Thief on the Cross – I Say Unto You "Today"

One day, while having lunch with some of my Christian friends, the topic of the thief on the cross was brought up. I shared that Adventists traditionally argue that the comma should be placed after "today," so that the statement reads, "Verily I say unto thee today, thou shalt be with me in paradise."

"Really?" one of my friends answered, "was it common in Jesus' day to build sentences like that?"

This struck me. I never really had considered whether or not people spake like that regularly. Even today, I've never heard anybody say, "Today I'm going to say, let's get coffee." It's generally assumed that when you say something, you're saying what you're saying when you're saying it. It doesn't take any advanced Greek jiu-jitsu to discern that when Jesus said something to somebody, he didn't say it the day prior or the day following. Vocal chords are not time machines.

But, let's return to my friends' question: was it common in Jesus' day to build sentences like that. Jesus was often recorded saying "Αμην λεγω υμιν," which is translated as "truly I say to you," but this is the only place where he says "truly I say to you today." Here are several other places in Luke alone where Jesus said the phrase without the "today":

  1. Luke 4:24 "And he said, Verily I say unto you, No prophet is accepted in his own country."
  2. Luke 9:27 "But I tell you of a truth, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the kingdom of God."
  3. Luke 12:37 "Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them."
  4. Luke 12:44 "Of a truth I say unto you, that he will make him ruler over all that he hath."
  5. Luke 18:17 "Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein."
  6. Luke 18:29 "And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God's sake,"
  7. Luke 21:3 "And he said, Of a truth I say unto you, that this poor widow hath cast in more than they all:"
  8. Luke 21:32 "Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled."

Luke records several accounts where something theological emphasis of a particular event was highlighted by a "today.":

  1. Luke 2:11 "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord."
  2. Luke 4:21 "And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears."
  3. Luke 19:5 "And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said unto him, Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at thy house."
  4. Luke 22:34 "And he said, I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me."

So far, we've looked at texts in Luke alone, and if Luke were the only text in all of scripture, then we might proclaim "case-closed." However, Luke, the author of Acts, seems to hint that there is room to interpret "today" as emphasizing a testimony:

Acts 26:29 "And Paul said, I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds."

This example answers my friend's question "did people in Jesus' day build sentences like that." Apparently, Paul did. In the Old Testament, God frequently uses "I command thee" in conjunction with "to day" or "this day" (see, for example, Deuteronomy 30:14-16, Deuteronomy 15:15, Zechariah 9:12, and many more). In the Old Testament, we have other examples of people using "to day" alongside testimonies and promises:

  1. 2 Samuel 14:22 "And Joab fell to the ground on his face, and bowed himself, and thanked the king: and Joab said, To day thy servant knoweth that I have found grace in thy sight, my lord, O king, in that the king hath fulfilled the request of his servant."
  2. 1 Kings 1:51 "And it was told Solomon, saying, Behold, Adonijah feareth king Solomon: for, lo, he hath caught hold on the horns of the altar, saying, Let king Solomon swear unto me to day that he will not slay his servant with the sword."
  3. Deuteronomy 9:3 "Understand therefore this day, that the LORD thy God is he which goeth over before thee; as a consuming fire he shall destroy them, and he shall bring them down before thy face: so shalt thou drive them out, and destroy them quickly, as the LORD hath said unto thee."

Perhaps the strongest example of this type of construction occurs in Hebrews 3:7-19, where Paul expands on a text in the the Old Testament:

Psalms 95:7-11 "For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. To day if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness: When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my work. Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways: Unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest."

This closely mirrors what is happening in Luke 23.

  • Luke 23:35 "And the people stood beholding. And the rulers also with them derided him, saying, He saved others; let him save himself (saw his work, tempted him), if he be Christ, the chosen of God."
  • Luke 23:43 "And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee today (today if you will hear my voice) shalt thou be with me in paradise (enter into my rest)."

As we'll see in the next post, both Luke 23:42-43 and Hebrews 3:7-19 point to another amazing story in the Old Testament that shines new light on the promise to the Thief on the Cross, but that's another study.