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The Thief on the Cross

April 13th, 2009

One of the most beautiful and encouraging passages in the Bible is Luke 23:39-43.  In spite of the suffering and humiliation we see faith and humility from a repenting thief and mind-blowing love, mercy and grace from our blessed Savior.  It strengthens us because if a thief may enter into paradise with our Lord there must be hope for us!  It is saddening that it is misunderstood and misapplied to say baptism is a useless work and unnecessary for salvation.

 

The first thing to consider is that we know nothing of this thief’s background and what he knew of Jesus.  What if he had once been a disciple of either John or Jesus?  He may have previously been baptized.  We can’t know.  Perhaps he had at least heard our Lord teach or witnessed a miracle.  We don’t know.  We do know that as he hung on a cross next to Christ he had a change of heart.  Both Matthew 27:44 and Mark 15:32 attest to the fact that both highwaymen reviled him.  This is all we know about him.  The passage in Luke 23 reveals other key points to think about.

 

The thief acknowledges God and confesses that Christ is King—statements of faith.  Additionally, he begs Jesus to receive him into His kingdom.  I am reminded of Hebrews 11:6 which states, “…he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.”  The thief had faith in Christ and that He would bless His own with an eternal abode with Him.  It leads me to believe the thief had heard Jesus teach before.

 

We also can’t afford to forget that while Jesus lived here on earth He had the authority to dispense the blessings of eternity.  Consider the example in Mark 2.  However, since His death He has chosen for this authority to reside in His testamentary will.  Hebrews 9:15-17 tells us “…for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives.”  The Bible states matter-of-factly that the rules changed after our Lord died.  Anything that took place before His death falls under a different set of rules and is not recorded as an example of our path to Him today.  The Bible states the New Testament terms of redemption and specify baptism as a condition of pardon (read Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21, etc.).

 

None of us has been given the authority to alter the last will and testament of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords!  I fear that this is exactly what is attempted when people use the thief on the cross as our pattern and refuse to acknowledge the rest of the new covenant’s teaching.  I love the story of the thief, but one of its purposes must be that when we read we desire that same reward and say something like “what shall we do?” as in Acts 2:37.  What was the answer in Acts 2:38?  Please search the New Testament carefully and let it instruct you and make you “wise unto salvation” (2 Timothy 3:15).

 

 

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  1. avatar
    Tad
    April 14th, 2009 at 07:47 | #1

    Good thoughts. Another passage especially useful on this topic is Romans 6. Baptism into Christ, the baptism necessary for salvation, is only effective through the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord. The point is apparent – the thief had no need to be baptized as Jesus had not yet died and the new covanent had not yet been fully established. Galatians 3:27 also helps to illustrate this truth.

  2. avatar
    Kevin
    April 15th, 2009 at 12:29 | #2

    I echo Tad’s sentament. Christ had not yet died and so his covenant had not yet been established. While living on the earth, Jesus had the power to forgive sin directly (Mark 2:9, Matt. 9:2), but as you said, the rules changed following his death, which is why we see Peter instructing the crowd to “repent and be baptized” in Acts 2:38, and why we see so many examples of people being baptized upon hearing and accepting the gospel in the book of Acts. I am glad you referenced the verse in Hebrews. That is what clears it up for me.

  3. avatar
    Lee
    April 16th, 2009 at 15:20 | #3

    The fulfilling of the old law. This is what God intended for us all along.

  4. avatar
    Frank Murdock
    April 17th, 2009 at 07:33 | #4

    It looks good but if you are among those who have been fooled by Satan that humans have the right and ability to choose which Bible you LIKE. I am sorry and request you please do not take offense to me for telling you what I believe God wants me to do on OUR BEHALF? (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13; 1st Cor. 1:10; 2; 13:10; Ja. 1:25)If God inspiried revealed and preserves His Pure Word and it is not The Old Bible believed to be it, which one of the NEW ONES is it? (Gal. 1-9) Jesus warned us the devil takes the word “immediately” MK. 4:15, Lu. 8:11-12 In His Love-Frank

  5. April 17th, 2009 at 09:32 | #5

    @Frank Murdock
    Thanks for the comment Brother Frank. As Peter wrote, “[God] has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness…” (2 Peter 2:3). Although the revealed word was not complete when Peter penned those words, it’s current fullness assures, “that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work,” if we turn our attention to it. We need to look no further than the Bible for our answers. We also must obey the commandments of Jesus to insure our soul’s salvation.

  6. avatar
    Mark Patterson
    November 26th, 2009 at 15:52 | #6

    This is my understanding of the thief on the cross , The thief knew or heard of Christ at some point in time .
    2 He asked Christ to take him with him . 3 We can not ask that question because we are after the cross not before the cross . 4 The old law was still in affect until Christ death on the Cross. 5 Christ had the power to forgive sin this power is from God.
    My hope these are correct I am building a lesson on this matter its in outline form now.

  7. avatar
    Kyle
    November 28th, 2009 at 22:58 | #7

    @Mark Patterson Thank you for saying in so few words what took me about 500, Mark! You’re exactly right. As THE KING Jesus can do whatever He wills so long as it is in accordance with the will of the Father. The most basic meanig of the narrative is to inspire us to that kind of faith.

  8. avatar
    rick moody
    March 14th, 2010 at 14:52 | #8

    Mark 1:5 And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the riiver of Jordan, confessing their sins. Therefore, if this man was a Jew he likely was baptized by John invalidating the argument that he was not baptized. Many are confused by the argument that the thief was not baptized. It does not matter as repentant believers were not added into the church until the Day of Pentecost. What baptizm really does for us is add us to the church, the vehicle which Christ died for. Eph 5:25-27

  9. December 18th, 2011 at 22:41 | #9

    My brother in Christ, i greet you in the name of our LORD and Savior Jesus Christ. Your Points:
    1.The thief knew or heard of Christ at some point in time .
    There is NO scripture to support this idea or concept
    2.He asked Christ to take him with him
    When you take into equate how long Jesus hung on the cross and the humanity he showed by continuely praying for us to the father, this was the true word of GOD, remember Romans 10:17
    So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
    Romans 10:16-18 (in Context) Romans, and this is where the thief establish his faith in Christ and repented.
    Luke 24:34 And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
    Salvation is an act of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. God’s forgiveness is an act of grace that we cannot earn.

  10. avatar
    Kyle
    December 19th, 2011 at 12:28 | #10

    @Ernest Porter
    Hi, Ernest. Thanks for your comments.

    As to point #1, I acknowledged in the article that we can’t know one way or the other, but it is highly unlikely that the repentant thief had not heard of Jesus. Josephus had heard of Jesus. Also, I point out that the thief knew that Jesus was innocent, which may allude to the fact that he knew at least a little about the Lord. My only real point was that these few verses reveal very little about the man’s life and background, therefore, we can’t assume that he had never heard Jesus teach (the thief seemed to know that Christ was King, for instance).

    Regarding point #2, I addressed that in paragraph 3, quoting from Hebrews 9 that a testementary will is not in force until after the testator (Jesus in this case) has passed away. In His testament, the conditions of pardon are revealed to us.

    As to baptism, there are many articles dealing with that subject in the archives of this website, quite a few written by myself. But, to answer briefly, baptism is a work of God according to Paul in the book of Colossians. When someone is baptized into Christ the Lord is doing the cleansing–so it is His work being done, not ours. This is not ‘earning’ salvation in any way.

    I could offer a meal to any poor people that show up at my door on any Tuesday at noon. If a poor person shows up at the appointed time they get the meal. Did they ‘earn’ it? No. I offered the meal by grace–but they did meet the conditions I set forth. They simply heeded the call. I see baptism, as set forth in the NT, in the same light. When I was baptized, I did not earn the cleansing, but I did heed the Word.

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