Tuesday, October 13, 2009


The accounts of Christ’s crucifixion in the four gospels solve a number of theological problems if we will take care to study these narratives. All of the seven sayings of Christ on the cross are pregnant with teaching for us. For example, the saying of Christ “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, Why has thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) immediately shows us three things.

1.Christ was the substitute for God-forsaken sinners. Remember God hates sin, and Jesus had become the bearer of our sins, so God turned his back on Him.

2. Christ as man could be separated from His Father. This was the cup He dreaded at Gethsemane.

3. Unless a sinner’s eyes are opened, he will not really see Christ as the saviour. Because He spoke in Aramaic, they thought He was calling for Elias (Elijah), and mocked and said, “Let us see whether Elijah will come and save Him” (Matthew 27:49).

There is much more in this saying, and all seven, but I want to focus on the fact that there were three crosses there. This is not unusual, for this was Rome’s most common way of execution. Literally thousands were crucified by them during the height of the Roman Empire. What was different here?

Jesus had been convicted in a mock trial. Pontus Pilate, who was good at mockery himself when meting out judgment, wrote a superscription in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, saying THIS IS JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS (1), and set it over Jesus’ head. This same Pilate was the one who had mingled some Galileans’ blood with their sacrifices (see Luke 13:1-3). Jesus had been whipped, accused falsely, interrogated, mocked, beaten with fists, forced to bear his cross most of the way on the Via Dolorosa, stripped of His garments, and nailed to the cross at Golgotha. All, more or less common with Roman capital punishment.

But, this man was different. He was crucified between two thieves. These two were very likely co-conspirators with Barabbas, the insurrectionist, murderer, and thief who was set free while Jesus was crucified. At first both these thieves were evidently mocking Him. After all, He was in the same state they were; about to die. He did not seem any different than other men, in spite of what they had heard. So when the chief priests and scribes mocked Him, they joined in. If mere preaching and teaching could save, all of them; thieves, priests and scribes, should have been converted. After all, they verified in there own words what they had seen and heard about Him. First- He saved others.

Second- He said He was a King.

Third-He trusted in God.

Fourth- He said I am the Son of God.

All He had to do was come down from the cross and they would believe Him, they declared. Mere preaching was not going to save them, they had to have a personal miracle. Well, God saves people His way, not theirs. Jesus could really win some souls here, all He had to do was step down to prove who He was. He didn’t, and they would not have believed anyway. Lost, blind, dead, corrupt sinners won’t suddenly change solely on what they hear and see. There must be an inner transformation(See Ephesians 2:1).

At first, “the thieves also, which were crucified with Him, cast the same in His teeth” (Matthew27:44). “And they that were crucified with Him reviled Him” (Mark 15:33b). But there was a change in one of them. Only Luke tells us: “And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on Him, saying, if thou be the Christ save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost thou not fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly: for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day thou shalt be with me in paradise” ( Luke 23:39-43). Both originally reviled, one repented. (2) Why? Why only one? Why not both? Did the one have a spark of goodness in himself? Was it free will exercised by one, and not the other? Both their wills had evidently only brought them sin and now, execution. Free will was not going to get them down from the cross. One asked in unbelief ‘save thyself and us’. The other admitted he was a sinner, repented, and looked to Christ in faith. Did faith save him? A few minutes before he also was an unbeliever.

Now he exhibited faith in Christ. We are told “Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God. Here the Living Word, the Speech (3) that God had spoken to the world was right beside the repentant thief on the next cross. This thief, whose name we know not, was given repentance and faith. The gift of God. This was a sovereign choice of God first. Grace and faith are God’s gifts. The man did have to exercise faith, but he had none until graciously given it by Christ. The man had to repent, but he could not until he was by the grace of God led to repentance (see Romans 2:4).

Of himself this man was totally unable to do anything to save himself. He was condemned for his crimes, for all practical purposes, already dead, not capable of any action, but helplessly hanging there. He was made to see his utter destitute and hopeless state. In other words he was awakened (brought to spiritual life), so he could see his real need. Christ did this for him, and Christ was who he needed! No other could do this for him. A dying saviour saving a dying sinner! Christ must do this for each and every sinner who is saved, else they are forever lost! He took the place of this sinner, as he must take your place if you are saved. Has he done this for you, dear reader? Has He shown you, really revealed this to you, that He, Christ, is the only saviour of sinners? We are all sinners just as much in need, in just as desperate a situation as those two thieves. Which one will you be like?

What happened here that day knocks in the head several false teachings. Because the repentant thief’s time was at an end, he was saved, but there were several things he could not do.

First- he could not join a local church.

Second -he could not be baptized.

Third- he could not do good works.

Fourth- he could not witness or point others to Christ.

Normally, in time, each of these things are important, and would be done by a new convert. Christ’s New Testament church was ready to be established fully after his death, burial and resurrection. After Pentecost, the NT church would be shaped into one body, and as it expanded, into many local assemblies in diverse places. But this man could not join one; OT or NT. No matter, the Lord of the church was going to take him to be with Him. It was going to be today! No waiting for a thousand years. No waiting for resurrection day- but today!

He could not be baptized. Normally, to follow Christ, after being saved, is believer’s baptism, one of the two ordinances of Christ’s church, the other being the Lord’s Supper. These are very important, but proving here that baptism is not necessary for salvation, Christ took him to Paradise.

I remember seeing a TV program some years ago that featured a debate by some Baptist preachers, and some Campbellite preachers, often called Church of Christ. The Campbellites believe that baptism is absolutely necessary, and completes your salvation. In other words, to most of them, you cannot be saved without water baptism.

In the debate the Baptists pointed out the repentant thief to prove their case. One of the Church of Christ men stated that the thief was really the last to die under the old covenant, so that was why he did not need baptism. The Baptists who also held a distinction between old covenant and new (and there are some real distinctions admittedly), seemed to be defeated. The Campbellites were smiling, and just about to claim total victory for their erroneous baptismal regeneration doctrine, when something amazing happened. One of the Baptists, an Australian, I seem to recall, said the following. “ A covenant must be sealed with blood, and Hebrews says there must be the death of the testator. Correct?” (4) All agreed. He then quoted the following: “When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, He said, It is finished,: and He bowed His head, and gave up the ghost. Then the Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath day (for that Sabbath day was a high day),besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. Then came the soldiers, and brake the legs of the first, and of the other which were crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus, and saw that He was dead already, they brake not His legs” ( John 19:30-33).

“Jesus died first, beginning the new covenant” said the Baptist preacher. “They did not have to break his legs to kill Him, He was already dead.” Of course, that closed the debate. Scripture was fulfilled here, and some “water ducks” were not quacking so loud!

Good works? The thief could do nothing. He was dying.

Witness? Well he did that. As William Cowper’s Hymn says so well:

“The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day.

And there may I though vile as he, wash all my sins away” (5)

The witness of this man by the reading and preaching of the gospel will continue forever. He was blessed to be with Jesus on the cross, and in paradise. Yes, if you are an unbeliever, he was, and is blessed, but you are cursed! If he was here right now, he would beckon you to believe on the now risen Christ. Have you? Do you? I pray that you will.


(1) This compilation is a blend of all four gospels from The Life of Christ in Stereo, Four Inspired Voices Testify As One by Johnston M. Cheney, Edited by Stanley A Ellisen, Western Baptist Seminary Press, Portland, OR, A.D.1969, page 199, sec 155. }.“ Slight differences in the accounts {originally} are due to the different languages of the inscription, one account based on one, the other on another.”

(2) Ibid, p. 200

(3) In the beginning was the Speech, and the Speech was with God, and the Speech was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. (John 1:1-3- Calvin’s NT). As to the Evangelist calling the Son of God the speech, the simple reason appears to me to be, first, because He is the eternal Wisdom and Will of God; and, secondly, because He is the lively image of His purpose; for, as Speech is said to be among men the image of the mind,, so it is not inappropriate to apply this to God, and to say that He reveals Himself to us by His Speech.” Commentary on the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to John by John Calvin. Originally written in A.D.1553, translated from Latin in A.D.1847 by William Pringle, this edition by Associated Publishers and Authors Edition, A.D.1970, Wilmington , DE

(4) “For this cause He is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance. For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator.” (Hebrews 9:15-16).

(5) William Cowper , A.D. 1772 ,see web page for his story.


There is one case of death-bed repentance recorded, that of the penitent thief, that none should despair; and only one, that none should presume. --Augustine ( A.D.354-430)

Probably 80 years ago, In “Seven Sayings of the Saviour on the Cross”

Arthur W. Pink said the following:

Salvation by grace - sovereign, irresistible, free grace - is illustrated in the New Testament by example as well as precept. Perhaps the two most striking cases of all are those of Saul of Tarsus and the Dying Robber. And the case of the latter is even more noteworthy than the former. In the case of Saul, who afterwards became Paul the apostle to the Gentiles, there was an exemplary moral character to begin with. Writing years afterwards of his condition before his conversion, the apostle declared that as touching the righteousness of the law he was "blameless" (Phil. 3:6). He was a "Pharisee of the Pharisees": punctilious in his habits, correct in his deportment. Morally, his character was flawless. After his conversion his life was one of gospel-righteousness. Constrained by the love of Christ he spent himself in preaching the gospel to sinners and in labouring to buildup the saints. Doubtless our readers will agree with us when we say that probably Paul came nearest to attaining the ideals of the Christian life, and that he followed after his Master more closely than any other saint has since.

But with the saved thief it was far otherwise. He had no moral life before his conversion and no life of active service after it. Before his conversion he respected neither the law of God nor the law of man. After his conversion he died without having opportunity to engage in the service of Christ. I would emphasize this, because these are the two things which are regarded by so many as contributing factors to our salvation. It is supposed that we must first fit ourselves by developing a noble character before God will receive us as his sons; and that after he has received us, tentatively, we are merely placed on probation, and that unless we now bring forth a certain quality and quantity of good works we shall "fall from grace and be lost". But the dying thief had no good works either before or after conversion. Hence we are shut up to the conclusion that if saved at all he was certainly saved by sovereign grace.

The salvation of the dying thief also disposes of another prop which the legality of the carnal mind interposes to rob God of the glory due unto his grace. Instead of attributing the salvation of lost sinners to the matchless grace of God, many professing Christians seek to account for them by human influences, instrumentalities and circumstances. Either the preacher or providential and propitious circumstances or the prayers of believers, are looked to as the main cause. Let us not be misunderstood here. It is true that often God is pleased to use means in the conversion of sinners; that frequently he condescends to bless our prayers and efforts to point sinners to Christ; that many times he causes his providences to awaken and arouse the ungodly to a realization of their state. But God is not shut up to these things. He is not limited to human instrumentalities. His grace is all powerful, and when he pleases, that grace is able to save in spite of the lack of human instrumentalities, and in the face of unfavorable circumstances. So it was in the case of the saved thief. (Read the entire chapter at site below).



Anonymous said...

Great message, Charles. I just used the good thief message in my bible study tonight. Jesus said that no one comes to him unless the Father calls him. He also said that no one can go to the Father except through him. Somewhere during that 3 hour wait to die on that cross, the one thief had eyes opened to the truth. He was called by the Father while he was dying! Who can understand the mercy of our God?

charles said...

As always I appreciate your comments. You helped me with an observation here regarding the call of the thief in the three hours. A dying thief called to God's kingdom. What a glorious Saviour we have!