Digression 20: The Thief on the Cross

The thief "said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy Kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise" (Lk.23:42,43). These verses are taken to mean that baptism is not essential for salvation, and that we go straight to Heaven at death. Apart from all the other evidence to the contrary, a closer reading of the passage reveals the following:

1.  The command to be baptized into Christ's death and resurrection was given after Christ's resurrection (Mk.16:15,16). The thief was still living under the Law of Moses when Christ spoke to him.

2.  True baptism is into the death and resurrection of Jesus. Seeing that when Jesus spoke to the thief neither of those events had occurred, baptism into Christ was not possible.

3.  Baptism symbolizes our dying with Christ (Rom.6:3-5). The thief was the only person who literally did this.

4.  It is quite possible that the thief was one of those who had been baptized by John the baptist. Many of his converts had formerly been shady characters (Mt.21:32). To say the thief was not baptized is to argue from silence; which is hardly a sound principle upon which to excuse ourselves from the command to be baptized. Likewise, the passage is silent about the words 'soul' and 'heaven'.

5. The thief asked Jesus to remember him for good, when Jesus returned "in" his Kingdom (R.S.V.). The thief was therefore not ignorant of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God which Jesus had been preaching (Mt.4:23). He knew that there would be a judgment day at the establishment of that Kingdom, and therefore he asked Jesus, whom he knew would rise from the dead to eventually be the judge on that day, to remember him for good. The thief was certainly not ignorant; he recognized that salvation in the day of resurrection and judgment would be pronounced from the lips of Christ.

6. Jesus replied that the thief would be with him in "Paradise". This Greek word always refers to an ideal situation upon earth. It is used concerning the restored Garden of Eden which will be seen in the future Kingdom of God on the earth (Rev.2:7). During the Kingdom of God, the world will revert to the paradise-like conditions of the Garden of Eden (Is.51:3; Ez.36:35), due to the curse being lifted (Rev.22:3). The Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) uses the same Greek word for "paradise" concerning an idyllic situation upon earth in Ecc.2:5; Neh.2:8; Song 4:13; Gen.13:10. 'Paradise' has only become associated with Heaven through its use in fiction such as Milton's 'Paradise Lost'. Jesus' promise of a place for the thief in paradise was in response to his desire to be in Christ's Kingdom. We have shown in Study 5 that the Kingdom will be on earth; 'paradise' therefore will be there too.

7. The way verse 43 is normally translated makes it seem as if Christ and the thief would be together that very day in 'paradise'. But obviously the Kingdom has not yet been established on earth. They did not go to the Kingdom that day. Jesus went to the grave (Acts 2:32); as he had prophesied, he was "three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Mt.12:40 cp. 16:21) after his death on the cross. Even after the resurrection he said "Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father" (Jn.20:17). So Jesus did not go to Heaven the day he died.

Yet Jesus appears to promise the thief "Today shalt thou be with me in paradise". The answer to this apparent contradiction is to be found in the fact that in the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible, there is no punctuation or even capital letters. It is possible to re-punctuate so that we read "Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee today, thou shalt be with me in paradise" (Lk.23:43). Rotherham's Translation does actually place the comma after "today". This beautifully fits the context. The thief was asking for Jesus to remember him for good at the day of judgment; he was aware that he was responsible, and would appear there. But Jesus gave him the marvellous reassurance - 'I can tell you right now! You don't have to wait until then to find out my verdict upon you - you will be with me in the Kingdom!'.

8. From the points noted above, it is possible to list the doctrines which the thief evidently understood:

  • The Kingdom of God
  • The second coming of Christ
  • Resurrection and judgment
  • Responsibility
  • Salvation through faith in Christ
  • The resurrection of Christ
  • The perfection of Christ ("this man hath done nothing amiss")
  • The need to follow Christ (he called him "Lord")
  • The sinfulness of man ("We indeed justly")

It is therefore out of place to use this man as an excuse for thinking that anyone can be saved if they show the slightest interest in Christianity; there must be the kind of doctrinal basis which he had. Without this, he would not have been able to rise to the height of faith which he did. Christ did not make any offer of salvation to the other thief, whose attitude was, "If thou be Christ, save thyself and us". Here was the man who says, 'If there's anything in this Jesus business, I don't see why I shouldn't get something'. It was because he lacked the doctrinal understanding which the second thief had that he was unable to find true salvation at the end of his days, his passing interest in Christ notwithstanding.