A consensus of recent biblical scholarship has come to the understanding that the two men with whom Jesus was crucified were not robbers or thieves, but rather patriotic rebels. This comes from the fact that the Greek word “lestas” can mean either “robber” or “insurrectionist.” Additionally, Barabbas, the criminal who was released in Jesus’ place, is referred to as an insurrectionist (and a murderer). Since state prison cells were often only reserved for those to be executed, it seems plausible that (1) Barabbas was to be executed, and (2) the very cross on which Jesus was crucified had probably been reserved for Barabbas. So what? Other than the fact that I thought this was a fascinating discovery, I had never really thought much about its contextual significance until it was pointed out to me last week.
If indeed the two men with whom Jesus was crucified were rebels, Jesus was perhaps in more similar company than is often made out when we compare the differences between Jesus and the robbers. Jewish rebels were intent on having the Davidic kingdom of Israel reestablished in its “rightful place,” both territorially and politically. In short, these men were Jewish nationalists and patriots. At the same time, Jesus came with the intent of establishing a kingdom, too – the kingdom of God. Indeed, at the crucifixion Pilate labelled Jesus “The King of the Jews.” How fitting, then, that one of the rebels would eventually say, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and that he would receive the very thing that he was looking for, yet in a very different way.
In a sense, the kingdom of God is full of rebels, but Jesus’ death makes one thing very clear: the kingdom is not taken by force. It is given to us.