Question: Since both thieves on the crosses were still alive after Jesus died (their legs had to be broken to quicken their death while Jesus was already dead–John 19:31-33) did they live under both the Old and New Covenant? –An Inmate in Oklahoma
Just so the readers can have a bit more background to the question, the one asking has been taking a Bible correspondence course, and one of the questions was “Did the thief on the cross live under the Old Testament, the New Testament, or neither?” The student searched, and wasn’t sure because both of the thieves were still alive after the death of Christ—albeit a very short time.
First, let me thank you for asking such a great question. It shows that you’re putting a lot of effort, thought, and consideration into your Bible study, which is great!
The thieves both lived and died under the Old Testament, and we’ll look at a few ways to show that this is the case.
First, the gospel is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The New Testament is based completely on this gospel. Peter preached it that way (Acts 2:22-24). Paul proclaimed it that way (I Corinthians 15:1-3). When the thieves were on the cross, Jesus had indeed died, but He had not yet been buried or resurrected. The gospel (the “good news”) had not yet happened when the thieves died. So, they did not live under the New Testament, because the gospel hadn’t happened yet.
Second, entrance into the New Testament was based on baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19-20). There was no baptism into the name of Christ until the Day of Pentecost, 50 days after the resurrection of Christ (Acts 2:1, 38). Jesus had told the apostles not to preach until they received “power” (the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit) in Jerusalem (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:4-5, 8). Therefore, it was impossible for anyone to be a part of the New Testament until Pentecost.
Third, the New Testament is the Will (as in “last will and testament”) of Jesus Christ. A will is not in force until after the person is dead (Hebrews 9:16-17). But just as obvious is this: the official reading of the will takes place days after actual death—sometimes weeks or months afterwards. Until the official reading of the will, there’s no way for people to follow it. The will of Christ was not officially read, and its contents made clear and binding, until the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Until that time, all people were still living and answerable to the Old Testament.
Fourth, When Jesus told the repentant thief on the cross, “today you will be with me in Paradise,” Jesus was still alive (Luke 23:43). Thus, there is no doubt whatsoever that the thief’s salvation was acquired prior to the death of Christ—therefore we can say with 100% sureness and accuracy that his salvation was guaranteed based on his actions under the Old Testament.
Fifth, God is no respecter of persons. The thieves had lived their entire lives under the Old Testament, and now they find themselves nailed to crosses—unable to do much more than struggle to breathe and talk. It is obvious that one of the thieves was repentant, and Christ promised him he would be saved. But if the New Testament instantly started and was therefore binding on all Jews the moment Christ gave up the ghost, then the thieves (including the repentant one) were both lost with no possible way of being saved. As we saw above, baptism into the name of Jesus Christ is a requirement for salvation under the New Testament (see also Mark 16:16, I Peter 3:21). Neither one of the thieves could be baptized into the name of Christ, because they were nailed to crosses when Jesus died. God will not make it impossible for someone to be saved. That would make Him a respecter of persons (Acts 10:34).
For this same reason, we can know that the New Testament was not binding on anyone else until Pentecost. Because if it was, then God made it impossible for anyone to be saved from the death of Christ (or the resurrection, if you want to use that as the starting point) until Pentecost, fifty days later. That would make God a respecter of persons, which He is not. There has always, for all people, at all times, been the possibility of salvation through obedience to whatever law of God they lived under. The thieves on the crosses are no exception to this rule.
Thank you for your dedication to studying and understanding God’s word.