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).