Jesus, The Cross, A Thief, and Forgiveness
Luke 23:32-43, (NAS95) 32 Two others also, who were criminals, were being led away to be put to death with Him. 33 When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. 34 But Jesus was saying, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves. 35 And the people stood by, looking on. And even the rulers were sneering at Him, saying, "He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One." 36 The soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, 37 and saying, "If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!" 38 Now there was also an inscription above Him, "THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS." 39 One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, "Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!" 40 But the other answered, and rebuking him said, "Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 "And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." 42 And he was saying, "Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!" 43 And He said to him, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise."
The above narrative is one of the most touching in the entire Bible. While the Lord was experiencing the physical, emotional and perhaps even spiritual agony of the cross, he still expressed the divine nature of His love for man. He had the compassion to listen to the pleas of one who had great need. He made the effort to repress his own pain to and answer to the needs of a sinner. He promised that man, that that very day, He would be with Jesus in Paradise. What a wonderful assurance. Because of the assurance Jesus gave his companion in death, many today profess that like the thief crucified next to Jesus, we may have the assurance of Paradise by making a similar appeal to the Lord. However, the New Testament , Jesus' Covenant teaches that baptism stands between man and the forgiveness of sin. The
Bible tells us what Christ requires of us to be saved. In spite of the plain statement of Jesus, many teach and believe baptism is not necessary to be saved. They believe they can be saved like the thief on the cross. They also assume that the thief on the cross had never been baptized as the New Testament requires, hence they do not need to be baptized.
Even if the thief on the cross had never been baptized, his salvation should not be an excuse to remove the divine mandate of baptism from us today. Let us look at why the thief is not an example of how man is saved today.
The first principle that we must understand is the fact that Jesus had the power to forgive sins while on the earth.
Matthew 9:2 And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee. 3 And, behold, certain of the scribes said within themselves, This man blasphemeth. 4 And Jesus knowing their thoughts said,
Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts? 5 For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk? 6 But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith he to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house. 7 And he arose, and departed
to his house.
When Jesus spoke to a person and forgave them of their sins, their sins were forgiven. The same would hold true today. If Jesus were walking the earth and told someone that their sins were forgiven, it would be so. However, Jesus is in heaven at the right hand of God.
The second principle that we must consider is that the New Covenant had not yet been established. It had not yet been sealed with the blood of Jesus. Jesus was still alive. The thief lived and died under the Old Covenant, and we are under the New Covenant. If the covenant in which baptism is commanded had not yet come into force when Jesus spoke to the thief, and it is in force now, the rules for salvation have been changed by the changing of covenants. The New Covenant changed the rules.
Hebrews 9:15 And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance. 16 For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator.
The third principle is that neither you nor I are face to face with Jesus like the thief was. Jesus spoke directly to the thief. There is absolutely no scriptural principle which will allow us to take a statement made to a specific individual and generalize it to make it apply to all men. Jesus speaks to us through the Bible today, not face to face. That means we must listen to what he has said to us through the Word. Just as surely as the thief heard Jesus then, we must hear Jesus now. He is not speaking to us face to face as he did the thief. He is speaking to us through the written Word of God.
Matthew 17:5 While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.
The fourth principle, despite the assumptions made about the thief not being baptized, is that it is more reasonable to believe that the thief had been baptized than to believe that he had not been baptized. Let's read the account again, and then examine what it really does contain.
Luke 23:39 And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. 40 But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. 42 And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. 43 And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.
1. In verse 41, the thief declared "...this man hath done nothing amiss." He knew Jesus was without sin or guilt. How did he know that? Only by knowing Jesus earlier could he have known that!
2. In verse 42, "...42 And he said unto Jesus, Lord,..." He called Jesus "Lord." Why would he call someone who was dying on a cross Lord? He had to have known Jesus before they were nailed to those crosses!
3. Again, in verse 42, "...remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. " He asked Jesus to remember him when Jesus came into his kingdom. How did he know that Jesus was going to come into a kingdom? He could only have known that if he had been a disciple of Jesus' prior to being on the cross. He had to have heard the teaching of Jesus!
4. Still in verse 42, "thou comest into thy kingdom. ..." He believed that even though Jesus was dying on the cross, he would still be a king. How can someone dying be expected to become a king? It is ridiculous, unless he understood Jesus' prophecies to be resurrected from the dead in three days. How could he have either known or believed these things if he did not know Jesus before they were nailed to the cross.
This man, being crucified next to Jesus apparently had a greater understanding of Jesus' teaching on the nature of the Kingdom of God than even the Apostles at this point in time. The evidence indicates he knew that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah and Son of the living God. He knew Jesus! He must have been a disciple! Was he a disciple of John's who baptized with the baptism for the remission of his sins?
Mark 1:4 John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. 5 And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.
Jesus caused more people to be baptized than John did. Was he one of those who were baptized by Jesus' disciples?
John 4:1 When therefore the Lord knew how the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John, 2 (Though Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples,)
When one looks at the evidence, it is more reasonable to believe that this thief was converted to Christ. In the process of that conversion, he had to repent. Real repentance means making things right. When he tried to make things right, the ones he had stolen from had him arrested. He was convicted out of his own mouth and then crucified with Jesus.
This thief must have known Jesus prior to the crucifixion. How else could he know that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the promised King? Why else would he be willing to defend him so strongly? How else did he gain his understanding of the nature of Jesus' kingdom?
It is especially important to notice that there is nothing in the text to indicate that this is the point in time at which the thief received the forgiveness of his sins. What the text does say is that he would be with Jesus in paradise that day. It does not say that it was while he was on the cross that his sins were forgiven!
There is a principle of Bible understanding that we need to be aware of. This "being saved like the thief on the cross" deals with the authority of Christ. Jesus had the authority to save this sinner then, just as he does for us today. He spoke to him face to face. He speaks to us today through the Word. The Word tells us today that He saves us through his sacrifice and by our obedience to his Word. Look at Hebrews 5:8-9
Hebrews 5:8 Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; 9 And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him;
Jesus will save those who obey him, those who believe and trust Jesus enough to do as he says. He says that we must be baptized. That is Jesus statement to me and to you. Will you believe Him? Will you trust Him?
Mark 16:15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
Should we ignore this command because we want to make the rules? Would we rather be saved like the thief who was on the cross next to Christ than obey this simple commands of Jesus? Will we ignore what Jesus says and do as we please? Think about this carefully. We must not lay aside the commandments of Jesus
in order to keep our own traditions.
By Ney Reiber
From Expository Files 4.11; November 1997