Rome didn’t crucify thieves. Crucifixion was reserved for crimes against the state. It was their way of saying, Mess with us and this is what will happen. From the state’s point of view (not necessarily Pilate’s), Jesus was crucified because He was perceived to be an enemy of Rome. He was a king, and as such, potentially a threat to them (see John 19:12). This was the formal charge against Him (Matthew 27:37). All this being true, the criminals on either side of him were likely guilty of some form of insurrection (see Luke 23:41). The NIV calls them rebels (Matthew 27:38 & Mark 15:27). There was no shortage of such militants in first century Palestine (even one of Jesus’ disciples was a zealot).
Mark also tells us that, Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him (v. 32). I suppose this is understandable—everyone else was taking their shots at Jesus, why not join them and momentarily escape the isolation of your cross? But if you’re familiar with the story, you know that at this point something happened which changed everything.
One of the criminals decided what they were doing was wrong—and he tried to get the other to stop. He told him that this man has done nothing wrong (v. 41). We’re not told what led him to this conclusion—maybe it was the manner in which Jesus dealt with everything, pangs of conscience, or perhaps he knew something of Jesus before they shared crosses on this day. Regardless, he asked Jesus to remember him when he came into His kingdom (v. 42). This is a remarkable request. He’s gone from insulting Jesus to asking Him for an invitation into His kingdom. Consider the terms of the request, remember me when you come into Your kingdom. This is from someone who probably had been working to overthrow Rome’s rule in order to establish some other political kingdom. Apparently he had given up on that and believed that the One dying next to Him was going to establish a superior kingdom. How much he knew about this kingdom we can’t say, but we know this, he definitely had faith in the King because from a worldly point of view, it didn’t look like Jesus was coming into anything—other than death.
And in the end, faith in the King was what mattered. The criminal was promised a place with the Jesus in paradise. Not a bad exchange of real estate from the earthly kingdom he was pursuing to being with Christ in the next world.
What is it we’re clinging to? Whatever it is, Jesus has something far better in His kingdom. Don’t wait until death to find out.