A Promise of Glory
“Today thou shalt be with me in Paradise…”
Some years ago (while still in secular employment) I had one of the most curious encounters of my life. I was doing basic auto service – changing oil and tires mostly – for a certain ubiquitous discount chain. A gentleman brought his vehicle in for service, and all that separated us was a 4′ tall chain-link fence. As I moved around the vehicle we struck up a conversation and for reasons no longer clear to me, it quickly leaned “religious.”
Mind you, this service would only take around 15 minutes to complete, so one might imagine we can’t have covered much ground. If you had told me what happened next was going to happen, I would have laughed with incredulity. Yet, somehow, in this small window of time, the conversation became a full-blown debate on the subject of baptism right there in that garage. And when I say debate, I mean it was heated.
I once was accused of tampering with something under the hood of a vehicle in that same garage and ended up in court over it. Thank God for the security tape that vindicated my profession of innocence. Before the matter went to court, one of the customers bringing suit against the company came to the garage to demand access to our security footage. It got a little tense. But I tell you it was not nearly as tense as the encounter with this – to borrow a term “triggered” – gentleman who was waging a war of words with me over baptism.
He became so agitated at one point that he came through the gate of the fence, into the garage (this is extremely dangerous to customers as there are massive 7′ deep “pits” in the garage area, among other things), and began following me around the car, repeatedly barking these phrases (which are the only phrases of the conversation I really remember): “What about the man on the battlefield?” and “What about the thief on the cross?”
I learned then, not only that the “thief on the cross” is somewhat of a pet subject for those who tend to deny what the Bible clearly states about the necessity of baptism, but also that it is a sort of hill to die on when the clarity of passages like Acts 2:38, 8:35-40, Colossians 2:12, 1 Peter 3:21, etc., cannot be overthrown.
In true preacher form, I say all that to say this: this passage is so much more than the breeding ground for baptism debates. Controversies and false teachings have grown up like weeds and choked its beauty.
Some things to consider about this man:
- He was almost certainly Jewish
- He was being crucified for criminal involvement against the state, so probably a zealot (Matthew 27:38-44; Mark 15:27-32)
- As a zealot, we might speculate that the popularity of practically any Messiah-figure was of interest to him; he may have even investigated Jesus.
- On the cross, he started out insulting Jesus (Matt 27:44)
- Later, he admitted his guilt (Lk. 23:40-41a)
- He knew that Jesus was innocent (Lk. 23:41b)
- He had a change of heart (Matt. 27:44)
- He knew something about Jesus’ ministry (Lk. 23:43)
- He knew something about Jesus’ kingdom (Lk. 23:42).
- “Paradise” (in Hebrew, the concept elicits a return to “Eden,” before man tainted his fellowship with God) made sense to him.
When we flesh out these 10 points a possible picture begins to emerge of a zealous Jew who once had one version of the Messiah (and His reign) in mind, and came – perhaps through his prior consideration of Jesus, and now in the presence of His vicarious suffering – to appreciate another version, the real one.
This was the great difficulty of the ministry of Jesus: to slowly convince a people so entrenched in false Messianic notions to humbly re-evaluate those notions in the light of their Scriptures, and on the basis of his public ministry.
It was a hard sell. It failed on many fronts.
However, through the lens of his own suffering, in his own inevitable crash course with death, this man found the humility and the clarity to declare the simple thing Jesus had been showing with signs and wonders, hinting at with his verbiage, and for which he was now dying: he was, indeed, the Son of God.
Yet today, those willing to “declare” Jesus the Son of God – via a change of heart, confession of faith in Him, and who undergo a burial with Him in baptism – receive the same promise of glory.