Jesus wasn’t the only one being crucified on that day. There were two others, one on each side of Jesus (Matthew 27:38). They were thieves (KJV) or more literally robbers (NASB, NKJV, ESV). A thief (kleptos) steals with stealth or speed. A robber (lastas) does so by force.
While Jesus was upon the cross even these men, both of them it seems, mocked him (Matthew 27:41-44; Mark 15:32). They too were dying, still they lashed out at him.
As time elapsed, one of these men, evidently, had a softening of heart. He acknowledged Jesus’ righteousness, and he and the other robber’s sin (Luke 23:39-41). He even expressed faith in Jesus and his kingdom (Luke 23:42).
Jesus responded, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). “Paradise,” as used here, does not refer to heaven itself; instead, it refers to the blissful side of hades (John 20:17; Acts 2:27).
The Jehovah Witnesses have a difficult time with a conscious existence without a body. Thus, they punctuate the verse, “truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise” (NWT). Such a reading seems odd. One certainly finds passage in which Jesus says, “I tell you” (e.g. Luke 4:25; 9:27; 10:24; 12:51, 59; 13:3, 5, 27; 17:34; 18:8, 14; 19:40), or “I say unto you” (e.g. Luke 7:9, 14, 26, 28, 40, 47; 10:10, 12; 11:8, 9, 51; 12:4, 5, 8, 22, 27, 37, 44; 13:24, 35; 14:24; 15:7, 10; 16:9; 18:17, 29; 19:26; 21:3, 32; 22:16, 18, 37), but where is the passage when Jesus says, “I say unto you today, …..?” I don’t find it. I do find, however, Jesus saying that something would happen “today” [(e.g. Luke 19:9; 22:34) – Also notice Hebrews 3:15]. Furthermore, the scriptures do speak of a conscious existence, on the other side (e.g. Luke 18:19 –ff; 9:28 –ff; I Samuel 28:1 –ff).
Don’t miss the point. We see Jesus’ concern for others. Moreover, we see his willingness to forgive. What a lesson for each of us to learn!
Some have insisted that this teaches that one can be saved without baptism. It does no such thing. Consider the following points:
(1) How does one know that this one hadn’t been baptized? Many of that land had been (Mark 1:4-5; John 4:1). He could have been baptized, then returned to sin, but finally was repenting of his sins. No one knows that he wasn’t baptized. This man obviously knew something of Jesus, his character and his teaching concerning the kingdom.
(2) This man did not live under the new covenant. It didn’t go into force until after Jesus’ death (Hebrews 9:15-17). It was not until after Jesus’ burial and resurrection that it is stated, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” (Mark 16:16). Moreover, New Covenant baptism is into the death of Christ. It symbolizes the death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6). Jesus had not yet done those things.
(3) While on earth Jesus forgave sin (Mark 2:10) with varying conditions (Luke 18:18–23; 19:8-10; Mark 2:1-11). Even his conditions for healing varied (Matthew 9:27-30; Mark 7:31-37; 8:22-26; Luke 17:11-14; Jn 9:6-7 -cf. Naaman 2 Kings 5). He knew the hearts (John 2:25) and thus likely dispensed these things as he saw fit. Once he died his covenant went into force. His conditions are uniform for all.
(4) Why is it the case that people are quick to run to this situation? The thief couldn’t come down and be baptized if he wanted to do such; yet folks who can be baptized used this as an excuse for themselves.