THE THIEF ON THE CROSS
THE THIEF ON THE CROSS
Many religious folk appeal to “the thief on the cross” (Lk.23:39-43) to "prove" that baptism is not essential to salvation. Some say that the thief on the cross was saved, because Jesus said he would be with Him in “Paradise” – even though he was not baptized (v.43). But is that really what is taught here? Let us analyze this text carefully to determine: 1.) Whether or not the thief was baptized; then, 2.) If this really teaches that baptism is not essential to salvation. So, let's dig into this text!
How do we KNOW that the thief was not baptized? This is often assumed by people, but it has never been proven! I would argue that this point should not be thoughtlessly granted, but proven. Where did anyone get the idea that the thief was not baptized? I guarantee you that they didn’t get that idea from the Bible! And if this idea is found in the Bible, please show us where. Indeed, it would be wise to consider the work of John, the baptizer. Of his work, the Bible says, "and were ALL baptized by him" (Mk.1:1-5). Yes, I realize that this means, “virtually all,” because we know that some rejected John’s baptism (Lk.7:29-30). But notice that, even here, the text says that ONLY "the Pharisees and lawyers" rejected John's baptism. Next, consider the work of Jesus Himself. The Bible says that Jesus "made and baptized more disciples than John" (Jn.4:1-2). Could the thief on the cross have been in that number? Certainly! Therefore, it should not be assumed that he was never baptized.
Consider evidence that the thief WAS baptized! In this brief glimpse into the life of the thief, he reveals much about himself! Notice that the thief feared God (Lk.23:39-40). Also notice that he said things about Jesus that only a disciple would say. For instance, he knew that Jesus was a sinless man (v.41). Not only that, but he also knew that Jesus was "Lord" (i.e., master or king), and that He had a "kingdom" (v.42). On top of all of that, he knew that Jesus could "remember" him when He became King (v.42). Now get this picture! Though they’re both dying, the thief knows that King Jesus has power beyond the grave to remember him. It is clear that this thief has knowledge of Jesus that could have ONLY come from exposure to his teaching. While this is by no means conclusive proof, it does seem highly likely that the thief was baptized!
Also notice WHEN the thief was forgiven of sins. It is very important to note that he was forgiven BEFORE the death of Jesus (v.43-46). Why do I say this? Because the New Covenant had not yet gone into effect (Hb.9:15-17). The Bible says that a covenant does not go into effect until a death has taken place. Think of it like a “last will and testament.” You make a will, which can be altered by you at any time in your life; but once you die, your “will” goes into effect. This is the very argument the Hebrew writer is making! After the death of Jesus, His “will” (the New Covenant) went into effect. The will of Jesus clearly says, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk.16:16; cf. Ac.2:38; 22:16). To illustrate further, consider the situation where you are approaching a red stop light, but there is a police officer who “overrules” that light and motions you through. As long as the officer is there, he can motion you through as he sees fit; but once he leaves, the stop light controls the traffic. Likewise, while Jesus was here, He could save people as He saw fit; but once He ascended to Heaven, His will (the traffic light) takes control of the situation!
Why cite the thief? Why not be saved like others? Did you ever notice that no one ever says that they want to be saved like the woman caught in adultery (Jn.8:1-11, go and sin no more). No one ever asks to be saved like the rich young ruler (Mt.19:16-22, go, sell everything, and give it away). No one ever asks to be saved like the laborers in the vineyard (Mt.20:1-16, go work today in my vineyard). It seems that people are constantly looking for the easy path to salvation, rather than to just do what Jesus said! (Mk.16:16).
The real issue is: What is the will of Jesus today? And the answer is clearly revealed by both Jesus and His apostles. You must be baptized for the forgiveness of sins (Mt.28:18-20; Mk.16:16; Jn.3:5; Ac.2:38; 22:16; Rm.6:4; 1Pt.3:21). If we can help you, let us know!