Gospel Gazette Online
Volume 19 Number 4 April 2017
Page 15

What about the Thief on the Cross?

Brian R. Kenyon

Brian R. KenyonWhen studying the necessity of baptism with some members of particular denominations, a common response is to bring up the “thief on the cross.” They often ask, “What about the thief on the cross? He wasn’t baptized, was he?” The implication is that if the thief on the cross was not baptized, yet was promised by Jesus to be in paradise, then we do not need to be baptized. Does the thief on the cross prove that baptism is not necessary for salvation? Let us consider this incident as it relates to salvation.

The Setting

The dialogue between Jesus and the thief on the cross occurred while the Savior was being crucified (Luke 23:39-43). There were two criminals who were crucified with Jesus on that dreadful day (John 19:16-18). At first, both criminals blasphemed (Matthew 27:44; Mark 15:32). However, one of them had a change of heart. Before considering him, note what Luke says of the other, “Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, ‘If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us’” (Luke 23:39). “Blaspheme [railed, KJV]” means to speak against (Mark 3:28-29; John 10:36; Acts 13:45; 1 Corinthians 4:13). “If You are the Christ…” was said in sarcasm just as others who passed by the cross had said (Matthew 27:39-44). In contrast to this, the other criminal, “answering, rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong’” (Luke 23:40-41). This criminal showed a penitent heart. “Dost thou not fear God?” shows that this criminal recognized that there is a God. This may possibly even be recognition by this one that Jesus is God (cf. John 1:1-3)! This penitent criminal acknowledged that he and the other criminal were justly receiving their death sentence (Acts 25:11). He also recognized the innocence of Jesus.

Having rebuked the other criminal, the thief on the cross “said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom’” (Luke 23:42). “Remember me” here carries the idea of remember me for good! “When You come into Your kingdom” shows that this criminal was aware of Jesus’ claim to establish His kingdom (Matthew 16:18-19). This could indicate that he was a Jew, even a disciple of John, who had heard of Jesus’ preaching and teaching (Mark 1:15), or it could be that he was a Gentile, aware of the accusations hurled at Jesus (Luke 23:10-11), His response (John 18:33-37), the mockery with which His enemies led Him to the cross (Matthew 27:27-31) and the sign that was placed on Jesus’ cross (John 19:19). In any case, this thief knew that death was not the end, and he wanted to be remembered in the afterlife.

Assuring the penitent thief on the cross, “Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise’” (Luke 23:43). “Today” means right now, as if to say, “You do not have to wait until the kingdom.” “Paradise” is from a word of Persian background that literally meant “park” or “garden” (the only other occurrences of the word are in 2 Corinthians 12:4; Revelation 2:7). Jesus assured this criminal the bliss that was to be associated “with Me [Jesus] in Paradise.”

The Solution

Does the thief on the cross prove that baptism is not necessary for salvation? In answering this question, three factors must be considered. First, consider the chronology. This incident happened while Jesus was dying on the cross. Jesus did not require baptism for all until after His resurrection (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16). Jesus lived and died under Old Testament law (Galatians 4:4-5). His New Testament did not go into effect until after His death. The writer of Hebrews summarized: “For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives” (Hebrews 9:16-17). Thus, the thief on the cross was not amenable to the command, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38).

Second, consider the thief. As mentioned earlier, the possibility exists that he could have been a disciple of John, thus receiving John’s baptism (Matthew 3:1-6). It is possible for God’s people to become criminals (1 Peter 4:15). Whether or not he was a disciple of John, however, one truth is clear: he showed repentance, which has always been a condition of forgiveness (cf. Isaiah 55:7; Ezekiel 18:21; Jonah 3:4-10; Psalm 34:18; Luke 13:3, 5)!

Third, consider the complete impartiality of Jesus. People will often say concerning this incident, “Jesus can forgive anybody He wants,” as if to say that Jesus could arbitrarily forgive the thief because He was the Son of God. Such an idea is untrue and borders on Calvinism! Jesus cannot act independently of the Father’s will (John 5:19; 7:16; 8:28; 12:49; cf. Matthew 20:23) or deny His own word (2 Timothy 2:13). For Jesus to arbitrarily forgive the thief would make Him partial (i.e., “a respecter of persons,” KJV), but He is not (Acts 10:34)!


The thief on the cross is a tremendous example of the forgiveness of God. Even a criminal like him can be forgiven when God’s conditions of forgiveness are met (cf. Saul of Tarsus, 1 Timothy 1:12-15). However, the thief on the cross is not our pattern for salvation today. He lived and died under Old Testament law. One condition that is common between the thief’s salvation and ours is the necessity of repentance (Acts 17:30), which must be based on “godly sorrow” (2 Corinthians 7:10). Jesus gave the requirement of baptism after His death as part of New Testament law (Mark 16:15-16; cf. Acts 10:48). Thus, if a person outside of Christ is truly penitent, he will be baptized when he learns that God requires it (Matthew 28:19-20). Peter’s response to those penitent Jews on the Day of Pentecost who asked, “What shall we do?” was, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). A few verses later, Luke wrote, “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized” (Acts 2:41). Could these people truly have repented if they did not “gladly receive” God’s Word to be baptized? May we follow the thief’s example of repentance, and then do what Jesus requires. Have we been baptized for the remission of sins? If not, why not today?

Trustworthy Statements

Therman Hodge

Therman HodgeThe purpose of Paul's first letter to Timothy was to let Timothy know how “one ought to conduct himself in the household of God” (1 Timothy 3:15). Paul wrote that letter to urge his friend to focus on certain matters where Timothy was preaching (1:3). In context, Paul's words are those of an older preacher with much experience to a younger preacher in need of direction.

How wise for a younger preacher to give ample consideration to good advice! Those who have fought the battles, maybe even learned some things the hard way and have been seasoned through years of valuable experience, sometimes have so much to offer younger preachers. In 1 Timothy, Paul's experience was shared in what is called ‘trustworthy statements.’ These were truths Timothy could bank on, and although they were written first to a preacher, they are truths that will benefit us all.

1 Timothy 1:15

“Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.” Jesus did not come into the world for social reform, per se. He did not come to make His disciples wealthy. He did not come to make a “name” for Himself. He did not come for political activism or to seek man’s favor or approval. He came to save sinners (Luke 19:10).

Paul strengthened this statement by using himself as proof. If Jesus could save the foremost sinner of all, He can save you and me. So many people in the world today feel that they are not saved and doubt that they can be saved. Depression and guilt reside where hope and peace should dwell. Jesus came to earth because we had no solution for ourselves on our own. Whatever we have done and wherever we have been, if we come to Jesus, He will save us.

1 Timothy 4:8

“Bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things.” Being fit and healthy is a good thing. Paul must have had a liking of athletics and exercise. He used that imagery often: races, games (1 Corinthians 9:24-27), running (Galatians 2:2, 5:7), running in vain (Philippians 2:16), competing as an athlete (2 Timothy 2:5), fighting the good fight (2 Timothy 4:7).

However, Paul admitted that bodily exercise did have value. Contrasted with godliness (an important theme in this letter with the word found there some nine times), exercise is of only little value. Some people spend many hours, hundreds of dollars and large quantities of passion in their sport or athletic endeavor of choice to a gross neglect of Bible study and prayer time. They will not miss a run, a bike ride, a workout or a weight training session, but their devotional life is destitute. They think very little of missing a worship assembly or a Bible Class. Stretching their souls and flexing their spiritual muscles through the “extra mile” of Gospel meetings, seminars, lectureships and personal Bible studies are never considered.

Ideally, one will practice bodily exercise in proper proportion with pursuits of godliness. In its proper place, physical exercise is good stewardship of the body that can make one a vital resource for the Lord to use to His glory.

Paul lauded godliness. It will benefit one in this world and in the world to come. Godliness not only influences one’s blood pressure, nervous system and mental acuity, it will lead to an eternal future with no death, no sorrow, no crying and no pain (Revelation 21:4).

In 1 Timothy, godliness results from prayer (2:1), good works (2:10), discipline (4:7), sound doctrine (6:3), contentment (6:6) and avoiding the love of money (6:10). These are spiritual exercises that lead to fitness of the soul.

1 Timothy 4:16

‘Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching.’ ‘Show yourself as an example’ (4:12). Monitor one’s speech (2 Timothy 4:2, 15). “Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). Likewise, one must screen his conduct. Do not sharply rebuke an older person, and treat younger men as brothers (5:1). Treat older women as mothers and younger women as sisters (5:2). Honor widows (5:3). Do not accept an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses (5:19). Do not lay hands upon any one too hastily, and thus share responsibility for the sins of others (5:22). Furthermore, be sure to exemplify purity (1 Timothy 6:11-14).

In conclusion, since life is so uncertain here on earth, it is nice to know that there are some things we can trust to be true. The future cannot be known (Proverbs 27:1), but we can know that the future includes our Lord and some certainties upon which we can rely. We are not waiting for that ideal political candidate; our expectation is not resting on some economic guru or market magician. Our hope is built on nothing less than those things of which we are assured in Scriptures like 1 Timothy. Take comfort in this truth. You can count on it!

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