‘With Me in Paradise’: Teaching Jesus’ Words from the Cross to Teenagers

orange peel story

At the crucifixion, two men hung next to Jesus on their own crosses, one on each side, suffering the same fate. The only difference was that these other two individuals deserved punishment, whereas Jesus was sinless. 

One of the men challenged Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” We read in Luke 23 that the other man rebuked the first, recognizing Jesus’ innocence in contrast to the just punishment of both criminals. Acknowledging who Jesus was, this second man turned to him and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v. 42). 

The Lord’s reply? 

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Luke 23:43

As we teach these verses to teenagers, it’s important we remind them that Jesus spoke these words as he was suffering the most brutal death imaginable. The men hanging beside him were common criminals. Tradition often portrays them as thieves, but Scripture doesn’t tell us their crimes. Regardless, they were sentenced to death with no apparent hope, dying in their shame. In response to the second man’s request, Jesus gave the most encouraging words anyone could hear.  

What could this man have possibly done to have merited Jesus’ favor?  How could a criminal, suffering a death sentence with no record of good behavior, no community service performed, receive a pronouncement of eternal life? The only thing to his credit was that he understood who was next to him and sought Jesus’ forgiveness. It is only because of grace, the unmerited favor that comes through Christ.  

Application for Teenagers

I remember sitting by the lake for a large group gathering at a Christian camp in middle school, which was not really a point in my life in which I considered myself a Christian. A group of counselors gathered in front of all the students for a teaching demonstration. One of the female counselors took an orange and showed it to the crowd. She went around to a few male counselors and lent the orange to each one who took out a piece and started eating it. At the end, the final camp counselor, in giving some instructions on staying sexually pure, held up the mangled orange peel to the crowd and essentially said, “this is what happens when you give your heart away prematurely. Do you want to give this to your future husband or wife?” 

I’m sure many of us who went to Christian camp growing up heard a similar message: Stay out of trouble, stay clean, otherwise you’re worthless. While this approach does illustrate the significance of sin, it also misses a vital element in the gospel, namely the power of grace. Instead, teenagers need to hear that Jesus draws toward sinners, even in their worst condition. 

Romans 5:8 says, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”—not when we attained a certain level of holiness, or met certain academic or athletic criteria. While the proverbial orange was still mangled and mostly a peel, Jesus came and redeemed it. Nowhere is this demonstration of grace more true than on the very cross where Jesus was crucified. 

There is a lot of pressure on today’s teenagers. They are busier than ever as their parents shuttle them here and there, hoping they will get into a top-tier college, get a scholarship, and have a “better life.” With stress running so high, mistakes feel less tolerated. And because failure weighs so heavy on our teenagers, so does their sin. Sadly, many of them experience a culture of judgment and shame even in our churches, where perfectionism is all that matters and grace is secondary.  

But the words Jesus spoke to the criminal hanging beside him offer hope for our burden of sin. There is an old saying, “if it’s good for the goose, it’s good for the gander.” In other words, if these words were true for the criminal, they are true for us today. This man was no doubt despised by society, yet Jesus saw him differently. Many of our teens may feel rejected by others: maybe their friends, their teachers, or even in some cases their parents. But the grace of Jesus sees past the rejection they feel. 

If we are willing to turn to Jesus for forgiveness, he freely offers it. Our teenagers must understand this message in order for them to become like Christ. It’s more than just simply doing good or signing up or the latest cause. They must first of all understand their sin and how it separates them from God, but more than that understand the God who gave his son to die to abolish that separation.

Under the Roman system, people were mostly crucified for serious cause. The criminals on the cross had committed serious sins, yet Jesus forgave him. Although our students may feel like failures because of what they have or haven’t done, or who they may have offended, there is hope for the future. Jesus came to take away our sin and to redefine what it means to be “successful.” He gave us eternal life, and more than that, a life in the full presence of the wonder-working, all-powerful God.

Truth for Gospel Living

As finite human beings, we tend to be very focused on the present moment. For the criminal on the cross, the moment looked bleak—dying a brutal death in shame. But the man being crucified just a few feet away was in the process of achieving something far beyond his wildest dreams. We can’t always see God working in the shadows, we can’t always know his plans, but we have faith that he is turning a masterpiece out of the mess that we have made for ourselves in our sin.  

In the moment, our failures can loom large, especially our sin. The Enemy can tell us how worthless we are, as can other people in our lives, like friends, classmates or maybe even our parents. As our students wrestle with sin, they can become discouraged, especially in a culture where it seems like perfectionism and high performance is demanded. In the moment they may feel like failures, but our role as youth ministers is to remind them that for those who are in Christ, there will be a day when they too will be with him in paradise because of what he did for them on the cross.  

The world may not want the orange from the camp object lesson, but the message of the gospel is that if we come to him in our broken condition, Jesus can make it new.

Don’t miss the other articles in our Teaching Jesus’ Words from the Cross to Teenagers series: Part I.

Steve Eatmon has over 12 years of experience in youth ministry and a Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary.  Currently, he serves as the pastor to high school and middle school students at the Chinese Bible Church of Maryland. He is married to Heather and they have two children, Ryan and Rachael.  

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