4

In the Book of Acts, Stephen, the first Christian martyr, speaks directly to Christ in heaven:

Acts 7:58-59: "When [the Jewish Council] had driven him out of the city, they began stoning [Stephen]; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul [Paul]. 59They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!'"

Could Stephen expect to be with Christ in paradise that very day (just as promised to the thief on the the Cross in Luke 23:43)?

Optionally, how do we reconcile...

John 3:13: "No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man"

… with such circumstances?

6 Answers 6

6

Luke 23:43 is sometimes quoted in support of the dead going directly to heaven or hell at death - “I tell you the truth today you will be with me in paradise.”

The original Greek text contained no punctuation so that the adverb of time, (σήμερον semeron), “today”, could equally modify “I tell” (lego), or, “you will be” (ese). Therefore, on the basis of the Greek text and syntax of this verse alone, it is impossible to determine where the comma (if any) should be placed.

However, it is possible to examine the author, Luke, and how he used the adverb σήμερον before or after the verb it modifies. This adverb occurs just 20 times in Luke and Acts.

  • In 14 of those, the adverb occurs AFTER the verb (Luke 2:11, 5:26, 12:28, 13:32, 33, 22:34, 61, Acts 19:40, 20:26, 22:3, 24:21, 26:2, 29, 27:33).
  • Of the remaining cases where the adverb precedes the verb, one is a quotation from Ps 2:7 (Acts 13:33), and in three cases, σήμερον is preceded by a conjunction (Luke 4:21, 19:5, 6) which makes such a construction inevitable. The single case, Acts 4:9, where the adverb precedes the verb. Thus, placing the adverb AFTER the verb is entirely in keeping with Luke’s literary style.

In fact, Luke employs a common Hebrew idiom of adding “today” after a verb to add emphasis, and solemnity. For example:

  • Deut 4:1 – “I teach you today”;
  • Deut 11:26 – “I set before you today”;
  • Deut 28:13 – “I give you today”;
  • Deut 6:6, 7:11, 12:23 – “I command you today”;
  • Deut 8:19 – “I testify against you today”;
  • Deut 30:18 – “declare to you today”; etc.

See also Deut 4:26, 30:19, 32:36, Acts 20:26, 26:2, etc. Thus, Luke’s style is consonant with Biblical literary style.

The question of the placement of the above comma can also be resolved by the semantics rather than the syntax of the passage. If the comma is placed before “today” (eg, as in most versions), then Jesus said that very day the two would share the joys of paradise. However, if it is placed after “today”, then Jesus employs a construction, which adds emphasis to the veracity of what He is saying. In order to choose between these two alternatives requires the answer to two more questions: What is Paradise? And, Where did Jesus and the criminal go that day?

  • Paradise: The word paradise, occurs only three times in the New Testament - Luke 23:43, 2 Corinthians 12:4 and Revelation 2:7. These references suggest that paradise is synonymous with heaven.
  • Jesus and the Criminal: Jesus did not go to heaven that day, Friday, because he told Mary Magdalene on the following Sunday morning (John 20:17) that He had not yet ascended to the Father. Neither did the criminal go to paradise that day because he was still alive at sunset and had to have his legs broken to prevent his escape over the Sabbath (John 19:31, 32).

Therefore, since Jesus could not have intended that He and the criminal were to be in paradise that day, he presumably intended the adverb today as emphasis as per Koine (common) Greek and Hebrew idiom. Thus, the correct place for the comma is after today thus making the passage read: “I tell you the truth today, you will be with me in paradise.” Thus, the passage does not (and could not) imply heavenly rewards immediately at death.

On this basis, there is no conflict with John 3:13 nor Acts 7:59.

7
  • 2
    There's also the balancing of the thief's request, "remember me when …" against Jesus's response that he could assure him now. Commented Oct 13, 2021 at 21:23
  • @RayButterworth - good point. Many thanks. The thief also said, "when you come into your kingdom" - a future event.
    – Dottard
    Commented Oct 13, 2021 at 21:58
  • 1
    Were that the case, then it would be the only instance in the entire New Testament where Christ Himself employs the adverb as such, in conjunction with the aforementioned - and otherwise quite frequently used - expression.
    – Lucian
    Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 0:59
  • @Lucian - are you able to list some counter-examples? I have listed more than a dozen supporting examples.
    – Dottard
    Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 2:17
  • 1
    @Dottard: The phrase in question is frequently employed by Christ; in no (other) instance does He say truly I say unto you today.
    – Lucian
    Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 2:21
1

If the thief on the cross would join Christ in paradise, would Stephen experience the same in Acts 7:59?

Probably not.

Luke 23:

40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. d ”

43Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

This person was a criminal who violated Roman law. He would head for paradise described in Revelation 2:

7 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

On the other hand, Stephen did not violate any Roman laws, Acts 7:

58 When [the Jewish Council] had driven him out of the city, they began stoning [Stephen]; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul [Paul]. 59They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!'"

Steven died as a Christian martyr. His next stop was different from the criminal, Revelation 6:

9 When he [Lamb] opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” 11Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.

1

The repentant thief on a cross did not die before Jesus died. Jesus died first. No believer who died before Jesus died would get into heaven before Jesus did, for he was the "firstfruits".

"But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept... But every man in his own order; Christ the firstfruits; afterwards they that are Christ's at his coming." 1 Corinthians 15:20 & 23 A.V.

He had to first enter Heaven as the firstfruits. That is what Jesus meant when he said, "No man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man..." John 3:13

That enables us to make sense of Peter's words on the day of Pentecost, that king David's dead body remained buried to that day, whereas Jesus' body had been resurrected and was now enthroned in heaven (Acts 2:29-36). As far as corpses go, they all await the Day of Resurrection and Judgment, but as far as the spirit of believers go, they return to God who gave them (Ecclesiastes 12:7 & Job 19:25-27) and so with the repentant thief, and Stephen. At the moment of their death, their spirit would leave their corpse and invisibly ascend.

With the thief, Jesus promised him that that very day he would be with Christ in Paradise. They had both died before that day was up, Jesus first. He would have uttered nonsense if he had said, "Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise" for both of them knew there would be no tomorrow for either of them to speak! That very day, both men died, and both their spirits met again, in Paradise.

As for the spirit of the rich man who had died, he found himself in torments in hell; his spirit was not in Paradise, nor was it in "the bosom of Abraham", nor was it in Heaven.

So, what about Stephen, after he was stoned to death? Well, the last book of the Bible tells us in symbolic language what would obtain in his situation, for this is where the souls of the martyrs are heard speaking:

"And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given unto every one of them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow-servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled." Revelation 6:9-11 A.V.

Stephen, in spirit, would immediately be a martyred saint, 'under the altar'. A point comes when all martyred souls are clothed in white robes, and they are told to wait till the full number of the martyrs is reached, after which God's judgment will be meted out to those who had murdered them.

Other martyred saints, like the apostle Paul, believed that, for Paul said that "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord", and he did not know whether to choose that bliss, or to remain in the body on earth for the benefit of the Christians (2 Corinthians 5:6-8).

This means that both the repentant thief, martyred Stephen, and martyred Paul, would have the same experience at the point of their physical deaths - their spirit would ascend to be in bliss, and on the Day of Resurrection and Judgment, resurrection bodies will be given to unite with their spirit part. But Jesus had to be the first whose body would die, only to be raised a glorified body able to function on earth as well as for eternity in Heaven. Christ is the firstfruits, and afterwards come all the others. The nuances of what 'Paradise', 'Abraham's Bosom', and 'Heaven' mean require a different question.

1

Did Stephen go to Paradise, Too? Yes, absolutely! As the Apostle noted in his letter to the Corinthians:

Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord...We are confident I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord! (2Corinthians 5:6-8)

First, consider that the "Paradise" in question is Heaven, and is used as such in the New Testament---not purgatory, Abraham's bosom, or sheol (Hades). (Luke 23:43, 2 Cor. 12:4, Revelation 2:7).

With Me today Secondly we note that the two thieves and Jesus were killed Friday, on the Day of Preparation, by crucifixion. There is a misunderstanding that the legs of the criminals were "broken to prevent an escape." (Dottard) These men, along with Jesus, were being crucified and fixed to a cross. There was no way they could ever "run away." The breaking of legs was a way of hastening death since they could no longer be used to facilitate breathing. This and the stabbing of Jesus to ensure His death, were all performed to keep from contaminating the Sabbath.

So, today you shall be with Me... is accurate. Jesus and the blood-washed, born-again, redeemed thief would go to Paradise, just as Jesus said. The place of Paradise has been opened for martyrs like Stephen, James, and Paul.

Gospel of the Kingdom Next, it has been argued that the Ex-con didn't go to Paradise then because it wasn't supposed to occur until the Kingdom of Christ came:

Jesus, remember me when thou comest into thy Kingdom. (Luke 23:42)

According to modern prophecy interpreters, the Kingdom is to be set up in the nebulous future. However, two thousand years ago Jesus said the "Kingdom was at hand," (near, Matthew 3:2, 4:17). The "Kingdom parables" of Matthew 13 highlight this, and the casting out of devils by the power of God underscored this reality.

Jesus is "both Lord and Christ", exalted on a throne in Heaven now! (Acts 2:30-36, Colossians 1:15-18, Ephesians 1:20-23, Revelation 1) What the Ex-con (now Convert) saw when he went to Paradise was the Coronation of the King! (Described in Daniel 7:9-14) We know for sure, this is not a future event, but a present reality, because of what Jesus declared in Matthew 28:18:

Jesus came and spoke unto them, saying, "All power is given unto Me in heaven and on earth, Go therefore and teach all nations..." (Vs. 18-19)

When martyrs like Stephen go to Paradise they are going to see the King! Absent from the body, and present with the Lord.

Verily, I Say Unto You What stands out in this discussion about going to Paradise in this present era is the lack of research about the main phrase: Verily, I say unto you. As the commenter Lucian clearly noted, this phrase that is frequently employed, is never followed by "today." It simply stands as a statement of verity, and is followed by a declaration of importance! In this case, it is a declaration of hope to the new Convert about his eternal destination: Paradise.

No matter how interesting the use of other N.T. and O.T. phrases (with adverbs) is, it is the use of this phrase in Luke that needs to be researched. {What Lucian pointed out is dealt with in other posted Questions. But it might be added here that the phrase (Amen lego 'umin, Gk.) occurs 30 times in Matthew, 13 times in Mark, and 7 times in Luke; for a total of 50 times. John used the double amen, amen in his treatise 25 times. In all these occurrences there was no qualifying adverb!}

No One Has Ascended So if Christians (new converts and dedicated martyrs) do go to be with the Lord as Paul wrote, how is John 3:13 to be reconciled? No one has ascended...

First, recognize that the Book of John is not a synoptic Gospel. The other Gospels are "historical biographies" but John is more like a theological/philosophical treatise. It is not a flowing history (note how he places the "cleansing of the Temple" at a different time zone in the ministry of Jesus.) The purpose of John's writing is more specific. (See John 20:30-31) It is an "apologetic" volume.

So when John wrote that "Christ descended and ascended" he is summarizing much like the Apostles Creed does. Historically and technically, others have "ascended" as humans: Elijah and Moses (? Remember the Transfiguration where they both appeared?) But as Deity, only Jesus has come from Heaven and returned there in glory! This is our amazing Creed.

I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world; again, I leave the world and go to the Father. (John 16:28)

For the ex-con and Stephen to be "present with the Lord" does not contradict this passage in John 3. In fact, not only Paul, but all Christians have this confidence and hope of being with the Lord after we die.

0

This question touches a theological debate. Here is one side.

The thief was not ‘born again’. He was like all the other ‘Old Testament’ saints. After death, their soul went to Paradise - Abraham’s ‘bosom’. Possibly as presented in Luke 16.

Stephen was born again. [unlike the thief] His spirit was ‘one’ with Christ. On death he would ‘be’ together with Christ. So being ‘in’ Christ, he would be with Christ. This resolves John 3:13.

So under this ‘view’, this question is unanswerable.

6
  • So, are there two heavens? What is the difference between Abraham's bosom and the rest of heaven? Are there any other cases where people are said to go to Abraham's bosom as opposed to heaven? Where is Abraham's bosom if he is not in heaven?
    – Dottard
    Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 2:18
  • 2
    @Dottard No - Abraham’s ‘bosom’ is not in ‘heaven’, it’s under the earth. I’m using Luke 16 as a reference for that statement. And in that location, the ‘unrighteous’ were there as well - (although separated). That is, therefore that location was not ‘heaven’. The Jews also say that ‘Abraham’s Bosom’ is under the earth. I remember we’ve ‘crossed’ on this (or very similar) issue previously, so I know we’re not going to see ‘eye to eye’ on this.
    – Dave
    Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 2:48
  • I do not with to "cross" with each other but merely to understand your position. Does that mean that all the righteous before the cross are in Abraham's bosom? Are there any other such references to this intermediate place in the Bible?
    – Dottard
    Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 5:08
  • @Dottard No. Abraham’s ‘bosom’ was cleared out’ after Jesus was resurrected. As this was a *requirement to release them. References? … there is no simple ‘verse(s) to use, it requires stepping back and taking a ‘wider view’ of several passages. Bit like explaining the Trinity (and many other doctrinal beliefs). Comment fields can’t do it.
    – Dave
    Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 6:31
  • 2
    ... ooo kkk! What does Acts 2:34 mean that says that David has not ascended to heaven?
    – Dottard
    Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 6:50
0

No. Stephen was stoned to death after Jesus was resurrected, as Jesus was the first fruits (2 Tim. 2:6), the first to be resurrected. The confusion comes from incorrectly associating “Paradise” with heaven.

Jesus told the thief on the cross that he would be in Paradise with Jesus that same day. Jesus was not resurrected until the third day (Mark 10:44; Luke 18:33; Acts 10:40). That means that Jesus was in the grave, or the realm of the dead the day He was crucified, as well as the thief on the cross next to Him.

However, the rabbis believed the righteous would go to heaven at their death, and so called this place Abraham’s Bosom which Jesus used in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:22.

And it came to pass, that the poor man died, and that he was carried away by the messengers to the bosom of Abraham -- and the rich man also died, and was buried; (YLT)

This belief has persisted even today, but it is misunderstood.

Excerpt from Barnes Notes on Luke 16:22 –

Abraham's bosom - This is a phrase taken from the practice of reclining at meals, where the head of one lay on the bosom of another, and the phrase, therefore, denotes intimacy and friendship. See the notes at Matthew 23:6. Also John 13:23; John 21:20. The Jews had no doubt that Abraham was in paradise. To say that Lazarus was in his bosom was, therefore, the same as to say that he was admitted to heaven and made happy there. (Source: Biblehub)

However, this is a loose reference as Begnel’s Gnomen makes clear.

The Jews used to call the good state of the dead the bosom of Abraham, and the garden of Eden, … (Source: Ibid)

We must draw some lines here because the sequence of events makes it clear that what Jesus called Paradise was not heaven, but that part of the grave where the righteous were gathered to their people at their bodily death, in the realm of the dead.

First, Jesus descended into the grave, into that part of the grave for the righteous which He called Paradise. That same day the thief descended into the realm of the dead into Paradise where Jesus was. Jesus remained in the state of the dead, which was styled as a prison by Peter (1 Pet. 3:19), and to which Jesus held the keys (Rev. 1:18) for three days.

Second, Jesus was not resurrected until the third day, therefore the area of Paradise in the realm of the dead was not in heaven, as Jesus had not yet ascended to His Father in heaven (John 20:17, Acts 1:9). Paradise, or what the Jews thought of as Abraham’s bosom was not in heaven.

Third as no one had yet at that time (before Jesus’ ascension) seen the Father, but He (Jesus) who descended from the Father (John 3:13), then no one held in the good part of the realm of the dead (Hades) had yet ascended to the Father before Jesus’ resurrection. Abraham was still in Paradise in the realm of the grave, as was Isaac, and Jacob, and David, and Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, etc. Only after Jesus’ resurrection were other graves opened for some of His disciples who appeared to many in the city in Jerusalem (Matt. 27:53).

The implication is that these others appeared to people still living in Jerusalem as an additional proof of the reality of His resurrection. As Jesus spent about 40 days with His disciples before He ascended to heaven in Acts 1, it is most probable that the others who appeared to their families and friends in the city also spent those days with them.

This resurrection out of the grave, out of the part called Paradise is proof that Paradise was not the same place as heaven. Now, we need to remember Jesus’ prayer to His Father before His crucifixion.

Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:24, KJV)

After Jesus, ascended to heaven He was sitting on the right hand of the Father. So, when Stephen was being stoned with Saul’s consent and Stephen was looking up into the heavens, he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father in heaven (Acts 7:56).

When Stephen died he did not have to go to the realm of the dead, but to heaven because Jesus had asked that His disciples be allowed to be where He was – in heaven.

The realm of the dead, both those in the place of torment (Gr. Tartarus), and those in the section called Paradise, or called Abraham’s bosom still existed for a little while until the destruction of that temple in Jerusalem, when Jesus returned in His glory to bring justice and judgment upon those who had handed Him over to be crucified (Rev. 1:7), and to destroy those who had rejected their promised Messiah and persecuted His saints (Matt. 22:1-14).

Jesus told them in Matt 25 that when He returned to destroy that temple as He prophesied in Matt. 24, that He would separate out all those from the grave, the sheep to His right and the goats to His left (Matt. 25:31ff). He again told John in Rev. 20, that after the battle, and after the separation out of the grave for that mass resurrection of those righteous, that He threw the realm of the dead (Hades) and the state of being dead (death) into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14).

The wicked, unrighteous goats were not ever promised resurrection, but were promised to be cast out into outer darkness (Matt. 22:13; 25:30; 2 Pet. 2:17). The only ones promised resurrection are those who die in the Lord (John 17:2; John 5:24; 1 John 3:14; Rev. 14:13).

Therefore after Jesus’ resurrection certain of His disciples who had already died were released from the grave, and later ascended with Him to heaven; and other of His disciples would ascend to heaven upon their deaths, which is why Paul said he would be with the Lord (Phil. 1:23). Those disciples and apostles who had been killed for their beliefs in Christ were martyrs just as Stephen was; and they were resurrected at their deaths, translated, and gathered into heaven to be with the Lord (1 Cor. 15:52) in answer to Jesus’ prayer in the garden.

The rest of the dead were resurrected out of Hades after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Once Christ finished that mass judgment resurrection, He then threw Hades into the lake of fire. Hades does not exist anymore. The place of the dead, the state being dead was done away with.

Ever since AD 70 those who die in the Lord are resurrected, changed in the twinkling of any eye, and are taken home to heaven where we will forever be with the Lord.

Further reading:

Judgment Day- Revelation 20

Hades is No More

The Gathering of The Elect

The Resurrection in Three Parts

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.