The routine of Jesus’ execution was broken by enough interesting differences that people noticed something unique about Him. Even the hardened death-squad leader of the Roman crucifixion detail saw something he had never seen before and marveled at it (Luke 23:47). He had a religious experience on the death site that day.
Jesus was not the only person executed by crucifixion on that day outside Jerusalem. With him on the hill, condemned also to death, were two criminals. We know they were thieves, perhaps even guilty of a murderous robbery. And without a doubt, they knew they were guilty of their capital crimes (Luke 23:41). Jesus was dying differently.
The injustice of the scene is apparent. Jesus has been through a sham set of trials (Luke 22:54-57; 23:1-5; 23:6-17). He has been brought to Pilate under Roman jurisdiction just so the Jewish religious authorities can stick him with the death sentence they so desperately wanted for Him (Luke 23:18-25). Even Pilate admits he is doing an injustice to Jesus (Luke 23:22-24).
As Jesus is crucified, the humiliation only grows. His meager clothes are wagered away by a dice game among the soldiers. He is mocked. His claims of divinity and deliverance are laughed at derisively. He is ridiculed by the very sign tacked over His head, an ancient immaturity akin to Jr. High kids taping a “Kick Me” note on the back of their object of bullying. But the poignant words (“King of the Jews”) mean more than those mocking him realize at the time.
Back to those two thieves… They looked at all of this experience and typified two responses to the death and atoning work of Jesus that are still seen even today. One joined the mocking majority and added insult to the Lord. The other saw Jesus as the only means for his soul’s deliverance and cried out to Him for mercy (Luke 23:39-43). He went to heaven an executed criminal.
Jesus died between criminals because spiritually we are all criminals. We have all sinned and earned our sentence of death (Romans 3:23; 6:23). Even on the day of His death, one thief accepted what only Jesus could do. Jesus took him to Paradise.