Friday, 8 August 2014

Are You Sure the Thief on the Cross Wasn’t Baptized?

     The two criminals who were crucified on either side of Jesus initially participated in reviling him (Matthew 27:44). In the course of time, however, one of them had a change of heart. He believed in and reverenced God and recognized that he and his corrupt associate deserved punishment and that Jesus was entirely innocent (Luke 23:40-41). According to the majority of manuscripts the contrite felon addressed Jesus as “Lord” (v. 42a), although due to textual variation a number of English versions have omitted the expression (ASV, ESV, etc.). Nevertheless, simply calling Jesus Lord, of itself, is insufficient (Matthew 7:21).
     The request the man goes on to make is intriguing: “remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42b).1 How did he know about the Lord’s kingdom? Of all the words spoken by Jesus from the cross, there is no record of the kingdom having been mentioned. So when and by whom had the offender learned about it, and what prompted Christ to confirm his place in Paradise (v. 43)? By investigating the biblical record more thoroughly (particularly the third chapters of Matthew, Mark, and John), the groundwork is laid for unraveling this apparent mystery.
     “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’2 …. Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:1-2, 5-6). Extremely large numbers were baptized as a result of John’s preaching, and certain religious leaders are the only known exceptions (v. 7; 21:25; Luke 7:30).
     Then we read in Matthew 4:17, “From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’.” While Jesus taught the same message, the impact was even greater and more far-reaching. “And Jesus went about all Galilee … preaching the gospel of the kingdom …. Then His fame went throughout all Syria …. Great multitudes followed Him–from Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan [viz. Perea]” (vv. 23-25). And there’s more.
     “But Jesus withdrew with His disciples to the sea. And a great multitude from Galilee followed Him, and from Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and beyond the Jordan; and those from Tyre and Sidon [viz. the region of Phoenicia in southern Syria], a great multitude …” (Mark 3:7-8). The doctrine of the Lord’s kingdom had spread as far north as Syria, as far east as Decapolis and Perea, as far south as Idumea, and all the territories in between – an area of approximately 18,000 square miles (29,000+ sq. km). And there’s more.
     In John 3 we read of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. Like many of the Lord’s early disciples, Nicodemus was blinded to heavenly truths because of his earthly focus. He was confusing spiritual birth with physical birth, so Jesus explains: “Most assuredly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (v. 5). God has always expected both internal and external responses from those who seek his favor, involving (a) submissive hearts, and (b) obedience to the divine will.3 If to be born of the spirit is the internal aspect of conversion,4 what does it mean to be born of water? Let’s keep reading.
     While Jesus goes on to emphasize both inward and outward expressions of faith (vv. 16, 21),5 consider what happens next. “After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He remained with them and baptized” (v. 22). Why did Jesus baptize? Because unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. “Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salem, because there was much water there. And they came and were baptized…. And they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified–behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!” (vv. 23-26).
     Moving on to John chapter 4, we read the following: “Therefore, when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John (though Jesus Himself did not baptize, but His disciples) …” (vv. 1-2). When the masses responded to Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom, his disciples did the baptizing. Further, the Lord sent out the twelve and later at least seventy more of his loyal followers to disseminate the same message (Matthew 9:35–10:7; Luke 10:1-11). John the Baptist had taught about the kingdom and baptized multitudes in Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan. Jesus and his followers baptized even more throughout a much greater geographical area (see above).
     Now back to the dying convict who requested of Jesus, “remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). It is no mystery that he knew about the Lord’s kingdom. How could he have not known?! The question is, had he or had he not been baptized in conjunction with this knowledge? Although absolute proof is beyond our grasp, which scenario is more likely?
     Many, who have bought into the abridged doctrine of salvation by faith alone (apart from obedience), often appeal to the example of “the thief on the cross” in an attempt to refute the necessity of baptism. But is it legitimate to assume and then boldly assert that this malefactor was never baptized, and somehow this sets a precedent for modern-day conversions?
     Here is what we know from the scriptures. The man had knowledge of the Lord’s kingdom. This is not surprising, seeing that for more than three years the message of the kingdom had saturated the entire region. And this message included instruction about repentance and baptism. Myriads had been baptized by John, while Jesus and his disciples baptized even more. It is neither impossible nor improbable that the man whom the Lord welcomed into Paradise had in fact been baptized. But don't miss this next point.
     Jesus affirmed that there is no access to God’s kingdom without being born of water and the spirit (John 3:5), and he subsequently enjoined repentance and baptism on all who received his teaching (John 3:22–4:2). He then granted entrance into this kingdom to a man who had apparently received that message (Luke 23:42-43). Either Jesus made an exception, or this man had met the necessary conditions. Could this be an example of restoration rather than conversion? (compare Acts 8:9-24)
     Admittedly there is no explicit reference to this criminal having been baptized. Still, he was living under the old covenant of the Jews, and Jesus had the power on earth to forgive sins (Mark 2:10). Christ’s new covenant was not inaugurated before he died (Hebrews 9:15). Then following the events at Golgotha, baptism is likened to the Lord’s death, burial and resurrection (Romans 6:3-6; 1 Peter 3:21). Under the new covenant of Christ, baptism is the defining point at which penitent believers become disciples (Matthew 28:18-20), have their sins forgiven (Acts 2:37-38), receive salvation (Mark 16:16), and are granted entrance into God’s kingdom (Colossians 1:13-14; 2:12; cf. John 3:5).
     No one on earth today is in the physical presence of Jesus, or is living under the old Jewish covenant, or is exempt from the requirements of Christ’s new covenant. Therefore, appealing to the example of “the thief on the cross” in an effort to dismiss the requisite of baptism is presumptuous and reckless, and it demonstrates an ignorance of (or disregard for?) the overall context of scripture.
     “‘Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen” (Matthew 28:19-20).
--Kevin L. Moore      
     1 Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the NKJV, with added emphasis in bold type and added words in [square brackets].
     2 Note that “the kingdom of heaven” is the same as “the kingdom of God” (cf. Matthew 19:23-24). See The Kingdom of God Part 1.
     3 See Exodus 25:2; 35:5, 21, 29; Deuteronomy 4:29-30; 5:29; 6:4-9; 8:2; 10:2; 11:13; 26:16; 30:2, 10, 14; Joshua 22:5; 1 Samuel 12:20, 24; 1 Kings 2:4; 8:23, 61; 9:4; 14:8; 2 Kings 20:3; 23:3, 25; 2 Chronicles 29:31; 31:21; 34:31; Ezra 7:10; Psalm 34:15-18; 86:11, 12; 111:1; 119:2, 7, 10, 34, 69, 112; Isaiah 26:9; 38:3; 51:7; 66:2; Jeremiah 17:10; Luke 8:15; John 4:23-24; Romans 1:9; 6:17; 7:6, 22; 12:11; 2 Corinthians 9:7; Ephesians 4:21-24; 5:19; 6:6; Hebrews 10:22; 1 Peter 1:22-23; cf. Psalm 78:8; Isaiah 29:13; Matthew 15:8-9; Hebrews 3:7-19.
     4 The Greek word pneuma can have reference to either the human spirit or the Holy Spirit, and English translators have to make judgment calls as to whether the lower case “s” or the upper case “S” is used. See Soul and Spirit. There are other occurrences in John where pneuma clearly refers to man’s inner spirit (4:23-24; 11:33; 13:21). Compare also Hebrews 10:22; 1 Peter 1:22-23; 3:20-21.
     5 See A Closer Look at John 3:16. 

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