Meditations on the Cross, 8
The four Gospel writers give different accounts of the events of the day that Jesus was crucified. We usually try to piece together the details from all four accounts into a reasonably seamless whole. As I've thought on these accounts, I've tried to do that with the various events and characters as each writer records them.
All four of the Gospels tell us that Jesus was crucified between two other men. The different authors describe them differently. Matthew and Mark call them lestai (singular lestes), which is most often translated "robbers," the usual understanding of the word as it is used elsewhere in the Gospels. Luke calls them katourgoi - "criminals" (literally "evildoers"). John simply refers to them as "two others."
So what about these guys? Who were they? And why are they significant to the story?
Well, being a word person, I was intrigued by the word lestes, which is also used by John to describe a man named Barabbas (John 18:40). According to the Gospel accounts, Pilate the governor had offered the bloodthirsty mob their choice of prisoner to be released - Jesus or Barabbas; the mob chose Barabbas. And while John simply calls Barabbas a lestes, Matthew calls him a "notorious prisoner," and Mark and Luke have more to say about him.
Mark 15:7 - " ... Barabbas who was imprisoned with the insurrectionists who (plural) had committed murder in the insurrection."
Luke 23:18, 19 - " ... Barabbas ... he had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city and for murder."
So it is most likely that the two men hanging on either side of Jesus were not simply "robbers" but Jewish terrorists who along with Barabbas were imprisoned as part of an uprising against Roman rule. History tells us that this was happening more and more frequently, culminating in the revolution of the late 60's AD and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. Josephus in his history often uses the word lestai to describe these revolutionaries.
The crowd chose Barabbas over Jesus. Probably he was a leader in this uprising and quite possibly a hero to many in the crowd. It has often been noted that one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter (and vice versa).
Some texts of the Gospel of Mark include verse 15:28, "And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, 'And He was numbered with the lawless.'" (Quoting Isaiah 53:12 and Luke 22:37) Jesus was not being executed simply as a common criminal; He was executed right along with terrorists and was identified with them.
Matthew and Mark tell us the two were mocking Jesus along with the crowds, but Luke gives us further information. He tells us that one of them " ... spoke abusively to Him, saying 'Aren't you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!'" (23:39) This man knew that the Man hanging next to him was not one of his company. He understood that Jesus was not - as he was - attempting to throw off the Roman yoke by force; Jesus was actually claiming to be the Messiah, the true Deliver of Israel.
The man on the other side however, not only recognized Jesus' claims, but in some way recognized the truth of those claims. We don't know how he knew; perhaps he had heard Jesus earlier; perhaps he had heard rumors even while he was imprisoned; perhaps he perceived in Jesus' demeanor the reality of His claims.
Luke tells us that after rebuking his fellow and admitting that the two of them deserved their sentence while recognizing that Jesus was not guilty, turned to Jesus, "And he said, 'Jesus remember me when You come into your kingdom'" (23:39-42). Somehow as both he and Jesus hung there dying, this man - this terrorist - recognized that while his own struggles had not only been in vain but had led to his death sentence, Jesus was offering a Kingdom that was in some way yet to come. Wasn't this genuine faith?
"And (Jesus) replied to him, 'Amen! I'm telling you, today you'll be with Me in Paradise'" (15:43).
Imagine that! The first person to enter Paradise with Jesus was a convicted terrorist!