The Thief on the Cross – Background
The thief on the cross is mentioned, to some degree, in all four gospels. Matthew 27:38, 44; Mark 15:27, 32 and John 19:18, all confirm that Jesus was crucified along with two other criminals who mocked and reviled the Lord along with those who watched. Only Luke records the change of heart of one of the criminals (Luke 23:32-43).
After joining the rebuking of Jesus, one of the criminals changed his heart and his mind.
“But the other rebuked him saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)
Two things are clear. First, the thief on the cross was a sinner, facing imminent death, and was deeply in need of salvation. Second, Jesus alone could meet his need and did save the thief. It makes no sense to argue that Jesus did not forgive him and grant unto him eternal life while he hung upon the cross.
With these final words, the thief on the cross fades from history and he is never again mentioned in Scripture.
But despite these events, this man’s salvation story has no impact on Christian baptism today.
The Thief on the Cross Never Lived Under Christianity
The thief lived and died under the Law of Moses, a law which did not include baptism. This simple fact destroys the argument that the thief proves baptism is unnecessary.
All of human history stands under one of three spiritual covenants or dispensations. All of mankind has lived under either the Patriarchal age, the Mosaic age or the Christian age. Today, all men everywhere are subject to the law of Christ and live under the Christian dispensation. That dispensation began 50 days after the crucifixion during the Jewish holiday of Pentecost. It was there that baptism was given as a requirement for salvation (Acts 2:38). Prior to Pentecost there was no such requirement. Therefore, the thief, who lived and died before the Christian age, cannot be used as an example of salvation apart from baptism. To use the thief as such an example, would be akin to demanding that Christians offer burnt offerings at the Temple in Jerusalem.
The imperative of baptism is for Christians, not for Jews.
The Thief on the Cross was Saved by Jesus Before Jesus Died
It must not be overlooked that Jesus’ promise, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” was uttered before his death. Thus, his will and testament upon which Christianity is ordered, was not yet in effect. There is an instructive comment in Hebrews 9:15-17 which is on point for our discussion.
“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. For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive.”
Before baptism, the church, the Lord’s Supper or any other Christ-given ordinance of New Testament life was in effect, Christ had to die. Before that time Jesus could and did forgive sins apart from baptism (Matthew 9:2; Mark 2:7; Luke 5:20).
The Thief on the Cross and Facts Not in Evidence
Even if one rejects the above facts and passages, he is still left with a problem. We know nothing about the thief on the cross prior to the Crucifixion of Jesus. We do not know and cannot state conclusively that he was never baptized.
The baptism of John the Baptist was well known and had even attracted the attention of the Jewish leaders (John 1:19-28). Mark says all the people of Judea and Jerusalem were being baptized (Mark 1:4-8). In fact, the baptism of John even continued, improperly, many years into the church age (Acts 19:1-7). Such baptism was not the same as that ordered by Jesus but was nonetheless acceptable prior to the coming of the church. After the church began, it was no longer acceptable and required those men in chapter 19 to be baptized again, correctly.
Since baptism was common as a preparation to the coming of Jesus, it is probably best to say that we just do not know whether or not the thief on the cross was ever baptized or not. He was certainly not baptized under the law of Christ however for it was not yet known but it is quite possible that he had been baptized under John’s baptism.
It may be that you do not believe baptism to be essential, but please do not use the thief on the cross as an example as the context simply forbids it.