The man on the middle of the cross

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A wooden plaque sits on a bookshelf in my office. It reads, “The man on the middle cross told me I can come.” You may wonder what the violent death of a first century carpenter has to do with you. The answer is everything!

Two condemned criminals were crucified on either side of Christ. They hung in naked shame on cruel crosses. They were as guilty as sin and deserved death and hell. At first, they both blasphemed Jesus along with the murderous mob at Golgotha (Mt. 27:38-44). Then one thief had a sudden change of heart. Perhaps it was seeing the grace with which Jesus suffered and hearing Him forgive His own murderers—“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Lk. 23:34). 

The cursing crook was so moved by Christ’s compassion, it ignited faith in his heart that he could be saved. He offered a simple, sincere, nine-word prayer that changed his eternal destiny, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Lk. 23:42). Max Lucado observed, “The only thing more absurd than his request was the fact that it was granted, He who deserved hell got heaven.” That thief, though crucified on earth for his crimes, walks a free man in heaven because of the man on the middle cross. Jesus promised him, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43).

What Jesus said to that redeemed robber is a message of hope for us all. If Jesus forgave and saved a dying thief, He will forgive and save us too. Paradise is a place of future happiness we call heaven. None of us deserve heaven but the good news is the man on the middle cross said we can come (Jn. 3:16).

The man on the middle cross was no mere mortal. He’s the REAL Superman—the Godman (Jn. 1:1, 14, 1 Tim. 3:16). He is Emmanuel—“God with us” (Mt. 1:23). After He calmed a raging storm, His disciples asked, “What kind of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?” (Mt. 8:27). He was more than a man! I hate to spoil the illusion but the superheroes we see in movies are fiction. Their “superpowers” are merely movie magic, trick photography, stunt doubles, CGI, and special effects. They make it look incredibly real but it’s all fake. Jesus’ power is real! He can save lost souls, heal broken bodies, mend wounded hearts, deliver drug addicts, walk on water, and raise the dead!

Most superhero movies share a similar plot—the classic struggle between good and evil. Superheroes save the planet from the threats of super villains. Jesus already did that 2,000 years ago. He saved us from sin, crushed the serpent (Satan), and conquered death, hell, and the grave. Most heroes wear a cape; our hero wore a cross! He arose victoriously and declared, “I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death” (Rev. 1:18).

The man on the middle cross was our scapegoat. On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) the high priest would lay his hands on a goat and confess the corporate sins of Israel (Lev. 16:21). The term “scapegoat” comes from the Hebrew word Azazel which means “the goat of departure.” Symbolically, the sins of Israel were transferred and removed as the goat was released to wander in the wilderness. In a similar way, Jesus became our substitute at Calvary, “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed” (Is. 53:5). A song says it well, “I should have been crucified, I should have suffered and died. I should have hung on the cross in disgrace, but Jesus, God’s son, took my place.”

The man on the middle cross paid our sin debt (2 Cor. 5:21, 1 Jn. 2:1-2). When He cried, “It is finished,” He used the Greek word tetelestai which means “Paid in full.” Archeologists have found tax receipts on papyrus paper with tetelestai stamped on them to indicate a zero balance. As another song says, “He paid a debt He did not owe, I owed a debt I could not pay, I needed someone to wash my sins away, and now I sing a brand new song, ‘Amazing Grace,’ Christ Jesus paid the debt I could never pay.”

So, if the devil demands why you should be allowed into heaven, if people wonder how you obtained salvation, if your own mind questions why you have a seat at God’s table and a ticket to paradise, the answer is simple, “the man on the middle cross told me I can come.” “Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life” (Rev. 22:17). 

Ben Godwin is the author of five books and pastors the Goodsprings Full Gospel Church. You can read more articles or order his books @ bengodwin.org.