By Larry Ray Hafley
From Maryland: “What kind of kingdom was the thief on the cross thinking about – a material, earthly kingdom or a spiritual kingdom as Christ taught his kingdom would be? Was the thief better informed about the nature of Christ’s kingdom than the apostles were? (Read Acts 1:6). Was the thief a Jew? Did the thief ask to be saved, or did he ask to be remembered.?”
The Text In Question
“And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Does 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. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Lk. 23:39-43).
Response To Questions
1. Nature Of The Kingdom In Thief’s Mind: Though it may not be possible to determine with absolute certainty and finality, I believe the thief partially conceived a spiritual kingdom. He may not have possessed a perfect purview of the prophetic kingdom as we know the church (1 Tim. 3:15; 1 Pet. 2:5; Jn. 18:36), but he perceived it as being spiritual in some sense or to some degree. To what extent did the thief contemplate the spiritual nature of the kingdom?
If the thief had had a purely, physical, material kingdom in mind, he never would have said, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” First, the apostles, with a materialistic concept believed the physical death of Jesus would doom their kingdom hopes. Is this not evident in Peter’s rebuke? After Jesus prophesied of His demise at Jerusalem, Peter said, “Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee” (Matt. 16:21-23). Yes, the Lord also said He would be raised, but they did not hear this (Mk. 16:11; Lk. 24:11). Second, the disciples on the way to Emmaus thought physical death was the end of the physical kingdom “we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel” (Lk. 24:19-21). In effect, “His death ruins our dreams of a physical kingdom.” Third, the thief knew Jesus was going to die (vv. 40, 41). As such, he could not have conceived of a strictly worldly kingdom, for Jesus was dying, not coming into a political kingdom of pomp and power. So, he understood something above a purely physical kingdom. That he comprehended a spiritual reign and rule in the hearts of men I do not believe.
How much of a true conception of the kingdom’s essence did the thief have? I do not know. And I suspect that you know only a little more than that!
2. The Thief Better Informed: Without contradicting the first section of this response, let me reply, “I think not.” One may speak what he does not fully appreciate., Peter’s perfect confession of Christ appears inconsistent with his imperfect kingdom conception (Cf. Matt. 16:16; 16:21, 22). Peter could say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life,” and “Thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God” (Jn. 6:68, 69). Yet, he could also be found carnally contending for a chief seat in an earthly kingdom (Matt. 20:20-24; Luke 22:24). He spoke of the universal scope of the promise of the gospel, but it took the events of Acts 10 and 11 to divine for him the meaning of “every creature” (Mk. 16:15; Acts 2:39). Even the prophets of antiquity spake that which they could not view through the veil (1 Pet. 1:10-12).
The thief in his dying moments spoke without realizing the full import and impact of his request. To be sure, he did not speak as the Spirit gave utterance, but he spoke of a kingdom that was not necessarily vanquished by the death of Jesus. This was more than the disciples had grasped (Matt. 16:21-23; Lk. 24:19-21). The apostles evidently had the ability to know more perfectly the character of Christ’s kingdom than did the thief. To say, however, they were in a favored position to know is not to say they necessarily understood to the degree of their opportunity. They had every reason to be far above the thief in their knowledge of the kingdom, but the reasons do not establish the proposition. The truth is they did not know as one may judge they should have known. Yes, (Read Acts 1:6).
3. A Jewish Thief. Let me ask our querist, not for an answer, but for the sake of thought, “Was he a Gentile’?” Would the Romans have executed a Gentile on the cross for thievery? As I understand it, the cross was reserved for the vilest criminals. Is it likely that a fellow Gentile would be crucified for thievery? Is it not more probable that a Jewish thief might suffer this dread death rather than a Gentile? “. . . and for the Jews Pilate had only contempt” (Blailock, The Century of the New Testament, p. 90). I imagine he was a Jew, but I am not disposed to debate the matter.
4. Remembered Or Saved: Remembered, obviously; but what did he mean by “remember me’?” He was not asking the Lord simply to think about him. “Remember me” is equivalent to a request for future favor, for consideration in His kingdom. The thief knows he will soon die. Can any believe he was merely asking to be thought about after his death.? No, he was asking not to be overlooked in the kingdom. (Thus, whether the term “Lord” should be in the text or not, he saw Jesus as a divine being.) He does not ask to sit on the right hand or the left. He asks that he be not forgotten. This means, “Tender me some recognition when you come in your kingdom.” It does not seem out of order, therefore, to place the idea of salvation in the thief’s plea.
Conclusion: These questions are unusual and interesting, but let us be slow to become anxious over them. Regardless of the thief’s thoughts or the extent of his knowledge, not to mention his race, we can know the nature of the kingdom, and we can know how to be citizens and subjects of it. What the thief knew or did not know affects us very little and should concern us even less.
Truth Magazine, XVIII:48, p. 10
October 10, 1974