Jesus’ response to the dying criminal’s plea for mercy, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” in Luke 23, speaks to us about heaven and about our mission here on earth. The Greek word for Paradise in this verse is a transliteration of a Persian word that was used in ancient times to refer to a king’s garden. A king’s garden was often a walled garden that was a place of profound beauty. Sometimes it included a menagerie—like a zoo—combined with beautiful gardens, trees, and water features. When someone was honored in ancient Persia, they were given the privilege of enjoying the king’s garden.
I love this picture of Paradise—the King’s Garden. Through Jesus Christ, we are invited to enter God’s garden, to savor his paradise. I have been several places in my life that I would call paradise. They were so awesomely beautiful they seemed almost unreal. My wife, LaVon, and I stayed several days in Sedona, Arizona, with the beautiful red rock mountains all around us. LaVon got tired of me repeatedly saying, “This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.” She commented, “You say that about every beautiful place we’ve been.” She’s right! But as I climbed the red rocks and hiked up their trails, I felt such peace; my heart was filled with a sense of awe and joy.
The thought of heaven as the King’s Garden, filled with the most beautiful things to see and experience, where love and justice prevail, with people I love and in the very presence of God sounds like paradise to me. Elsewhere Jesus describes heaven or paradise as “my Father’s house.” This, too, is a compelling picture of what awaits us after death.
I once heard a preacher tell the story of a doctor who made house calls back in the day when that was what doctors did. He took his dog with him in his horse and buggy. One day he visited a dying man, and as he went into the man’s house, he left his dog on the front step. The dying man said to the doctor, “Doc, what’s it going to be like—heaven—what will it be like?” At that moment the doctor’s dog began to scratch at the door, whimpering and whining to get in. The doc stopped and said, “Do you hear that?” “Yes,” the man replied. The doctor continued, “That’s my dog. He has never been inside your house. He doesn’t know what’s on the other side of this door. All he knows is that his master is in here, and if his master is in here, it must be okay.”
The Bible is surprisingly sparse in its descriptions of heaven. The Book of Revelation gives us a few glimpses, but it often speaks in symbolic language we’re not meant to take literally. What we do know is that Jesus describes heaven as the King’s Gardens—paradise—and we know that he, our master, will be there, so it must be okay.
In first century Judaism “Paradise” was not only used to refer to heaven, but also of the Garden of Eden. Eden was, after all, the King’s Garden—the garden of God. Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden because they disobeyed God, and human beings were forbidden from ever entering that garden again. Paradise was lost to humankind, and we were left with a world where injustice, pain, sorrow and death are a part of life.
John’s Gospel tells us that in the place where Jesus was crucified there was a garden and it was also in this garden that Jesus was buried. When Jesus was raised, John tells us that Mary Magdalene thought he was the gardener. Only John tells us this. His gospel also begins with the words, “In the beginning…” as Genesis does. I believe John intendes for us to see that Jesus has come, to use Paul’s term, as a “second Adam,” to reverse the curse of Eden, and to restore paradise.
These two images of paradise, one heavenly, and the other of the restoration of an earthly Eden, are both important. We have the hope of one day being with Christ in paradise. We’re meant to draw others to him and to this paradise. But we are also meant to be a part of restoring Eden here on earth – to both pray and to work in a way that sees God’s kingdom come “on earth as it is in heaven.” This comes as we practice love, mercy, and justice each day.
Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. I want to be with you in paradise. Help me to reach out to and love nonreligious and nominally religious people so that they might see your love through me. And help me to live in such a way that your kingdom is comes on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
Today's post is an excerpt from Final Words From the Cross.
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