Question: "What did Jesus mean when He said, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’?"
Answer: It is common knowledge that punctuation, including commas, was introduced into the biblical manuscripts centuries after the books were completed. Therefore, commas are not authoritative.
However, the placement of commas can affect our understanding of a text. For example, in Luke 23, one of the thieves crucified next to Jesus says, “‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise’” (verses 42-43). Commas help us keep the original phrasing intact. Was Jesus saying, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me . . .” (meaning that “today” is when the thief would be in paradise)? Or was He saying, “I tell you the truth today, you will be with me . . .” (meaning that “today” is when Jesus was speaking”)?
First, we note that every major Bible translation inserts the comma before the word today. Thus, the KJV, NKJV, NASB, NIV, ESV, and RSV all agree that Jesus was speaking of the time that the thief would enter paradise. The thief would be in paradise with Jesus on that very same day.
Also, Jesus prefaced His response with the phrase, “I tell you the truth” (“Verily I say unto thee” in the KJV). Many scholars have noticed that Jesus uses this as a prefix phrase when He is about to say something that should be listened to with care. Seventy-six times in the New Testament, Jesus uses the phrase. Interestingly, no one but Jesus ever says it. When the Lord says “I tell you the truth,” He is affirming that what He is about to say is worthy of special attention. It was Jesus’ way of saying, “Listen up! What I’m about to say is very important and should be listened to carefully.” We’re too used to hearing the phrase to appreciate the astonishing authority it expresses and the often solemn nature of the announcement that follows. In every one of the 76 times Christ uses this introductory phrase, He simply says it and then makes a startling statement.
It would be strange indeed if, in this one instance, Jesus departed from His normal way of making His signature statement by adding the word today to it. In every case where this sort of introductory phrase is used, Greek scholars add a punctuation break after the phrase in question and before the rest of the statement. So, the translators have it right. The comma in Luke 23:43 belongs where they put it.
This brings us to another question. If Jesus was buried and rose after three days and then many days later ascended to heaven, how could He have been in paradise with the thief?
After Christ died, it was His body that was buried in the tomb. However, Jesus’ spirit/soul was not in the tomb. Jesus’ spirit was in the Father’s presence (Luke 23:46; Ephesians 4:8). See more information in our article here.
As Jesus was hanging on the cross, paying our penalty for sin, He made a promise to a dying, repentant thief. By the grace of God and the power of Christ, that promise was kept. The thief’s sins were washed away, and his death that day was his entrance to paradise.