The Thief on the Cross

The Thief on the Cross


I.  Introduction


As we all know, Jesus was crucified between two thieves.


Matt. 27:38  Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left.


The image of the three crosses on Calvary gives us plenty to ponder.


Here is the Son of God, being executed like a criminal. Crucifixion was the worst form of capital punishment in the Roman empire. Except in extreme cases, it was not used for Roman citizens, but instead for slaves or captured peoples. It was extremely shameful. Here is Jesus crucified between two robbers.


Also, it’s interesting to consider that in this picture, we have Jesus in the center, the sacrificial Lamb of God, dying for the sins of the world, past and future. On either side of him are sinful men. One of these men will be saved by Jesus while they are hanging there. The other will die in his sins.


The cross of Jesus divides the world into two groups: those who will be saved by him, and those who will perish. Those who go into eternal life and those who go into eternal punishment. Those who go into paradise and those who go into torment.


Finally, it is fascinating to consider how the one thief on the cross came to be saved. He was nailed to the cross a condemned man, being put to death for his crimes, and facing certain judgment from God as well. But within hours he was a saved man who would join Jesus in paradise that very day. What happened? How did this amazing change take place. We’ll look at that in a few moments.


But the other reason why this conversion often comes up is in discussions about the role of baptism in salvation. If someone says we must be baptized to be saved, often the thief on the cross is submitted as evidence of someone who was saved without being baptized.


In fact, Billy Graham himself makes this point in explaining baptism. From his website, in answer to the question, “Is baptism necessary for salvation?”:


“You may know that we urge immediate and extensive Bible study for each convert. As the Scripture is reviewed, the place of baptism will surely be discovered. If baptism were a requirement for salvation, we would certainly say that. But you couldn’t support that knowing, for example, that the thief on the cross had no opportunity for baptism or church membership. Yet on his confession, paradise was secured. Jesus said to him, ‘Today shalt thou be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43).”


So he argues that baptism can’t be required for salvation because the thief on the cross was saved without it. Is that a fair point? We’ll look at that argument a little later.

  • First we’ll briefly review how the thief was saved.
  • Then we’ll see how this relates to us today

II.  Saved on a cross


We don’t know much at all about the thief who was saved. We don’t know his name, nationality, or age. But we do know he was a lost soul as he was hung on a cross.


First of all, he was being executed for being a criminal:


Matt. 27:38  Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left.


And even worse than the fact that he was about to die for his crimes, he was also about to die an unbeliever. We see that as Matthew lists those who were speaking against Jesus:


Matt. 27:39-44  And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44 And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.


You had the passers-by, the chief priests, and if that wasn’t enough, even the other two men who were also being crucified spoke against him. From Jesus’ point of view, I don’t guess it could get any lower than this. The priests who were should have been falling at his feet to worship him were standing at his feet and insulting him. And even these condemned criminals were reviling him. Usually you hear the expression “there is honor among thieves” but even being crucified with Jesus didn’t cause these guys to show him any kindness.


That tells you how dark their hearts were as well. But sometime during the course of those tortuous hours, something began to change, in one of them at least.


Luke 23:32  Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.


Luke also mentions the insults hurled by the onlookers:


Luke 23:35-37  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!”


But when it comes to the criminals, only one was insulting him:


Luke 23:39  One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”


What happened to the other? In Matthews account, both robbers were insulting Jesus, but in Luke’s it’s only one. The only thing that makes sense is that something had changed in this man’s heart. He had started out ridiculing Jesus along with everyone else, but sometime as they hung there, he began to see things more clearly:


Luke 23:40-43  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.”


How did he know that? Perhaps he had heard about Jesus, or maybe even had listened to him teach before. But there’s no indication of that in the text. Instead, it seems that everyone around Jesus that day could tell there was something different about him. From Pilate to the soldiers crucifying him, they could tell he was innocent. Notice a few verses later:


Luke 23:47  Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!”


There must have been something in Jesus’ demeanor that really stood out to these people. Hardened soldiers and one hardened criminal. But at least they didn’t have hard hearts like the chief priests. They were able to see in a matter of hours that Jesus was an innocent man.


But there’s more going on in the thief’s heart. His newfound faith in Jesus went beyond believing in his innocence:


Luke 23:42  And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”


This is remarkable. The sign hanging over Jesus’ head said:


Luke 23:38  There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”


But it must have looked like a cruel joke. What kind of king was this? His own people crying out for his execution. A poor man, basically homeless. This only followers were a group of women and John. And on top of that, he’s mere hours away from being dead. Yet the thief says:


Luke 23:42  And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”


That shows a tremendous amount of faith. He believed in Jesus, the innocent man. But he also believed in Jesus the king. Furthermore, he believed that Jesus would yet come into his kingdom. Amazing. It would seem Jesus’ own followers did not have this same confidence at this point. I’m not sure how the thief came to this conclusion. It would seem it was from simply the hours of hanging there on a cross beside Jesus, no doubt watching him and listening to him.


Jesus acknowledges the man’s faith with a wonderful promise:


Luke 23:43  And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”


Today. Isn’t that awesome? Whatever that man had done, however big of a mess he had made of his life, complete failure as it had become, he was now only hours away from being in Paradise with Jesus. And why? Because he had faith.


What a blessing to be able to share in that same hope. That when the day comes that we are nearing our final hours, we can know that we are going to be with the Lord.


So how do we have that assurance? Do we look to the thief as an example of how we should be saved today? Well, yes and no. Let’s explore that.


III.  Saved like the thief


In many ways, we are just like the thief on the cross. Guilty and condemned. Maybe not in man’s court, but in God’s. Anyone who has sinned stands guilty before God and is basically living out their life on death row, waiting for the sentence to be carried out.


Also, like the thief on the cross, we are totally helpless to save ourselves. What could he do? He called out to Jesus in faith. We must do the same.


So far, we can say we must be saved just like the thief. But what about baptism? He was saved without being baptized, so does that mean it is not required?


Some things to observe:


A.  When he was saved


He was saved by Jesus before Jesus died. Jesus lived and died under the law of Moses. He had begun teaching the good news of the kingdom during his earthly ministry, but he also commanded others to keep the law of Moses. The new covenant took effect after Jesus died. The author of Hebrews is clear about this:

Heb. 9:15-17  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.


As Jesus hung on the cross, he had not yet given the instructions in the great commission:


Matt. 28:18-20  And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”


From that point on, the disciples would do just what he said. When Peter was asked, “what shall we do?” He said:

Acts 2:38  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.


But the thief on the cross was before that. So how was he saved? Jesus had the power on earth to forgive sins.


Matt. 9:2  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.”


That’s not the kind of healing they had in mind, but it’s far more valuable than being able to walk. The scribes took offense:


Matt. 9:3-6  And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” 4 But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? 5 For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 6 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.”


Jesus had the authority to go up to anyone and say, “your sins are forgiven.” I believe that’s exactly what he did with the thief on the cross. He forgave his sins, and assured him he would be in paradise.


But Jesus isn’t here now to say to you, “your sins are forgiven” or “today you will be with me in paradise.” So what are we supposed to do?


Respond in faith, just like those people did.


Mark 16:15-16  And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.


Those are the instructions we live under.


IV.  Crucified with Christ


Now here’s the neat thing about baptism. In a way, we are saved exactly like the thief on the cross. Not that he was baptized, but that we, too, must be crucified with Christ.


Paul says:


Gal. 2:20  I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.


This wasn’t just something for Paul. We all must do the same.

Gal. 5:24  And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.


How can we be crucified with Christ?


Rom. 6:3-7  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin.


When we decide to follow Jesus, we crucify our old man. We put him to death. Bury him in baptism, and raise to walk in a new life. So in that sense, we are crucified together with Christ like the thief on the cross.


And that doesn’t mean we’ve saved ourselves, any more than the thief saved himself. We’ve just responded in faith, faith in God’s power, not our own.


Col. 2:11-12  In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.


Baptism isn’t putting faith in our own works. It is putting faith in the powerful working of God. We are trusting him that he will save us, just like the thief on the cross.


V.  Conclusion


Hopefully you can see that we do have a lot in common with the thief on the cross. In his condition, attached to a cross, the only thing he could do was ask Jesus to remember him. And Jesus saved him because of his faith. We must also come to him in faith. His instructions for us are clearly given in his word. We can have the same hope of joining him when our lives are over.



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