A controversial comma
One of the criminals who was being crucified with Jesus repented of his sin and asked Jesus to remember him. Jesus made this promise to him:
And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
He was telling him that the two of them would be together in Paradise that same day. Or was he?
Some people think the comma before “today” should be placed after it instead. Then Jesus would have said:
Truly, I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.
If this is the correct reading, “today” refers to the time Jesus is making the statement and so he isn’t saying anything about when the thief will be with him. This interpretation is made by people who believe in soul sleep, the doctrine that the dead aren’t conscious between the time of their death and their resurrection.
But does the second interpretation make any sense? Anyone listening to Jesus would know he was speaking today, so why would he have to say it?
Of course, the objection could be raised that the same thing applies to the phrase “truly, I say to you.” It is obvious that Jesus is saying it so why would he need to say it? But if you read the gospels you will find that Jesus often began statements with this phrase. In fact, it is found 72 times in the gospels. But the only time the word “today” immediately follows is when he made the promise to the repentant criminal. If it is a reference to the fact that he is speaking today why would he use it for the first time here?
There is one other time when he made a similar reference to time. In Matthew 26:34 he said to Peter,
Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.
This statement poses the same question as his statement to the thief; does “this very night” refer to the time Jesus is making the statement or the time Peter will betray him? In this case we can find the answer simply by reading on and finding out what else happened that night. If we do this we will see that Peter’s denial took place that same night. It seems reasonable to conclude from this that the dying thief entered Paradise the same day Jesus made the promise to him.