“Two robbers were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left” (Mark 15:27).
Our cell was deep in the prison, but we could hear the noise of a riot in the courtyard. People were shouting Barabbas’ name. Barabbas must have heard it too, but he said nothing. He did not seem to be afraid. Barabbas never showed fear, not even now, when he was soon to be crucified.
None of us knew his real name. Barabbas meant “son of the father,” and the mystery only added to his popularity. He was a thief and a murderer, but he hated the Romans, and he never missed an opportunity to cause them trouble. So, in spite of his crimes, our people thought of him as a hero. Some even followed him.
I was one of them. Life with Barabbas had been exciting. We didn’t think of ourselves as criminals. We were patriots, fighting to free our nation from the Romans. We were known as “zealots.” All our little band could do was tweak the mighty Roman nose occasionally, but Pontius Pilate was afraid of any trouble in Judea, and was determined to crush us.
They caught us just before Passover. It was our fault. Barabbas had led many riots, and we had always gotten away. But perhaps we had become too confident. The Romans brought extra guards to Jerusalem during religious festivals, and we were caught.
They captured two of us along with Barabbas. We did not expect mercy. There was only one punishment for the likes of us—crucifixion. There would be no delay. Things were always tense in Jerusalem during the Passover season, and the Romans wanted Barabbas out of the way before the festival began.
“We’ll have a good crowd for you,” the guards had taunted. “They’ll all come out to see Barabbas hung up.” Then they left us, chained to the wall in the dark to await our fate.
The guards came for Barabbas in the middle of the night. I heard footsteps and then a scraping sound as they unbarred the door to our prison. Several soldiers burst in and seized Barabbas.
“You’re a lucky man,” said one, unlocking the chain. “The Governor is letting you go.” They hauled him to his feet, and kicked him into the corridor.
“Does that mean… ?” I asked. “Not you. You two are still for the cross. We poor soldiers have to do something to earn our keep, don’t we?” said the guard. “Don’t worry. It will still be a good show. We are going to hang you up with the King of the Jews.”
“No, someone called Jesus of Nazareth, who thinks he is the Messiah.”
The door slammed and the cell was again dark. I heard a curse and a rattle of chains as Demas settled back to sleep. He, like Barabbas, seemed resigned to his fate. I knew I would get no more sleep. The last day of my life had begun.
I had heard of Jesus of Nazareth. He was a wandering preacher who talked about the “kingdom of God.” Nothing much seemed to have come of it. Some said he could do miracles. There was even a rumor that he had raised people from the dead. I saw him once. He was talking to a crowd about love and forgiveness. I didn’t take much notice.
He had a small group of followers who believed he would lead them against the Romans. He seemed more concerned with annoying the Pharisees. Jesus seemed to be just another religious fanatic, and the Romans were usually tolerant of the likes of him. So what had he done to get himself crucified?
But a condemned man does not dwell long on such things. I had my own problems to worry about. In a few hours I was going to be crucified—nailed to a cross and left to die.
On the road to Golgotha
The guards came for us in the morning. I had seen people crucified, and I knew what to expect. They would flog us, then parade us through the streets to Golgotha.
Demas was the first to be beaten. He was dragged to a stone pillar in the prison yard, and his hands tied to an iron ring above his head. Two massive soldiers stood on each side of him, each holding a whip made from strips of leather in which were embedded sharp stones, bits of broken glass and nails. The whips were already soaked in blood—we were not the first to feel
them that day.
Demas cursed and screamed as the soldiers began to beat him. Then he fainted, but they did not stop. I thought they would kill him—victims often did not survive the Roman scourge. But the soldiers knew what they were doing. This was only the start of our punishment.
They took down Demas, and tied me in his place. I am not a stranger to pain. I had been in many fights, and my body had scars to prove it. But nothing I had ever suffered prepared me for those first blows. I heard myself scream and the soldier grunted with satisfaction. The other man waited a few seconds—it seemed like hours—then he hit me too. So it continued until I
too fainted. I revived as they were untying me from the pillar.
I collapsed, but the soldiers dragged me to my feet. A centurion pointed at two beams of wood leaning against the wall. They were the crosspieces that the condemned men had to carry to their execution.
Two soldiers picked up one of the beams and dropped it across my bleeding shoulders. They tied my wrists to the beam so that I could not drop it. The rough wood bit into my torn back. Somehow I stayed on my feet as the guards led us out of the prison and into the street.
A crowd was already forming. I saw a man, or what had once been a man, surrounded by soldiers. He was bowed under the weight of a beam like ours. It was Jesus of Nazareth.
What had they done to him?
Every part of his body was covered with bruises and cuts, and his eyes were swollen shut. On his head they had placed a crown made from thorn branches. He seemed already near death as he stood quietly while the crowd jeered and mocked him.
The guards—there were four for each of us—ordered us to move. Jesus was first. I was behind him, and Demas was last. The guards seemed nervous. If Barabbas had been with us, there might have been a rescue attempt. But surely no one would risk their lives for us. Most of Jesus’ supporters seemed to be women.
Behind me I could hear Demas, defiant to the end, cursing the crowd, the guards, the Emperor, and even God. Had the man no fear? But it was Jesus who was the center of attention. As he stumbled along the narrow streets, the spectators mocked him. But he said nothing. He even tried to comfort some of the women who were weeping.
I wondered if perhaps he was out of his mind and had no idea what was happening to him. He seemed to be more like an unsuspecting animal being led out to slaughter than a man being driven to a horrible death.
Jesus had obviously been a strong man, but the beatings must have weakened him. Our miserable progress was halted several times as he fell down under the weight of the crosspiece.
The guards kicked him and screamed at him to get up, but he could go no further. The centurion pointed to a big man in the crowd and ordered him to pick up the crossbeam. The man shrugged, put the heavy wood on his shoulder and joined the procession.
Eventually we arrived at Golgotha, where a little way up the hillside there were several poles in the ground.
Two guards kicked my legs out from under me. A soldier holding a hammer and a bag of rough nails looked down at me, grinning. He placed a nail over my wrist, and smashed it through my flesh into the wood. I screamed. He quickly nailed my other arm the same way, and then moved across to Demas. Finally they gestured to the man who was still holding Jesus’ crosspiece to drop it on the ground. Then they nailed Jesus to it. He moaned, but I heard no curses.
One by one the soldiers dragged us over to the upright poles. Jesus in the middle and Demas and I on either side. We pleaded and cursed in fear and pain, but Jesus still said nothing. Using ropes they hauled me up until the crosspieces dropped into a slot in the upright pole, leaving me hanging by my wrists. Then, bending my legs, they smashed another long nail through my ankles and into the wood. Jesus was next, and then Demas. Finally, a guard fixed a board with our names and crimes written on it to the pole above our heads. Mine said simply “robber,” but on Jesus’ board they had written “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
So began our last hours in this world.
After the first shock of hanging from my wrists, I fainted. But I came to with a terrible pain in my chest. Hanging from my arms made it impossible to breathe, and I felt myself suffocating. So I pushed myself up on the nail holding my legs, so that I could at least fill my lungs. But soon that pain became unbearable, and I had to sink back down. There was no relief. This would go on, hour after hour, maybe for several days until exhausted, tormented by the heat, thirst and biting insects that were even now feasting on my blood, I would die.
I cursed my fate, the Romans, the guards and the crowd of people who had come to watch my suffering. But through my pain, I realized their taunts and insults were not aimed at me. All the attention seemed to be on Jesus. As he hung beside me, twisting and writhing as he fought for breath, his tormentors kept up a stream of insults: “He saved others, but he can’t save himself.” “If you really are the King of the Jews, come down from the cross and we will believe in you.”
Then I heard him say, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” He was mad! They did know what they were doing—they were killing us in the worst way they knew, and enjoying it. I wanted to see them thrown into the deepest pit of hell—not forgiven.
Some women and one or two men gathered at the foot of his cross did not join in the insults. A middle-aged lady seemed particularly upset, and yet more under control than the others. She was probably his mother, and the young man looking after her was perhaps his brother. Relatives were allowed to attend an execution, if they did not interfere.
None of my relatives had come to see me die. I had been a disappointment to them for years, and they finally disowned me for their own safety when I joined up with Barabbas.
I thought of my own mother. She was a good, God-fearing woman, and it wasn’t her fault that I had chosen a life of crime. She had done her best to teach me our Jewish faith. “Fear God, my son,” she told me long ago, “and when you die you will live forever in paradise.” But to a young man, paradise seemed a long way off, and I had chosen the excitement of a life with a gang of thieves. We justified our crimes by claiming we were fighting for the liberation of our homeland. Now we were paying for it, hung up to die with this failed “King of the Jews” who had claimed he could save Israel, but couldn’t even save himself.
Demas, hanging on the other side of Jesus, was cursing him. I began to do it too—Jesus’ calmness was infuriating. He was suffering as much as we were. Why not show it, instead of “forgiving” people for doing this to us? Who did he think he was?
Who did he think he was? He was accused of being the King of the Jews, the Messiah, and the Son of God. The religious leaders who had come to watch him die were particularly happy to see him powerless. Why? What threat was he to them? In his preaching he often exposed their hypocrisy. But they had won—and he was being crucified. He seemed almost at peace, although he was, like us, in agony, struggling for every breath. Yet he showed no bitterness, nor any anger against anyone—the crowd, the soldiers or even the leaders who had accused him. He surely was a good man—why was God allowing this to happen to him?
The taunts of the crowd provoked another outburst of anger from Demas: “If you were the Messiah you could get us down from here.”
You fool, I thought. Leave him alone. In a few hours we would all be facing the judgment of God. At least Jesus knew God. He had called him “Father” when he asked forgiveness for those who had nailed him to the cross. We might need his help if we were to escape hell. Maybe he could ask God to forgive us, too.
I called across to Demas: “Don’t you fear God? We are getting what we deserve. He has done nothing wrong.” My words only provoked more blasphemy and scorn from Demas. But Jesus suddenly raised his head, and looked directly at me. Although his face was covered with bruises and blood, I saw a look in his eyes. What was it?
Gratitude for a kind word? No, it wasn’t that. Sorrow that he was a failed Messiah who could not help me? No, it wasn’t that either. It was a look of—I can only describe it as compassion, confidence and authority. It was the way my father used to look at me when, as a child I expected punishment, but found forgiveness and acceptance. This was no madman who had lost his mind. Although he seemed to be as helpless as we were, Jesus’ look showed me that he was in control. Even though he was sharing my fate, he seemed to be reaching out to me.
What was he trying to tell me? Jesus was not afraid to die. But then, he could look forward to the approval of God when this torture was over. Then I understood.
He was offering to help me. This man who asked God to forgive his torturers would ask for forgiveness for me too. Somehow, I knew I could trust him.
I heard myself say, “Jesus, will you remember me when you come into your kingdom?”
He tried to smile, and although his voice was hoarse, and he had to struggle to get out each word, he said clearly: “I tell you the truth. Today you will be with me in paradise.”
We tried to smile at each other—and I knew at that moment that I was going to be all right. Although every muscle and joint in my body was still racked with pain, and every breath was torture, I was not afraid anymore.
I don’t remember much of the next few hours. It became harder and harder to breathe. The day became very dark, like when the sandstorms came in from the desert. Most of the crowd went home.
Jesus died first. I heard him cry out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Demas was mostly quiet now, but he still found energy to blaspheme and curse the guards, so I knew he was not dead.
The end, when it came, came quickly. The guards decided not to leave us hanging on the crosses during the Passover night. So as dusk approached, they found a board to use as a club to break our legs.
I saw the guard hit Demas just below his knees, and heard the bones break. The guard then looked up at Jesus, and saw he was dead. He stabbed him with his spear to make sure, and blood and water gushed out. Then he came to me. I felt my bones break, and then I could no longer push myself up on my legs to breathe.
It would not be long now. I looked for the last time at the city that had been my home, with its wall and the temple. I looked at the body of the man on the cross beside me. I tried to remember what he had said just before he died: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” I tried to say that too. As I felt life slipping away, I knew that whatever came next, I was going to be safe.
Author’s note: In trying to tell the story of the crucifixion from the point of view of the repentant thief, I have side-stepped many issues that have preoccupied theologians for centuries. They are genuine questions, and worthy of discussion. But let’s not allow them to obscure the lesson of the story of the first human being to look to the crucified Jesus for salvation. You don’t have to be good enough. You don’t have anything to offer. You don’t have to qualify. You just have to trust him to forgive and to save.