Bible Basics (5th edition): A study manual revealing the joy and peace of true Christianity

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Digression 20: The Thief on the Cross

The thief said to Jesus: “ ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise’” (Lk. 23:42,43).

These verses are taken to mean that baptism is not essential for salvation, and that we go straight to heaven at death. Apart from all the other evidence to the contrary, a closer reading of the passage reveals the following:

1. The command to be baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection was given after Christ’s resurrection (Mk. 16:15,16). The thief was still living under the Law of Moses when Christ spoke to him.

2. True baptism is into the death and resurrection of Jesus. Seeing that when Jesus spoke to the thief neither of those events had occurred, baptism into Christ was not possible.

3. Baptism symbolises our dying with Christ (Rom. 6:3-5). The thief was the only person who literally did this.

4. It is quite possible that the thief was one of those who had been baptised by John the Baptist. Many of his converts had formerly been shady characters (Mt. 21:32). To say the thief was not baptised is to argue from silence; which is hardly a sound principle upon which to excuse ourselves from the command to be baptised. Likewise, the passage is silent about the words ‘soul’ and ‘heaven’.

5. The thief asked Jesus to remember him for good, when Jesus returned “in” his Kingdom (RSV). The thief was therefore not ignorant of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God which Jesus had been preaching (Mt. 4:23). He knew that there would be a judgment day at the establishment of that Kingdom, and therefore he asked Jesus, whom he knew would rise from the dead to eventually be the judge on that day, to remember him for good. The thief was certainly not ignorant; he recognised that salvation in the day of resurrection and judgment would be pronounced from the lips of Christ.

6. Jesus replied that the thief would be with him in “Paradise”. This Greek word always refers to an ideal situation upon earth. It is used concerning the restored Garden of Eden which will be seen in the future Kingdom of God on the earth (Rev. 2:7). During the Kingdom of God, the world will revert to the paradise-like conditions of the Garden of Eden (Is. 51:3; Ez. 36:35), due to the curse being lifted (Rev. 22:3). The Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) uses the same Greek word for “paradise” concerning an idyllic situation upon earth in Ecc. 2:5; Neh. 2:8; Song 4:13; Gen. 13:10. ‘Paradise’ has only become associated with heaven through its use in fiction such as Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. Jesus’ promise of a place for the thief in paradise was in response to his desire to be in Christ’s Kingdom. We have shown in Study 5 that the Kingdom will be on earth; ‘paradise’ therefore will be there too.

7. The way verse 43 is normally translated makes it seem as if Christ and the thief would be together that very day in ‘paradise’. But obviously the Kingdom has not yet been established on earth. They did not go to the Kingdom that day. Jesus went to the grave (Acts 2:32); as he had prophesied, he was “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt. 12:40 cf. 16:21) after his death on the cross. Even after the resurrection he said: “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father” (Jn. 20:17). So Jesus did not go to heaven the day he died.

Yet Jesus appears to promise the thief “Today you will be with Me in Paradise”. The answer to this apparent contradiction is to be found in the fact that in the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible, there is no punctuation or even capital letters. It is possible to re-punctuate so that we read: “Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with Me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43). Rotherham’s Translation does actually place the comma after “today”. This beautifully fits the context. The thief was asking for Jesus to remember him for good at the day of judgment; he was aware that he was responsible, and would appear there. But Jesus gave him the marvellous reassurance - ‘I can tell you right now! You don’t have to wait until then to find out my verdict upon you - you will be with me in the Kingdom!’.

8. From the points noted above, it is possible to list the beliefs which the thief evidently understood:

- The Kingdom of God

- The second coming of Christ

- Resurrection and judgment

- Responsibility

- Salvation through faith in Christ

- The resurrection of Christ

- The perfection of Christ (“this Man has done nothing wrong”)

- The need to follow Christ (he called him “Lord”)

- The sinfulness of man (“We indeed justly”)

It is therefore out of place to use this man as an excuse for thinking that anyone can be saved if they show the slightest interest in Christianity; there must be the kind of understanding which he had. Without this, he would not have been able to rise to the height of faith which he did. Christ did not make any offer of salvation to the other thief, whose attitude was, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us”. Here was the man who says, ‘If there’s anything in this Jesus business, I don’t see why I shouldn’t get something’. It was because he lacked the understanding and faith which the second thief had that he was unable to find true salvation at the end of his days, despite his passing interest in Christ.

Bible Basics: Contents

Part 1: "The things concerning the Kingdom of God" Study 1: God 1.1  The Existence Of God || 1.2  The Personality Of God || Belief In Practice 1: Knowing God || 1.3  God's Name And Character || Belief In Practice 2: Grace (John Parkes) || Belief In Practice 3: The All Seeing God || Belief In Practice 4: God Is Omnipotent || Belief In Practice 5: Responding To The One God || 1.4     The Angels || Belief In Practice 6: God As Creator || Digression 1: God Manifestation || Digression 2:  Why The Trinity Was Accepted || Study 1: Questions Study 2: The Spirit Of God 2.1  Definition || 2.2  Inspiration || 2.3  Gifts Of The Holy Spirit || 2.4  The Withdrawal Of The Gifts || 2.5  The Bible The Only Authority || Digression 3: Is The Holy Spirit A Person? || Digression 4: The Principle Of Personification || Belief In Practice 7: The Implications Of Inspiration || Study 2: Questions Study 3: The Promises Of God 3.1  Introduction || 3.2  The Promise In Eden || 3.3  The Promise To Noah || 3.4  The Promise To Abraham || 3.5  The Promise To David || Belief In Practice 8: Covenant Relationship With God || Study 3: Questions Study 4: God And Death 4.1  The Nature Of Man || 4.2  The Soul || 4.3  The Spirit || 4.4  Death Is Unconsciousness || 4.5  The Resurrection || 4.6  The Judgment || Belief In Practice 9: Judgment Now || 4.7  The Place Of Reward: Heaven Or Earth?|| 4.8  Responsibility To God || 4.9  Hell || Digression 5: Purgatory || Digression 6: Ghosts And Reincarnation || Digression 7: The 'Rapture' || Belief In Practice 10: The Motivational Power Of Understanding Death || Study 4: Questions Study 5: The Kingdom Of God 5.1  Defining The Kingdom || 5.2  The Kingdom Is Not Now Established || 5.3  The Kingdom Of God In The Past || 5.4  The Kingdom Of God In The Future || 5.5  The Millennium || Digression 8: The Kingdom Of God Now (Graham Bacon) || Belief In Practice 11: What The Kingdom Of God Means Today || Study 5: QuestionsStudy 6: God And Evil 6.1  God And Evil || 6.2  The Devil And Satan || 6.3  Demons || Digression 9: The Implications And Origin Of The Belief In A Personal Satan || Digression 10: Witchcraft || Digression 11: What Happened In Eden? || Digression 12: Lucifer || Belief In Practice 12: Battle For The Mind || Study 6: Questions

Part 2: "The things concerning...the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 8:12) Study 7: The Origin Of Jesus. 7.1  Old Testament Prophecies Of Jesus || 7.2  The Virgin Birth || 7.3  Christ's Place In God's Plan || 7.4  "In the beginning was the word" || Digression 13: Jesus The Son Of God (Michael Gates) || Digression 14: Did Jesus Create The Earth? || Belief In Practice 13: Jesus Didn’t Pre-exist: And So What? || Study 7: Questions Study 8: The Nature Of Jesus 8.1  Introduction || 8.2  Differences Between God And Jesus || 8.3  The Nature Of Jesus || 8.4  The Humanity Of Jesus || 8.5  The Relationship Of God With Jesus || Belief In Practice 14: The Real Christ || Digression 15: How The Real Christ Was Lost || Digression 16: The Divine Side Of Jesus || Study 8: Questions Study 9: The Work Of Jesus 9.1  The Victory Of Jesus || 9.2  The Blood Of Jesus || 9.3  Jesus As Our Representative || 9.4  Jesus And The Law Of Moses || 9.5  The Sabbath || Digression 17 The Crucifix || Digression 18: Was Jesus Born On Dec. 25th? || Belief In Practice 15: The Meaning Of Christ’s Resurrection For Us || Belief In Practice 16: Christ Died For Me- So What Should I Do? || Belief In Practice 17: The Real Cross || Belief In Practice 18: The Inspiration Of The Cross || Study 9: Questions || Study 10: Baptism Into Jesus 10.1  The Vital Importance Of Baptism || 10.2  How Should We Be Baptized? || 10.3  The Meaning Of Baptism || 10.4  Baptism And Salvation || Digression 19: Re-baptism || Digression 20 The Thief On The Cross || Belief In Practice 19: The Certainty Of Salvation || Study 10: Questions Study 11: Life In Christ 11.1  Introduction || 11.2  Holiness || 11.2.1  The Use Of Force || 11.2.2  Politics || 11.2.3  Worldly Pleasures || 11.3  Practical Christian Life || 11.3.1  Bible Study || 11.3.2  Prayer || 11.3.3  Preaching || 11.3.4  Ecclesial Life || 11.3.5  The Breaking Of Bread || 11.4  Marriage || 11.5  Fellowship || Study 11: Questions ||