Jesus looked at the thief hanging on the cross next to Him and spoke the most grace-filled words ever, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
We see in the dying thief a couple responses that were, no doubt, the reason for Jesus’ words of salvation to him.
1. The forgiven one admits wrong. He says,”Hey, I’ve sinned, I’ve done something wrong.” Luke 23:41 says, “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” In other words, “We have sinned.”
2. The second thing that he did was, the forgiven one asks for eternal help. Here’s what he said, Luke 23:42-43: “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.’”
Check this out. Both thieves were guilty. Both were suffering severely. Both were dying. Both needed a Savior. Both heard and saw the same things during those fateful six hours on the cross. One was forgiven and one wasn’t.
This was the text and story I addressed on Easter Sunday in our morning service. Then as our Resurrection day service ended six people came forward to accept the forgiveness Jesus died to provide and were baptized for the forgiveness of their sins.
You see, after Jesus died on the cross and was buried in a tomb he came forth alive on the third day. Then for forty days He taught his followers about this new kingdom that was about to burst forth into history. On the fortieth day he was taken out of their sight back to heaven, but before he exited he left clear instructions, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:19-20)
His followers were then instructed to go back to Jerusalem and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit at which time this new kingdom, known as the church, would be born. Ten days later it happened. Hundreds of thousands of people were in the city for the feast of Pentecost. Peter was the one chosen to deliver the message that day. As he came to the end of his discourse many of the people in the crowd were convicted of their sinfulness. The Bible says, “They were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37)
And to their question, “Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”(Acts 2:38) That very day 3000 people were baptized and became the first members of the new kingdom, the church.
Which leaves us just a little confused. For one reason, if baptism is for the forgiveness of our sins, and I think we all want our sins forgiven, then the first leaders of the church placed a pretty high importance on it. It was more than just a take it or leave it, nice ceremony, to observe. It was not just an outward expression of an inward faith. Baptism had sin’s forgiveness attached to it and it was serious. Not always the message we hear today! Right?
But the confusing thing is that Jesus had said to the thief on the cross just fifty days earlier, “Today you will be with me in paradise” and we all know he wasn’t baptized. Jesus and the apostles seem to contradict themselves here. Or do they?
For one thing, Jesus is God and Jesus has the power to save anyone at any time with a spoken word. He can do what he wants to do whether or not we have the ability to figure it all out. If He says, “Today you will be with Me in paradise” who are we to say, “But Jesus, that doesn’t jive with what you said over here…” Jesus saves when, where and how He chooses.
But the bigger issue, when it comes to the thief on the cross, is this. Jesus was still alive. You say, “So, what does that have to do with the explanation?”
Look at how the writer of Hebrews explains this,”For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance — now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.” Wow, that says that the blood of Christ not only was for the sins of those living under the new covenant, but also flowed backward and covered the sins of those living under the old covenant. But, that’s a subject for another time.
And then the writer continues, and this is the answer for the thief on the cross. “In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living.” Heb 9:15-17
When Jesus spoke those words on the cross to the thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” He was still alive. And since he was still alive the old covenant was still in effect. The new covenant, upon which the church was to operate, was not open yet. The thief on the cross was still living under the old covenant age. The new covenant was ushered in and established with his death and only with “the death of the one who made it”, and baptism was an expectation of the new covenant.
There really isn’t a contradiction just a little more understanding to embrace.