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QUESTION: Re the Thief on the Cross


The following question comes to me from our church’s website where I recently answered it.

My son does not believe Luke 23:43 I do believe what Jesus said to the man on the Cross. Can you help me to explaine to my son that the LORD will take that man to heaven on that day? GOD BLESS YOU.

Jesus was between two thieves, probably members of a revolutionary gang of terrorists who were trying to win Judea’s liberty from Rome. Initially both of these joined with the Jews in mocking Jesus (See Mark 15:32 where “Those crucified with Him also heaped insults on Him.”) Luke’s account differs a little, as apparently one of the thieves changed his mind about Jesus.

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at Him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:39-43

Your question deals with the last of these verses, Jesus’ response to the thief on the cross.

This verse presents an interesting problem for Biblical translators. You see, the original Greek (and Hebrew) manuscripts of the Bible had no punctuation. Adding punctuation is a part of the work of the translator. Did Jesus say that the thief would be with Him in paradise today? Or was Jesus saying, “I am telling you the truth today; you will be with me in paradise.”? The punctuation makes a difference in how we understand it. The traditional translation and understanding of this text is that Jesus was promising the thief they would be together in paradise that day, which for the Jew ended at sundown.

If the traditional translation is right, this is a story of death-bed repentance by a man who had lived a life of rebellion and thieving thuggery. It would be a story of extreme grace shown by the dying Jesus that would tell us that turning to God, even at the last moments of life, will result in a gracious reception by our Lord. I like that message, and I believe it is a true message – but I am not sure that is exactly what Jesus was saying to this man. I hasten to add that I’m not sure but what that is exactly what Jesus was saying to the thief either. However, which of these two understandings of the text we accept does not change the basic lessons of what Jesus said to the thief.

Most Christians today do believe the traditional understanding of the passage – and I’m not going to argue with them here, because I’m not sure they are wrong – though I’m not completely convinced they are right either. So, let’s accept, for the moment, that they are right.

Does this mean we should wait until we are in the process of dying to repent and come to God?

Of course not! We should never deliberately delay responding to the great love of our God and presume on His willingness to forgive. This would be somewhat like tempting God, which Jesus said we should not do (see Matthew 4:5-7). Also, we do not know if we will have time to “repent” and ask God to save us just before we die. Death often comes suddenly – or even slowly, but after our minds have become confused. How can we be sure we will ask the Lord to spare us when we actually do come to the end of our life? We need to serve Him, not just use Him as a way to escape the torment of hell to go to the Lord in paradise.

Some people use this text to try to say, “I want to be saved just like the thief on the cross.” Then they will say things like, “He was not baptized, so I don’t think I need to be baptized either.” Or they may say, “He did not meet with Christians to remember Jesus, so I don’t believe I need to do this either.”

In other words, they try to take an exceptional circumstance and make it the rule for everyone. They reason, “Jesus saved that man without the things He said we should do. So if He saved that man, why would He not save me the same way?”

When anyone says things like this to me, I tell them that the only way they can be saved is to be saved like the thief on the cross. How was he saved? He was saved as he was dying with Jesus while calling on the name of Jesus. How can I be crucified with Jesus? Paul said that he had been crucified with Him:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. – Galatians 2:20

He speaks of this also in Romans 6:3-7.

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

If we have been united with Him like this in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.

When we come to the Lord in baptism, we come calling on Him as our Savior and Lord. It is as if our “old self” is hanging on the cross with Jesus and dying there. Then we are buried beneath the water and are raised up to life as a new person who is purified and made new in Christ Jesus. This new person is filled with God’s Holy Spirit (see Acts 2:38) by which he is able to live as a new kind of person, a person who is walking in a new kind of life.

As for your son, you cannot make him believe anything. You can lovingly explain it to him and that he should begin now to serve the Lord – but his decision to believe this or not to believe it is his decision. You cannot decide it for him.

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