READ : Isaiah 53:4
He has provoked more debate, more difference of opinion, than any other human being. What do you think about Jesus Christ?
Imagine that you are part of a gathering for worship at a Jewish synagogue in a typical first-century Greek city – let’s say Corinth – in ad 50, give or take a year or two. You arrive for the Sabbath day’s service and take your place among the males aged 13 and above who make up the active congregation. Or, if you do not happen to be male (or even Jewish), you find a place among the crowd of women and children and interested Gentiles who sit around the edges observing what is said and done in the service.
The president of the synagogue opens the worship. The men recite together the Hebrew creed: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one!” Prayers are offered and the Old Testament scriptures are read, and now at last it is time for the sermon. In this particular service, the preacher’s seat (the sermon was always delivered from a chair in front of the assembly) is occupied by a visitor, a traveling rabbi who is a native of the city of Tarsus in Asia Minor. As he begins to speak, he unfolds the story of a controversial man about whom many rumors, claims and counterclaims have already reached your community, a man who had died some 15 or 20 years earlier in Jerusalem, namely, Jesus of Nazareth.
The preacher Saul, or Paul as he calls himself in Greek, tells the story of Jesus’ life and teaching, including some astounding accounts of some of the miraculous works he did. He describes the ominous turn of events which led to Jesus’ death on the cross, followed by the still more incredible news of his resurrection from the dead. Paul shows how Jesus’ life fulfills the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah, and then he drives his whole sermon home with a bold declaration. Jesus was not merely the Messiah, the Christ. He was and is the very embodiment of God in human flesh: “Jesus is Lord!” exclaims Paul triumphantly, using the Hebrew form of God’s personal name.
At this a tumult breaks out in the synagogue. Some signify agreement with Paul’s message and claim, but many more are shouting him down with cries that, far from being Lord, Jesus was actually an evildoer who died under divine judgment. “No,” they scream, “Jesus is accursed!”
An actual experience very much like this one must lie behind Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 12:3 that no one speaking by the Spirit of God could ever say, “Jesus is accursed,” just as no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except under the Spirit’s instruction. Those first-century Jews who rejected the Christian testimony about Jesus of Nazareth did so because of their conviction that not only was he not the Messiah, he was not even a good man. Jesus’ death on the cross was a scandal to devout Jews. They saw the crucifixion as a clear sign of God’s rejection of Jesus. Jesus, they thought, was the object of God’s judgment; he was cursed, not blessed by God. What they perhaps did not recognize is that in believing this, they were fulfilling the ancient prophecy of Isaiah. Seven and a half centuries before, he wrote this about the Lord’s Messiah: “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases, yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God and afflicted” (Isa. 53:4, nrsv).
THEY WERE WRONG
What can we say about the conclusion that on the cross Jesus was punished as an evildoer and that he died cursed and rejected by God? The first thing we can say about it is that it is mistaken. It is a misjudgment. Those who thought that Jesus’ execution proves him to have been a bad man were wrong.
But we can understand why students of the Old Testament would think that. Their misjudgment about Jesus was founded upon some biblical truths. First is the truth that lawbreakers are indeed cursed by God. “Cursed be anyone who does not uphold the words of this law by observing them,” says the Old Testament law (Deut. 27:26, nrsv). “All who rely on observing the law (i.e. who think their behavior is good enough to meet God’s standards) are under a curse” (Gal. 3:10, niv), adds the New Testament.
In the Old Testament, God revealed his law to his people when he gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai. These commandments, together with many others added later, express God’s design for a healthy and holy human life. To obey the law is to live well and to please God. To break the law at any point is to displease God and to incur his judgment with its eventual punishment. This is the truth conveyed by the biblical notion of “curse” or “cursing.”
Because the idea of God’s curse is unfamiliar to most people today (not to mention unpopular with those who do know about it), more needs to be said about it. The purpose of God’s curse is to express or to convey his judgment on sin and thereby to warn sinners. God’s curse upon those who break his commandments points to the inviolability of the moral law. We know that those who break the physical laws of the universe are punished. That’s the way reality is. People who jump out of an airplane without a parachute are breaking the law of gravity and will die. Because we can see that this is true, we learn to keep our seat belts fastened.
But it is also true that those who break the moral law of the universe are punished. People who lie, cheat, steal, commit adultery, hate, hurt, use and abuse others are breaking God’s law and will die eternally. The difference is that we cannot always see this happening, and because of that many think that there is no judgment or punishment; perhaps even that there is no such thing as sin. The curse of God is intended to teach us otherwise. God utterly rejects all evil, and therefore all evildoers.
How could he not? If even we, with our far from perfect morality, are often moved to righteous indignation by some glaring wrong, how much more must God be by all that he sees! God will certainly punish all sinners. His very nature as a holy God requires him to do that. Because his judgment, though, is not always obvious in our world, God declares it in his word so that we may be warned, and adjust our lives accordingly.
So, however uncongenial the thought may be to modern people that there is a holy God who is absolutely opposed to everything wrong and absolutely determined to punish every wrongdoer, if the Bible is true, this is true. “If you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you” (Mal. 2:2, rsv). Lawbreakers are cursed by God. That is true.
The second conviction of those who rejected Jesus as the Messiah was that Jesus himself was cursed by God. This was the obvious conclusion a devout student of the Old Testament would have drawn from the manner of his death. For someone with an Old Testament faith, the cross on which Jesus died conveyed a powerful message – and it wasn’t a message about faith. No, the Old Testament law stated plainly: “Anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deut. 21:23). The Old Testament law required that a criminal guilty of a capital offense be executed by stoning. Then the body was fixed to a stake or hung from a tree until sundown, to proclaim, in the most vivid possible way that both sin and sinner were under divine judgment. Hanging on a tree was a symbol of God’s rejection, God’s condemnation. The point was this: A man was not cursed because he was hanged; he was hanged because he was cursed.
This sentence from the Old Testament law explains a lot about Jesus’ death. One of the things I’ve always wondered about is why the priests and other authorities in Jerusalem took the risk of involving the Roman governor in Jesus’ execution. After all, there was a chance Jesus might have been acquitted by Pilate. He almost was. If the leaders wanted so badly to get rid of him, why didn’t they just assassinate him when they had the chance, or stir up the mob to stone him as they did a short time later with Jesus’ disciple Stephen?
The answer is that the religious leaders in Jerusalem did not just want to get rid of Jesus. They wanted to get rid of him in a particular way. They went to the Romans not because that was the only way they could have Jesus killed but because it was the only way they could have him crucified, and crucifixion – death involving hanging on a tree – was the all-important point. They wanted to make sure that the curse was attached to Jesus visibly. The instinctive reaction of every Jew who saw Jesus’ body hanging on the cross, or who later heard that he had died that horrible death, would have been to regard it as absolute proof that Jesus had been rejected and cursed by God, that he was not the Lord’s Messiah but some blasphemous impostor upon whom God’s wrath had broken out. For how could God curse his own beloved Son?
So this was the argument made against Jesus of Nazareth by many of his own contemporaries. The case was both biblical and logical. It went like this: Lawbreakers are cursed by God. Jesus was cursed by God. Therefore, Jesus was a lawbreaker. Case closed. But how wrong they were!
THEY WERE RIGHT
Yet in another sense, how right they were! Not about Jesus being a lawbreaker or an evil man. No, on the contrary, he was the best, the most perfect of men, the only sinless person who ever lived. But they were right about the curse of the law falling upon sinners, and they were right again in believing that Jesus’ death showed that the judgment of God had fallen upon him. What they didn’t realize, though, is that he went to the cross in our place, bearing the curse for our lawbreaking, not his own. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us,” exclaimed the apostle Paul (Gal. 3:13). God chose to pay the penalty of his own law in order to set us free from its condemnation. He took his own curse against sin upon himself, absorbing and exhausting it until it was nullified forever for everyone who has faith in Christ Jesus.
This is the truth proclaimed in the cross of Christ. For God knew very well what death his own Son would die when he declared long before, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”
Jesus’ contemporaries thought they had it all figured out, but they were wrong. They misjudged him. Their logic led them to a terribly mistaken conclusion. Gospel logic is different. It goes like this: Lawbreakers are cursed. Jesus was cursed. Therefore, we are blessed – if we know him, trust him, believe in him. Instead of God’s curse, God’s blessing. Instead of God’s condemnation, God’s favor. Instead of God’s rejection, God’s friendship and life. This is the logic of the gospel.