A wooden plaque my wife bought me sits on a bookshelf in my office. It contains a concise, powerful message—“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 and agony 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 gathered at Golgotha (Mt. 27:38-44). Then something happened. One thief had a dramatic turn of heart. What changed his mind? Perhaps it was seeing the grace with which Jesus suffered and hearing Him forgive His own executioners—“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Lk. 23:34, NKJV).
The cursing crook was so moved by Christ’s compassion, it ignited faith in his heart that he could be saved too. 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.” What made him think he belonged in paradise? 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, “Assuredly, I say to you, 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 desperate, dying thief, He will forgive and save us too. If He promised paradise to a prisoner, He will restore and reward us too. Paradise is a place of future happiness, like the Garden of Eden, we call heaven. None of us deserve heaven either but the good news is the man on the middle cross said we can come (Jn. 3:16).
You see, 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 astounded disciples asked, “What kind of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?” (Mt. 8:27, NASB). 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, costumes and makeup, 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. His name means “Jehovah/Yahweh is salvation.” Jesus—the real superhero—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, NKJV).
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 removed as the goat was released to wander in the wilderness. A double transfer occurred—the sins of Israel were transferred to the goat and the innocence of the goat was transferred to them. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12). 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. Jesus paid for every sin that has ever been or ever will be committed (2 Cor. 5:21, 1 Pt. 2:24, 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.”
There are two sinister lies people believe that prevent them from being saved. Lie #1 is unrighteousness—“I’m too bad.” They assume the vile sins of their past exclude them but there is no sin too big for the blood of Jesus to cancel (1 Jn. 1:7, 9). No one is beyond His reach (Is. 59:1, Heb. 7:25). Lie #2 is self-righteousness—“I’m good enough.” If we were good enough, Jesus would not have had to die on the cross. “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Is. 64:6, NIV), thus the reason we need a Savior (Eph. 2:8-9).
So, if the devil demands a reason 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.” If we, like the redeemed robber, repent and believe, we belong in paradise. “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ Let anyone who hears this say, ‘Come.’ Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life” (Rev. 22:17, NLT).