Paradise. What is paradise? How do we get there? Is paradise the place where we will be happy all the time?
We live in America, we are supposed to be happy. It’s our right to be happy. As a matter of fact, it’s our very duty as Americans to be happy.
After all, we have our cars, our houses, our technology, our vacations. One of our founding documents declares flatly that we are all about our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
We spend trillions on our military apparatus to defend our freedom to pursue that happiness. We pursue that happiness with endless activity, endless busy-ness. Even our “leisure” activities prompt is to get up early, drive for hours, fly to far off places, and cram our schedules so we can “do” more.
We strive to do more. We strive to get more. We want to have more. Always in the pursuit of happiness. John D Rockefeller, probably the wealthiest man in the world at his time, was once asked ‘How much money is enough”. To which he answered “a little bit more”. Rockefeller started and owned most of Standard Oil. Standard Oil was broken up into multiple pieces by the government in 1911 for monopolistic practices. Four of the companies that came from that breakup were Exxon, Mobil, Chevron and Amoco, which to this day are ALL among the top 50 large companies in the world. So, a little bit more than what?
We only have one life to live. We are told from early on, every day of our lives, that if we do more, more, more, and we get more, more, more, then we will be happy. We seek out things, we seek out experiences. We want to do more, see more, have more.
In the pursuit of this happiness, we put on our happy face. We’re Americans, it’s our duty to be happy, right? We have more than anybody else, we do more. So when somebody asks us how we are doing, we put on our happy face, our mask, and we tell them how good we are doing, how happy we are.
Meanwhile, we look around us, and we are jealous of the guy asking how we are doing. He’s got a nicer house, faster car. He’s got the wife we wish we had. But still, we put on our face and tell him how great life is, not knowing that underneath his happy face, he’s swimming in debt, is hot for the young new secretary in the office, and keeps a brown bottle in his desk.
This is the life we live. We believe the script for our lives we are given daily. Do more, get more, fight for what we want. Then we get to the end, wherever that is, and wonder what happened to our happiness. We’ve spent our whole lives running around doing. And somehow we think we’ve missed paradise because we didn’t get a little bit more.
That’s not the script given to us by Jesus. We are not called to get more. We are not justified by doing more. The path to paradise, as laid out by Jesus, has nothing to do with getting or doing. The path to paradise is started by dying. Not physically dying, but spiritually dying to self. Dying to doing things our own way. We see this over and over again in the words of Jesus.
“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:24-25 ESV
“Remember Lot’s wife. Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it. I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left.” Luke 17:32-34 ESV
“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:39 ESV
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” John 12:24-25 ESV
We live in selfie-nation. We live for self, and want to show off for everyone around us just how much fun we are having while we’re doing it. Jesus taught us, over and over, in many different settings, to die to ourselves. What is He talking about, what does He mean? And what does all this have to do with paradise and happiness?? We can find the road to paradise in the events at the His crucifixion.
Jesus was not crucified alone. He was crucified with two criminals, the bible calls them thieves. They probably weren’t simply petty thieves, that’s not the kind of crime that earned execution in the Roman Empire. More likely, they were revolutionaries who fought the required submission to the empire. This is what would get you crucified by Rome, challenging the required submission, not proclaiming “Caesar is Lord!” Not acknowledging that the “Pax Romana” (peace of Rome) was the last best hope for mankind. These two were probably revolutionaries who supported themselves in their chosen fight against Rome by robbing the wealthy Jews and Romans outside of town, as they were traveling. Much more than simple petty thieves.
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” Our tendency to blame and scapegoat, to join the crowd when it is aimed at someone else, is so strong that even this man dying with Jesus joins in the accusations against Him.
But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” But not the other man condemned with Jesus. It really is amazing what this guy says dying on the cross. He recognizes in the man dying next him, the savior and Messiah of the world. He sees a King who has a Kingdom.
After spending his life pursuing his happiness, fighting for his rights, taking what he wanted, he finally finds his peace in these moments before dying. He gives up his life, stops trying to justify himself, and simply comes to Jesus. And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” No explanation, no justifying. No more works of the flesh, no more fighting for what he thought was right. No more doing it His way. Just finally giving up himself to God who came to offer salvation. And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Remember John Chapter 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus we must be born again of the water and of the spirit. “Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” John 3:5-7 ESV. We must die to ourselves, die to our flesh, to be born again of the spirit. Unless we are born of the spirit, we can not get into the kingdom of God, can not get into paradise.
We know that we started in paradise, in the Garden of Eden. We disobeyed God, chose to live for our flesh. “He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.”Genesis 3:24 ESV. What if the tree of life has been shown to us? What if the tree of life is the cross Jesus died on? What if we die to ourselves, come to Jesus at the cross, and get born again into paradise. “And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23 ESV. The way into paradise is through the cross of Jesus. Follow Him into submission to God, back into paradise through the tree of life.
“One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.””
Luke 23:39-43 ESV