April 15, 2022
No, not that capital, silly. We’re talking about real insurrectionists here. It is Good Friday, after all.
So first things first.
Insurrectionists, Not Thieves
Jesus did not die between two thieves.
“What??” you exclaim. “My Bible tells me he did just that, in both Matthew and Mark” (Matthew 27:38, 44; Mark 15:27).
The Greek word used, however, is lestai (singular lestes). While this term apparently can refer to violent bandits (and thus “robbers”), it is not a term associated with what we generally think when we hear the word thief (pickpockets, burglars, larcenists etc). Such thieves would almost certainly never have been crucified.
The Romans can justly be criticized for resorting to crucifixion frequently — but they didn’t use it on generic criminal elements. It was their great weapon against non-Romans who seriously disrupted the social order, such as runaway slaves and revolutionaries.
Moreover, the term lestai itself also happens to refer to revolutionaries — people who engage in insurrections and plotting. John 18:40 identifies Barabbas (for whom Jesus’ death basically became a ransom) as a lestes. Meanwhile, Mark informs us that Barabbas was imprisoned awaiting punishment because he had been involved in insurrection, and indeed had committed murder in the process (Mark 15:7). He is not a lestes because he is a thief; he is a lestes because he is a rebel, a revolutionary.
That verse, incidentally, says that Barabbas was bound with the insurrectionists (stasiastes) who had made insurrection (stasis) with him. This strongly suggests that the “thieves” crucified with Jesus were co-insurrectionists involved in the same rebellion that Barabbas was involved in.
What Kind of Insurrectionists?
So we have dispelled the notion that the men crucified alongside Jesus were common criminals. They were revolutionaries.
We need to go further to dispel the false stereotype.
The common understanding is that the “thieves” were socially unacceptable parasites upon society. We don’t think of them as among the devout folk. They are rabble. We may not think “insurrectionists” changes that a whole lot, but it does. The truth is that the Romans crucified thousands of insurrectionists — in Judea.
An insurrectionist in Judea was not “rabble.” He probably knew the Hebrew Scriptures a lot better than most Americans know their Bibles. In fact, his revolutionary attitude was largely fueled by how devout he was.
You see, in the first century there were a variety of options for the devout.
Ironically, probably the least devout of these was the one that had control of the temple. The Sadducees were the ruling party there, and they were (shall we say) very much minimalists when it came to Scripture. They didn’t believe in angels, an afterlife, resurrection, or much of anything. Unlike Israel as a whole, they really didn’t have a messianic interest, because they probably had as much authority in Israel as they ever were likely to get. For the Sadducees, a Messiah was more an implicit threat than an awaited promise.
The Pharisees, meanwhile, had a lot of lay level support. They believed that the arrival of the Messiah was dependent upon Israel becoming scrupulously Torah-observant. When Israel had become sufficiently righteous, Yahweh would send his Messiah, and Israel would be liberated. (Formally, the Essenes apparently adopted this position, only much moreso. Double, triple the Torah fervor — they would have considered the Pharisees lukewarm at best.)
And then there were those who thought that God would act when they acted, as he apparently had in the days of the Maccabees. No doubt they believed that if they engaged in a revolt of faith against Rome, God would at some point unveil his Messiah, and establish the new age of shalom for which they longed.
Make no mistake, the men crucified with Jesus were insurrectionists. I suppose it’s possible they were “rabble” — after all, every such movement attracts the rabble too. But at its heart, their cause was devout in terms of their first century context. So it’s just as likely that Jesus was surrounded by very devout men.
Jesus and the Insurrectionists
So now, let’s get to the point of this exercise.
When the chief priests, elders and other religious leaders mock Jesus for calling himself the Son of God, and for claims he made regarding the temple, the insurrectionists join in (Matthew 27:39–44). This should not surprise us.
We are only surprised because we think how foolish, and indeed inapt, it is for common criminals to be making fun of Jesus’ claims. But when we recognize that these are probably devout revolutionaries with a very definite messianic hope, things become much clearer. Jesus is claiming to be the Messiah. Jesus is claiming to bring justice to Israel. The tag “King of the Jews” hangs above his head.
And yet, here he is, dying. Clearly, he cannot be the Messiah. The real Messiah would doubtless have made a success of their revolt, but here he is, dying just like themselves. This, after all, is why at least one of them says, “If you are the Messiah, save yourself, and us” (Luke 23:39) — a statement, incidentally, that immediately follows Luke’s reference to the “King of the Jews” inscription (Luke 23:38).
But then, something changes in one heart. Viewing the Son of God, hearing the grace and compassion in his few words — somehow, one lestes receives that moment of clarity.
First, he rebukes his fellow lestes with the fear of God, and an admission that their condemnation is actually just, but that Jesus has done nothing wrong (Luke 23:40–41).
And then, he confesses something that even the disciples have not yet confessed.
He becomes, so far as we know, the first person to express confidence in the resurrection of Jesus.
“What??” you exclaim again. “I never read that.”
But you have. You just didn’t realize what you were reading.
Are you ready? Here it is:
“Lord, remember me whenever you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
We have so vaporized biblical kingdom language that we hear that as some sort of generic heaven language. But what we in fact have is an Israelite with a messianic kingdom expectation (which is not an expectation of an afterlife, mind you) recognize that Jesus is dying — and yet that he is still going to “come into” his kingdom.
That is a confession of faith, not merely that Jesus has some sort of sway in heaven. It is a confession of faith that Jesus is going to be raised from the dead.
The disciples dismissed or misunderstood Jesus whenever he talked about being raised from the dead. But in this short moment, this Jewish revolutionary gets it. He doesn’t know when it will happen. He probably presumes it will be a while. But he confesses in faith that it will happen.
Jesus’ response is not a redirection (“don’t think of a real kingdom; here’s the real thing: I’m offering you ‘paradise’ instead”). It is an assurance of the sort of remembrance the lestes has asked for. He won’t have to wait until he sees the messianic kingdom come to fruition to get evidence of his standing with the Messiah. This very day, Jesus will share paradise with him.
One More Thing
The crucifixions on Good Friday essentially amounted to an attempt to put down revolution.
But when we recognize that the heart of the issue is the Messiahship — that is, the kingship — of Jesus, it was the crucifixion itself that was a revolutionary act. The most revolutionary act ever, in fact. The king of Israel (and indeed, the king of the world) was killed at the demand of Israel’s leaders, and by the hands of God’s delegated ministers (Romans 13). It was insurrection of the highest order. Barabbas is a sign of all the revolutionaries that day. He went free, and the king died.
Good Friday does not stand alone. It is not an independent event. We cannot look back on Good Friday without seeing it in the light of Easter.
Aside from Jesus, the insurrectionist on the cross was the first man who recognized the Easter implications. The dying Jesus is the resurrected one.