The Thief on the Cross - Luke 23:42,43

Luke 23:42,43
42 And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.
43 And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.

This well known incident is quoted to support the following theological traditions:

  1. Salvation without Baptism;
  2. Entrance of the righteous into their reward at the instant of death;
  3. Immortality and immateriality of the soul;
  4. Heaven, the abode of the redeemed;
  5. Death-bed and scaffold repentances.

But all these are quite unsupported by Christ's answer to the thief; and are opposed to the teaching of the Word of God throughout.

1 - With reference to Baptism, there is no proof that the thief had not previously submitted to John's baptism. But even if he were not baptized, his case is no rule for the guidance of people in the present day; because, not only was it a peculiar one - his confession having been made under circumstances which rendered submission to that ordinance an impossibility, and at a time when One in whom God dwelt and spake was present - but it occurred in a different dispensation from the present. The position in which the thief was placed has never been followed by one precisely analogous; and as long as Jesus is absent from the earth such a case is an absolute impossibility. Since the crucifixion the Lord Jesus has proclaimed: "He that believeth (the gospel) and is baptized shall be saved" (Mark 16: 16); and the apostolic testimony is: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins" (Acts 2 : 38) ; "We are buried with him by baptism into death, that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life ; for if we are planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection" (Rom. 6: 4, 5); "As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Gal. 3: 27).

These testimonies teach that upon repentance, it is necessary to be baptized; that those who do so have all their past sins forgiven, and are thus introduced into Christ, whose death and resurrection is symbolized by their being buried in water, and then raised out of it. Those who are not so "planted in the likeness of Christ's death" have not "put on Christ," and will never be "planted in the likeness of his resurrection."

2 - Entrance of the righteous into their reward at the instant of death. - The passage in question affords no proof of this. The Lord Jesus did not say, "Verily I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise" ; but, "Verily I say unto thee today, Thou shalt be with me in Paradise," which is a distinction with a great difference, although only a comma is moved. "Semeron (to-day) may follow or precede the verb which it qualifies." - Prof. Driver, Oxford. So also Prof. Kirkpatrick, Cambridge, and all who know the facts of the case. The following passages are illustrations, where, in the Greek, serneron qualifies the preceding verb : Luke 2:11; 5:26; 22:34; Acts 20:26; 22:3; 24:21; 26; 29.

If the thief went to "Paradise" immediately after death, Jesus did also : if Jesus did not, neither did the thief. We have the testimony of Jesus himself that he went into the grave; "The Son of Man shall be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matt. 12 ; 40). That this does not refer to his body merely, in the "orthodox" sense, is shown by Peter's statement on the day of Pentecost : " His soul was not left in hell (hades, i.e., the grave), neither did his flesh see corruption" (Acts 2 : 31). His "soul," which is .here used for the whole being, went into the grave at his burial, and came out at his resurrection: consequently he could not have gone into heaven (where "Paradise" by some is supposed to be) immediately after expiring on the cross. And as he did not ascend there, it follows that the thief did not.

To say that the answer of Jesus was a promise that the thief should go to heaven at death, is to make him contradict his previous teaching concerning the time of reward. He showed that resurrection must precede the enjoyment of eternal life : " They that have done good (shall come forth) unto the resurrection of life" (John 5 : 29) ; " Thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just " (Luke 14 : 14). He taught, also, that the righteous would not be rewarded until they had been judged at his second appearing: "The Son of Man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then shall he reward every man according to his works" (Matt. 16: 27).

In speaking to Jesus about "his kingdom," the thief showed not only that he had the same expectations as his fellow-countrymen regarding the re-establishment of the kingdom of Israel, but also that he believed Jesus to be the King. This was what the Jews, who subjected Jesus to an ignominious death, did not believe: they regarded him as an impostor; a fact which is illustrated by what they said respecting the inscription placed on the cross. "Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross; and the writing was, JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS" (John 19: 19). But many of the Jews were not satisfied with this; therefore they came to Pilate and said, "Write not, The King of the Jews, but that he said, I am King of the Jews." The title which Pilate had put up was doubtless written in derision ; but, nevertheless, it appeared to recognize the validity of Jesus' claim to be their king. This was what the chief priests did not want. The thief, on the contrary, recognized the truthfulness of Pilate's inscription. This was an exhibition of great faith on his part. He must have believed that Jesus would be raised from the dead and appear at some future day on the land of Palestine to "restore again the kingdom to Israel" (Acts 1: 6). He might have been one of the audience who listened to the parable by which Jesus illustrated his departure and return. On that occasion " He spake a parable because he was nigh to Jerusalem, and because they thought that the Kingdom of God should immediately appear. He said, therefore, A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and to return" (Luke 19: 11, 12). Jesus himself is here represented by the "nobleman."

3 - The alleged "immortality and immateriality of the soul." - Before this incident can be of any service, these theories must be proved from other evidence, as there is no mention of them whatever in the narrative ; their existence is first assumed, and then the passage is advanced in support of the assumption. This untenable position is based solely on the word "to-day," which, as already shown, is no proof of the thief's ascension to heaven at death.

4 - "Paradise." - It is always assumed that "Paradise" means heaven. This is a mistake. Pardes, the Hebrew equivalent in the Old Testament, is said to be derived from the Old Persian, and means a garden, enclosure or park. It is only found three times in the scriptures, viz. : Neh. 2: 8, "Asaph the keeper of the king's forest" ; Ecci. 2 : 5, " I made me gardens and orchards"; Song 4: 13, "Thy plants (O sister-spouse), are an orchard of pomegranates with pleasant fruits." The Greek word paradeisos is found only three times in the New Testament, viz. : Luke 23 : 43, "Thou shalt be with me in paradise"; 2 Cor. 12 : 4, "Caught up to paradise"; Rev. 2: 7, "To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life which is in the midst of the paradise of God." As used by Jesus it had reference to the land of Palestine, which we are told is to "become like the Garden of Eden" (Ezek. 36 : 35), sometimes called Paradise; "The Lord shall make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord" (Isa. 51: 3). It is on this land that Jesus will establish his kingdom when he returns to the earth.

This excludes the suggestion that the Paradise referred to by Jesus was the Paradise believed in by the Pharisees - a place where the righteous were supposed to dwell in a state of bliss between death and the resurrection. To endorse this theory is to adopt one of the traditions, by which the Pharisees made void the Word of God, and thereby to identify oneself with a class which the Messiah severely denounced. Jesus believed the Hebrew prophets, not the Pharisees - and, therefore, his use of the word must be determined by the inspired teaching of the former, and not by the nullifying traditions of the latter.

5 - Death-bed and scaffold repentances are invalid; not only because they are the result of fear, and are made at a time when the present life is no longer of any value to its possessors, but because they do not comprise a belief in that which is necessary for salvation, namely, "the kingdom of God" (Mark 1: 14 , 16 : 15, 16). The thief did believe in this "kingdom" which being the subject-matter of "the gospel" is "the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth" (Rom. 1: 16). The conditions on which God offers salvation are, a belief in His promises, and obedience to His commandments.

Reproduced from: The Christadelphian Shield: Papers Explanatory of Wrested Scriptures