the Thief on the Cross?
The account of the repentant robber who died on the cross beside Jesus has been the subject of countless sermons and the theme of numerous tracts. Regretfully, the incident has frequently been abused and misused, with controversy rather than edification as the outcome. Both negative and positive lessons may be learned as we examine this interesting Gospel story. Let us see what we can discover!
The record of the Gospels offers little information on this well-known Biblical character. We do not even know his name. Scripture simply tells us that when Christ was led to Golgotha, the infamous “Place of the Skull,” two “robbers” or “criminals” were crucified with Him–one on the right and one on the left (Matt. 27:38; Mark 15:27; cf. Luke 23:32-33). When the chief priests, scribes, elders, and passersby mocked the Lord Jesus (Matt. 27:39-43), these robbers likewise insulted Him (v. 44).
Apparently some time after this, one of these wrongdoers recognized his sin and repented. When the other criminal continued to slander the innocent Savior, the repentant one rebuked him: “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40-41). His next words were directed to the dying Lord Himself: “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom” (v. 42). In reply, Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (v. 43).
Christs words to the repentant robber (popularly known as the “thief”) were spoken sometime during the first three hours of crucifixion (cf. Mark 15:25; Luke 23:44). The period of dreadful darkness then came for three more hours, after which Jesus died–about three in the afternoon (Luke 23:44-46; Mark 15:33-37). During the next couple of hours, the soldiers broke the legs of the robbers which brought rapid death (cf. John 19:31-37). This is the last we read about the crucified criminals.
What Do We Know?
As we noticed earlier, we know little about the condemned robber who defended Jesus and spoke to Him. All of the information is confined to a few verses from the four Gospel accounts. Yet we can know several facts:
(1) He was a “robber” (Gk., l h s t h s, lestes) or “criminal” (Gk., k a k o u r g o s, kakourgos) and apparently this was the cause of his execution. (Note: a robber is “one who plunders openly and by violence . . . in contrast to kleptes, a thief,” W.E. Vine, The Expanded Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, p. 973. Since this man was more of a robber than a thief, we will generally use this term.)
(2) He was crucified beside Jesus along with another robber (Matt. 27:38; Mark 15:27).
(3) He, at first, reviled Jesus along with the other criminal (Matt. 27:44).
(4) He heard the accusation–that Jesus was the Christ (Luke 23:35,39), the Son of God (Matt. 27:40,43), the King of Israel (v. 42).
(5) He must have read the sign placed above Jesus: “Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19).
(6) He must have observed the forgiving attitude, nonresistant spirit, and loving disposition of Jesus (cf. Matt. 23:34; 1 Peter 2:21-23).
(7) He must have repented of his earlier attitude of slander.
(8) He then rebuked the other robber (Luke 23:39-41).
(9) He feared God (implied, Luke 23:40).
(10) He admitted that he had been justly condemned and was receiving what he deserved (Luke 23:40-41).
(11) He recognized that Jesus had done nothing worthy of death (Luke 23:41).
(12) He asked Jesus to remember him when He comes in His kingdom–His royal reign (Luke 23:42)–although his conception here may not have been entirely accurate (John 18:36).
(13) Jesus, in turn, said that the robber would be in His presence that day in Paradise–the Garden of God (Luke 23:43).
(14) No doubt, the dying criminal would have heard and observed the further incidents that day relating to Jesus–the darkness covering the land, the words of Jesus, and the death of Jesus.
Although we may know these few things about the criminal, we must also see some limitations to this account. There may be a tendency to “read into” the record and think that this man knew more than he did because we read it in light of all we know from the Gospels and other New Testament books. Actually, the robber falls short of knowing what we know and believing what we believe.
For instance, there is no indication that this robber believed in the sacrificial death of Christ for sin. Yet it is essential that we believe in Christs death for sin to be saved (cf. 1 Cor. 15:1-3; Rom. 3:24-27; John 3:15-16).
Second, he may not have fully believed that Jesus was the Son of God. Although the Sonship of Jesus was an element in the mockery that the robber heard (Matt. 27:40), we cannot know for sure that the thief understood or believed this in its fullness. Yet a belief that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah), the Son of God the Father, is necessary if we today would have eternal life (John 20:31; 3:36).
Third, the thief probably did not believe in the virginal conception and birth of Christ, and may not have believed in His sinless life (cf. Luke 1:32-35; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22). Although he knew that Jesus did not do anything worthy of death, his belief may not have gone beyond this.
Fourth, the robber did not believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. It is likely that He had some conception that Jesus would survive death since he believed that Jesus would come in His kingdom (Luke 23:42), but this is short of affirming Christs past resurrection from the dead on the third day–a belief that we must have: “If you . . . believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved” (Rom. 10:9; cf. 1 Cor. 15:1-4).
Fifth, the thief technically did not confess Jesus as Lord. Yet Scripture quite plainly says, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord . . . you shall be saved (Rom. 10:9). Anyone today who would be forgiven of sin must confess his faith in Christs Lordship.
Because of limitations such as these, we would do well to remember that people cannot properly refer to the experience of the robber on the cross as an example of how people are saved in our day. This man was a unique person in a unique situation. Actually, an identical situation to this cannot be found in our own day–some 2,000 years after the time of this incident. Those who want to be saved today “just like the thief was” really do not know what they are saying. In effect, they would be saying that they insist on being saved by a limited, uninformed, and defective faith which has not been informed by the revelation given to us in the Gospels and the remainder of the New Testament!
Questionable References to the Robber
Regretfully, some people refer to the criminal on the cross to try to “prove” three popular teachings in our day. Consider each of these points.
First, some seek to promote an “easy believism” by citing the “conversion” of the thief. They note the simplicity of it all, the quickness of it, the spontaneity of it. They say that the man merely asked Jesus to save him–and that was all. They therefore conclude that one may be saved in only several moments of time because we need “only believe.” (Generally these same proponents will also say that once this one-time transaction is made, it cannot be retracted!)
We must not forget, however, that the thief must have truly repented. Jesus could see his heart and accepted him. No doubt the fear of God (cf. Luke 23:40) and the closeness of death intensified his ability to repent with great seriousness even in these unusual circumstances. Further, the examples of conversion in Acts do show that it is possible for people to be saved in little time–if they are in earnest about their spiritual need and are receptive to the gospel.
Yet these same examples of conversion in Acts (which are confirmed by the further teaching of the New Testament) show that people indeed responded with something more than mere belief. Theirs was a full and comprehensive response to Christ that included an informed faith (cf. Acts 16:30-32; Romans 10:13-17), commitment of life (Mark 8:34-38), repentance of sin (Acts 3:19,26), submission to Jesus as Lord (Acts 22:16; Romans 10:9-13; Col. 2:6), burial with Christ in baptism (Romans 6:3-4), and resurrection to live a new life in Him (Romans 6:4; Col. 2:12-13). The popular teaching that calls for the sinner to “simply invite Jesus into your heart” is a modern perversion of the full response required of sinners in the days of the apostles.
“Death Bed Conversion”
Second, some look to the criminals salvation as a proof of so-called “death-bed conversion.” They may say that people can freely sin and spurn the Spirits conviction throughout their life–then call on God for mercy at deaths door and so be saved eternally. “After all,” they say, “wasnt this how the thief was saved?”
Sadly, this kind of reasoning has served to remove the fear of the Lord from the sinners heart. It has all but eliminated the rightful fear of pleasure-seeking, Christ-denying, sin-loving people and encouraged them to be content in their tragic state of guilt and condemnation. (“By the fear of the LORD one keeps away from evil,” Prov. 16:6b.)
Consider this carefully. There is no indication that the robber had repeatedly rejected Gods message (and especially Christs gospel) through life, only to call on Jesus at the moment of death. We just dont know the nature of his former life. Whats more, we do know that it is very, very dangerous to “resist the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51), to refuse to repent while one has the opportunity, and to put off responding to the gospel. The Holy Spirit says, “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts” (Heb. 3:7-8a). Scripture warns, “Seek the LORD while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near” (Isa. 55:6). A future opportunity is not promised:
There is a line by us unseen / That crosses every path–
The hidden boundary between / Gods patience and His wrath.
We must remember that as death approaches, one may be in pain and not think clearly. He may be sedated and unable to intelligently come to Christ. He may be in a coma–beyond the possibility of response.
Further, the “death-bed” experience no doubt is similar to the “fox hole” experience. In the terror of the moment, people do sometimes call for salvation and fearfully promise God many things. But when the heat of the battle is over, they discover that they are the same unconcerned, sin-loving, God-denying people they had been before. Although they wish to escape death or even want to escape hell, they do not really repent before God in full sincerity and from their heart. They are not grieved because of their rebellion against a holy God; they do not lament their selfishness and wickedness; they do not have a true change of heart regarding their past immorality and idolatry. In a similar way, those on their death beds who purportedly seek salvation generally do not really repent and desire to change their lives into conformity with Gods holy will. Many have recovered from their presumed imminent death only to prove they were not serious with the Lord when they were critically ill.
If there should be a rare person who retains his mental faculties at death and who sincerely wants to be forgiven, let us commit him or her to the Lord and trust that He will do what is right–as He always does (cf. Gen. 18:25). And let us not overlook the fact that God can even deliver such a person from physical death, granting him the opportunity to complete his repentant response in being baptized even in the hospital itself or at home.
What About Baptism?
It seems like the dying “thief” is usually referred to as a way of refuting the Scriptural teaching on baptism. You have probably heard or read the incident used in this manner. Someone may say, “The thief on the cross was saved by simple trust in Jesus without baptism, and this is how we may be saved today!” It is sad that we hear this kind of argument made in an attempt to avoid the Biblical place of baptism in a sinners response to Christ for forgiveness. Is this a legitimate use of this wonderful account of Christs mercy to the repentant robber? Or is this a way that people “distort” and “twist” Scripture “to their own destruction”? (2 Peter 3:16, NASB, RSV). Several points may be offered in reply:
(1) The robber was saved before the “Great Commission” was given by the resurrected Lord (Matt. 28:18-20; Luke 24:46-49). Some forty days after His resurrection and before His ascension, Jesus said, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16a). The criminal was not required to respond to God in obedience to the instructions of the Great Commission before the Commission was actually given!
(2) The robber could not have been baptized into Christ at this time even if he had not been a criminal and a prisoner who was being executed. In “Great Commission” baptism, one is “baptized into Christ Jesus” and “baptized into His death” (Rom. 6:3; Gal. 3:27). One is “raised up with Him [Christ] through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead” (Col. 2:12). Obviously, the repentant wrongdoer could not have submitted to this baptism (a burial and resurrection in likeness of Christs burial and resurrection) before Jesus was literally buried and raised by the Father.
(3) Christs “will” was only effective after His death. (In our own day, a persons “last will and testament” is not probated and executed until after he [the testator] has died.) The Hebrew writer explains: “Where a covenant [testament] is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives” (9:16-17). The testament or will of Christ only went into effect (became “valid”) after Christs death. (Some would add that it was not formally in effect until the day of Pentecost.) Since the robber was saved before Christs death (Luke 23:43,46), he was saved before Christs final will was inaugurated.
Note also Galatians 3:15: “Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a mans covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it.” Since Christs new covenant was “ratified” by His death and resurrection, we cannot set its terms aside nor can we add conditions to it. But the robber was saved before the covenant was ratified, thus he was not subject to its conditions.
(4) If the salvation of the robber would disprove the necessary place of baptism in conversion, it would contradict the later words of Christ Himself. You will remember that Jesus commanded, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). Greek scholars point out that the construction here, eis ton onoma tou (“into the name of”), means, “baptizing them into a relationship with,” “baptizing them into the possession of,” or “baptizing them into the ownership of” the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Further, Jesus said, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16a). Our interpretation of the incident of the repentant robber must not nullify these clear words of the Lord Jesus.
(5) Our understanding of the conversion of the criminal must not conflict with other clear passages which explain the place of baptism into Christ. For example, Peter commanded the inquiring Jews on the day of Pentecost, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Ananias later said to Saul (Paul): “Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16). Peter also wrote, “Baptism now saves you–not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience–through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21).
Passages like these show that a baptism of true faith and genuine repentance is related to forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38), washing away of sins (22:16), salvation (1 Peter 3:21), receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38-39), entering Christ (Rom. 6:3), being clothed with Christ (Gal. 3:27), ownership by God (Matt. 28:19), and eternal life (Col. 2:12-13). (Obviously, this was not a sacramental understanding of baptism–a view that sees baptism effective in and of itself [ex opere operato], separate and apart from inward faith and repentance, a position that is identified with the heresy of “baptismal regeneration.”) With this Scriptural significance noted above, we can see the important place that baptism has in ones initial response to Jesus Christ.
(6) Since the criminal was forgiven before Christs death and resurrection and before the giving of the Great Commission, it may be similar to other instances of salvation in the Gospels. For example, Jesus told the repentant “sinful woman” in the Pharisees house: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50; cf. v. 47). Jesus said of repentant Zaccheus: “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9a). Jesus told the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). Baptism is not mentioned in any of these cases (although it was probably much more prominent than we might imagine, cf. John 4:1-2). While Jesus was personally interacting with these people during His earthly life, He freely forgave them without regard to directions He would later give to His apostles as He sent them into all the world with the gospel.
(7) We must remember that before Christs death and resurrection, there were thousands of people since creation who had a relationship with God apart from faith in Christ and baptism into Him. For instance, we know that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be in the kingdom of God (Matt. 8:11)–but they did not have an informed faith in Christ nor were they baptized into Him (this is not to deny that Abraham, in a veiled sense, was given a promise of the coming Savior–Gal. 3:8). Moses and Elijah will be in the kingdom of God (Matt. 17:1-4), but they did not have an informed faith in Christ nor were they baptized in His name. The same is true of Abel, Enoch, Noah, and numerous others before the time of Christ: although they will be with God through faith in Him, they did not have an informed faith in the Son of God nor were not baptized into Him (Heb. 11:1-40). The point is that the repentant robber and many others will enter Gods kingdom apart from the baptism of the Great Commission since this baptism was not yet given.
(8) We might illustrate the salvation of the robber in this way. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson never paid income tax to the government of the United States. Yet they were full, law-abiding citizens of this country. How can this be? This national tax was not imposed upon every qualified, responsible citizen who earns a living until after the lifetimes of these former presidents. But we are living in the period since this tax has been imposed upon American citizens. We cannot return to the days of Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson and claim that we can be responsible, law-abiding citizens of this country and refuse to pay tax because these early presidents never paid income tax. We are subject to the governmental laws of our own time. Similarly, in the New Testament age (or Christian age), we cannot go back to the days of Christ, the days of David, the days of Moses, or the days of Abraham and insist that we be saved just as they were–apart from a baptism that was imposed upon believers after Christs death and resurrection.
(9) It is true that people in all ages (before Moses, during the period of the Mosaic Law, and during the present Christian age) are saved “by grace . . . through faith” (Eph. 2:8). Grace and faith would be the “principles” of salvation. For instance, Abraham was saved by the grace of God through faith (Romans 4:1-25). David also was (Romans 4:6-8). It was only by the mercy and grace of God that they could be forgiven and accepted by a holy and just God. It was only through their faith in God that they could be forgiven and declared righteous (be “justified”). Yet they did not have faith in Christ at all in the informed way we do (see 1 Peter 1:10-12; Matt. 13:17; Luke 10:23-24). Obviously, they were not baptized in Christs name or baptized into Christ either. They would not have been able to understand the meaning of this faith-response since it would have required an entire context of which that they were oblivious.
Can we see the unreasonableness of one today saying that he wants to be saved “just the way Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, and the thief” were saved? One cannot be saved today just as they were saved since more is required of us–in light of the fuller revelation that has been provided. In part, we must have a full and informed faith, not only in God the Father, but also in the crucified and risen Christ, the Son of the living God, and we must express this repentant faith in the meaningful act of baptism (immersion) into Christ and His death.
(10) Even if the robber were an “exceptional” case of one who was forgiven separate and apart from baptism, it would give little comfort to most people today. The dying wrongdoer could not get off the cross! Today, one who delays, postpones, or makes light of baptism chooses to disobey the Lord. There is something he can do–namely, be baptized when he repents of his sins and believes in Christ. The robber could not do so. It is perverse, unbelieving, and even rebellious for one today to insist on being saved “by simple faith” when he will not even attempt to obey the Lord as He has directed when he has the ability and opportunity to do so.
(11) The closest we may come to the thief today may be those cases in which one is not able to fully respond to the Lord by being baptized into Him. People are quick to offer examples of this: An Eskimo is stranded in the icy expanse of northern Alaska and wishes to be saved. A man is lost in the middle of the Sahara Desert, 200 miles from a source of water, and he wishes to be saved. A prisoner is confined to a small cell in northern Siberia and he will not be released for twenty years. A woman is confined to an “iron lung” and cannot leave the confines of her “prison” to be baptized.
We may not be able to answer all of this, but some things are obvious. Wherever there are people there is life, and wherever there is life there is water, and where there is water generally there is sufficient quantity to baptize (immerse) someone. God is able to work through situations (in the far north and in the desert) to enable people to respond to His Son in baptism. It may not be in an hour, a day, or a week, but God can provide if we commit our future to Him. Even physical handicaps seldom prevent ones full obedience to the Lord. Quadriplegics, for example, can be immersed in water even though they are paralyzed from the neck down. Prisons and jails in this country provide for the baptism of inmates. Probably thousands of patients have been immersed in hospitals (using tubs, pools, or portable vessels). Let us have faith that God will provide the opportunity for sincere seekers to fully obey Him in baptism (immersion). If this obedience is delayed through no fault of ones own, commit the matter to the Lord who understands all.
(12) Finally, we must remember that Jesus could do whatever He wished that was consistent with His holy character. Recall how He prayed to God the Father: “You granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him” (John 17:2, NIV; cf. 3:35; Matt. 28:18). The Lord Jesus Christ, “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), has full authority and power to do whatever he wishes.
Even if the criminal had died after the Great Commission was given (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:46-49) and began to be carried out (Acts 2), Jesus could have saved him consistent with Himself and in harmony with His authority. The same would be true of conditions before the death of Christ. Jesus sovereignly forgave the repentant robber and promised him a place in Paradise.
We, however, are not Jesus. He is Lord; we are not! We are bound by the Word of God and must not change it, deviate from it, twist it, pervert it, or make exceptions to it! It is a serious matter to add to or take from the revealed will of Almighty God and the teaching of Christ (cf. Rev. 22:18-19; Deut. 4:2; Prov. 30:5-6). Since Jesus commanded that the sinner must believe in God, repent of his sins, trust in the crucified Christ, call upon the name of the Lord, and be baptized into Him, let us be willing to accept this, believe it, obey it, and faithfully teach it!
What Do We Learn from the Robber’s Salvation?
God has displayed His wondrous grace in numerous ways to people from the time of Adam to the present. Preachers and others frequently point to our Lords merciful acceptance of the repentant crucified criminal as a prime example of how the sinner today is to be saved from sin. We definitely can learn something from this amazing incident–however we must not press the account beyond what is written. While we must reject certain conclusions often drawn from the incident (and answered on the previous pages), what can we learn from Christs encounter with the crucified criminal?
First, we can learn that the Lord Jesus manifested unselfish love for another. When Jesus could well have been absorbed with His own pain, anguish, and the mission He was accomplishing (of bearing our sins), He spoke a word of acceptance to the repentant fellow-sufferer. The man entreated, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” Jesus replied, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43). Jesus loved this contrite criminal. He was willing to respond to his sincere plea to be remembered.
Second, we can learn of the Lords merciful forgiveness and acceptance of this repentant sinner. Although the text does not specifically state that the robber repented of his life of sin, we can assume that he did since he acknowledged that he was worthy of death (Luke 23:40-41). Since the thief would soon be in Paradise (v. 43; cf. 2 Cor. 12:2,4; Rev. 2:7), and sin cannot enter this heavenly realm (cf. Rev. 21:27), we may rightly conclude that the Lord freely forgave him of his sins. Although he had earlier insulted Jesus (Matt. 27:44), evidently the robber repented of this sin–perhaps by observing the Saviors innocence (Luke 23:41), forgiving attitude (v. 34), and trust in God (Matt. 27:43). What full forgiveness and merciful acceptance to an unworthy sinner!
Third, we can learn that salvation is entirely undeserving. The robber did not merit his forgiveness. He did not deserve the Lords acceptance. He did not earn a place in Paradise. He did not “work” for his salvation. The dying criminal could only cast himself upon the mercy of Christ and ask to be “remembered”–however lacking his understanding was. Paul the apostle later explains: “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy” (Titus 3:5a). The robber did not live a life of righteousness and good deeds. He was saved apart from personal worth. Without doubt, this repentant sinner will sing of the riches of grace that accepted such an unworthy person.
Fourth, we can learn that salvation is abundant and full. The robber asked to be remembered when Jesus would come in His kingdom (Luke 23:42). Jesus promised him an immediate place with Him in Paradise. “Paradise” literally means a “beautiful garden” and refers to the Garden of God where one will have access to the tree of life (Rev. 2:7; cf. 2 Cor. 12:2-4). Christ graciously accepted this unworthy sinner and bestowed an eternal blessing beyond comprehension. This same destiny may be ours who “overcome” in life (Rev. 2:7; cf. vv. 10b,11b).
Fifth, we can learn how the basic principles of salvation operated in this event before the atoning death of Christ. Paul writes, “By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). This is true in all ages, as we previously noted (pp. 12-13). Although the object and content of our faith is somewhat different and more informed than was the faith of Abraham, Moses, or David, it is still faith. Likewise, the thief was saved by the grace of God upon the principle of faith. Paul writes, “If it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Rom. 11:6). If anyone is ever saved from sin and enters the Paradise of God, it must be by Gods grace through genuine faith!
We can take blessed comfort in these truths we learn from Christs encounter with the repentant robber. Although we must avoid a dishonest and illegitimate use of this account (which is so frequently the case today), let us rejoice in what we rightfully can learn.
Are you willing to renounce all trust in your personal righteousness? Are you willing to cease relying on your goodness and religious activities? Are you willing to turn from all sin, selfishness, pleasure-seeking, false teaching, and idolatry to the living God? Are you willing to cast yourself on the mercy of Christ in seeking forgiveness through His sacrificial death? Are you willing to express this repentance and faith by being Scripturally baptized (immersed) into Him? God will accept you just as He did the repentant robber who died on the cross beside the Savior. As you give Him all, you can look forward to a place with Jesus our Savior in the Paradise of God!