"But What About the Thief on the Cross?"
About twenty years ago I heard the lamented Jack McElroy announce that he would preach the next night on "The Most Popular Thief in This City." I could think immediately of several thieves that he might have in mind, but upon returning the next night I heard him speak on "The Thief on the Cross." And indeed he is the most popular thief in any city.
One may wonder why a thief would become so popular or significant. After engaging in a few Bible discussions with non-Christians, one will often find nearly every argument he makes to show what one must do in order to be saved countered with one question, "But what about the thief on the cross?" In many passages one reads that one of the conditions of salvation is baptism (See Mk. 16:16; Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16; 1 Pet. 3:21).
All of these passages will be swept aside by many non-members by one question, "But what about the thief on the cross?" The thief is supposed to constitute the exception to the gospel plan of salvation. Since the question so often is posed, let us study "What About the Thief on the Cross?"
The Biblical Record
One can read what the Bible tells us about the thief on the cross in Matt. 27:38-44-, Mk. 15:27-32; Luke, 23:33, 39-43. Let us first read these passages.
"Then are there crucified with him two robbers, one on the right hand and one on the left. And they that passed by railed on him, wagging their heads, and saying, thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself: if thou are the Son of God, come down from the cross. In like manner also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said, He saved others; himself he cannot save. He is the king of Israel; let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe on him. He trustetk on God; let him deliver him now, if he desireth him: for he said, I am the Son of God. And the robbers also that were crucified with him cast upon him the same reproach" (Matt. 27:38-44).
Mk. 15:27-32 is very similar. It reads: "And with him they crucify two robbers; one on his right hand, and one on his left. And they that passed by railed on him, wagging their heads, and saying, Hal thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself, and come down Jrom the cross. In like manner also the chief priests mocking him among themselves with the scribes said, He saved others; himself he cannot save. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross, that we may see and believe. And they that were crucified with him reproached him."
Luke's account relates a few additional details. It reads: "And when they come unto the place which is called the Skull, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand and the other on the left. . . . And one of the malefactors that were hanged railed on him, saying, Art not thou the Christ? Save thyself and us. But the other answered, and rebuking him said, dost thou not even 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. And he said, Jesus, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom. And he said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise" (Lk. 23: 33, 39-43).
Fulfillment of Prophecy
The crucifixion of Christ between two robbers fulfilled the Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 53. Seven hundred years before the coming of Christ, Isaiah had predicted that he would be "numbered with the transgressors" (Isa. 53:12). Jesus told his disciples, "all things must needs be fulfilled, which are written in the law of Moses, and the prophets, and the psalms, concerning me" (Lk. 24:44). About sixty Old Testament prophecies concerning Christ were fulfilled on the day of his crucifixion. During the six hours that Jesus hung on the cross, he uttered seven brief statements. Each of these statements constituted the specific fulfillment of a prophecy concerning him. Thus his death between the two thieves constituted the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy that he would be "numbered with the transgressors."
Jesus' Statement to, the Thief
The accounts by Matthew and Mark indicate that at first both of the thieves reproached Christ. But afterward one of the thieves repented. Notice the words of the penitent thief, "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." "This man hath done nothing amiss." He then said, "Jesus, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom."
In response to these words of the thief, Jesus said, "Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in Paradise." What did these words of Jesus mean? The original word translated "Paradise" in Luke 23:43 is defined by Arndt and Gingrich as "a place of blessedness above the earth" (A GREEK ENGLISH LEXICON, 1952 edition, p. 619). Henry Thayer defined the word used to mean "that part of Hades which was thought to be the abode of the souls of the pious until the resurrection" (THAYER'S GREEK-ENGLISH LEXICON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, American Book Company Corrected Edition, p. 480,).
In Acts 2:27, 31, we read that Jesus, after his death, went into "Hades." "Hades" was the spirit world, the place where disembodied spirits went. "Hades" had in it two compartments, "paradise" and "tartarus." "Paradise" was the place where righteous spirits went to await the judgment. "Tartarus" (used in 2 Pet. 2:4) was the place where unrighteous spirits awaited the judgment. We see this illustrated in Luke 16:19-31. After death, but prior to the final judgment, the rich man is in "torment," while Lazarus is "comforted." Lazarus was apparently in "Paradise."
Some have questioned whether Jesus mean the thief would be saved when he said, "Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise." But it seems clear to me that salvation was promised to the thief. To be in "Paradise" seems in this passage equivalent with salvation. So I do not question the salvation of the thief. I believe that the Bible teaches that he was saved.
Was the Thief Baptized?
Those who misuse the thief, to try to avoid obeying the gospel, reason something like this: "What about the thief on the cross? He was not baptized; yet the Lord saved him. Since this is true, then people today can be saved without being baptized." The thief on the cross would never have gotten so much attention if there were not so many people who would like to avoid being baptized.
When one attempts to use the thief on the cross as a lone exception to gospel obedience, he thereby admits that in the New Testament cases of conversion, those who were converted were baptized. In order to verify that baptism was a part of conversion in the New Testament, read the accounts of the conversion of the Jews on Pentecost (Acts 2:38), the Samaritans (Acts 8:12, 13), Saul of Tarsus (Acts 22:16), Cornelius (Acts 10:47, 48), Lydia (Acts 16:15), the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:33), and of those converted in Corinth (Acts 18:8). and Ephesus (Acts 19:3-5).
There were those in the days of John the Baptist who sought to avoid baptism, Of these the Bible says, "But the Pharisees and the Lawyers rejected for themselves the counsel of God, being not baptized of him" (Lk. 7:30). There are many today who reject the counsel of God against themselves by refusing to be baptized. Those who reject baptism as a condition of salvation think they can be saved like the thief was saved, and their chief argument is that the thief was not baptized.
But was the thief baptized? If the thief is the one exception to the gospel plan of salvation, and if one is going to try to be saved without baptism because the thief was saved without baptism, he ought at least to be able to prove that the thief was saved without baptism. We know that every convert about whose conversion we can read in the book of Acts was baptized. And the thief may have been baptized.
John the Baptist had baptized many in the area of Jerusalem. "Then went out unto him Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region round about the Jordan; they were baptized of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins" (Mt. 3:5, 6). Mark adds, "John came, who baptized in the wilderness and preached the baptism of repentance unto remission of sins. And there went out unto him ALL the country of Judea, and ALL they of Jerusalem; and they were baptized of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins" (Mk. 1: 4, 5). Was the thief among those baptized by John? If one is going to use the thief as his only authority to prove that one can be saved without baptism, he must be able to prove that the thief was not baptized by John the Baptist. But this no man can prove!
Furthermore, Jesus nearly had completed his ministry on earth when he told the thief, "Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise." Included in Jesus' preaching was the commandment to be baptized. "When therefore the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples), he left Judea, and departed again unto Galilee" (John 4: 1-3). Jesus made and baptized many disciples. The Bible says that he "was making AND BAPTIZING MORE DISCIPLES THAN JOHN." Can those who think the thief was unbaptized prove that he was not among these?
Before people stake their salvation without baptism on the thief on the cross, they had better be able to prove the thief was unbaptized. That the thief was unbaptized is merely an unfounded assumption on their part. They assume that his salvation constitutes an exception to the gospel plan of salvation. Furthermore, they assume that they can be saved like they assume the thief on the cross was saved.
The Thief and the New Testament
In any consideration of the thief, one must keep in mind that the thief lived under the Old Testament. The writer of the book of Hebrews argues that a change of law was made. "For the Priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law" (Heb. 7:12). Hebrews 9:16, 17 tell us when this change of law was effected. "For where a testament is, there must of necessity be the death of him that made it. For a testament is of force where there hath been death: for it doth never avail while he that made it liveth." Paul, in Rom. 7:4, said: "Wherefore, my brethren, ye also were made dead to the law through the body of Christ." Prior to the death of Christ, the Old Testament was in force. After his death, the New Testament became effective.
It is obvious, therefore, that we live in the New Testament era. It is equally obvious that when Jesus said "Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise" the thief was yet under the Old Testament, since this remark was made prior to the death of Christ. Whatever might be shown to be true concerning the salvation of the thief is of no relevance to our salvation, since he lived under a different law from that under which people today live.
One might as well argue that if Abraham ' Moses and David were saved without baptism, then one today can likewise be saved without baptism. But baptism is made a condition of salvation under the New Testament. It was not a condition of salvation under the Old Testament, the law under which Abraham, Moses, David and the thief lived.
In the secular field, there are many laws applicable to us today that were not applicable to our ancestors. The right to assess an income tax was established by the passing of the sixteenth amendment to the constitution in 1913. Should one therefore argue, "Since my great-grandfather paid no income tax, I therefore do not have to pay income tax?" The tax men would quickly explain, "But the laws under which you live demand the payment of income tax, while there was no such law when your great-grandfather lived." My great-grandfather very likely did not have to have a driver's license, a draft card, or a social security number. But the law under which I live requires all of these. The Old Testament did not command baptism, but the New Testament does.
Christ's Authority an Earth to Forgive
Jesus taught in Matt. 9:1-8 that he had authority on earth to forgive sins. He said, "But that ye may know that the Son of man hath authority on earth to forgive sins (then saitk he to the sick of the palsy), Arise, and take up thy bed, and go unto thy house" (Matt. 9:6). The palsied man was not told to be baptized, nor was he commanded to believe, or to repent. While Jesus was on earth, be could dispense of his spiritual goods on any terms that be saw fit.
Thus during the personal ministry of Christ, there were different conditions stipulated for salvation. In Lk. 18:18-30 a "certain ruler" was told to "sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor . . ." This is not a universal condition of salvation today. This was one of those special cases, while Jesus was yet on earth. He then could dispense of his goods on any terms that he saw fit, or be unconditionally could bestow his goods. Prior to a man's death, be may do with his property as he chooses. But after the death of the testator, his goods are bestowed according to the terms of his will. Different conditions for receiving God's blessings were imposed upon different individuals during the personal ministry of Christ, and in some instances, no conditions at all were imposed.
But after the death of Christ, a new law (testament) became effective. His spiritual blessings were then imparted according to the terms of his will. No longer was there a diversity of conditions imposed. Under the New Testament, the same things are required of every individual. Before the household of Cornelius Peter declared, "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respector of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is acceptable to him" (Acts 10: 34, 35). God only has one plan of salvation now, and that plan is revealed in the gospel of Christ (Rom. 1: 16). One of the conditions of that plan of salvation is that one be baptized for the remission of sins. Peter taught that "every one of you" must "repent and be baptized" in the name of Christ "for the remission of sins" (Acts 2: 38).
There is no need to inquire as to whether Abraham, or Moses, or the thief on the cross had to be baptized. The pertinent question is, "what must I do to be saved?" This question is not answered by finding out what the thief (who lived under a different law, and while Christ was yet on earth) had to do. "What must I do?" can only be answered by a search of the testament under which I live. Since the death of Christ, men have lived under the New Testament, and by that testament we shall- be judged (John 12:48).
In every instance of conversion about which you can read in the New Testament, the subject converted was baptized. Thus, my friend let me urge you not to misuse the thief, and to permit your misunderstanding of his salvation to keep you from doing what Christ has commanded you to do. Remember, "The Pharisees and the lawyers rejected for themselves the counsel of God, being not baptized of him" (Lk. 7:30). Do not make the same mistake they made.
The New Testament declares, "Blessed are they that DO HIS COMMANDMENTS that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city" (Rev. 22:14). One of Christ's commandments is baptism. Jesus said, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that disbelieveth shall be condemned" (Mk. 16:16). Please do not permit the thief on the cross to cause you to reject the counsel of God against yourself. When Peter preached to Cornelius' household, the Bible says, "And he COMMANDED them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 10:48). Unless you "do his commandments," one of which is baptism, you will have no right to the tree of life.
TRUTH MAGAZINE, XII: 10, pp. 11-15