By: Mark Tabata (Evangelist)
While the Bible is very clear that baptism precedes the salvation of the repentant sinner (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:26-27; Colossians 2:12; Hebrews 10:22; 1 Peter 3:20-21), many in the religious world refuse to accept this.
Sometimes this is due to the fact that people simply do not know this truth. Perhaps they have never read these Scriptures, or have not been taught the truth by those who have.
Or, perhaps they have heard arguments against baptism being part of God’s plan of salvation which “sound” okay, but have not properly reasoned through such.
Of course, one of the most popular argument against baptism comes from the well-known “thief on the cross.”
When Jesus was being crucified, there were two thieves who were also being crucified with Him.
Matthew 27:38-Then two robbers were crucified with Him, one on the right and another on the left.
For some time during the crucifixion, both of these robbers showed disdain and disrespect towards Jesus:
Matthew 27:44-Even the robbers who were crucified with Him reviled Him with the same thing.
Mark 15:32-Let the Christ, the King of Israel, descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Even those who were crucified with Him reviled Him.
However, the Gospel of Luke records an incredible conversion of one of these robbers:
Luke 23:39-43-39 Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” 40 But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” 43 And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
It is here that some have come to the (improper) conclusion that baptism is not necessary for salvation.
Why do they make this claim?
Well, it is argued that the thief was promised salvation by the Lord Jesus, and that he was not able to be baptized; so therefore, he (and by extension, everyone) may be saved apart from baptism.
Yet is this argument valid?
Jesus Did Promise The Thief Would Be Saved
The first thing I would like to point out in this study is that the thief was indeed promised salvation by the Lord. In fact, the Lord clearly promised that the thief would be with Jesus Himself in Paradise on that very day!
Luke 23:43-And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
Speaking of the grammar of this passage, Ron Rhodes (in examining the contention of the Jehovah’s Witnesses that Jesus was not promising the thief would be in Paradise on that day) has well pointed out:
“The Watchtower Teaching. The New World Translation renders Luke 23: 43, “And he said to him: ‘Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise.”’ This is in contrast to, for example, the English Standard Version, which renders this verse, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Notice that in the New World Translation the comma is placed after the word “today,” not after “you,” as in the English Standard Version (and most other translations). Jehovah’s Witnesses do this to keep the thief from being with Jesus in Paradise “today” (which would mean that there is conscious existence after death). Instead, they make it appear that Jesus’ statement to the thief about Paradise took place “today.” 58 How do we determine which translation is correct? Jehovah’s Witnesses answer that the teachings of Christ and of the rest of Scripture must determine which is right. And since Scripture is clear that there is no conscious existence after death (Psalm 146: 3-4), it is obvious that Jesus did not say, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” as if He and the thief would be in Paradise the same day as their deaths. 59 Rather, Jesus’ statement to the thief took place “today.” The Biblical Teaching. This is a clear case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses changing the Bible in order to fit their doctrines. Without any warrant whatsoever, they have forced a comma into a part of the sentence that changes entirely the intended meaning of Jesus’ words. It is helpful to observe how the phrase, “Truly, I say to you” is used elsewhere in Scripture. This phrase—which translates the Greek words amen soy lego—occurs 74 times in the Gospels and is always used as an introductory expression. It is somewhat similar to the Old Testament phrase, “Thus says the Lord.” 60 Jesus used this phrase to introduce a truth that was very important. In 73 out of the 74 times the phrase occurs in the Gospels, the New World Translation places a break—such as a comma—immediately after the phrase, “Truly, I tell you.” 61 Luke 23: 43 is the only occurrence of this phrase in which the New World Translation does not place a break after it. Why? Because if a break—such as a comma—was placed after “Truly, I say to you,” the word “today” would then belong to the second half of the sentence, indicating that “today” the thief would be with Jesus in Paradise. But this would go against Watchtower theology. Hence, the relocated comma….Apologist Robert Bowman notes that if Jesus had really wanted to say, “Truly, I say to you today,” He could have done this very clearly by using a different construction in the Greek language. 62 But based upon the usage of amen soy lego throughout Scripture, it is clear that the word “today” belongs with the second part of the sentence, not the first….Related to all this, Watchtower expert Marian Bodine points out that the phrase, “Truly, I say to you today” does not make good sense: “It would have been needless to say, ‘Today, I am telling this to you.’ Of course He was! What other day would He have been speaking to the thief on? Jesus never added the word ‘today’ when speaking to anyone.” 63 According to orthodox scholars, this thief apparently believed that Jesus would eventually come into His kingdom at the end of the world. He therefore asked to be remembered by Jesus at that time. Jesus’ reply, however, promised him more than he had asked for: “Today [not just at the end of the world] you will be with me in Paradise.” 64. And what is this “Paradise”? The word paradise literally means “garden of pleasure” or “garden of delight.” Revelation 2: 7 makes reference to heaven as the “paradise of God.” The apostle Paul said he “was caught up into paradise” and “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Corinthians 12: 3-4). Apparently this paradise of God is so resplendently glorious, so ineffable, so wondrous, that Paul was forbidden to say anything about it to those still in the earthly realm. When Jesus promised the thief that he would go to Paradise, He was promising the thief that he would go to this wondrous place. From the above, it is clear that Luke 23: 43 argues strongly against the Watchtower position that there is no immaterial nature that consciously survives death. As is true with other Bible verses, a thorough look at the text unmasks the Watchtower deception.” (Ron Rhodes, Reasoning From The Scriptures With The Jehovah’s Witnesses, 326-329 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Harvest House Publishers)
As such, there is no doubt that this thief was promised by the Lord that he would go to Paradise on that very day when he and Jesus died.
Taking A Closer Look At The Thief On The Cross
Yet who was this thief that Jesus addressed?
What do we know about him?
While the text itself does not specify a great deal about who the thief on the cross was, it does highlight us some important clues about him which bear meditation.
First, the criminal is identified as a “thief” or a “robber.” The Greek word used here is very interesting. The inspired writers use the word lestes, This word signified not only a thief (kleptes, from where we get our English word kleptomaniac), but a violent thief; a brigand, one whose crime included thievery through violence.
We see therefore that this malefactor was guilty not only of robbery, but of personal assault and likely murder.
Second, the thief clearly demonstrates a knowledge of Jesus. He understands the fact that Jesus is innocent of the charges leveled against Him, and that He is being unjustly killed. He sees the clear contrast in this regard with his own guilt, and even defends Jesus against the other robber. He also shows an understanding of the fact that Jesus has a kingdom.
All of these considerations demonstrate that he had some working knowledge of Jesus before the crucifixion. This of course should probably not surprise us, since the knowledge of Jesus had by that point spread throughout the land.
Matthew 4:23-25-23 And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people. 24 Then His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and He healed them. 25 Great multitudes followed Him—from Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan.
Matthew 9:31-But when they had departed, they spread the news about Him in all that country.
Matthew 9:26-And the report of this went out into all that land.
Matthew 14:1-At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the report about Jesus.
Mark 1:28-And immediately His fame spread throughout all the region around Galilee.
Luke 4:14-Then Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news of Him went out through all the surrounding region.
Luke 5:15-However, the report went around concerning Him all the more; and great multitudes came together to hear, and to be healed by Him of their infirmities.
We are assured time and again that the fame of Jesus was very widespread:
Luke 24:18-20-18 Then the one whose name was Cleopas answered and said to Him, “Are You the only stranger in Jerusalem, and have You not known the things which happened there in these days?” 19 And He said to them, “What things?” So they said to Him, “The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a Prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to be condemned to death, and crucified Him.
When the Apostle Peter preached to Cornelius and his household, he made it clear that Cornelius had already heard about Jesus:
Acts 10:36-43-36 The word which God sent to the children of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ—He is Lord of all—. 37 THAT WORD YOU KNOW (emphasis added, M.T.) which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, and began from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. 39 And we are witnesses of all things which He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem, whom they killed by hanging on a tree. 40 Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, 41 not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. 42 And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead. 43 To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins.”
Notice verse 37-“that word you know.” Cornelius, like many of the Gentiles in the first century, had heard of Jesus.
Please also observe that much of the news about Jesus had been spread by John the Baptist.
Finally, please consider that the thief on the cross displayed true repentance. He shows remorse for his sins in acknowledging his guilt and deserved condemnation, and refers to Jesus as “Lord,” showing that he understood that Jesus is truly “Master.” He plead for mercy, and the Lord granted it!
The Thief MAY Have Been Baptized With The Baptism Of John
Seeing that the thief on the cross already had such a familiarity with Jesus, it is likely that he had encountered news of Him from John the Baptist.
In fact, there is a great deal of evidence that he may have been baptized by John the Baptist (although the inspired Word does not directly state this).
Mark 1:4-5-4 John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. 5 Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.
Luke 3:3-And he went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins,
It is possible (and indeed likely, judging from the knowledge of the thief about the Lord Jesus) that he had indeed been baptized by John the Baptist.
The Thief On The Cross Could Not Have Been Baptized With The Baptism Of The Great Commission
It is here very important to also mention that the thief on the cross was not baptized with the baptism of the Great Commission.
In fact, the thief on the cross COULD NOT have been baptized with the baptism of the Great Commission.
Why is this the case?
First, the Great Commission baptism was not issued until AFTER Jesus had died.
Mark 16:15-16-15 And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.
This was several days AFTER Jesus and the thief had died. Therefore, the thief could not have been baptized with this baptism.
Second, Great Commission baptism involves a union with not only the death of Jesus, but His burial and resurrection as well. Paul makes this clear when he writes:
Romans 6:3-4-3 Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
Colossians 2:12-buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
Great Commission baptism is tied directly to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Since the thief died before Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, and before the Great Commission baptism had even been issued, then obviously he was not under the command to be baptized with the baptism of the Great Commission!
Just as important to consider is the fact that the thief on the cross lived and died under the Old Testament Law, and was thus not subject to the New Covenant of Christ. Paul wrote:
Hebrews 9:16-17-For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. 17 For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives.
Therefore, the thief on the cross had no obligation to be baptized as Christ commanded.
A few years ago, a gentleman named Michael Shank wrote an excellent book entitled Muscle And A Shovel. In this book, he chronicles his departure out of denominationalism and into New Testament Christianity. A member of the church of Christ named Randall had ongoing Bible studies with Shank (as did another of his friends named Larry).
When studying about the thief on the cross, we find the following account in Muscle And A Shovel:
“Regarding the thief of the cross, little is known about his previous history leading up to the cross….Jesus, while being alive o n this earth, did as He saw fit. On two other occasions He pronounced forgiveness of sins. He healed the lame, the blind and the sick. He bid Peter to walk to Him on water. Jesus performed miracles and did signs and wonders to confirm to an unbelieving world that He was God’s Son. But Larry pointed out something else. He showed me Hebrews 9:16-17…Th e Law of Christ (Galatians 6:2) went into effect after Christ’s death; therefore, Christ healed, forgave and saved men while He was alive (i.e. the thief on the cross). However, Christ’s law (or testament) didn’t go into effect until the moment of His death. Hebrews 9 made this Bible fact clear. The principle of Christ’s will continues to this day. A man, while he is alive, can do anything he wants with his estate, but his will goes into effect at the point of his death. When Jesus lived, all men were still under the Law of Moses (if they were Jews), or the Patriarchal Law (if they were Gentiles). However, at the point of Christ’s death those former covenants were nailed to the cross and both Jews and Gentiles would be reconciled together into one body, the church, by the cross. Larry proved this point by Ephesians 2:14-16…Larry revealed another biblical point that I’d never considered. He brought up one of the many reasons for baptism found in Romans 6:3-5:…Men and women are baptized into Jesus Christ by being baptized into His death. The thief on the cross wasn’t baptized into Christ’s death because Christ had not yet died, so the thief couldn’t have been baptized into Christ’s death. The thief wasn’t subject to Paul’s command to be baptized into Christ’s death (Romans 6) just like Moses and Abraham and David weren’t subject to it because all of those people lived before Christ’s death on the cross lived under the Mosaical or Patriarchal Law. Therefore, how could they have been baptized into Christ’s death when Christ had not yet died?” (Michael Shank, Muscle And A Shovel, 2090-2138 (Kindle Edition)).
The Thief On The Cross Was Not Able To Keep The Law Of Moses Perfectly
There is another area where the thief on the cross bears important consideration.
Dying under the Old Testament Law, the thief was required by God to make full restitution before he could be forgiven:
Exodus 22:1-If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall restore five oxen for an ox and four sheep for a sheep.
Exodus 22:7-If a man delivers to his neighbor money or articles to keep, and it is stolen out of the man’s house, if the thief is found, he shall pay double.
Exodus 22:9-For any kind of trespass, whether it concerns an ox, a donkey, a sheep, or clothing, or for any kind of lost thing which another claims to be his, the cause of both parties shall come before the judges; and whomever the judges condemn shall pay double to his neighbor.
Leviticus 6:1-7-1 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 2 “If a person sins and commits a trespass against the LORD by lying to his neighbor about what was delivered to him for safekeeping, or about a pledge, or about a robbery, or if he has extorted from his neighbor, 3 or if he has found what was lost and lies concerning it, and swears falsely—in any one of these things that a man may do in which he sins: 4 then it shall be, because he has sinned and is guilty, that he shall restore what he has stolen, or the thing which he has extorted, or what was delivered to him for safekeeping, or the lost thing which he found, 5 or all that about which he has sworn falsely. He shall restore its full value, add one-fifth more to it, and give it to whomever it belongs, on the day of his trespass offering. 6 And he shall bring his trespass offering to the LORD, a ram without blemish from the flock, with your valuation, as a trespass offering, to the priest. 7 So the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD, and he shall be forgiven for any one of these things that he may have done in which he trespasses.”
The thief had obviously not made restitution to the ones from whom he had stolen (as is made clear from his guilty conscience and his plea of mercy from the Lord).
Despite this fact, the Lord showed mercy to him!
This is perhaps an interesting lesson to us in regards to the subject of a person who desires to be baptized into Christ and is not able to do so. What does God do with persons in situations where they want to obey the Lord, but are hindered from doing so?
My mind goes to, for example, situations of persons in Muslim dominated countries where disciples of Christ are in jail and not allowed to be baptized into Christ, being forbidden to do so by their Islamic motivated captors.
In the same way, I have come across situations in jail ministry where people desired to be baptized into Christ, but were forbidden to do so by the local government. Fortunately, this has never happened to me personally as the law enforcement in my area of Kentucky has always treated me with kindness and grace: however, I do know of situations of Gospel preachers contacting me for help and advice because inmates had been forbidden to be baptized into Christ because of uncooperative law enforcement and politicians (and in some cases, zealous religious leaders whose teachings influenced jailers and others in such a way that they were convinced baptism was not important and essential to salvation).
From the leniency shown to the thief on the cross by the Lord, I am personally convinced that God takes such situations into account and will do what is right in each individual case. I trust Him to do what is right.
As Abraham said so long ago:
Genesis 18:25-…Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
Let me also emphasize while I’m on this topic that one of the most important lessons which we can learn from the thief on the cross is that we should not wait until our deathbed to get things right with God. A person who does this is quite literally “playing with fire.”
The Repentance Of The Thief On The Cross And Other Biblical Situations
Many are surprised to learn that there are several examples in the Bible where people cried out to God on their deathbed, seeking salvation, and the Lord REFUSED their request!
Psalm 18:41-They cried out, but there was none to save; Even to the LORD, but He did not answer them.
Proverbs 1:28-Then they will call on me, but I will not answer; They will seek me diligently, but they will not find me.
Isaiah 1:15-When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; Even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood.
Jeremiah 14:12-When they fast, I will not hear their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them. But I will consume them by the sword, by the famine, and by the pestilence.”
Ezekiel 8:18-Therefore I also will act in fury. My eye will not spare nor will I have pity; and though they cry in My ears with a loud voice, I will not hear them.”
Micah 3:4-Then they will cry to the LORD, But He will not hear them; He will even hide His face from them at that time, Because they have been evil in their deeds.
In all of these cases (and more could be cited), the Lord refused salvation to those who were on their “death-bed.”
Why would God refuse to save these individuals, but then turn around and save the thief on the cross?
The answer is found in one simple word: repentance.
Read through each of the accounts mentioned above, and notice what you will lacking in each case (except the thief on the cross): repentance.
The people wanted God to save them, but they had no interest or intention in actually living for Him.
There was no real turning from sin and turning to God.
Instead, the people treated God as many in our world do today: as a genie in a bottle to get wishes granted and maybe to get out of trouble, but with no intention of actually loving and serving Him.
The thief on the cross displayed true repentance.
The tendency of so many in our world to reject the clear teaching of Scripture regarding baptism by an appeal to the thief on the cross displays several attitudes which need to be addressed.
First, it displays an attitude of ignorance. The circumstances of the thief on the cross clearly show that he had no need to be baptized into the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ since he lived and died before the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. He was not subject to the Great Commission baptism since he lived and died under the Old Testament Law, before the New Testament existed and before the Great Commission was even commanded!
More to the point, it overlooks the fact that the thief on the cross displayed knowledge about Jesus (including His personal innocence, work, and mission). Coupled with what the Scriptures declare regarding the ministry of John the Baptist, it is likely that the thief on the cross WAS baptized with the baptism of John.
Second, there is an attitude of rebellion that is often manifested by those who reject baptism with an appeal to the thief. The simple fact is, the thief displayed true humility and repentance! Why would anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ argue against Great Commission baptism? Why not instead obey the Lord immediately, as the examples of the Book of Acts show (cf. Acts 2:41; 8:12-13; 35-39; 16:30-34; 18:8; 19:1-5)?
How many cling to the notion that they will “turn to God tomorrow,” not remembering that tomorrow may never come?
Proverbs 27:1-Do not boast about tomorrow, For you do not know what a day may bring forth.
Luke 12:20-But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’
Friends, the Son of God died on that cross of Calvary to save you from your sins. Don’t put off obeying Him another day!
If you as a believer need to repent and be baptized into Christ Jesus for remission of your sins (Acts 2:38), then please do so today!
If you need to return to the Lord through repentance of sin and prayer as a Christian who has already been baptized into Christ and turned from Him (1 John 1:9), then please come back today!
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.