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. Matthew 27:38, 44; Mark 15:27, 32 and John 19:18, 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 (Luke 23:32-43).
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.” (Luke 23:39-43)
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 (Acts 2:38). 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 Hebrews 9:15-17 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 (Matthew 9:2; Mark 2:7; Luke 5:20).
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 (John 1:19-28). Mark says all the people of Judea and Jerusalem were being baptized (Mark 1:4-8). In fact, the baptism of John even continued, improperly, many years into the church age (Acts 19:1-7). 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 chapter 19 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.
4 comments On The Thief on the Cross and Baptism
Thanks for posting the reference to Hebrews 9:15-17. It is indeed “instructive” as is all Scripture.
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!
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.
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.
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