The cross was a well-known tool implemented in one of the most excruciating forms of execution: crucifixion. Public crucifixion was used by the Persians as early as 500 B.C. and later the Greek and Roman empires also employed this method of capital punishment. The incredible pain and humiliation suffered by the victim was a strong deterrent that would make on-lookers think twice before disobeying their authorities.
Around 1615 B.C., God gave the Law to the ancient Israelites in the wilderness. In the Law, no one was ever to be executed by crucifixion. It was after a criminal was put to death that his body was to be hung on a tree (or a cross) for public display. Deuteronomy 21:22,23 (ESV), “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree..”
Prophetically, Jesus’ crucifixion was prefigured in Numbers 21:8,9. In this account, sinning Israelites were bitten by serpents. God instructed Moses to make and hang a brass serpent on a pole. The Jews were to look at the brass serpent to receive healing. Jesus applied this picture to Himself in John 3:14, 15- “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus also foreknew he would be executed by crucifixion. Matthew 26:22, “You know that after two days is the Passover, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.”
The Bible says very little about the personal lives of the two criminals crucified with Jesus (Matthew 27:38, Mark 15:27). However, there are some other often overlooked lessons we can gather from the two men.
First, Jesus’ crucifixion with the two individuals fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12, “…He was numbered with the transgressors.”
Secondly, Luke’s account (Luke 29:39-43) describes how one of the two had a repentant spirit. This man rebuked the unrepentant one who mocked Jesus. For the realization of his just punishment, Jesus promised the repentant man that he would reward him with being with Jesus in paradise. (Please see the question: “How could the repentant thief on the cross go to Paradise THAT DAY, with Jesus, when Jesus did not ascend to Heaven until forty days after His resurrection on the third day?" for a full answer to this question.)
And thus, we see the Lamb of God, who reshaped the understanding of the cross, served His Heavenly Father’s purpose even in His final moments.