The Perfect Test
Why is the thief on the cross such a perfect instrument for measuring theological truth? There are three reasons. The first you know because I have already labored some time to convey that Jesus declares that the thief received his eternal salvation in a way that was plainly spoken and cannot be confused. Second, a close reading will allow you to see that we observe the entire progress of the thief’s religious life unfold in what is recorded. In other words, we can see the moment when he encounters faith in Christ and the moment when that faith ends because the substance of his hope is realized in that he was actually in Paradise with Jesus his Lord. We are able to see the entire course of his Christian life unfold. Thirdly, because of the physical limitations placed upon him by the fact that he was being crucified when his life in Christ began, we know exactly where he was and what he was able to accomplish during the duration of his Christian life. In that he was tied to a tree, we know what he could do and what he couldn’t do.
Applying the TTT
When the thief on the cross said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me,” was he quoting Psalm 106? David says, “[r]emember me, O LORD, with the favor that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit me with thy salvation” (Psalm 106:4). The textual similarity makes me wonder how much the thief on the cross knew about the scriptures. On the same night He was betrayed, Jesus taught His disciples that they should remember Him by the taking of bread and wine: He said that they should do this “in remembrance” of Him (Lk 22:19). Now, this bread and wine was interpreted by the Catholic Church to literally be the flesh and blood of Jesus in that they quite literally understand the discourse of John 6. It’s understandable why the Catholic Church made this conclusion because Jesus says “the bread that I will give is my flesh.” Even Luther, the great reformer, considered that the body and blood of Jesus was literally present in the Communion elements.
Consider the discourse during the reformation between Martin Luther and Zwingli: Martin Luther was adamant that “hoc est corpus Meum” meant that the actual body of Jesus was present in the bread of communion, and it was on this point alone seemingly that Luther was forced to remain independent of the other reformers. It’s certainly admirable that Luther desired to remain true to the Holy Scriptures—all theologians should seek to do the same. However, let’s take a close look at what it would mean if the actual body and blood of Jesus were present in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. First, we understand that Jesus must be continually suffering each time the Lord’s Supper is administered because He was fully man. The concept that Christ should suffer more than once is clearly refuted in scripture: “[f]or then must He often have suffered since the foundation of the world…” (Heb 9:26). Therefore, we can conclude that Jesus did suffer only once for sins, which obviated the possibility of there being actual flesh and blood on, within, around, in, throughout or among the elements of Communion. Whatever preposition you use, you must be alert to the once for all nature of the suffering of the Christ.
Second, since He Himself is the Son of the Living God, if the bread and wine of Communion truly contained His body and blood, we would be forced to conclude that anyone who consumed His flesh and blood would have eternal life! If His flesh and His blood were truly present in the Communion elements, then all that we would need to do is eat and be saved! There would be no place for faith; indeed, this doctrine would void faith. Under this paradigm, Christian practice would consist of the taking of the bread and wine, and nothing else would truly signify.
Now, we bring in the thief. Because we know what he was able to accomplish before his death on the cross, we understand that the thief did not partake of the Lord’s Supper. What does this mean? It means that the grace of the Lord Jesus was not administered to him in the form of bread and wine, the elements of Communion. This has far reaching implications. If the Communion does not confer grace ex opere operato, then salvation is grounded in some other thing, not the Communion elements themselves. What’s more, those that claim that the Lord Jesus is present in the Communion elements are excluding the thief on the cross who did not partake in the way that the Catholic Church would bar me from partaking of salvation because I have not been administered their sacrament. You see here that the thief himself tests and rejects the theology of Real Presence. If the thief needed to eat Jesus, then he never got the chance according to the scriptures. If he never got the chance, then he wasn’t saved. But Christ proclaimed that he was saved!
Allow me to put what I’ve just said into the form of a simple argument: (1) If John 6:53 is literal (we must literally partake of the person of Jesus in the form of the bread and wine), then the Lord’s Supper is essential for salvation; (2) The thief did not partake and was admitted into the kingdom; (3) Therefore, the Lord’s Supper is not essential for salvation and John 6:53 is not a literal matter but a spiritual one of receiving the atonement of Christ.
When you partake of the Lord’s Supper it had better be the worship of God in Spirit and Truth—the receiving of the atonement of Jesus. No other adornment, nothing placed on the body or in the body could ever accomplish what Christ accomplished upon the cross for the whole world. Examine the similarity between the way that Nicodemus thinks of “new birth” as it is described to him in John 3, and the way that the pharisees attempt to understand what Jesus is saying in John 6. Nicodemus wonders at the physical impossibility of entering again into his mother’s womb as an adult man (Jn 3:4). Jesus is speaking of his spiritual birth and Nicodemus is thinking of the physical birth. Likewise, the pharisees that are listening to Jesus in John 6 hear that they should eat of His body and His blood, and they wonder at the physical impossibility of eating this Man’s body and blood! They said “how can this man give us His flesh to eat” (Jn 6:52). This sounds so familiar! That the pharisees misunderstood Jesus is not surprising, but that we, knowing what we know of Christ, that He died once for all and was raised again, should misunderstand Him is surprising! There should be complete consensus on this issue of Communion. This ordinance that Jesus gave us cannot save us of itself. We know this for a certainty because the thief did not eat of it.