The Myth of The Thief

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Matt 28:18-20
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (NIV)

A prominent and widely published contemporary Church of Christ “preacher” has recently said, “With the exception of the thief on the cross, Scripture provides us no example of an unbaptized heaven-bound soul. The thief, however, is a wonderful exception. His conversion forces us to trust the work of Christ and not the work of baptism. Remarkable, isn’t it, that the first one to accept the invitation of the crucified Christ has no creed, confirmation, christening or catechism? He never went to church, gave an offering, was never baptized. He said only one prayer.”

Of course, Scripture actually provides multitudes of examples of “unbaptized heaven-bound” souls. In Matthew 8:11 Jesus specifically mentions Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in this category. Hebrews 11 lists a number of people considered faithful to God who lived and died with assurance that they would be made perfect, “together with us” (Hebrews 11:40). In other words, there were many Old Testament saints who were heaven-bound souls, and never received baptism, or any commandment to be baptized. With that in mind, consider the case of “the thief on the cross.”

The interchange between Jesus and the thief on the cross has been cited repeatedly for many years as an example of salvation through faith apart from baptism, as though it were a precedent for believers in all generations. The preacher mentioned above was restating a common line of reasoning that many who deny the necessity of baptism have presented. However, almost none of it is true nor an accurate picture of what happened or what it meant.

The account of Jesus and the thief on the cross is found in Luke 23:39-43. In that story, the thief said to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” To which Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” This has construed by many later (modern) interpreters as an example of New Testament salvation through faith in Christ. However, among the most basic problems with this interpretation is the fact that the New Testament (New Covenant) was not yet in place when this exchange occurred. It is after Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection that Jesus claimed, “All power in heaven and in earth has been given to me” and commanded his apostles to go, preach, and baptize (Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15-16). Christian baptism is into Christ, and particularly into his death (Romans 6:3). Baptized believers are added to a church that wasn’t bought and paid for until Christ died for her (Acts 2:41, 47, Acts 20:28). The thief on the cross is not an example, exceptional or otherwise, of New Testament salvation, which is salvation based on the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. The robber’s story says nothing about the need for baptism in the New Covenant ratified by the blood of Christ (Hebrews 12:24, 10:29).

The contemporary preacher has said that the thief accepted the “invitation of the crucified Christ.” Yet that invitation was proclaimed for the first time 7 weeks later on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), including the command to “repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus” (2:38), and not at all by Jesus on the cross. Preachers may refer to the thief’s conversion, but what conversion did the thief experience? There is no suggestion he entered a new covenant relationship with God, or that he became anything new. Forgiveness is not what we usually mean by conversion. John’s baptism was, for the Jews, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). But those baptized were Jews bound by the Law of Moses before and after baptism. Was the thief bound by any sort of creed or belief system or code of conduct? Yes, before he was sentenced to death, he was bound by the Covenant of Abraham and the Law of Moses, and he still was until he died. Forgiveness didn’t change that. He never went to church, because there wasn’t such a body when he lived and died. Did he truly say only one prayer? How could we know about his prayers before or after his conversation with Jesus? But his conversation with Jesus can hardly be construed as an example of a saving prayer, not in any way that we ordinarily define prayer as communication with God. Jesus was physically there with him. The thief was hearing Jesus speak, observing his behavior. They spoke to each other. Such conversations are not ordinarily described as saying a prayer. Why should this conversation be described that way, except that there is a desire to believe in an “exception”that doesn’t exist.

During his own ministry Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” (Matt 15:24). His ministry was to the children of Abraham, the Jewish people. Two men who were crucified along with Jesus that day in Jerusalem. Both the criminal who repented and the one who did not, would have been “lost sheep of Israel.” During his ministry on several occasions Jesus proclaimed forgiveness of sins for descendants of Abraham who turned to him. About a week before he went to the cross, Jesus passed through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. In Jericho the tax collector, Zacchaeus, welcomed Jesus into his home and then proclaimed his own repentance from past wrongs. Jesus then said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost”(Luke 19:9-10 NIV). Zacchaeus had an existing covenant relationship with God, as a child of Abraham, and Jesus proclaimed him saved when he professed his repentance. Salvation came to the thief and to Zacchaeus in just the same way, as children of Abraham who repented in the presence of the Lord, before the Old Covenant had been fulfilled by Christ, and the New Covenant empowered by Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection.

Earlier in his ministry, when a paralyzed man was brought to Jesus for healing Jesus said to him, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” (Luke 5:20) and then asserted that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Luke 5:24). This incident was in Capernaum, apparently at Peter’s home, and again involved a Jewish man. On another occasion when Jesus was a guest in a Pharisee’s house he told a woman known to be a sinner, “Your sins are forgiven.” (Luke 7:48) Again, she was one of the “lost sheep of Israel.” There is no difference between Jesus forgiving the thief, the tax collector, the paralyzed man and the sinful woman. Each of them had a covenant relationship with God as children of Abraham, none of them were baptized into Christ (which had no meaning yet), none of them were added to a church that had not yet been bought or responded to a gospel of the risen savior that had not yet been preached. They are all examples of Jesus fulfilling his ministry to “seek and save the lost” and reach out to “the lost sheep of Israel.”

What is exceptional about the thief on the cross has nothing to do with God’s commandments for our salvation in coming to Christ. We all have to come to terms with what was commanded by Jesus to and through his apostles after his resurrection, when the New Covenant was empowered, and that clearly includes baptism. What is exceptional about the thief on the cross is the emotional impact, because of the setting. In the story of the thief we have a profound demonstration of the character of Jesus, that he held no grudge. It is incredible that Jesus so impressed a dying rebel, whose inclination was at first to ridicule him (Matthew 27:44). It is remarkable that in his own agony Jesus could empathize with the suffering and fears of another, and comfort him. Jesus, as he claimed on other occasions, came to the lost sheep of Israel, including paralytics and tax collectors and known sinners and convicted robbers, and he had authority on earth to forgive sins. What is amazing is that he still attended to his calling, his ministry, assisting one more miserable sinner in the midst of his own misery as he accomplished the greatest deed in all of human history. Jesus wasn’t distracted then from the needs of a sinner, and we can be assured he won’t be distracted now either.

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