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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?

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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.

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  • 2
    There's also the balancing of the thief's request, "remember me when …" against Jesus's response that he could assure him now. Oct 13 at 21:23
  • @RayButterworth - good point. Many thanks. The thief also said, "when you come into your kingdom" - a future event.
    – Dottard
    Oct 13 at 21:58
  • 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
    Oct 14 at 0:59
  • @Lucian - are you able to list some counter-examples? I have listed more than a dozen supporting examples.
    – Dottard
    Oct 14 at 2:17
  • @Dottard: The phrase in question is frequently employed by Christ; in no (other) instance does He say truly I say unto you today.
    – Lucian
    Oct 14 at 2:21
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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.

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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.

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  • 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
    Oct 14 at 2:18
  • 1
    @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
    Oct 14 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
    Oct 14 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
    Oct 14 at 6:31
  • 1
    ... ooo kkk! What does Acts 2:34 mean that says that David has not ascended to heaven?
    – Dottard
    Oct 14 at 6:50

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