There have probably been hundreds of thieves who have been crucified throughout history Two were crucified when Jesus was nailed to the cross- one to the right of Him and one to His left (Lk. 23:33). One of the thieves crucified with Jesus railed at Jesus until the very end (Lk. 23:39). The other may have railed at Jesus in the beginning, but near the end of the ordeal this thief rebuked his partner in crime and asked Jesus to remember him when He came into His kingdom(Lk. 23:40-42) Jesus answered this thief by saying, "Today, shalt thou be with Me in paradise" (Lk. 23:42). It is this last thief that most people have in mind when they ask, "What about the thief on the cross?" Generally, they want to know if this thief was saved without baptism, and if so, how can it be said today that baptism is essential to salvation?
A study of Hades, the place where the spirits of the dead go to await Jesus' return and the judgment, would suggest that one who goes to "paradise" is comforted, hence, saved. There is nothing in the scriptures to indicate that this thief had ever been baptized. Jesus did not command him to be baptized on this occasion, and given the thief's precarious predicament, there was no opportunity for him to be baptized.
However, baptism in the name of the Lord was not required for salvation before the death of Jesus. Baptism in the name of the Lord is a part of the New Testament, not the Old Testament. The New Testament, the will of the Lord, did not become effective until after the death of Jesus. The scriptures teach, "For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth" (Hebrews 9:16,17).
The request made by "the thief on the cross" and Jesus answer came before the death of Jesus and before Jesus' New Testament took effect. Hence, the thief was not required to be baptized in the name of the Lord to be saved. How could one be "buried with Him (Jesus, hh ) by baptism into death" before Jesus died? (Romans 6:4). Baptism in the name of the Lord for the remission of sins would be preached beginning on Pentecost after the death and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2:38).
While on earth, Jesus had authority to forgive sins. He could dispense forgiveness in any manner He wished that was consistent with His righteous nature (Mk. 2:5; Lk. 7:36-50). His authority has not diminished since His death and resurrection. Jesus now has all authority in Heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18), but He has said, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned" (Mark 16:16). No man can change Jesus' will, and only those who obey His word have the promise of salvation (Hebrews 5:9).
Many honest and sincere people have been misled by religious leaders and others who have deliberately or mistakenly pointed to the thief on the cross as their example of salvation rather than pointing to the words of the gospel and examples of conversions after Pentecost. What the thief did or did not do for his salvation has nothing to do with what the Lord requires today. The New Testament teaches that we must be baptized to be saved!
"He that believes and is baptized shall be saved..." (Mark 16:16)
All spiritual blessings are in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:3). We are baptized into Christ (Romans 6:4; Galatians 3:27). Baptism is for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38). Through baptism we wash away our sins (Acts 22:16). Without remission of sins we could not be saved.
"Baptism doth now save us..."(1 Peter 3:21)