Vol. 7, No. 2
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In Luke 23:39-43 we read of two men, along with Jesus Christ, being crucified. One man died in rebellion and in deep despair. The other individual received a promise from the Lord before he died. The difference between the two men was in the disposition of the heart. One was stubborn and steeped in sin. The other possessed a broken and contrite heart. One died without hope. The other died with a great expectation based on what the Lord said to him.
However, the example of the penitent thief on the cross has been abused, misused and misunderstood by so many people. In hope of a better understanding of this situation, please study carefully the following observations:
1. One man was penitent. He had committed a crime against society worthy of death. However, he manifested a penitent attitude. Of course, God has required repentance in every age. The Psalmist declared, "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and contrite heart-- These, O God, You will not despise" (Psalms 51:17; Acts 17:31).
2. Jesus Christ had all power to forgive this penitent person of his transgressions. In response to undue criticism by the scribes, Jesus asked, "Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven you,' or to say, 'Arise, take up your bed and walk?' But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins." He said to the paralytic, "I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house" (Mark 2:9-11). Thus, while Jesus was on earth, he possessed the power to heal the sick and/or forgive sins.
3. The penitent thief may or may not have been baptized. One could easily assume that he had been immersed. Most likely, he was an erring Jew. It was near Jerusalem where he was put to death. Being a Jew, he could have been baptized of John's baptism. In Mark 1:5 we read, "Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins." This baptism was of "repentance unto remission of sins" (Mark 1:4). Those who failed to submit to the baptism of John "...rejected the will of God for themselves" (Luke 7:30). So, to state emphatically that this thief had been baptized would be just as incorrect as to propose that he had not been baptized. Both are based on the silence of the Scriptures and are therefore mere assumptions.
4. The penitent thief died under the Law of Moses. His life and worship were regulated by that law which came through Moses (John 1:17) and as is found in the Old Testament. Jesus himself lived and died under the Old Law. Moses' Law was still in effect when Christ told the thief, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). Our Lord was the Mediator of the New Covenant. He was the Testator of his last will and testament. It was not until Jesus died on Calvary that his testament came into force (Hebrews 9:15-17). Jesus nailed the Old Law to the cross when he died (Colossians 2:14). The thief did not and could not have lived under the will and testament of Jesus for the simple fact that such was not in force because it had not been probated in heaven. What was required of the thief who lived under the Old Law is not required of us. What is required of us today under the New Testament of Jesus Christ was not required of the thief on the cross. Therefore, this man is not and cannot be a proper example of conversion for men and women in this Christian Age.
In conclusion, one should not be overly concerned with what Jesus said to the thief on the cross, but rather what the Lord commands people to do presently in order to be saved from sins. In the New Testament, we learn that sinners need to come to believe in Jesus as being the Son of God, to repent of sins and be immersed into Christ for the remission of sins in order to become children of God and members of the church of our Lord. (See John 8:24; Acts 3:19; Acts 2:37,38,47; Galatians 3:26,27.)