Looking at the crucifixion of Jesus is always overwhelming. It's a little like trying to see North America from downtown Kansas City. No matter where you look there's something significant, something that is a part of the greater whole, but it's nearly impossible to see the whole thing all at once. And like trying to see all of North America, trying to see all of the crucifixion and its implications requires getting such a distance that you really can't pick out very many details.
This moment, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth under the Roman governor Pontius Pilate in about 29 or 30AD, becomes a fulcrum for the rest of human history. Massive changes rooted in this moment will ripple out and transform Jewish identity and significance, the Roman Empire, and all of human history.
Why does the death of one Galilean man, sentenced to torture and death for pretensions of being a Jewish king, have such impact?
If the crucifixion was the end of Jesus' story, we would know nothing about him, as we know next to nothing about so many other prophets and revolutionaries from his time period. It is the resurrection that fuels the fires and makes Jesus' impact unimaginably significant. But given that we know what comes next, we examine the details of Jesus' death and find immeasurable wealth here.
Take one tiny moment out of the narrative as an example. The story of the dialogue between Jesus and one of the two criminals crucified next to him is unique to Luke. We don't know the names of these criminals, and scholars debate if they were thieves, rebels, or what. Luke reports that one of the two recognized their sentences were just, however, and that Jesus' was not. He appeals to Jesus to "remember me when you come into your kingdom." It is an odd statement to say the least. Jesus is hours away from death, just as he himself is. Neither will be coming down from their crosses alive, and the coming hours will include unimaginable pain.
The gospels stop just short of stating the fact that the cross is, in fact, Jesus' throne, but the implication is clear. He is crowned with thorns, and the sign above his head (a Roman custom so that passersby could see the sentence for which each criminal had received this terrible punishment) proclaims him "king of the Jews." He has just completed a procession into Jerusalem in which he received accolades as "son of David." He has debated the meaning of that title with Jewish authorities. A few days earlier, when two of his closest followers asked to sit at his right and left when he was enthroned, he deflected their question, stating that those positions were not his to grant, but that they belonged to those for whom they had been prepared. And here are the two thieves, one on Jesus' right and one on his left, as he hangs in agony and glory.
"Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Perhaps this is the plea of a dying man, looking for a way off the cross, hoping to see the miracle worker do one last amazing thing. Or maybe it's the recognition by a criminal that his sentence is just, but the universe is ruled over by a merciful God -- and he is bold to ask for pardon.
Jesus' response shows that either he is privy to information unavailable to the soldiers and mockers watching him die a slow death, or else he is completely deluded: "Today you will be with me in paradise." Theologians and cosmologists have debated ad nauseam what these words mean. At the very least, they seem to provide hope for a dying criminal. Down through the ages, countless numbers of Jesus' followers have seen themselves in this thief's place, asking for mercy from Jesus in their desperate hour. Note that the request doesn't say, "Help me avoid the consequences of my actions," nor does it say "Make it as if I'd never done anything wrong." The request is simply, "Remember me." What that looks like, the petitioner leaves up to Jesus.
At the very least, such a request requires trust, and trust is perhaps the oddest of commodities coming from a man being executed on a cross. There's a lot here to learn about the nature of faith: It comes when all other options are gone, when hope itself looks like a delusion. And in this utter helplessness, we see anew the depth and power of the incarnation of Jesus: Being in the form of God, he didn't count equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, and took the form of a criminal on a Roman cross so that he could reach this criminal who has thrown self-justification to the wind and has simply reached out for mercy.
In a few hours, Jesus' lifeless body will be pierced with a spear even as the thieves' legs are broken to hasten their deaths. Jesus will be buried in a borrowed tomb and his followers will quietly reassemble in an upper room in Jerusalem, convinced they need to figure out how to go back to life as it was before Jesus called them to follow.
It looks a lot like the end of a tragic story. Appearances can be deceiving.