What does Mark 15:27 mean?
ESV: And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left.
NIV: They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left.
NASB: And they *crucified two rebels with Him, one on His right and one on His left.
CSB: They crucified two criminals with him, one on his right and one on his left.
NLT: Two revolutionaries were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.
KJV: And with him they crucify two thieves; the one on his right hand, and the other on his left.
"Robber" is from the Greek root word lestes. It refers to a plunderer or brigand. It is the same word John uses to describe Barabbas (John 18:40), although Barabbas is also described as an insurrectionist and murderer (Mark 15:7). Typically, the punishment for theft is repaying the victim many times the value of the stolen item. Crucifixion is only used if the theft occurs in a religious or royal building or if the thief kills someone in the execution of the theft. Scholars posit that these men are insurrectionists, possibly even Barabbas' accomplices, though we have no hard evidence of this.
The scene is reminiscent of an earlier event (Mark 10:35–45). On the road to Jerusalem, before Jesus and the Twelve had reached Jericho, James and John (and their mother; Matthew 20:20) asked Jesus if the two brothers could sit at Jesus' right and left when He established His kingdom. The disciples still thought this trip to Jerusalem might be the beginning of Jesus' revolt against the Romans and the early steps to free the Jews. Thomas, for his part, thought it was just as likely that they'd all die (John 11:16).
Jesus asked the two disciples if they could share His fate and then admitted they would. He didn't mean glory and authority, however. He meant rejection by the Jews and death in defense of God's kingdom. Jesus then explained, again, that leadership in His kingdom means humbling oneself and serving others, even to the point of death. Jesus also told James and John that He did not have the authority to say who would be at His left and right.
Here on the cross, Jesus embodies the full expression of sacrificial service and the manifestation of the kingdom of God. James and John should be grateful two robbers have taken the places they requested: at the side of Jesus. The seats to the left and right of the ruler are typically for advisors. James and John can no more advise Jesus than these robbers. One of the robbers realizes this (Luke 23:39–43). He confesses he is powerless and only Jesus can save him. He has no right to advise or judge Jesus. In response, Jesus doesn't offer him a position of authority, He promises him salvation.
James and John do eventually share aspects of Jesus' fate. James is the first of the Twelve to be martyred, beheaded by command of Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:1–2). John will suffer greatly before he dies of old age. Their mother is watching Jesus die. She is Salome who stands at a distance with Jesus' mother and Mary Magdalene (Mark 15:40). For now, they are all a safe distance away.
Mark 15:21–32 describes the crucifixion of Jesus. The Romans refined crucifixion to be the most painful and humiliating death imaginable. Victims were usually stripped naked, then tied or nailed to a cross. Executioners were adept at driving nails between bones and arteries, but directly through nerves, extending the victim's agony. Hanging in this position, the condemned could only breathe if they lifted their weight on impaled feet or wrists. Exhaustion would soon lead to suffocation—typically taking a victim two or three days to die. Bodies were usually left to rot in public unless a family member was given special permission to remove them. More painful for Jesus, however, is the total separation from His heavenly Father. Still, though He suffers alone, He suffers with hope (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus' crucifixion is also detailed in Matthew 27:32–44, Luke 23:26–43, and John 19:16–27.
After sham trials, Jesus is taken to the local Roman governor, Pilate. This is the only person in Jerusalem with the legal authority to have Jesus executed. Pilate is not fooled, and he attempts to arrange for Jesus' release. But the ruler's ploys fail, in part because Jesus will not defend Himself, and partly because the mob is intent on His death. Pilate offers a prisoner exchange in Barabbas, and even has Jesus brutally beaten in order to pacify the crowd. Eventually, he caves in and Jesus is crucified. Thanks to His prior abuse, Jesus survives only a few hours on the cross before dying. Jesus is then buried in a tomb belonging to a secret follower among the Jerusalem council.
After being unfairly judged, Jesus will now be unfairly sentenced and cruelly murdered. It's reasonable to say this chapter provides context for everything else contained in the Bible. From Adam and Eve until the last baby born in the millennial kingdom, every person other than Christ is stained with sin. Conscience, law, Jesus' direct leadership, even the indwelling of the Holy Spirit cannot keep us from sinning. Sinless Jesus had to die on the cross, sacrificing Himself in our place, so our sins could be forgiven and we could be reconciled to God. Beneath the violence, darkness, dishonor, and death is the love of God for all mankind (John 3:16). Jesus' crucifixion is also found in Matthew 27, Luke 23, and John 19. The next chapter describes the miracle of His resurrection.
The Gospel of Mark emphasizes both Jesus' servanthood and His role as the promised Messiah: the Son of God. This is done through a concise, action-packed style. Mark provides relatively few details, instead focusing on actions and simple statements. This relates to the Gospel's authorship, which is believed to be based on the memories of the apostle Peter. These include many of Jesus' miracles, in contrast to other Gospels which include many more of Jesus' teachings and parables. Mark also makes frequent mention of Jesus' ministry being misunderstood by others.
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