I am still a little confused about what I need to actually do. I heard about baptism, but they say that the thief on the cross wasn’t baptized. Isn’t he in heaven?
I appreciate the time taken to ask questions concerning your salvation. Personally, I don’t believe the confusion comes from what the Bible says concerning salvation. The confusion occurs because the clear teaching of the Bible doesn’t match what you have always heard.
Let us address the thief on the cross. The following is a composition of the gospel accounts:
“Then they crucified Him ... And they put up over His head the accusation written against Him: THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS. Then two robbers were crucified with Him, one on the right and another on the left. And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, "You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross." Likewise the chief priests also, mocking with the scribes and elders, said, "He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him. He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him; for He said, 'I am the Son of God.'" ” (Matthew 27:35, 37-43).
“Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, "If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us." But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, "Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong." Then he said to Jesus, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom." And Jesus said to him, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise."” (Luke 23:39-43)
First, let us note that we know little of the background of the thief. We know that he believed that his punishment was just. He knew he was a thief and he was willing to acknowledge that it was wrong. We also know that this thief knew of Jesus’ teachings. Think about what the man had said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Jesus was dying on a cross right beside him! Yet the thief understood that Jesus would be receiving a kingdom and apparently he understood that it was a spiritual kingdom (John 18:36). Somehow I don’t think this thief gained this depth of knowledge during the short time he was hanging on the cross with the Lord.
Hence, we arrive at the second notable item. The Scripture does not record for us whether the thief had been baptized. We know that John had been baptizing in Judea for several years and the gospel of John also relates, “After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He remained with them and baptized” (John 3:22). A little later in John we find, “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), He left Judea and departed again to Galilee” (John 4:1-3). A large number of people have been baptized, so we cannot state with certainty that the thief was not baptized. However, given that he was an admitted thief, it does seem unlikely, unless he was one of those who fell back into the ways of the world after becoming a follower.
We must also acknowledge that Jesus is the Lord. As the Son of God, he had the authority to forgive sins. "But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins..." (Matthew 9:6). As Matthew records, “And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” (Matthew 28:18).
Another item of interest is that people point to the thief’s salvation because he acknowledged his belief in Jesus, but I know of no one who claims the remainder of the circumstances of this man’s salvation must also be followed. After all, this man hung on a cross beside the Son of God. In order for you or I to be saved like the thief, would we not also need the opportunity to hang on a cross beside the Lord? Of course, that cannot happen because Jesus is now enthroned in Heaven. “But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:12-14). While we can express our faith as the thief did, we cannot match the remainder of the thief’s situation.
Finally, we must understand that at the time of the thief’s salvation, the new covenant had not been inaugurated. “And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives” (Hebrews 9:15-17). How the thief gained salvation prior to the death of Jesus and the beginning of the new covenant does not impact how people are saved now that the new covenant is in force.
The Scriptures consistently teach that salvation is only through Christ. “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Jesus warns that the way to heaven is narrow. “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14). In pointing out the unity of Christianity, Paul stated, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Ephesians 4:4-6). Notice this. There is only one church. There is only one faith. There is only one baptism. The Bible does not teach that there are multiple roads to heaven. It emphasizes that there is only one. Rather than looking for a possible exception to the rule, does it not make sense that we would strive to follow the rule?