IN ALL LIKELIHOOD, we should make a distinction between the paradise Jesus promised the thief on the cross and the kingdom of God.
How so? From the inception of Jesus' ministry, he announced the arrival of the kingdom of God in his teaching and his actions. In Mark 1:15, shortly after Jesus' baptism and temptation in the wilderness, he preaches that "the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the gospel." In Matthew 12 Jesus clearly states that "if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (NIV).
An unexpected overlap between the ages thus occurs. Sickness, demon possession, injustice, and death characterize this present evil age. Through his healing, exorcisms, concern for the poor and oppressed, and raising people from the dead, Jesus indicates the arrival of the kingdom age. Through Christ, God's kingdom—the life of the age to come—is breaking into the midst of this present evil age.
The dying thief on the cross grasped that which Jesus' disciples had difficulty understanding. At Caesarea Philippi Jesus began to teach that he must go up to Jerusalem, suffer, be rejected by the elders and teachers of the law, be killed, and after three days rise from the dead (Mark 8:31). This message of a suffering, crucified Messiah made little sense to Jesus' contemporaries. Neither Jesus' closest disciples nor his enemies could comprehend how the anointed of God could also be the cursed of God. A crucified Messiah seemed to be a contradiction in terms.
The crucified thief, though, possessed an insight that almost everyone else at Jesus' execution lacked. The believing thief asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom (Luke 23:42). As Maximus of Turin rightly preached, "The penitent ...