Three men stagger up the hill under the weight of heavy beams of wood, escorted by Roman soldiers and followed by a crowd of people, some cursing, some crying. The walk has been a long one, for the hill is outside the city walls.
It is known by the locals as Calvary – ‘the place of the skull’ – perhaps because it was the favourite place of execution or because, from a distance, the hillside resembled a skull. There the wooden crosses were laid on the ground and the men stripped and nailed to them.
The crosses were lifted up and dropped into sockets, the jolt disjointing the victim’s bones. They would face up to three days of intense pain and excruciating thirst before they actually died.
The sight was all too common in the countries ruled by Rome. This barbaric death was reserved for the worst criminals. History records that when the Roman armies laid siege to Jerusalem in AD 70, the hills surrounding the city were stripped of trees to provide crosses for the recalcitrant Jewish rebels.
But on the occasion mentioned above things were different. There was a Man in the middle who was neither a rebel against Rome, a thief nor a murderer. He had spent his last three years going from village to village, from town to town, healing people and preaching the good news of salvation.
The Man in the middle was reviled and insulted by some, and loved by others. His enemies were the religious leaders of his day, the rough soldiers who made sport of their prisoner, and the rent-a-crowd which had been incited to cry ‘Crucify him!’
But there were others. Some pitied him as an innocent victim of Roman rule. But some, like the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross, recognised that he was a righteous man. Hundreds had hoped that he would free them from the Roman occupation, but his small band of disciples believed he was the Son of God.
The Man in the middle
Now had come this incomprehensible humiliation. He had been betrayed, arrested, taken before the Jewish Council, falsely accused of blasphemy and condemned. They took him to the Roman governor, who alone could authorise the death penalty. Giving way to the pressure of the Man’s enemies, Pontius Pilate ordered his execution.
The Man suffered mockery, scourging, slaps and spitting – and the bitter words of the self-righteous religious leaders.
At every stage of the process, he was the Man in the middle, the one who divided men. Even on the cross, hanging between two real criminals, one reviled him and the other prayed to him.
Why? Because he was different. His birth was different, his life was different, and his death was going to be different. The Man in the middle always divides mankind into those who believe and those who do not.
He is eternally different because he is God. At the beginning of his Gospel, John says of him, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:1,14).
His coming was different – prophesied right from the time that Adam and Eve plunged the world into sin and death through their disobedience. People had waited for his coming for over four thousand years.
His birth was different. By a miracle wrought by the Holy Spirit he was born of a virgin. And unlike us he was born without sin.
His life was different. He lived a perfect life and taught with God’s authority. At his word the sick were healed, demons were cast out, storms were calmed and the dead were raised.
His death was so different that a third of the Gospels deal with his last week of life. Crucifixion did not kill him – rather, he voluntarily gave up his life, then rose from the dead and forty days later ascended into heaven.
Just as he divided opinion during his life, so he divides opinion today. As John again says in his Gospel, ‘And this is the judgement: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.
‘For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God’ (John 3:19-21).
But there is another way in which Jesus is the Man in the middle. Today we are used to the idea of a mediator – one who seeks to reconcile parties who are in conflict with each other.
The apostle Paul calls Jesus Christ a mediator, a peacemaker: ‘For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all’ (1 Timothy 2:5-6).
Christ is eternal God, and yet perfect man. In his being he combines all the attributes of the divine nature and all the attributes of our human nature (except sin). He calls himself the ‘door’ and the ‘way’. He rose from the dead and entered heaven to reconcile us to God.
According to God’s law, sin can only be remitted by the shedding of blood. So Jesus gave his life on the cross to take away sin and to make peace between God and men.
To have peace with God we must repent of our sin and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. He stands between us and God’s wrath against sin. He receives the punishment that we should receive, and then he wraps his righteousness around us like a robe, so that we are properly dressed to enter God’s presence.
The apostle John expresses the same truth differently. He talks of Jesus as an advocate, one who defends our cause in God’s law court. He writes: ‘My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world’ (1 John 2:1-2).
Another word the Bible uses is ‘priest’. Jesus Christ is our great High Priest who prays for us before God’s throne, as the priests interceded for the people in Old Testament times. He stands between us and God as Saviour, Peacemaker and Friend.
But finally, Christ will be the Man in the middle in a more terrible way. Today he beckons us to believe, but one day he will come as the glorified God-Man to judge the living and the dead.
Then, once again, he will divide humanity. On his left hand will be those who disobeyed his command to repent and believe. On his right will be those who have repented and believed in him – who have loved him and served him.
Those on his left will go into eternal perdition, while those on his right will receive eternal life – and a kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:31-34). On which side will you be?
The author is a Reformed Baptist missionary in Argentina