All four gospels report that on the day Jesus was crucified, the Romans crucified two other men at the same time and in the same place in Jerusalem. And they specifically point out that Jesus was the one in the middle.
Who were these other men? Their names are unknown to us, but the texts of both Matthew and Mark say that they were robbers. The older King James translation says “thieves,” but the Greek term used here can also mean “insurrectionists” or “rebels.” Since Jesus was being executed as a threat to Roman rule over the Jews, I suspect that these two other men were charged with the same crime as well. Crucifixion was meant to be a political statement, a statement about Roman power. It said “This is what we do to people who dare to rebel against our authority.” The picture I get from this scene, from a political point of view, is that all three men whom the Romans crucified that day were convicted of the same charge, and that the Romans executed them together as a show of power.
The fact that Jesus died along with these men is, of course, significant. As readers and believers of the gospel story, we understand that Jesus was innocent of any wrong-doing. He was not being punished for wrongs he had done, but He had willingly given Himself over to His enemies who used the Romans as the tool by which they could execute Jesus (and at the same time, they thought, relieve themselves of any guilt in the matter). So there was Jesus, a perfectly innocent man and even more – a perfectly righteous man, suffering and dying as if He were a criminal and classified along with them. And yet this was nothing new. During all of His time on earth Jesus had been associated with the outcasts of Jewish society. He was the known friend of tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, and of the common people (whom the Jewish leaders contemptuously viewed as ignorant, unclean, and sinful). There was something “fitting,” then, about the fact that, at His death, Jesus was surrounded by the social outcasts of His day.
Not only was Jesus wrongly classified with criminals, but there is a tremendous irony that develops at this point: Jesus was indeed a revolutionary of sorts. He had, in fact, come to establish his own kingdom and to reign over all other kingdoms of the earth. He was indeed guilty of plotting to move in on Rome’s “turf,” but as Jesus told Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Far from being a political threat to Rome and its subjects, the alternate kingdom that Jesus had indeed preached and worked for was a kingdom of love, a kingdom of humility, and a kingdom of righteousness. Jesus came to conquer, but not with physical force or violence. He came to conquer the world through divine love. For announcing that He had come to establish such a kingdom, the price He paid was His own life.
Return for a moment to the two men who were crucified along with Jesus that day. Again, not all things are as they seem. Both of them were accused of being rebels, bandits. Rome saw them as threats to the stability and well-being of their empire. Whether the charges were true, or exactly what these men had done to be charged in this way, we will never know. But one thing becomes clear: while both of them were accused of the same kind of crime, and both were dying, and both were in the presence of Jesus, these similarities stand in ironic tension with the fact that these two men were actually quite different spiritually. One of them died with a promise of entering Paradise with Jesus, the other did not.
At one point, both of the rebels were insulting Jesus as they all hung on their crosses. But later one of them apparently changed his mind. On the one hand, one man was willing to repent, and he defended Jesus’ innocence in those last painful hours. How he knew about Jesus, or exactly what he knew about Jesus, is hard to say. Luke quotes him thusly: “ ‘… this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he was saying, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!’” (Luke 23.41-42). He knew about Jesus’ innocence, he knew about Jesus’ kingdom, and he knew Jesus’ name. Whatever the source or further extent of his knowledge, the man had become a believer in his last moments. In a profound way, this man shared even more deeply in the dying of Jesus; he died with Jesus in a way that the other man did not. Beyond the fact that he was physically dying on a cross beside Jesus, this man had taken up the quality of humility and surrender to Jesus. He had now taken up the cross of discipleship. On the other hand, the other man hurled insults at Jesus with no indication of penitence.
The whole scene stands as a miniature encapsulation of the entire gospel story and its call. Jesus is still the rejected but sinless savior. His cross is the symbol of not only His rejection by men, but also of His love for all men. It proclaims a kingdom that is in many ways upside-down from the world’s ways of thinking. His cross speaks both humility and love. All people correspond to one of the two men crucified with Him. Like them we all are guilty and deserve to die for our sins. The question is, as we get closer to our deaths, which one of these rebels will we ourselves resemble? Will we be like the one who simply died, or will we be like the one who entrusted himself to Jesus with a promise of new life?
Here is a Newsweek article that mentions the political aspect of Roman crucifixion.