READ : Galatians 3:13-15
There is a reason why the cross has become the most widespread and recognizable symbol of the Christian faith; it’s because a cross stands at the epicenter of that faith, namely, the cross on which Jesus of Nazareth died.
The Christian faith is built upon Jesus Christ, just as the Apostles’ Creed is built around him. The heart of our faith, like the heart of the creed with which we confess it, is centered upon the events of his life and death: that he was born, he suffered, he was crucified, dead, and buried, he rose again from the dead, he is coming again. Each of those experiences of Jesus Christ has infinite meaning for believing Christians. Today I want to consider with you the verb that comes right in the middle of Jesus’ acts: we confess that he was crucified. You know, there is a reason why the cross has become the most widespread and recognizable symbol of the Christian faith; it’s because a cross stands at the epicenter of that faith, namely, the cross on which Jesus of Nazareth died. A historic Christian catechism asks the question, “Is it significant that he was crucified instead of dying some other way?” The answer: “Yes. This death convinces me that he shouldered the curse which lay on me, since death by crucifixion was accursed by God” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. and A. 39).
So there is great significance for our faith and salvation, not just in the fact of Christ’s death but in the manner of it, the specific way he died. Because Jesus was crucified, it means that as I trust in him I can be sure that “he shouldered the curse which lay on me.” But what does that mean? Where does this idea come from? The answer is that it comes from the Bible. Here’s how the apostle Paul explains the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion in Galatians 3:13-14:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us-for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”- in order that in Christ Jesus the blessings of Abraham might come to the nations, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
This passage is difficult for modern readers, both to understand and to accept. We no longer resonate with concepts like “the curse of the law.” To us, a curse is simply a string of naughty words. We curse out of anger or frustration. We usually don’t mean it literally when we say, “damn it!” or “go to hell!” We don’t take those words seriously any more. But cursing is a very serious business indeed; and when God curses, it is infinitely so. A curse is actually a judgment. And this is God’s curse, God’s judgment upon sin: the price of sinning is death (see Romans 6:23), spiritual death, physical death and ultimately eternal death.
In the Old Testament, God revealed his law to his people. His commandments express God’s design for right human living. To obey the law is to live well and to please God. But to break the law is to reject God and so to become the object of his judgment and eventual punishment. This is the truth conveyed by the biblical notion of “curse” or “cursing,” which is a major theme in the last book of the Old Testament law, the book of Deuteronomy.
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, then this is true. “If you will not listen,” says the Bible, “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 a fact.
Jesus Was Cursed
But what does all this business of judgment and the curse of God upon sin have to do with Jesus? He, of all people, should not be affected by this, for he was perfectly righteous. Yet many of his contemporaries concluded that he was cursed by God as a lawbreaker. Why? The answer is found in another passage in Deuteronomy that talks about the curse of God. The key element was the manner of Jesus’ death—the fact that he died on a cross. For someone steeped in Old Testament teaching, the cross on which Jesus died conveyed a powerful message, and it wasn’t a message about love. No, the law stated plainly this: “Anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deut. 21:23). Hanging a criminal’s body on a tree was a symbol of God’s condemnation, God’s judgment upon that sinful individual. Jesus’ death on the cross was the scandalous thing as far as devout Jews were concerned. They saw the crucifixion as a clear sign of God’s rejection of Jesus, as absolute proof that Jesus could not be the Messiah but was rather 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 by many of his own contemporaries. The case was both biblical and logical. And the logic went like this: Lawbreakers are cursed by God. The sign of the curse is the hanging of a body on a tree. Jesus hung on a tree. Therefore, Jesus was both a lawbreaker and cursed. He could not be the Messiah. Case closed.
But how wrong that was!
And yet, in another sense, how right! Not right in the sense that Jesus was an evildoer, but right in that Jesus’ death showed that the judgment of God against sin had indeed fallen upon him. But not judgment for his own sin. Jesus went to the cross in the place of sinners, bearing the curse for our lawbreaking, not his own. God, you see, chose to pay the penalty of his own law himself through his Son Jesus Christ, in order to set us free from the law’s condemnation and curse. 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 by the cross of Christ. For God knew very well what kind of death his own Son would die when he declared long before, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”
Those who rejected the message of the cross of Christ thought they had him 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. Instead of judgment and death, eternal life.
The Good News
As preachers are fond of pointing out, the word used in the New Testament for the basic Christian message, the gospel, means “good news.” But the gospel does not begin with good news. It begins with the bad news that we are cursed. We live under the curse of God upon sin. You and I and every other person on earth, are under God’s judgment. The curse for sin is death. It is to be rejected by God and to be excluded forever from his presence.
There can’t be any good news unless someone dies a death for sin. But here’s the heart of the gospel: Someone has. Since none of us could possibly have done that, since no sinner could ever fully pay for his own sin, God has paid for it himself. He took his own curse against sin upon himself, absorbing it and exhausting it until it was nullified forever for everyone who has faith in Christ Jesus. That is what it means to say that Christ died for our sins. God has provided a substitute, a curse-bearer, to take our place, and he has poured all the weight of sin’s punishment upon him. The substitute is Jesus Christ, the sinless One. This is why he had to die; this is the full meaning of the cross. All we like sheep have gone astray, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He has taken the curse upon himself, and so there is no more curse for us. He was rejected by God for a time; “My God, why have you forsaken me?” he cried. But because Jesus was rejected, because he shouldered the curse, we who believe in him are accepted by God for all time. That’s the heart of the gospel.
There are several different ways you can respond to the Bible’s message about the curse of God upon sin. You can ridicule it as an outmoded, ridiculous concept from a more savage time. That’s the modern option. You can ignore it as being of no interest or concern, nothing to worry about. That’s the casual, live-for-today, don’t-worry-about-tomorrow option. You can attempt to work the curse off and pay for it yourself. That’s the religious option. Or you can face the fact of judgment squarely, acknowledge its truth and fairness, it inescapability. Then you can turn in faith to Christ. You can embrace the gospel, you can accept what Jesus Christ did on the cross for you, put your trust in his death and your behalf, and kneel before him as Lord. You can offer him your heart in worship and your life in service. That is the saving option.