The Thief On The Cross
The churches of Christ Greet You (Romans 16:16)
Many have called us into question respecting the salvation of the thief on the cross. Therefore, this subject is one of no little importance, and it deserves a close and sincere study, for thousands of the religious world look upon the case of the thief on the cross as a model case of conversion under the Christian dispensation. Yea, even more; it is often referred to as a model case of salvation in the kingdom of ultimate glory. Therefore, from the case of the thief on the cross, thousands are being taught that although they may have lived in sin and open rebellion against God all the days of their lives, if they can only, in their last dying moments, view Jesus by faith, dying on the cross, shedding His blood for their sins, and call upon Him as the poor dying malefactor did, that all will be well. They are being taught that as soon as the breath leaves their bodies, the spirit will be wafted away on the balmy wings of Jesus, and tenderly conveyed into the peaceful presence of God, and there to dwell forever.
With this teaching so eminent in our land, the hand of the wicked is being strengthened and they continue in wickedness with the happy thought that just as the thief on the cross was wafted away to the ports of eternal glory, they, too, when called from the stage of action, will leave with bright assurance of future blessedness at God's own right hand in heaven. Loved ones, such teaching is erroneous and extremely dangerous. Therefore, we will give this subject a sincere, honest, and prayerful study.
Please turn to Luke 23:39‑43. The Bible says, "And one of the malefactors which was hanged railed on him saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering, rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing amiss. And he 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."
The robber (Gk. lestes, a robber - Matthew 27:38, 44, not thief, kleptes) to whom Jesus said, "...Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with Me in paradise" (Luke ) was not just a common criminal. The man had honesty and courage as seen in his rebuke of the other robber, he appeared to fear God, acknowledged his guilt, accepted his deserved punishment, showed respect for Jesus, defended Jesus' innocence, and had some knowledge of Jesus' kingdom (Luke 23:40-42). This man was certainly not an impenitent sinner expecting death bed salvation, as he is sometimes portrayed!
Now let us face the facts without trying to bend them about to justify some petty desire of our own. It is contended by some that the robber was saved; this we neither affirm nor deny, for the Bible teaches neither. The fact in the case is the robber who engages our attention did not ask Christ to save him anyway. He only asked him to remember him when He came into His kingdom. Christ said unto him, "Today shalt thou be with me in paradise."
Now, because of this promise of Jesus, thousands think that just as soon as the breath left their bodies, Christ and the robber were carried away into heaven where the robber, they think, abides today. But friends, there is nothing that is further from the truth than that contention; and this contention is the result of men's failure to rightly divide the word of truth. We admit that Christ said, "Today shalt thou be with me in paradise." But where did they go that day? Some think that they went to heaven. However, wherever paradise was we may rest assured that it was not in heaven where the Father dwells. Christ surely did not go to heaven that day, for He said so Himself. Hear Him, "Jesus said unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and said unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father” (John 20:16).
Now this is at least three days after His conversation with the thief on the cross, and He says, "I'm not yet ascended." Furthermore, according to Acts 1:3, He didn't ascend until forty days thereafter. This, of course, makes at least forty three days from the conversation between Christ and the thief on the cross to the ascension of Christ. Therefore, it is evident, that Christ did not go to heaven the day He and the robber died. But the question may be raised, where did He go?
He was buried in Joseph's new tomb (Luke 23:51‑53), and went to hades, the unseen world. The robber also went to the unseen world, for Jesus had told him, "Today thou shalt be with me in paradise." As further proof that Jesus went to hades, Peter quotes David. Hear Him, "He seeing this before, spake of the resurrection of Christ; that his soul was not left in hell [that's hades] neither did his flesh see corruption" (Acts 2:31). How could David say that Christ's soul was not left in hell (hades) if He did not go there? This hell which is from the Greek hades seems to refer to the unseen abode of the spirits of the dead, the receptacle of disembodied spirits between death and the resurrection. Therefore, paradise, the place, or state in which Christ said the robber would be with Him that day, must be included in the unseen abode (Greek, hades).
As we have said, it certainly could not be heaven where the Father dwells, for Christ did not go there that day Himself; but He went first into the lower parts of the earth. Hear the apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:8‑10: "Wherefore, he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive and gave gifts to men. Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth. He that descended is the same also that ascended far up above all heavens, that he might fill all things."
According to history, it was understood in the past ages that hades was divided into two parts‑first, paradise, the unseen abode of the embodied spirits of the righteous and, secondly, tartarus, the unseen abode of disembodied spirits of the wicked (cf. Luke 16:19-31). We do know according to the Bible that there is an intermediate state of the departed, for the apostle Peter said in 2 Peter 2:4, "For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell [that's tartarus] and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto the judgment.” So it is very clear here that the wicked after death are delivered into chains of darkness to be reserved unto the judgment. So the sentencing of the wicked will be after the resurrection and the judgment.
This makes it very clear that Christ and the robber went to the unseen world, hades or hell, as it is rendered in our common translations, and not that Christ saved the thief and took him to heaven as some would have you believe. It is also clear that after about 43 days from the conversation between Christ and the robber, Christ mounted the clouds and ascended to the Father in heaven (Acts 1:3‑11). But we do not have a record of Christ taking the robber with him. Therefore, so far as the record goes, the robber is still in the hadean world, awaiting the great resurrection.
But, let us grant that the robber was saved; however, the Bible doesn't say that he was; but for the sake of a better understanding, let us say that he was saved. Friends, his case would not help you! You couldn't be saved like him, for if he was saved, he was saved under the Law of Moses, or the old covenant and we are living under the new and living way, or the new covenant, which became effective after the death of Christ. Christ hadn't died at the time of His conversation with the robber, and the new will did not become effective until He did die (Heb. 9:15‑17).
Furthermore, while Christ was here on earth, He had the power to forgive sins any way He choose (Matt. 9:2-7; Luke -50). God gave Him power to forgive sins as He was pleased. The Bible says, "But that ye may know that the son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins" (Matt. 9:6, 8). While here on earth, before the new will became effective, before He died to make it effective, He could say, "Thy sins be forgiven thee, go in peace and sin no more," etc. But since He has died, and the new will having come into effect at His death, if we are saved today, it must be according to His will, or by complying with the conditions of salvation, as stipulated in the new will. There is no way around it. So we had better come out from behind the thief on the cross and obey the Lord (cf. Matt. ; Luke ).
Additionally, the case of the thief on the cross is often referred to as a model case of salvation without baptism. In order to get around obeying God's ordinance of baptism men frequently run to the case of the thief on the cross and exclaim that the robber was saved and he wasn't baptized. In the first place, we don't know whether the robber was baptized or not. Just because he was a thief is no proof that he hadn't been baptized. We know of a good many thieves who have been baptized, don't you. It is pure assumption on the part of men that the thief wasn't baptized. John did quite a bit of baptizing back there, and he could have baptized the robber. The robber knew about the kingdom ‑ at least he had heard about it. Where did he get that information? Certainly he heard it preached back there. Then, couldn't he have been baptized back there?
Baptism is a command found in the Great Commission. Jesus' teaching regarding the universal necessity of baptism for the salvation of the alien sinner was not given until Jesus rose from the grave and gave His Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:46-49). This robber lived and died before the commission: hence, the baptism commanded by Jesus had no applicability. But let us call the robber to record and see what he has to say about it. Let us picture ourselves calling the robber in question regarding this matter. All right, here we go.
"Mr. Robber, do you know that Christ died?"
Answer, "Sure, I know that Christ died: I was crucified with him."
"Thank you, Mr. Robber, but another question, please. Do you know that Christ was buried?"
Answer: "No, I was dead at that time."
"Well, Mr. Robber, do you know that Christ rose again from the dead?"
Answer: "Why, no, I was dead before that time.”
Well, one last question. "Do you know that Christ commanded baptism?"
Answer: "No, I was dead at that time.”
"Thank you, Mr. Robber, though a thief, I know that you are telling the truth, for Christ did not command baptism until after he had risen from the dead."
Hear Jesus in Matthew 28:19, "And Jesus came and spake unto them saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” These words were spoken by the Savior after He had risen from the dead, and the robber had been dead for at least three days. Men want to know today why they cannot be saved without being baptized. Our answer to that is: you will have to see Jesus about that, for Jesus is the one who taught that baptism is a condition of salvation. Hear him in Mark 16:16, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned." Again, John 3:5, "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." And Acts 2:38, "Then Peter answered and said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost." Then Acts 22:16, "And now, why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord."
The robber and all other inapplicable arguments do not erase the essential nature of baptism. The penitent sinner needs to be baptized today just as immediately and for the same reasons as those people did in the Book of Acts (cf. Acts -34). So, my friends, let us give up offering excuses and stop trying to go around the word of the Lord, for if we are saved, we must obey the Lord. Hebrews 5:9 teaches that He has become the author of eternal salvation to all that obey him. The Savior is interested in you, and it is not His will that any should perish. Will you come to him today?
We are glad to present you a church founded by Jesus Christ, bought with His own precious blood, filled with His Spirit, and guided by His unerring counsel. The terms of induction into it are such as you can easily understand (1 Cor. ; cf. Gal. ). We are hoping, trusting, and praying that you are willing to obey them, and then trust Him for the fulfillment of His every promise. If you understand these terms and are willing to accept them, we are indeed happy to extend to you the precious gospel call, and we trust that you will accept that call, putting your trust in Christ the Savior, sincerely repenting of every sin, publicly acknowledging your faith in Him as being the Son of God, surrendering to the divine ordinance of baptism in the name of the divine Trinity, for the remission of your sins according to Acts 2:38, and live faithfully thereafter to Him. If such you will do, heaven will be your home.
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