This week I am preaching on the story of the thief on the cross. Unfortunately the word thief doesn’t convey to us how bad a person he was. He was a very bad man. He himself admitted that when he told the other criminal: “And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds.” (Luke 23:41) That’s quite a statement seeing that crucifixion was reserved for the worst of criminals. It was not used for common criminals. This was an evil man.
That makes all the more striking the brief dialogue between him and Jesus. “And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23: 42-43)
First, what an amazing confession of sin when the man admits that he deserves crucifixion! Then what an amazing confession of faith and trust in Jesus when he not only addresses him as Lord, but then boldly asks that he remember him when he comes to his kingdom! Both his addressing Jesus as Lord and the mention of his kingdom show that this man had come to know who Jesus was. Even more startling is his request that Jesus remember him. He would only make that request if he knew Jesus was merciful and forgiving. Otherwise being noticed by King Jesus would be the last thing he would want!
Down through the centuries, Christians have treasured this story as a wonderful example that being with Jesus hinges on trusting in his mercy rather than on being and doing good. This man was evil. He would die in a matter of hours. He would have no chance to work a process of repentance. But still Jesus reassured him that that very day he would be with him. I repeat: what a wonderful example of the fact that our being with Jesus depends entirely on his mercy and not on our works.
The LDS Church, however, sees it differently. The LDS Bible Dictionary says: “For example, when Jesus purportedly said to the thief on the cross, ‘Today shalt thou be with me in paradise’, the Bible rendering is incorrect. The statement would more accurately read, ‘Today shalt thou be with me in the word of spirits’ since the thief was not ready for paradise.”
Here is what its manual on the New Testament says: “To the thief on the cross who asked to be remembered after death, the Savior responded to give him what hope he could: ‘Today shalt thou be with me in paradise, ‘That is to say, today you shall be with me in the world of spirits, where you will be taught the gospel and your inquires will be answered. (See Smith, Teachings, p.309) Jesus did not lend any credence to a death-bed repentance or (sic) the malefactor. What Jesus did do was give recognition to the seeds of faith and repentance which were evidenced by a penitent man. As always, the Lord’s efforts were directed toward offering as much hope as possible to one who would turn from darkness unto that everlasting light.” (Life and Teachings. . .p. 186, emphasis added)
What comfort is that? What hope is that? According to LDS teaching, couldn’t Jesus have said that same thing to the other criminal hanging there who was reviling him? Doesn’t everybody, according to LDS teaching, go the world of spirits, when they die? According to LDS teaching, didn’t the other criminal have the opportunity to have the gospel preached to him in the spirit world? Mormonism’s explanation doesn’t even make sense in the context of its own teachings.
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to take Jesus’ words at face value. Once again this week I will praise the Lord who tells me that I will be with him for all eternity solely because of what he has done for me.
Amazing grace how sweet the sound-
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.