THE THIEF ON THE CROSS
TEXT: LUKE 23: 39-43
This brief passage relates one of the most amazing prayers and promises in the entire in the Bible.
A. ANGRY INSULTS FROM A DYING CRIMINAL (V. 39)
“And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, if thou be Christ, save thyself and us.” (Luke 23:39).
Hanging on crosses at Jesus right and left hand are two criminals, Greek kakourgos, criminal, evil-order, one who commits gross misdeeds and serious crimes. One of these highwaymen, dying on a cross on one side of Jesus, now takes up the cat calling begun by the soldiers, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” it was probably much like the cruel teasing of inmates that goes on in prison today. It represents a general jab at authority of any kind. A pulling of everyone down to one’s own level. The thief is making fun of Jesus inability to do anything despite the exalted title of “Messiah” that has been used concerning him. Where is this talk of “Messiah” now? He sneers. You are dying just like us. Death is the great equalizer.
B. THIS MAN HAS DONE NOTHING WRONG (V.40-41)
“But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.” (Luke 23:40-41).
These taunts are making the other condemned brigand very uncomfortable. The word blaspheme can refer to reviling humans, but also to "speak irreverently, impiously, disrespectfully of or about God." The second bandit has not lost his faith, for he asks, "Don't you fear God?" To stand by and participate in such an unrighteous act as to execute an innocent man is an impious, sinful act, and the second brigand refuses to desert his sense of right and wrong.
C. REMEMBER ME IN YOUR KINGDIM (V.42)
“And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” (Luke 23:42).
By any measure, this statement is astounding! Jesus' disciples have fled or linger disillusioned at the margins of the crowd. Their hopelessness is echoed by the men on the road to Emmaus, "they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel" (Luke 24:20-21). But here on the cross to one side, a fellow condemned man, life ebbing out of him, looks across and sees not another dying man, but the Messiah himself. Somehow, he understands that Jesus is not an impostor, and that he will still receive the Kingdom that belongs to the Messiah. I recall Joseph saying something similar to Pharoah's cupbearer, prisoner to fellow prisoner, when Joseph predicted that the cupbearer would be released from prison: "When all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison" (Genesis 40:14). How can this quality of faith exist at such a dark time? Already the darkness is falling over the whole land, and yet a dying thief believes. Did he confess his sins? Yes. "We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve" (Luke 23:41). Does he repent? Not verbally, but I think so. His repentance and hope prompt his plea for mercy, "Remember me."
1. Isn’t Baptism Required for Salvation?
But was he baptized? Isn’t baptism a requirement for salvation? Jesus certainly commands baptism. In the Great Commission He says, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” (Matt 28:19. The command is even stronger in the longer disputed ending of Mark’s Gospel: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” (Mark 16:16).
The importance of baptism is also implied by Peter on the Day of Pentecost. In response to the question, what shall we do? “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (Acts 2:38).
But things don't always follow the prescribed order. At the house of Cornelius in Caesarea, the Holy Spirit comes upon Gentiles who believe the words Peter is saying to them. So, Peter baptizes them after the Holy Spirit comes upon them. The common denominator here is faith. It is found in the statement, "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved" (Mark 16:16). It is found in the question at Pentecost, "What shall we do?" (Acts 2:38). And it is found in the believers at Cornelius' home. The thief on the cross believes; his prayer to Jesus is bursting with faith. He has more faith that day than any other human observing this gruesome scene. So far as adults are concerned, nearly all Christians would agree that baptism accompanies faith, and should follow as soon as appropriate after faith (at least it seems to in all the examples we see in the New Testament), but I would contend that baptism itself does not save. Paul writes, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
We could multiply references to the primacy of faith, such as, "whosoever believes in him... (John 3:16, 36; 6:40), "your faith has saved you" (Luke 7:50), and many others. It is not that you can or should separate baptism from salvation. You shouldn't. They go together. Nor should one construct doctrine from exceptions. But the thief on the cross gives us an illustration of saving faith apart from baptism, and that is instructive to us as we seek to understand this mystery of salvation.
2. How About Deathbed Conversions?
The example of the thief on the cross is often cited as the precedent for deathbed conversions. And so, it is. I don't doubt that the thief had attended one of Jesus' outdoor teachings and come to some sort of faith there. And so, have many who repent and confess Christ on their deathbeds. The difference between "some sort of faith" and "saving faith" is true repentance and the commitment to Christ that repentance implies. It is possible, I believe, to be saved at one's deathbed. But I've seen too many people who say, "I'll follow Christ later. But now I want to have fun." And some of them don't get a chance to repent on their deathbeds. Some of them are taken in accidents or from heart attacks, and never have a chance to repent at the end of their days. Yes, deathbed salvation is possible the thief on the cross indicates this and it may even be real (God only knows the heart), but it must not be relied upon.
D. TODAY YOU WILL BE WITH ME IN PARADISE (V. 43)
“And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43).
What a wonderful promise Jesus gives the believing thief: presence with Christ in paradise! Our English word "paradise" is a transliteration of the Greek word paradeisos, and that comes from an Old Persian word pairidaeza, "enclosure." In the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament the word is used especially for the Garden of God in the creation story (Genesis 2:8-10, 16, etc.), and this translation moves the word from secular parks to the sacred Garden of God. Judaism of Jesus' day equated Paradise with the New Jerusalem, and saw it as the present abode of the souls of the departed patriarchs, the elect, and the righteous. In the New Testament the word paradise is used three times: “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43).
“And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.” (2Corintians 12:3-4).
“He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” (Revelation 2:7).
In 2 Corinthians 12:3-4 Paul seems to equate the "third heaven" with paradise. I think we can identify paradise with heaven and be pretty safe. Jesus is promising the believing thief that he will be with Jesus in heaven "today."