What about the thief on the cross?

If baptism is necessary for salvation then what about the thief on the cross?

Introduction

Last week many people
celebrated Easter
remembering the sacrifice that Jesus made for all of mankind.
And I made the application from His death and resurrection
that we needed to be baptized into that death and resurrection.
And I hope I made clear that the baptism of Christ
is actually necessary for salvation.
For how can any have salvation
if the old man of sin is not crucified with Christ.

Of course to have the baptism of Christ
one must believe that Jesus is who He said He is.
One must repent, turning back to God
and confess before men out loud that belief.
Then and only then can one be baptized into Christ.

Many people believe in Jesus
Many believe that they needed to repent as Acts 17:30.
Some even believe that in order to be saved they needed to confess the Christ before men as Romans 10:9 says.
Yet when we get to the final step to the door of salvation,
that is Baptism,
many balk saying,

That’s a work, we’re not saved by works.

If you and I were talking together
and you said this to me
I would naturally take you to the many many passages talking about baptism.
Ranging from Acts 2:38-41 to 1 Peter 3:21.
Let’s look at those two passages.

38Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
39“For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.”
40And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!”
41So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls.

— Acts 2:38–41
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21Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God from a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

— 1 Peter 3:21
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And somewhere in the middle of this I might hear:

What about the thief on the cross?

Now I’ve heard this spit out as an accusation,
and I’ve heard it said as a plea,
as if in the hope that what I am teaching might not be true.

Regardless of the tone and intent of the question,
aren’t those who proclaim the gospel
still obliged to answer it.

Now the two primary ways of dealing with this question are:

  1. To appeal to the authority of Jesus
  2. To observe that this was done under the law

Today I am going to give you a third option that uses those first two as background and support.
All three together are much stronger than the two alone.

The Verbal Abuse

But before we dig into that,
Let’s contextualize the events around the thief on the cross.
Consider the verbal abuse given to Jesus
while He hung on the cross
with that sign above His head that said,
“This is the king of the Jews.”

27They crucified two robbers with Him,
one on His right and one on His left.
28And the Scripture was fulfilled which says,
“And He was numbered with transgressors.”
29Those passing by were hurling abuse at Him,
wagging their heads, and saying,
“Ha! You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days,
30save Yourself, and come down from the cross!”
31In the same way the chief priests also,
along with the scribes,
were mocking Him among themselves and saying,
“He saved others; He cannot save Himself.
32“Let this Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross, so that we may see and believe!”…?

— Mark 15:27–32
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35And 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.”
36The soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine,
37and saying, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!”

— Luke 23:35–37
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44The robbers who had been crucified with Him were also insulting Him with the same words.

— Matthew 27:44
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Now imagine you are in true agony,
and these are the mocking words you hear.
Imagine you are the creator of the universe,
with the power to destroy those who so mock you.

Now imagine saying this,

Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.

That is who we are dealing with.
We approach the most humble of all
when we approach the cross of Christ.
And we are called to come to Him
in like humility.

The Analogy of the Steps to Salvation

With all of this background
we still have to answer that question:

What about the thief on the cross?

Now, I have never really liked the question.
It usually seems like we are trying to escape the clear teachings of the apostles
when we ask it.
But I think I may have a sense of why it is being asked,
at least some of the time.

The way we present the plan of salvation is usually through the analogy of steps.

5 Steps of Salvation
  1. Hear
  2. Believe
  3. Repent
  4. Confess
  5. Baptized

Then we must walk in newness of life as faithful sheep in the flock of God.

Now the analogy of the steps is reasonably scriptural.
When you consider what Jesus says in John 10:9.

9“I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.

— John 10:9
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And so we naturally think of taking steps toward Jesus.
Hence the analogy of the plan of salvation being a series of steps
by which we enter into the sheepfold.

So I don’t have a problem with this analogy at all.

But I think our friends might be balking at it because they are not seeing it this way.
I think they may be seeing it as more of a checklist that we are applying to the question of salvation.
And if we are being honest with ourselves
we may very well be doing that.

But if we are going to use the steps analogy
perhaps our listener is better served
if we bring them to the source of the analogy.

1“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter by the door into the fold of the sheep, but climbs up some other way, he is a thief and a robber.
2“But he who enters by the door is a shepherd of the sheep.

— John 10:1–2
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7So Jesus said to them again, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.
8“All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them.
9“I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.

— John 10:7–9
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11“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.

— John 10:11
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So we see Jesus is both the door
and the good shepherd.
And that those who do not go into the flock of God
through Jesus
are illegitimate.

So then I ask you,
how do we go through the Christ?
How do we go through the door of salvation and enter into His flock.

Starting from John 10,
the steps of salvation look a lot less like a checklist
and more like the path to the door of Christ.

And yet with all of that, some may still ask,

What about the thief on the cross?

Lean into the text, don’t parry.

Often, the first answer to this question is an appeal to Jesus’ authority.
Jesus is the Lord of Lords
and He is well within is sovereign right to appoint any He likes to paradise and heaven afterward;
since He knows the hearts of men
He is always able to do that and still be just.
He did after-all forgive the sins of men
while walking the earth
so it isn’t that odd that He did the same for the thief on the cross.

The second answer is that this event occurred before the sacrifice of Jesus was complete.
And therefore, the rules of the new dispensation are as yet not in effect.
That this thief falls under the old covenant and not the new.

Neither of these two things is wrong.
They are technically sound and true.
Yet, having used these, I find them unsatisfying in and of themselves.
They are a parry to the question.
They pivot away from the text of Luke 23:39–43
and off to other texts to back them up.
And that isn’t wrong,
but it doesn’t seem like we are actually dealing with the thief on the cross,
but more like we are trying to placate our friend
with other aspects of the revelation of God.

I am going to suggest that with these two afore mentioned facts in our minds
that we lean into the text of Luke 23
and answer the way we usually do when asked about a Bible passage.
That we go to the text
and that we lean into the text to learn the lessons there.

39One of the criminals
who were hanged there
was hurling abuse at Him, saying,
“Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!”
40But the other answered,
and rebuking him said,
“Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?
41And we indeed are suffering justly,
for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds;
but this man has done nothing wrong.”
42And he was saying,
“Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!”
43And He said to him,
“Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”

— Luke 23:39–43
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There is so much sublime beauty in this text.
It would be a shame to pivot away from it.
Let’s use it instead to drive the faith of our friends further toward Christ.

Two types of faith:
  1. Self serving
    1. “Are you not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!”
  2. Humbly seeking reconciliation
    1. “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom.”
Consider the faith of the thief in paradise
  1. He feared God
  2. He understood that he was a sinner
    1. that he was deserving of his punishment;
    2. And demonstrates a repentant heart by his rebuking the other thief.
  3. He confesses that Jesus has a kingdom
    1. Which is a statement that He has come to believe the sign that says,
      1. “The King of the Jews”
    2. And he has made a confession of that belief before men.

Let’s consider the plan of salvation again.

Step 1 Hear

It seems unlikely that Jesus was completely unknown to these guys,
given the very public nature of His work in the region.
So it seems likely that these thieves had heard of Jesus
and probably some of His teachings.

Now some have said that the thief in paradise
might have been baptized
as were so many
by the apostles of Jesus.
However, that is to argue from the silence of scripture
and that is not a very compelling way to argue at all.

But at the very least they knew of His claim to be the Messiah
and King of the Jews,
After all, there is a sign above His head,
And being Jews they would understand many of the implications to these claims.

Step 2 Believe

The thief in paradise had clearly come to believe
that Jesus was in fact the king of the Jews.
The other thief called Jesus the Christ,
a fact that the true believing thief certainly did not dispute.
Rather, he embraced the righteousness of Jesus,
and showed his own contrite heart at the same time.

Step 3 Repent

So we have that penitent heart on display in the thief of paradise,
and we have the tacit confession that Jesus is the King
and by extension Messiah.
Because these two things are tightly bound up with each other in Jewish thought.
And they are certainly one in the same with Christ.
The thief of paradise knew exactly what he was confessing to.

Which brings us to Step 4 Confess

And with his final recorded words,
we get a confession of faith
from the thief in paradise.
He asks to be remembered by Jesus
once Jesus comes in His kingdom.

To ask to be remembered is not asking to be recollected.
Rather it is to be recalled back before Christ.
He is seeking to be given grace and mercy by the Lord.

That is what is being asked by the thief.
The term “remember me” is used often in scripture by supplicants before God.
That God would bestow grace and mercy upon them.
See the Psalms for many quick instances of “Remember me oh Lord” or “Remember me my God.”

And so the thief in paradise confessed a belief that Jesus
was a king who would come in His kingdom
and who was at liberty to offer him sanctuary in that kingdom.

Here you have this man
whose faith is clearly demonstrated.

Finally we have step 5, to be Crucified with Christ

This man is dying on a cross right next to the savior of all of mankind.
He did something that none of us can do.
He hung on a cross next to Jesus.
He was literally crucified with Christ.

I’d like to put to you that this is one of the last types of the old covenant.
That this thief who had faith
is dying as a sign pointing us to our own crucifixion with Christ.

3Or do you not know
that all of us who have been baptized
into Christ Jesus
have been baptized into His death?
4Therefore we have been buried with Him
through baptism into death,
so that as Christ was raised from the dead
through the glory of the Father,
so we too might walk in newness of life.
5For if we have become
united with Him in the likeness of His death,
certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection,
6knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him,
in order that our body of sin might be done away with,
so that we would no longer be slaves to sin;
7for he who has died is freed from sin.

— Romans 6:3–7
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You see the thief on the cross was indeed under the old law.
And so there was no need of his being immersed in water
in the baptism of Christ.

And yet there he hung,
crucified with Christ Jesus.
There he hung
confessing that Jesus was the righteous King of the Jews.
There he hung
begging to be remembered by our glorious King.

And so you have in his actual crucifixion
the fore-shadowing of the thing to come for us.

We must take up our cross
and come to the Christ with a like contrite heart
and ask to be remembered in that final day
and do so with gratitude and love.

For we did not have to hang on a tree
to be crucified with Christ.
We have only to be immersed in water
for the remission of sins
having believed in the Christ
having repented of our sins
and confessed our belief.

The baptism of Christ demands a dying of the old man.
That is what is happening in those waters.
The old man of sin is being executed
and God is washing away that sin
and making a new creature of light and truth.
It is not our work but God’s work.

The thief on the cross
was not going to live long enough
to see the day
when this way
of entering into the sheep fold
was made available.
And I am sure he would have preferred water baptism
to his death on a cross.

But here the thief in paradise stands
as a testimony of the rich mercies of God.
That even in the last hour of our lives
we can have that blessed gift
if only we will have true faith.

So, what about the thief on the cross?

That man was crucified with Jesus. How about you?

If you have been so crucified with Christ,
how was that accomplished?

Were you buried in the watery grave of baptism,
where the old man of sin
was put to death by God
that the new child of God
may rise in likeness of the resurrection of Christ?

If not, then why not?
No one is so depraved that they cannot have the salvation of Christ.
The thief on the cross is a testimony for us
that even this one
who cursed the son of God
could be saved by the one he cursed.
As a type and shadow he points us to our own salvation.

We will not hear the words of Jesus
in our ears as that thief did,
but we may yet still hear those lovely words,

Well done good and faithful servant, enter into my rest.

If only we will be conformed to His will
and enter into Him as the door to the flock.
If only we will take those necessary steps to go in.

27For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

— Galatians 3:27
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And so if we are clothed with Christ
we have entered in by Him
and are added to the flock of God
by God alone.

Not by our own strength or wisdom,
but by the grace of God
manifested through Christ Jesus,
and so richly on display in His own death.

Forgive them for they know not what they do

The faith of the thieves stand in stark contrast to one another.
The one was not interested in a relationship with God or Christ.
He only wanted to escape his punishment.

The thief who is today in paradise
wanted to be remembered by Christ.
He wanted to be known and recalled by Jesus.
And so, he will receive the crown of life
in that final day of judgment.

For that man did believe, repent, confess
and he was crucified with Jesus.

How about you?

Today can be the day of your salvation.
The day to put off the old man of sin and death
and to put on the Christ
to have the promise of eternal life
if you will walk in the way of Christ
following the Good Shepherd all your days.

How about you?

Will you die with Him?
Will you walk with Him?

If you will
we invite you to reach out to us
at teachuslord.com

We would be delighted to hear your true confession of Christ
and to baptize you into His flock
if you are of a mind to walk with the Lord all your days.
If you have obedient faith in the Lord
then please
don’t hesitate
call us or email us
and we will be happy to help you into the Way of Christ today.

May God bless you all,
may He finish the work that He has begun in you
and perfect you through His precious and holy Son
in whose name we shall be delighted to baptize you today.

The lesson my friends is yours.
God bless.

Appendix A: Appendix of Verses | by order of appearance

Glossary of Key Terms

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Bibliographic References

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