The Thief on the Cross and Baptism

by Bryant Evans on December 4, 2012

The thief on the cross has little or nothing to do with baptism. The Bible teaches that baptism is essential for salvation. Those who disagree often point to the thief on the cross as evidence that baptism is not required for salvation. Their reasoning is that since Jesus told the thief that he would be with him in paradise but did not also tell him to be baptized, that it proves baptism is not a necessary part of salvation. They reason that the thief was saved without baptism and so can people today. Such reasoning is incorrect and forces a conclusion not supported by the text or context of the thief on the cross.

The Thief on the Cross – Background

 

The thief on the cross is mentioned, to some degree, in all four gospels. ; and , all confirm that Jesus was crucified along with two other criminals who mocked and reviled the Lord along with those who watched. Only Luke records the change of heart of one of the criminals ().

After joining the rebuking of Jesus, one of the criminals changed his heart and his mind.

“But the other rebuked him saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” ()

Two things are clear. First, the thief on the cross was a sinner, facing imminent death, and was deeply in need of salvation. Second, Jesus alone could meet his need and did save the thief. It makes no sense to argue that Jesus did not forgive him and grant unto him eternal life while he hung upon the cross.

With these final words, the thief on the cross fades from history and he is never again mentioned in Scripture.

But despite these events, this man’s salvation story has no impact on Christian baptism today.

The Thief on the Cross Never Lived Under Christianity

 

The thief lived and died under the Law of Moses, a law which did not include baptism. This simple fact destroys the argument that the thief proves baptism is unnecessary.

All of human history stands under one of three spiritual covenants or dispensations. All of mankind has lived under either the Patriarchal age, the Mosaic age or the Christian age. Today, all men everywhere are subject to the law of Christ and live under the Christian dispensation. That dispensation began 50 days after the crucifixion during the Jewish holiday of Pentecost. It was there that baptism was given as a requirement for salvation (). Prior to Pentecost there was no such requirement. Therefore, the thief, who lived and died before the Christian age, cannot be used as an example of salvation apart from baptism. To use the thief as such an example, would be akin to demanding that Christians offer burnt offerings at the Temple in Jerusalem.

The imperative of baptism is for Christians, not for Jews.

The Thief on the Cross was Saved by Jesus Before Jesus Died

 

It must not be overlooked that Jesus’ promise, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” was uttered before his death. Thus, his will and testament upon which Christianity is ordered, was not yet in effect. There is an instructive comment in which is on point for our discussion.

“Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive.”

Before baptism, the church, the Lord’s Supper or any other Christ-given ordinance of New Testament life was in effect, Christ had to die. Before that time Jesus could and did forgive sins apart from baptism (; ; ).

The Thief on the Cross and Facts Not in Evidence

 

Even if one rejects the above facts and passages, he is still left with a problem. We know nothing about the thief on the cross prior to the Crucifixion of Jesus. We do not know and cannot state conclusively that he was never baptized.

The baptism of John the Baptist was well known and had even attracted the attention of the Jewish leaders (). Mark says all the people of Judea and Jerusalem were being baptized (). In fact, the baptism of John even continued, improperly, many years into the church age (). Such baptism was not the same as that ordered by Jesus but was nonetheless acceptable prior to the coming of the church. After the church began, it was no longer acceptable and required those men in to be baptized again, correctly.

Since baptism was common as a preparation to the coming of Jesus, it is probably best to say that we just do not know whether or not the thief on the cross was ever baptized or not. He was certainly not baptized under the law of Christ however for it was not yet known but it is quite possible that he had been baptized under John’s baptism.

It may be that you do not believe baptism to be essential, but please do not use the thief on the cross as an example as the context simply forbids it.

Bryant Evans may be reached at bryant at bryantevans.com. You can follow Bryant on Twitter  @jbevans.
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38 Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left.

Matthew 27:44

44 And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way. (ESV)

27 And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left.

Mark 15:32

32 Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him. (ESV)

18 There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. (ESV)

32 Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. 35 And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (ESV)

39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (ESV)

38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (ESV)

15 Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. 16 For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. 17 For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. (ESV)

And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” (ESV)

“Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (ESV)

20 And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” (ESV)

19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”

24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing. (ESV)

John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (ESV)

19:1 And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. There were about twelve men in all. (ESV)

19:1 And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. There were about twelve men in all.

And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. 10 This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.

11 And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. 13 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” 14 Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. 15 But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” 16 And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. 17 And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. 18 Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. 19 And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. 20 So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.

21 Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.” 22 And having sent into Macedonia two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, he himself stayed in Asia for a while.

23 About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. 24 For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. 25 These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. 26 And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. 27 And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.”

28 When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 29 So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel. 30 But when Paul wished to go in among the crowd, the disciples would not let him. 31 And even some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of his, sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater. 32 Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together. 33 Some of the crowd prompted Alexander, whom the Jews had put forward. And Alexander, motioning with his hand, wanted to make a defense to the crowd. 34 But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all cried out with one voice, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”

35 And when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, “Men of Ephesus, who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky? 36 Seeing then that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. 37 For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess. 38 If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. 39 But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly. 40 For we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” 41 And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly. (ESV)

{ 3 comments }

A Lloyd December 4, 2012 at 10:17 am

Thanks for posting the reference to Hebrews 9:15-17. It is indeed “instructive” as is all Scripture.

Lloyd Duncan December 17, 2012 at 1:51 am

I think your spot on in your observation of context in this passage. Baptism is required, the thief died before effect of Jesus’s death, as you stated. And, if he didn’t die first it didn’t matter, God can always do what wants! But, I want to point out a few things for your consideration. First, you said “That dispensation began 50 days after the crucifixion during the Jewish holiday of Pentecost” and you’re quite correct as that is when the Holy Ghost was first dilivered and became the new salvation requirement. However, where I disagree is the next line, “It was there that baptism was given as a requirement for salvation (Acts 2:38). Prior to Pentecost there was no such requirement.” It was given their as stated by Peter, but it was given by Jesus even before that: John 3:5
Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. Now, just as you stated earlier, this was not in effect because He had not died, yet, but the requirement had still been stated just the same. And I believe baptism is for Jews as well, but I’ll leave that for later. I’ve got contradicting thoughts on the “re-baptizing”, not sure that happened, though I do know where your getting it from….Given the time, I’ll have to let that one pass, too, for now, I don’t want to mis-speak. One last thing, this wasn’t mentioned, I’d just like your thoughts: Here’s one of my thoughts about the thief on the cross, He died that day, duh, and Jesus said “you will be with me this day in paradise.” Now, I think that person was saved and will be in heaven, but I believe that he is not there, yet. He is asleep in the grave like everybody else that has died. And I’ll leave it at that and wait for your comments so we may engage on this if you wish. Uh, I do want to make clear, I did not, am NOT, saying Jesus lied to the man!! Please don’t let that have place in your thoughts. I pose this to you in consideration of your posts, and mine, being particularly focused on context of meaning. Lord Bless You, oh and Merry Christmas to you and yours!

John 3:5
Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

Bryant Evans December 17, 2012 at 9:30 am

Thanks Lloyd, plenty of good comments in your posting. I appreciate that. As for the things you are leaving for later, that’s fine, we can talk then.

I have two key thoughts about John 3:5 for your consideration. First, at the time of 3:5 Jesus and Nicodemus were both living under and subject to, the Law of Moses. That law did not require baptism. Baptism was taught by John the baptist as a preparation for Jesus and the baptism that saves was given as part of the Christian law/age/dispensation. Inasmuch as the testament of Christ could not begin until his death (Hebrews 9:16-17), I would suggest that my statement is correct.

Second, my understanding, please correct if I am in error, is that the role of water in birth, in Jewish culture, referred to the physical act of conception at intercourse. Now I do not know where I read that but I will search for it. However it would seem odd that such a statement be made by Jesus who fully knew the parameters he would require for admission to the body. I guess what I am saying is that this last point requires more thought on my part.

Again, thank you for your thoughts. I will think more on what you have offered.

Bryant

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