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One Story, Two Views

by Tim O'Hearn

Then were there two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left. And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads, And saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross. Likewise also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said, He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be 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. The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth. (Matt 27:38-44)
And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou 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 shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Lk 23:39-43)

One story, open to two views. Perhaps which view you take depends a lot on your background and set of beliefs. But what are the two views?

The standard take on this story is that Matthew tells what happened early in the day, and that Luke reflects a change of heart in one of the robbers (mistranslated thieves in the King James Version) later in the day. Early on, both of the men who were crucified with Jesus, hearing the rulers of the Jews mocking, follow suit. They combine in throwing his current condition in his face. Later on, however, one of the two turns on his partner, exhibits unprecedented faith that Jesus is an innocent king, and asks that his change of heart be remembered. Interestingly, many of those who hold this position use it to deny the importance of immersion even though: a) this was forty days before the message of immersion for forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus was preached, and; b) the robber never sought forgiveness, only some vague “remembrance.” (Granted, Jesus promised they would be together later in the day. But more on that later.)

The other view is that both Matthew and Luke are totally correct. That is, Matthew recounts the robbers railing on Jesus, and Luke recounts the words one of them used. In this view there is no repentance, or even acknowledgement of kingship. The robbers words are to be taken sarcastically. In spite of Luke’s use of the word “rebuke,” this view might rephrase the robber to say, “Go ahead and mock him. After all we are all in the same boat; it’s just that he claims to be innocent. But doesn’t everybody who is being executed make the same claim? You who claim to be a king, remember me when you come into this supposed kingdom. But wait, you are dying on a cross. How can you come into that kingdom?” This fits nicely with Matthew’s account. But what of the reply Jesus made? “This day you will be with me in paradise?” Is that actually granting forgiveness? Or, if the man made his comments sarcastically, might not Jesus be saying (using the literal meaning of paradise) that it does no good to mock, since by nightfall all three would be buried in a garden somewhere.

Two views. Nor, ultimately, does it matter which one you take. If the latter, it is true that both robbers and Jesus were buried. The difference is that, contrary to the robbers’ belief, he rose the third day, coming into the kingdom he preached. If the former, it may emphasize that Jesus had authority to forgive sins while he was on the earth. Neither view impacts our own salvation. Neither view can be used to prove or disprove the necessity of immersion. It is nice to believe that Jesus was able to convert a man simply by his actions while being executed on a stake. Maybe in this the common view reinforces an innate faith in the goodness of man. That can never be a bad thing.