32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”[c] And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. 35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” 36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” 38 There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. 39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.[d]” 43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
The story of the thief on the cross as found in Luke 23:32-43 is a familiar one to most Christians. However, it is a story that is often misinterpreted. Let us take a moment and examine exactly what we are to take away from this narrative.
Jesus, the Messiah, the Promised Son of God, is being crucified in accordance with prophecy. He lived and died a sinless life, faithful to the Law of Moses in every possible way. The sect of the Pharisees found Him to be contemptable because He kept the Law only and rejected their additions to it that often nullified the original intent of the Father’s degree. It was for this rejection of the sects’ ideas that He was ultimately led to the cross.
As Dr. Luke records, there were two others being crucified that day by the Roman authorities. Two criminals, who were convicted as lawbreakers were also sentenced to die alongside the Master Teacher.
Our text says that one of the criminals mocked the Savior, hurling insults at Him and demanding that if He were really God’s Son, He would save them. The other thief was more humble and rebuked the first man, saying, “Don’t you fear God since you are under the same sentence?”
Did this thief know Jesus? Had he possibly, despite his criminal behavior, been part of the crowds that had heard Him speak? Our text does not tell us anything more than the fact that the criminal understood Jesus to be a righteous Man, possibly even the Savior of mankind, for we hear him express the desire to be remembered when Jesus came into His kingdom.
The gentle answer of the Master is a familiar one to us today.
“Truly, I tell you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
The thief may not have fully understood the ramifications of what he was saying, but Jesus, who could discern the heart, knew his faith and reassured him that he would be going to Paradise in a short while.
First of all, let us answer the question, “Why did the thief get what appears to be a free ride to Heaven?”
The easiest answer is because the Son of God said so! Who is going to argue with the Savior?
But a fuller explanation is demanded. Therefore, let us ask just who this thief was, or rather, of what nationality was he? Likely, he was of Jewish descent and therefore would be familiar with the Law of Moses, even if he had strayed from the way. As such, he was of the chosen people.
With this thought in mind, can we say with full assurance that this thief was given a place in Paradise that he did not merit? After all, had he gotten his life straight before his death, could he not have easily be a candidate for Paradise?
In other words, could Jesus have simply been reassuring a dying man that his eternal abode was to be Paradise because he had already made his preparations by repenting? Sure, it ruins a good story, but the possibility is there and it can’t be ruled out.
But for the sake of argument, let us assume that this condemned man was given a heavenly slot that he did not merit in any manner whatsoever. For his simple faith, he was given a home in Paradise.
How many people did Jesus say were to accompany Him to Paradise that day? Our text only reveals that one thief was going. No one else was invited that day.
The phrase, “I’m saved just like the thief on the cross,” is heard in many places today. If one is saying that their salvation can be as assured as that of the dying thief, then we have no problem with it that. (I John 5:13). However, if one is saying that someone can be saved in the same manner as was the thief, then we must register our objection, for the text simply will not allow this interpretation.
We recall the events that occurred in the aftermath of Jesus’ death. Recall that the sky darkened and there was an earthquake that opened the tombs and even allowed the dead to arise and roam around the city. (Matt. 27:53) Another event that may not have registered in many minds is that the veil in the temple that separated the Holy of Holies was torn in two. (Matt. 27:51)
The tearing of the veil signified that a change of covenants was coming. Jesus lived and died on this earth as a faithful Jew. As we all know, we are today under a law of grace and truth. The Law of Moses was fulfilled, with Christ being the final sacrifice for sin.
The salvation of the thief on the cross, therefore, took place not during the Christian age, but rather during the last days of the Law of Moses. The thief, however he might have been saved, was saved during the time of the Mosical system.
With the formal establishment of the church and the empowering of it on the Day of Pentecost some fifty days following the crucifixion, a new system of salvation was ushered in. No more would just being a circumcised Jew be grounds for salvation. In the establishment of the church, as predicted throughout the Old Testament, all nations could find salvation. God’s chosen people, His spiritual Israel, is today anyone who will obey the Lord.
Being saved like the thief on the cross, therefore, is to ask God to cut us a special deal. Some people, though, like to think that they can be saved differently than others. The old song from the 1970s, “Me and Jesus,” speaks of this concept, which is found nowhere in the Bible and must therefore be rejected as false.
So how is man saved today if he is not saved in the same manner as the thief?
A bible question merits a bible answer. In Acts 2, Peter took his stand with the eleven following the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Preaching what would be the first sermon in the promised church, Peter convicted his listeners on that Sunday morning of having killed the Son of God and the text records that they were pricked to the heart and cried out (Acts 2:37) saying, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”
The implication is, “Peter, how do we save ourselves from this? The Messiah was right here among us and we killed Him? How can we possibly atone for this?”
Likely, the Pentecost crowd expected Peter to scoff and say, “You can’t do anything! You blew it.” Or perhaps they thought they would be required to make a sacrifice or give up all they owned. Surely, something great would be required to atone for having killed God’s Own Son!
But instead, Peter simply replied in Acts 2:38, “Repent and let every one of you be baptized in the Name of Jesus for the remission of your sins and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Now some have stated that is admonition was simply for those on Pentecost and has no bearing on us today. They might be right had Peter not continued on in the next verse (39) by saying, “For this promise is unto you, your children, for those who are far off, for as many as the Lord our God may all unto Himself.”
So Peter says the promise of salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit is for four groups of people: 1. Those in his audience 2. Their descendants 3. Those in other places and, 4. As many as may be called unto God.
That last part of verse 39 answers our question. “…for as many as the Lord our God may call unto Himself.” Who is called unto God but Christians?
Peter is telling us that if we are to be born again, to be considered Christians, children of God, we must repent and be baptized for the remission of our sins and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
As we read through the Acts of the Apostles, or as one commentator termed it, “The Doings and the Happenings of the Apostles,” we see several cases of salvation and we begin to learn more fully of what is required of us as it pertains to coming into contact with the saving blood.
We must first and foremost have faith– “believe with all your heart” (Acts 8:37), repent of our sins and confess Jesus as Lord (Acts 2:38, Acts 8:37), be immersed in water for the one-time cleansing in the blood of Jesus (Acts 2:38-39, Acts 22:16, Gal. 3:27) and then live a faithful life (Rev. 2:10).
As with many things, we cannot always believe what we hear. Be it the latest news an urban legend or the Word of God, it is always best to investigate the matter for ourselves. Only by exploring can we get at the truth of the matter.
Questions? Comments? They’re always welcome!