BIBLE DIGEST - Number 57                                                           February 1996


by Allon Maxwell

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43 RSV)

This passage has been consistently misused and misunderstood by many.


The majority of Christians read the verses to bolster their wishful thinking about the doctrine of the “Immortality of the Soul” and the associated (and even more unbiblical) concept, of “Death Bed Repentance”.

For these, the thief was granted a last minute absolution, and an assurance that, in return for a few kind words, an immediate place in Heaven, with Jesus, was to be his that very day.


Others who know the truth that the Bible says that death is a sleep in which no part of the human personality survives the death of the body, and that the Bible does not teach the doctrine of an inherently immortal soul, resort to various subterfuges which explain the verse to suit their theology of “soul sleep”. 

Most of these however, stumble over the same death bed repentance problem as those above. This leaves the thief still amongst the “saved”, but consigned to a place in the future Kingdom of God on Earth, after the Resurrection.

This of course, leaves the door open for those who are insecure about their own present status and eternal future, to reassure themselves with the comforting possibility of their own “death bed repentance”.

If the perishing thief can be accommodated, perhaps they can too!

For these, the usual explanation is to resort to a bit of shaky Greek grammar, which alters the translation by shifting a comma . 

By this unfortunate bit of “amateur Greek” comma relocation, it is claimed that Jesus is not saying that the thief will be in Heaven today.

Instead, they say, Jesus is telling the thief today, that he will have an assured place in Paradise on earth when the future Kingdom comes. 

Indeed it is true that there is no punctuation in the Greek original. Commas have been inserted by the translators and it might be valid to shift a comma, if that was the only problem. But we shall see that shifting the comma is not the real answer in this case! It leaves the major problem unresolved.


For those who know that the Bible does not teach death bed repentance in any shape or form, neither of these interpretations can be satisfactory!

And of course those of us who believe Bible teaching about Conditional Immortality, know that the Thief CANNOT be in Heaven at all yet! He has gone the way of all flesh, to the same place where all other men go. 

The Bible says plainly th at the dead are asleep in the grave, awaiting the resurrection. They know nothing, see nothing, experience nothing. (Ecclesiastes 9:5-10)

Nor can it be possible that Jesus and the thief were in Heaven, together, on the day of the crucifixion.

The Bible says plainly that Jesus, at least, did not go to Heaven THAT DAY! Jesus Himself told Mary, three days later, that He had not yet ascended to Heaven. (John 20:17) That did not happen until 40 days after the resurrection.

In fact, we are told that Jesus actually went to HELL, (whatever we understand “hell” to be) that day !!! ..... and was delivered from there, when God raised Him from the dead. (Acts 2:31)

Further, simply shifting the comma, requires us to ignore all the clearly defined spiritual parallels and differences between the coronation of an despotic earthly king and that of Jesus, a King who “came, not to be served, but to serve.” (Mark 10, 45)

It ignores the Scriptural evidence, that a real Kingdom of some sort, did begin that day

On the cross Jesus won the crown of rulership over a spiritual kingdom, which is the present preparation ground for the future eternal Geographic Kingdom.


To understand what really happened, we must first come to grips with what Jesus meant by the phrase, “In your Kingdom”.

There is, of course, unquestionably, a future Kingdom on Earth. Jesus spoke about it often.

But He also sometimes spoke about another present aspect of the kingdom, which is too often overlooked by those who appear to concentrate all their attention on the future. 

One of those places where Jesus discussed this different aspect of the kingdom is found in Matthew 20:20-28.

“Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him, with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Command that these two sons of mine may sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”

The mother of the two disciples clearly had a future Kingdom in mind, However, the answer that Jesus gave is equally clearly about something much less comfortable than the too easy future glory sought by a doting mother, for two sons who were far from ready for the ?cup? that Jesus was about to drink

"But Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?" They said to him, "We are able."

They had completely misunderstood the question. They did not yet really know what they were asking.

Luke tells us that the setting for this unsavoury incident is the Upper Room of the last Supper. (Luke 22:24)

The cup that they had in mind was the one that they were about to drink at the Passover Feast in the Upper room, where they were gathered in ignorance of its significance on that special night.

However the cup that Jesus spoke about is the reality represented by that symbolic Passover cup.

It was the same cup that He prayed about in Gethsemane, later that same night. It was the same cup of suffering which He drank for our salvation (Matthew 26:39-42; Luke 22:41-42).

In fact the Psalmist calls itThe cup of salvation”. (Psalm 116: 12-15)

Even if had been true that they were ready to drink that cup, the places of “honour” that they sought at His right and left hands, were already reserved for others. Isaiah had said it long ago! “ They made his grave with the wicked .... in his death. (Isaiah 9: 9)

Jesus reflected those words from Isaiah to James and John. “ He said to them, “You will drink my cup , (and indeed they did both suffer for the Gospel years later) but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father ”  (Matt 20: 23)

For all of the twelve, there was a lesson to learn, about the real meaning of rulership in the Kingdom of God.

And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers.”

Jesus went on to speak of a throne of a different sort to what they all had in mind ..... He spoke of servanthood ..... and the Cross. To qualify for rulership, these disciples must first learn to serve, as Jesus was about to serve, “by giving His life a ransom for many”.(Mark 10: 45).

"Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

And then ...... to demonstrate to the squabbling disciples, what He meant by service as a qualification required of those who aspire to rule in His Kingdom ...... He washed their feet! (compare Luke 22:24 -29 with John 13:1-17)

The next day, still serving, and still demonstrating the love that is the mark of real disciples and real rulers, He "gave His life a ransom for many" ...... and the two thieves "for whom it had been prepared ", took their places at His right and left hands.

It becomes clear now that, for Jesus, the coming of His Kingdom was about to begin the very next day, with a coronation ceremony that included an investiture with a “royal” scarlet robe , and a crown of thorns. 

There was, the very next day, a "victory parade" in which He "led captivity captive".

( Ephesians 4:8) 

There was a ” throne ” to which He was nailed in order to establish His right to rule. And above His head was nailed a ? title ” in Hebrew, and Latin and Greek, which declared to all nations, Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews (John 19:19-20).

With that understanding of the "coming" (or beginning) of the Kingdom, which Jesus clearly saw in the events surrounding the cross, we now turn to the exchange between Jesus and the thieves.


In order to complete our understanding of what happened between Jesus and the two thieves on the cross, we must now also come to grips with the nature of TONAL LANGUAGE.

Our language is TONAL! We hear tonal language every day. We speak it every day.

To properly understand what is said to us we must take into account the tonal variations which are applied to words by those who speak to us.

Variations in the tone of voice in which something is said, can completely change our understanding of the exact same words .

We can speak in anger, sarcasm, cynicism, friendship, etc., all of which can reflect in the tone of voice which we use, and affect the meaning of the words we use.

The very same words, spoken in different tones, can have completely different meanings ...... even opposite meanings!

When we hear the tone, we automatically apply the correct ?translation? to what is said.

A writer however, must include written adjectives which define what is said, using additional words to convey the tone which is to be understood by the readers.

Where, you ask, is that "Tonal Description" in the story of the The Thief on the Cross?

Well ...... God has indeed supplied the additional written words which define the tone in which the TWO THIEVES spoke!

Luke supplies (only) the basic words spoken by the two thieves. (Luke 23, 39-43) 

But the words alone are not enough!

Matthew and Mark do not tell us what the thieves said. (Matthew 27: 44; Mark 15: 32) But they do supply the necessary tonal description , which is the key to understanding the real meaning of the words reported by Luke!

We must not use Matthew and Luke to contradict each other. Nor may we jump to a conclusion which is not written. Instead we must ADD what is written in the two records to receive the whole counsel of God on this incident, and correctly interpret what BOTH of the two thieves did really say.

Matthew and Mark both tell us that both thieves reviled Jesus, (Matthew 27:44; Mark 15:32) without mentioning what they said.

Luke however does tell us WHAT they said when they BOTH reviled Jesus.

The FIRST thief reviled him by railing at Him, saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" (Luke 23:39) 

The SECOND thief also reviled him, by directing words of (mock) "rebuke" at the first, but (according to Matthew), actually using the occasion (indirectly at first) to rail at Jesus. He said, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong ." (Luke 23:40-41) 

Then he turned directly to Jesus and continued his reviling ....... yes, reviling , Matthew says!! "Jesus remember me when you come into your Kingdom".

Remember, Luke does not tell us how to interpret those words, but Matthew does!

In the light of what Matthew says, there is no Biblical warrant at all for adding our own wishful alternative, but unwritten, different Tonal Description!

These are NOT friendly words!

They are the sarcastic, angry railing of a frightened man, dying in dreadful agony, and trying desperately to shut out for a few brief moments, the relentless pain from which there was no escape.

No reply from Jesus to the first thief is recorded. 

However, in response to the railing , of the second thief , Jesus did answer. "And he said to him, Truly, I say to you , today you will be with me in Paradise ." Luke 23:43 

This was it!! The kingdom had come!! ..... and for the thief "today" was all of it!! For that day, and that day alone , in fulfilment of the ancient prophecy by Isaiah, and in fulfilment of the words of Jesus Himself, the thief shared the "throne" of Paradise with Jesus!! ....... And then he died and was buried, to await whatever faces him on the Day of Judgement. 

But I doubt whether he understood what was said to him, any more than the two disciples understood on the previous evening at the Last Supper.

If we will receive it, this was the beginning of Paradise 

This was the beginning of a new and different royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9-10) after the order of Melchizedek.

This was the event which prepared the way for the present reality of our transfer from the Kingdom of Darkness, into the present Kingdom of the Beloved Son, where we will become qualified to share in the future inheritance of the "children of light". (Col. 1, 12-14) 

And when this work is completed, then Jesus, who in the presence of the disciples, was taken up into Heaven, will come in the same way as He was seen to go into Heaven. (Acts 1:11) 

Then we will see the reality of that geographic kingdom of which Jesus also spoke so often. 

We will see the God of Heaven establish a Kingdom which will last for ever, and we will see the final reality of the promise made to Mary by the Angel Gabriel :

"He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; ......................and of His Kingdom there will be no end." (Luke 1, 32-33).


Whatever else we may wish to speculate (wishfully) about the final fate of the thief on the day of Judgement, we may not use Luke to conclude that he received any last minute assurance of "salvation".

Nor may we use this story to justify the common practise of extracting last minute "confessions of faith" and "repentance" from the dying, in order to alleviate the fears of those who survive! 

On the cross, Jesus made several deliberate references to Old Testament prophecies, which were being fulfilled by the events of that day. The interchange with the thief is one of those.

When Jesus spoke to the thief, He was NOT granting "absolution", but pointing to Isaiah, who spoke of the Saviour who would "make his grave with the wicked ....... in his death.". (Isaiah 53: 9) The two thieves were the wicked who shared that dubious "honour".

This story of the Thief on the Cross contains elements which God has concealed, and left for His "Royal Priesthood" to search out. (Prov 25:2)

When we do search a little deeper, we find some thrilling spiritual lessons about what it means to be a ruler in the Messiah's Kingdom. 

These are essential for those who must be reborn spiritually in order to see the reality of this present AND future Kingdom, and enter it. (John 3:3-8)