THE THIEF ON THE CROSS
by Jeff Hagan
The salvation of the “thief on the cross” represents a unique salvation moment. The implications of that moment have become a matter of controversy among some Christians.
The Gospels tell us that Jesus was crucified between two thieves (Matt 27:38). Matthew’s account tells us that the thieves had been ridiculing Jesus (Matt 27:44). However, Luke suggests that one of the thieves apparently had a change of heart (Luke 23:39-41). He asked that when Jesus came into His kingdom that he would be remembered (]Luke 23:42]). In spite of all the abuse, ridicule and pain Jesus was going through, He was touched by the man’s cry for mercy and promised that on that very day the thief would be with Him “in Paradise.”
What makes this salvation account so interesting is that the thief was promised salvation while on the brink of death. He was literally nailed to a cross so he had no opportunity to do any of the things that we commonly associate with a repentant believer. For example, he didn’t go to church, he didn’t study the Bible, he didn’t do any good works, he didn’t get baptized, and he didn’t publicly confess his faith. Because so many of what we deem as “key elements” were missing from his short saved life, some Christians struggle to understand his salvation. They feel these elements are so crucial to the Christian experience that he simply couldn’t have been saved in the Christian era. They argue that his salvation must have occurred within the Old Covenant.
The chronological order of the thief’s conversion seems indisputable. First, Jesus offered salvation to the man. Next, Jesus died. Then, a short time later the thief also died.
Now that we have the sequence of events, we must look to Scripture for any information that will show which Covenant was in force at the time of thief’s salvation.
Hebrews 9:16 sheds light on the topic. In this passage we read that for a testament to go into affect, the one who made the testament ("the testator") must die. This passage brings comfort to those who hold the view that the thief died in the Old Testament era. They would point out that the thief was saved before Jesus died. As a result, the New Covenant was not yet in effect. Therefore, the thief had to have been saved during the Old Covenant.
This seems logical, at first. However, the problem with this is the rest of the passage from Hebrews 9. In verses 18-22, the writer of Hebrews goes on to talk about the first Testament, which was also ratified by the shedding of blood. However, whose blood was shed. In verse 19, we find that the Old Testament was ratified by the blood of “calves and goats.” This causes a problem.
In one moment the writer of Hebrews tells us that for a testament to be ratified, the "testator" must die. In the next moment he reminds us that the Old Testament was ratified when calves and goats died. Do you see the problem? The "testator" of the Old Testament is God. But, God didn’t die to ratify the Old Testament – calves and goats did.
The only ways I can think of to harmonize this problem would be to assume one of three possible positions:
1. The Old Covenant was made between Israel and calves and goats.
2. The Old Covenant was never ratified.
3. The writer of Hebrews does not intend to be taken literally when he says that the "testator" must die for a testament to go in effect.
Position #1 is not correct. Israel’s covenant was made between them and God.
Position #2 is not correct. If the covenant was never ratified, then God would have had no reason to punish Israel for breaking the covenant. But we see throughout the Old Testament that God chastised Israel repeatedly for violating their end of the covenant. They could only have done so if the covenant had been in force.
Position #3 is the only option. There is another way of understanding what the writer of Hebrews means when he says that the "testator" must die for a testament to go in effect.
In Exodus 19, God offered a covenant with Israel. In chapter 24, Israel accepted the offer and Moses responded by sprinkling the blood on the people saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you according to all these words” (v. 8).
From that point until the time of the New Covenant, the Old one was in effect. The introduction of the New one made the Old one obsolete (Hebrews 8:13). So, when did the New one come into effect?
In Luke 22, Jesus was in the Upper Room with His disciples. During the Passover meal, Jesus took a cup of wine, offered it to His disciples, and said “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood, which is shed for you” (v.20). Note the similarities between Jesus’ words and the words of Moses when the Old Covenant was ratified. Just as His Father had symbolically offered blood to ratify the Old Covenant, Jesus offered symbolic blood to ratify the New. Just as the Old was ratified when the symbolic blood was offered and accepted, we should acknowledge that the New was ratified when Jesus offered, and His disciples accepted, the symbolic blood.
It seems clear, then, that the New Covenant came into effect in Luke 22; hours before He and the thief had their conversation. Therefore, the thief was saved during the era of the New Testament, not the Old. The thief’s lack of good works, baptism, or any other element, must be dealt with by other means.
It might be convenient to insist that the thief was saved within the Old Covenant, but it doesn't appear to be so.