Discipleship? But What About the Thief on the Cross?

I really enjoy talking to people about what it means to imitate and obey Jesus as His disciple. However, because most people in my culture and context have been taught an easy-believism, cheap-grace, cultural Christianity; they often struggle with the concept of the purpose of salvation being that believers bring glory to God by being re-conformed into the image of God.
Moreover, they also struggle with the idea that re-conformity into the image of God only occurs through being conformed to the image of Jesus (who is the perfect image of God) by imitating and obeying Him as His disciple, through the supernatural empowerment and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. Finally, they struggle with the concept that this conformity to Jesus through imitating and obeying as His disciple must begin in the here and now, not just when we get to paradise.
But this is exactly what the Bible teaches. John the Apostle wrote:
We know that we have come to know [Jesus] if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did (1 John 2:3-6).
Scripture clearly teaches that either you are being conformed into the image of Jesus through imitating and obeying Him as His disciple, or you do not know Him; simple as that.
But again, because I live in a culture of easy-believism and cheap-grace; sooner or later, someone brings up the thief on the cross.
The problem is that the thief on the cross argument is filled with holes.
First, the Greek word (λῃστής) traditionally translated “thief” meant more than just a thief, it carried the connotation of violence. This same word is used of Barabbas in John 18:40 where it is often translated as a rebel, a political revolutionary, or insurrectionist.
This is consistent with Mark 15 where Barabbas is identified as a στασιαστής who had taken part in a στάσις; a rebel who had taken part in an insurrection (during which he had committed murder). Matthew further wrote that Barabbas was well-known (27:16). Therefore, it would seem more likely that Barabbas was a well-known insurrectionist rather than a common thief.
Another way to translate λῃστής would be as a “plunderer” given that the origin of the word was “plunder.” The most likely scenario was that Barabbas and the men that he was imprisoned with were violent insurrectionist who been living off of the plunder of their attacks.
Interestingly, when Jesus is arrested, He asked those coming for Him, “Am I a λῃστής that you come out with swords and clubs to capture me?” (Matthew 26:55, Mark 14:48, Luke 22:52). They were coming to arrest Jesus in the same manner that they would have arrested Barabbas.
In Luke 23, the Jewish leaders specifically accuse Jesus, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king” (23:2).
Then in verse 14, Pilate stated to the Jewish leaders, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion.”
The specific charge against Jesus was that He was a political revolutionary.
Therefore, it seems likely then that in these contexts, λῃστής refers to a violent rebel, or an insurrectionist, who had resorted to living off of the plunder of robbing the rich. It would further be logical that the two rebels crucified with Jesus would have been among the στασιαστής that had been imprisoned with Barabbas, given that Jesus took Barabbas’ place.
The second problem with the thief on the cross argument is that it assumes that these rebels were unfamiliar with the teachings of Jesus. However, a cursory look at the accounts of the crucifixion in Matthew 27 and Mark 15 demonstrates that the people insulting Jesus while he was on the cross were familiar with His teachings since they specifically mocked His teachings:
Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him (Matthew 27:39-44).
This account also specifically stated that the rebels insulted Him “in the same way.” While this does not absolutely mean that they mocked His teachings, it makes it likely.
In fact, given Jesus’ popularity, the amount of time that He spent teaching, and in how wide of a geographical area that He taught; it would be odd for the rebels not to be familiar with Jesus’ teachings.
In the Luke account the one rebel specifically mocks Jesus’ messiahship: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (23:39).
While it is possible that the rebel had only learned that day that Jesus might be the messiah; it is more likely that he was aware of the possibility, given Jesus’ popularity and His widespread ministry.
Moreover, given that these men were most likely political insurrectionists, they would be familiar with any who might be considered to be the Jewish messiah. It is even feasible that they were followers of a false Jewish messiah (possibly even Barabbas whom Jesus replaced, given that he was the most well-known of the rebels).
The response of the repentant rebel in Luke’s account is even more telling:
We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong (23:41).
Unless he was familiar with Jesus and His ministry and teachings, how would he have known that Jesus had done nothing wrong?
You could argue that it was completely through power of the Holy Spirit that the repentant rebel realized this; and of course, the Holy Spirit must have empowered him to believe it; but again, given Jesus’ popularity and His widespread teachings, it is more likely that he was at least somewhat familiar with Jesus’ ministry and His teachings.
Furthermore, the rebel addressed Jesus as “Jesus” as if He was in some way familiar with Him (Luke 23:42).
Therefore, if we assume that the rebel was familiar with Jesus’ teachings and ministry (which is a logical assumption), then he would also be familiar with the concept of Jesus being a rabbi who had disciples. Again, given that he is most likely a political insurrectionist, he himself might have been the disciple of a false messiah himself.
Moreover, if the rebel was familiar with Jesus’ teachings, he might be familiar with Jesus’ teaching that someone must abandon all in order to follow Him as His disciple.
And if we look at the rebel’s last words, he abandons everything he has left to abandon, including his former rebellion and his co-conspirator, in order to submit in obedience to Jesus as much as he can with what little time he has left.
He stated in repentance: “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve” (Luke 23:41).
And then: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
If the rebel is familiar with Jesus’ teachings, he has probably heard Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom of heaven/kingdom of God. Furthermore, in order for him to admit that Jesus has a kingdom, he must admit that Jesus is the Messiah, the king of the Jews; and more importantly, the rebel must submit to Jesus as his King.
Becoming a disciple of Jesus is all about dying to the old man so that the new man is recreated in the image of Jesus through imitating and obeying Him. And even though it happens in a short amount of time in this story, that is exactly what we see happening in this man’s life. Not only was the rebel’s physical body crucified on a cross beside Jesus; his fallen sinful self was crucified with Jesus on His cross as well.
I would argue that the rebel on the cross had at least a rudimentary understanding of Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom of heaven/God, that he believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, that he understood that to follow Jesus meant to imitate and obey Him in submission as His disciple, and that doing so would cost him everything.
And while it might seem like he had nothing left to lose, the other unrepentant rebel proves that he still had his pride, his anger, and his hatred of others to be able to surrender to Jesus.
Paul wrote in Romans 10:14 that in order to believe in Jesus, one must be familiar with His message:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?
You can observe this principal in Acts 2 where the crowd is already familiar with Jesus, His ministry, and His teachings before they believe in Him. Peter preached:
Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know (2:22).
Likewise, Cornelius was already familiar with the ministry of Jesus and His teachings before He believed. Again, Peter stated:
You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him (Acts 10:36-38).
It is arguable that no one in Scripture gets “saved” without first being instructed or informed in some way about the ministry and teachings of Jesus. Therefore, when they believe in Jesus, they are not only believing in His death and resurrection, but also agreeing to imitate and obey Him in submission as His disciples.
I think this is the critical debate: What is the difference between being “saved” and being a disciple of Jesus? Or better yet, does Scripture even differentiate between the two?
My argument would be that there is no difference.
To lead someone to salvation, we must lead them to be a disciple of Jesus; and I believe that this is supported by Scripture. Again, John the Apostle clearly wrote that a believer must imitate and obey Jesus as His disciple:
We know that we have come to know [Jesus] if we keep his commands. Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did (1 John 2:3-6).
The author of Hebrews wrote that only those who are obedient to Jesus as His disciples are saved:
Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him (Hebrews 5:8-9).
Luke wrote that “Christian” was just another term for a disciple of Jesus: “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26).
Paul also wrote:
If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9).
But in order to declare “Jesus is Lord,” one must be willing to submit to Jesus. In order to submit to Jesus, they must know to what they are submitting.
Moreover, all of the theology in the book of Romans is prefaced with the statement:
. . . Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake (Romans 1:4-5).
Therefore, anytime that faith in Jesus is referenced in the book of Romans, it is understood that it must produce obedience to Him as His disciple.
Paul wrote that while we are saved by grace through faith alone, we are saved in order to do the good works God the Father has foreordained for us to do in Jesus:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:8-10).
Paul went on to write in Ephesians that the “good works” that we are “created in Christ to do” are obeying and imitating the message and example of Jesus, so that through being conformed to His image by imitating Him; we might be re-conformed into the image of God that we were originally created to be, so that God might receive the glory that He is due:
You heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:21-24).
Of course, Paul wrote that this is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit:
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:18).
So then, when we speak of people being “saved” we must ask what does Scripture teach that they are being “saved” unto? A free trip to paradise, or unto conformity to the image of Jesus so that God might receive the glory He is due?
I believe that Scripture is clear that the purpose of salvation in Jesus is that He rescues and redeems fallen man back into their original purpose so that they might render unto God that which is God’s: His image and His glory. Moreover, this is only accomplished by them imitating and obeying Jesus as His disciples (through the power of the Holy Spirit).
To learn more about what it means to be and make disciples of Jesus, start here and follow the link at the end of each article to the next one: The Four Principles of Discipleship…