May 20, 2011

"His Grave with the Wicked"

“And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth” (Isaiah 53:9 ESV)

A while back a friend of mine asked me a few questions regarding the two thieves crucified beside Jesus. The first question related to the identity of the "thieves" - were they common thieves or insurrectionists (zealots or sicharii)?  The next question related to the purpose of the "thieves" in the redemptive plan - were the mere bystanders or major pieces of the mediatorial puzzle? 

The identity of the "robbers" on the cross

There is woefully insufficient data to make any definitive conclusions regarding the crimes of those being crucified beside the King. Based primarily on the writings of Josephus and other Roman writings we know a vast amount of information about Roman crucifixion.  For instance - we know that in 70 A.D. the Romans crucified tens of thousands of Jews in the besiegement of Jerusalem.

We also know that crucifixion had a dual purpose: First - punitive action against an offender. Second -  and just as vital - a glowing example of brutal justice to the populace. The second purpose is of utmost importance - particularly in the context of 1st century Judea. Judea, much like the 19th century Wild West of America, was on the absolute eastern frontier of the Roman Empire.  Rome's border was the Decapolis cities (Beth Shean or Scytholplis was one of these cities) - its last vestige of Romanism before the world dropped off into the dismal abyss of the Arabian desert. Beyond it were the Parthians, the Nabateans and the unknown. 

Fixed within this eastern border was a group of people that had become increasingly more patriotic and disgruntled (remember 1st century Judaism was a hotbed for Messiahs - Jesus was not the only Messiah proclaimed in the first century - read Gamaliel in Acts 5) towards their overlords, the Romans.  Especially since they still cherished the independent Hasmonean kingdom, then only a mere 100 years extinct.  It is within this context that the practice of crucifixion on Jewish subjects must be placed.  Rome was primarily concerned with keeping the peace and for many years had chosen the lenient route over the punitive one - but that was all changing during the life of Christ  (in fact - Pilate himself was exiled to Gaul in 36 AD due to his inability to control the Jews - you can read about my discussion of Pontius Pilate Paul Maier's awesome "documentary novel" here).   With Messianic fervor on the rise Rome chose to begin to pound the Jews into submission by using publicly grotesque executions. On a related note - one of the absolutes about crucifixion was its finality. Every person crucified - died - period.  If for whatever reason the prisoner did not die - then the soldiers in charge of the crucifixion would take their place on the cross - that was Roman law.

So - is it possible that the "robbers" were insurrections, zealots or Sicharii (one of the parties of rebels)? Absolutely.  Can we say with certainty? Absolutely not.  Because it's just as likely that these men were common robbers or thieves who were being executed for their mundane crimes. In either case - the point from Rome is the same - common thievery or insurrection resulted in a harsh punishment that was primarily pointed at squelching the wick of rebellion in 1st century Judea. What a time and place our Lord chose to put his son, eh?

God's plan for the robbers

The second part of your question is more difficult to answer - because it probably has a ton of correct answers. Here are a few that I can think of off the top of my head.

1. God chose the "weak things of this world shame the wise" (1 Cor. 1:26-31) - the perfect King of Creation died a humiliating death beside two guilty, deserving criminals - this continues the idea that the true king is very different than everyone's expectations.

2. It shows just how abandoned Christ was on the cross - Jesus was forsaken by his disciples and followers, betrayed by his own people, murdered by the "righteous" establishment, and executed by the political establishment - add to that "mocked by criminals who had every reason to empathize with a fellow dying Jew" and you get the picture that Christ went through the most hellacious experience that God the Father has ever designed.

3. The criminal's repentance and Christ's forgiveness shows the measureless love and limitless mercy of God as made evident in the selfless, benevolent actions of the dying Messiah. Instead of arguing back with the criminals and showing them their sin - Christ forgave.

4. I don't think it's primary purpose is to show that no one is "too far gone" - although that also is true - I think first and foremost this amazing encounter is about what one does when they behold the Son of Man in all of his innocent, glory reflecting, Yahweh obeying perfection. There are many options one can choose - run for cover (disciples), betray and fight against him (the Saduccess/Pharisees, Judas and the Jews that demanded his death), mock him because his absolute holiness is the great antitype to our unabashed wickedness, or if God is gracious and so chooses - one may look upon the Son of God - behold his perfection and innocence, mourn their sin against him and put their self at his marvelous mercy with hopes that the King might find favor upon a murderous rebel (like me).  Thank God - Christ always fulfills this hope - he did for the thief and he did for me.

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