If you are a student of the bible, ask yourself one simple question: how many times did Jesus proclaim that salvation had come to a person in the gospels? Not a healing…not even what we might consider to imply the receipt of salvation through the receiving of Jesus Himself but the outright proclamation that a man was indeed going to go to heaven–how many times did that happen? Well, I let you search your bibles for these things, but I will point you to one salient example: the thief crucified with Jesus in Luke 23. In fact, this encounter has grown up in my heart as the quintessential exemplar of the encounter between man and Christ. The details are far from fuzzy. We know exactly what he believed.
At nine o’clock in the morning, Jesus was crucified (Mk 15:25). All of His enemies gathered there, at the foot of the cross, to see His demise, even the rulers of Israel and the chief priests (Mt 27:41, Lk 23:35). They sat down before Him (Mt 27:36). The insults they hurled at Him while He died all had to do with what He Himself did and proclaimed to be through His public preaching: that He saved others (Lk 23:), that He was the Son of God (Lk 22:70), that He was the Christ and therefore the King of the Jews (Lk 23:37), and that He would be slain and be raised again in three days (Mt 27:40). In fact, they asked him to “come down” from the cross, which seems like a pointed jibe at yet another saying of His, namely that He would be seen in heaven at the right hand of power and coming to the earth in the clouds of heaven (Mt 26:64). They knew His doctrine well. What’s not to be missed is that these claims were all paraded before both thieves in what amounts to a satire of a sermon: all of Jesus’ chief claims paraded about as though His cross invalidated them, rather than ratified all of them. Both thief heard their speech. At the nine o’clock hour, both men were mocking Jesus, even regurgitating the same insults brought to their ears by the chief men in all Israel–men who were to be imitated (Mt 27:44).
At some point in the following six hour period, one of the two thieves was confronted by all of this information about what Christ did and Who He claimed to be, and it changed him. In fact, it wasn’t just that Jesus had saved others or that He claimed to be the Son of God, but that the thief heard the words from the lips of Jesus Who said, after He had been nailed to the Cross, “forgive them Father…” (Lk 23:34). Those words wrought a change in the thief. Jesus asked for the forgiveness of the men that were murdering Him, and the thief, in that moment, believed in Jesus–that He had authority upon the earth to forgive sins.
What do we know about what the thief on the cross believed? In Luke 23, we find an enormous amount of information about his belief. First, we find that one of the thieves is repentant and acknowledges that he is being justly punished for his sins (Lk 23:40). What’s even more startling is that the thief acknowledges that Jesus was innocent of all guilt, sinless. Next, we find that the thief responded to the doctrine that Jesus was the King because he asks Jesus to remember him when He comes into His Kingdom (Mt 23:42). By saying this, the thief is acknowledging that Jesus is the Christ. Finally, the thief knows that Jesus is dying upon the cross, so the thief believes that Jesus will be resurrected from the dead in order to inherit this Kingdom of His. He believes that Jesus will be Living in order that He might remember him. The thief believes in resurrection! You can see, then, that the thief upon the cross was a believer in the same way that you and I are believers in Christ Jesus. At the very least, his confession of faith is so robust that he is beyond dispute a New Testament believer in the truest sense.