Then two robbers were put on stakes alongside him, one on his right and one on his left. And those passing by spoke abusively of him, shaking their heads and saying: “You who would throw down the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are a son of God, come down off the torture stake!” In the same way also, the chief priests with the scribes and the elders began mocking him, saying: “Others he saved; himself he cannot save! He is King of Israel; let him now come down off the torture stake, and we will believe in him....In the same way, even the robbers who were on stakes alongside him were reproaching him. (Matthew 27:38-44)
The theme of the midweek meeting was ‘don’t dish dirt on people, don’t speak injuriously of others, don’t follow the crowd to evil ends.’ Since the assigned Bible reading for the week was Exodus 23 and 24, verses such as 23:1 and 2 were discussed: 1– “You must not spread a report that is not true. Do not cooperate with a wicked one by becoming a malicious witness,” and 2–“You must not follow after the crowd to do evil, and you must not pervert justice by giving testimony to go along with the crowd.” Even Aaron fell victim to this, being leaned upon by the crowd to make the golden calf, being leaned upon by his sister to speak against Moses, and I think there was something else he screwed up by yielding to the crowd—the speaker mentioned three—but I forget what it was.
The finest example at that meeting content of not going along with the crowd was the one set by the wrongdoer hanging next to Jesus! At first he did go with the crowd—carried along with how everyone on the ground below was reviling him—but he reached a point of saying: ‘Enough!’ He broke ranks and rebuked the other criminal: “Do you not fear God at all, now that you have received the same judgment? ...We are getting back what we deserve for the things we did; but this man did nothing wrong....Jesus, remember me when you get into your Kingdom.” And he said to him: “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:40-43)
(It is completely translator’s choice as to where to put the comma—before the ‘today’ or after—and it hugely changes the meaning of the sentence. Since Jesus is said to be resurrected on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:4), he plainly was dead until then, which is why the NWT places the comma after the ‘today,’ though most translations place it before.)
It’s hard to believe how rotten were the chief priests and elders in mocking the tortured Jesus, but their previous cunning left them almost no choice. Pilate was set to release Jesus—he tried hard to do it, and would have, until those chief priests said ‘we’ll have your job if you do it—and maybe your head!’ What they actually said was: ““If you release this man, you are not a friend of Caesar. Everyone who makes himself a king speaks against Caesar.” (John 19:12) It was enough to make Pilate cave.
So what does he have written to post over Jesus’ head? “Jesus the Nazareneʹ the King of the Jews,” says John 19:19. “Many of the Jews read this title,” says the very next verse, so did the chief priests not have to keep the crowd in a froth, lest those ones reflect upon how their leaders had killed their king? “The chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate: ‘Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that he said, ‘I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered: “What I have written, I have written.” (21-22) I’ll bet they didn’t push him very hard on that one. He had had it with that bunch of liars—furious at being used by them once, he was going to turn the tables on them.
See Part 2–Sticking up for Pilate.