 2:7), those among whom he dwelt had a view of his glory (John 1:14). In case we should be tempted to limit the glory being talked about here in order to avoid the true and full implication of “God with us”, we might want to ponder John 12:41 and ask ourselves when it was that Isaiah saw the glory that is therein referenced. (I will not distract from the theme of this article by offering further commentary on that here, but I encourage you to make a study of this topic for yourself.)
The glorious truth is that God tabernacled with mankind by means of His Son. And this brings us back to the promise that Jesus Christ made to the man hanging next to him at the crucifixion. “You will be with me.”
This man was already with Jesus – in the presence of him – just as multitudes in the first century had been privileged to be also.
If Jesus’ emphasis had been simply on the fact that the man would be resurrected, then there would have been absolutely no need to use the wording he did. “You will live again” or one of the earlier mentioned options would have been in itself an incredible hope to hold out to a suffering man facing certain death.
Why then “You will be with me”?
Many of us who have pondered and meditated on the true Christian hope for years have no doubts whatsoever about the answer. Our yearning is to be “with the Lord” (1 Thes 4:17). It is not that we lack appreciation for God’s physical creation. Most of us would love to stroke the fur of a friendly panda bear as much as the next person. We enjoy such things as hiking, camping, sailing, and appreciate the material world that fills us with wonder about God and helps develop a profound reverence for Him. But is there some explicit scriptural reason why we might be barred from these things in the new heavens and earth, as if we have to make a choice between our desire to be with the Lord or to appreciate his creation? No such mutually exclusive choice is ever presented in scripture. But it is implicitly presented in JW theology.
Having convinced “rank and file” that they have no prospect of ever being “with the Lord”, there seems to be a constant need to reassure them that it is not really an eternal second prize. In fact the idea is presented that those who actually have the hope to be with Jesus are the ones who make the sacrifice. Not just a martyr’s death as the Bible actually teaches, but that being with the Lord is a sacrifice of the pleasures that the material earth has to offer.
“Indeed, all those who are begotten as spirit sons of God die a sacrificial death. Because of the role they are to play in Jehovah’s heavenly Kingdom, it is God’s will that they renounce and sacrifice any hope of life everlasting on earth. In this respect, they submit to a sacrificial death in behalf of Jehovah’s sovereignty. (Philippians 3:8-11; compare 2:17.)”
(Revelation – Its Grand Climax At Hand, chap. 17 p. 100 par. 4)
I must ask, where is the sacrifice of Jesus’ true disciples ever defined in such terms in God’s Word itself? Certainly not in the scriptures from Philippians cited to supposedly support this theology. Paul simply says he considers the things of this present system of things to be worthless in comparison to the Christian hope.
As JWs we are discouraged from even thinking about being with the Lord, unless we consider ourselves one of the select few top-tier Christians who will rule in heaven. Otherwise our constant focus is directed towards the joys of an earthly paradise and the material pleasures that we can hope to enjoy. Can you see the discrepancy with scripture, and the danger to true spirituality?
Look again at our theme text. Wipe all preconceptions from your mind. Through a simple spontaneous act of real faith the criminal was promised directly by the Lord that the two of them would be together in the future. Did he promise him rulership or any special privilege beyond the simple promise? No. Why therefore cannot any Christian today who also has faith in Jesus Christ reasonably expect that this magnificent hope is within his or her grasp? Should that not be a part of our “large shield of faith” which protects us from Satan’s burning arrows (Eph 6:16)? The wicked one wants us to think we are not worthy of being in the presence of God or His Son. For most of us, with our sin constantly before us, it could be easy for him to make us feel that way (Ps 51:3). If he can succeed at that then he can weaken our spirituality in our vulnerable state. Jesus on the other hand says otherwise. He holds up the example of a seemingly worthless criminal, and based on the man’s simple statement of faith publicly counts him worthy of his personal future fellowship.
The resurrection is the means by which God expresses his yearning for us – the work of his hands. The manifestation of God’s love to us – the pre-existent Logos who was later born as Jesus of Nazereth – is said to have had a fondness for that which was with the sons of men (Prov 8:31, NWT). In other words he loves humanity, and he took the ultimate step in demonstrating that love. He has a yearning for us. Do we have that yearning for him?
Next time the conversation takes a turn as to what we might look forward to in paradise – what will come to mind? The material blessings prophesied for the Jews who were to be restored to the promised land, or the inestimable and wondrous hope of being with our God through his Son, and He eternally being with us?
He is our Savior, our Eternal Father, the One who humbled himself to death on our behalf. Do you not long to be in his presence? If a criminal worthy of capital punishment could receive that promise, do you really believe that our Lord would do less for you and me?