Fleming Rutledge observes that the execution method which Jesus suffered was one that was carried out upon those guilty of a particular crime against the state.
His execution marked him as an enemy of the state.
It served as a warning to any who might resist its authority.
This is the means by which Jesus demonstrates that he overcomes the world.
In this saying from Luke’s Gospel, the two — Luke and John — show a similarity: Jesus is pinned to an instrument of torture, completely helpless, at the mercy of sadistic torturers and mocking passersby, and yet he is reigning from the cross as a King.
A King, and yet cruciﬁed between two thieves. The traditional word is thief, but that’s misleading. This is not Jean Valjean stealing a loaf of bread. These are bandits, brigands — lawless, full-time professionals who were a serious threat to the famous Roman rule of order. Crucifixion was the supreme penalty (summum supplicium, Cicero called it) for a particular type of criminal, guilty of the impermissible offense of sedition (rebellious disorder, in the archaic sense of the word). These men have often been described as “common criminals,” but that’s not quite right. The Romans didn’t waste their time crucifying small-timers. These two men were a serious threat to the system. So they’ve been tried by the Romans and condemned by their laws, presumably with justification, for one of them actually admits that he was justly convicted for being an insurrectionist, for the term used by Pontius Pilate “perverting the people’ (Luke 23:14).
Fleming Rutledge, Three Hours, Eerdmans, 2019, pgs 17-18.