The Theology of the Thief

Luke 23:39-43

Code: B180323

What is a theologian?

For many in the church, it’s an intimidating term applied only to spiritually elite believers. It’s an achieved status—one earned through years of seminary, writing, and the other exploits of ivory tower academics.

But that is not a biblical distinction. The truth is, everyone is a theologian.

In simple terms, theology is what we believe about God. And in that sense, everyone has a particular theological perspective. Practically speaking, even atheists are theologians.

The real question then is not who is or isn’t a theologian, but what is the quality of a given person’s theology? Is it biblically based and doctrinally sound? Or is it a carelessly constructed hash of worldly wisdom and pseudo-scriptural ideas? Perhaps even more tragic are those who fight for precision on peripheral theological issues while confusing and corrupting the essentials.

We must not make the mistake of assuming we can spot good theologians by their clerical garb or credentials. We have to measure them by their fidelity to the gospel. On the other hand, if they’re wrong about the gospel, they might as well be wrong about everything.

In Luke 23 we observe an encounter between Christ and a truly great theologian. His brief, four-verse cameo succinctly communicates a tremendous wealth of doctrinal truth. In fact, widely-celebrated scholars have spent thousands of pages muddling what this man clearly enunciated in three short sentences.

One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39–43)

The thief on the cross presents us with a basic but powerful systematic theology. His words give us a synopsis of essential gospel truth.

The Fear of the Lord

The first essential truth the repentant thief (from now on referred to as “the thief”) understood was that God should be feared. In fact, his first recorded words are a stern rebuke to the unrepentant thief: “Do you not fear God?” (Luke 23:40). John MacArthur points out that this sudden outburst represented a startling change considering both thieves had earlier hurled insults at Christ in unison (Matthew 27:44).

He confronted the tragic condition that only moments before had been his own. In a moment, he went from being part of it to being unable to comprehend it. He was convicted by the Holy Spirit that he was a violator of God’s law. By his own admission, his sentence from a human judge was fair and just, and he realized that the torment he was enduring for breaking the law was insignificant compared to what he could expect for his sin from the divine Judge. He was afraid, not of those who were destroying his body, but of God, who would destroy both his body and his soul in hell (Luke 12:4–5).

It is characteristic for the unregenerate to have no fear of God (Romans 3:18). But the conviction wrought by the power of the Spirit of God produces a holy fear of divine judgment. Convicted sinners cry out like the repentant tax collector in Luke 18:13, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” True salvation is not from material poverty or poor self-esteem, but from God’s wrath, justice, and judgment. [1]

As the thief faced the just consequences of his wicked lifestyle, he clung to the foundation of all true knowledge—“the fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 1:7). He heeded Solomon’s counsel: “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil” (Proverbs 3:7). That was clearly evident in his refusal to join the chorus of unbelievers surrounding him.

The words of the thief stand in stark contrast to the blasphemous utterances coming from everyone else around him. The unrepentant thief, the Jewish rulers, and the Roman soldiers were all scornful and irreverent in their mockery of Christ. Their behavior showed no fear of God whatsoever—if anything, they were gleefully venting their unbelief.

The Jewish “rulers were sneering at Him, saying, ‘He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One’” (Luke 23:35). The Roman “soldiers also mocked Him . . . saying, ‘If You are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’” (Luke 23:36). The unrepentant thief “was hurling abuse at Him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’” (Luke 23:39). Their taunting statements eerily echo Satan: “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread” (Luke 4:3); “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here” (Luke 4:9).

Those disparate people shared one thing in common: they refused to acknowledge the deity of Christ. They would only worship God on their terms, according to the evidence they demanded. They stood in judgment over who God is and how He reveals Himself. In essence, they established themselves as sovereign over the Lord and Creator of the universe.

In a situation where all the visible power on display belonged to those on the ground—religious leaders, political rulers, and Roman soldiers—the thief made his appeal to the Man hanging beside him. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!” (Luke 23:42). Surrounded by sneering human authorities, the thief recognized who was really in charge, and cried out to the King of God’s kingdom.

Note also that the thief didn’t make demands or deliver ultimatums. He recognized the Lord Jesus as Messiah, and pleaded with Him for his soul. The thief understood the guilt he bore, and the righteousness of the One crucified next to him: “This man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41). And although he hadn’t read a book on the attributes of God—he probably couldn’t even read—the thief could recognize true sovereign authority when he saw it.

What we initially see in the thief’s cry of repentance and faith is a healthy, reverential fear of God. It’s the starting point of all good theology, and it set him on a path that culminated with his humble willingness to beg for forgiveness and salvation. His right view of God led him to, among other things, a right view of himself and his sin.

And that’s where we will pick it up next time.

 


Available online at: https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B180323
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