The Logic of the Cross

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Galatians 3:10-14

Of all the things Jesus ever did, the most controversial, both then and now, is his death. So what exactly is the logic of the cross?

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 – around the year ad 50. 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 great 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 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 that 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 then shows how Jesus’ life fulfills the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah, and as he drives his whole sermon home he utters a bold declaration. Jesus was not merely the Messiah, or 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 God’s curse. “No,” they scream, “Jesus is accursed!” Far from being Lord, Jesus was actually an evildoer who died under divine judgment. “No,” they shout, “Jesus is accursed.”

An actual experience very much like that 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 Holy 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 the scandalous thing as far as devout Jews were concerned. 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.

THEY WERE WRONG

What can we say about the conclusion that on the cross Jesus was being 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. This misjudgment about Jesus was founded upon some biblical truths. First among them 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 right human living. To obey the law is to live well and to please God. But to break the law at any point is to displease 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.

Because the idea of God’s curse has become unfamiliar to most people today, more needs to be said about it. The purpose of God’s curse is to express or convey his displeasure with 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 go against the physical laws of nature suffer for it. That’s the way reality is. If you jump off a cliff you are defying the law of gravity and will die as a result. Because everyone can see that this is true, we learn to respect the laws of nature and keep back from the edge of the precipice.

But it is equally true that those who defy God and break his moral law will die as a result. People who lie, cheat, steal, commit adultery; people who hate, hurt, or kill others are breaking God’s moral law and they will die eternally as a result. The difference, though, is that we cannot always see this moral law being enforced, and because of that many think that there is really no such thing as judgment or punishment. The curse of God is intended to teach us otherwise. God utterly rejects all evil, and he judges all evildoers.

How could he not? Even if we, with our flawed morality, our indifferent moral sense, 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 sin and 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 proclaims it in his Word so that we may be warned and live 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, 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 true.

So then to return to the case of Jesus Christ, why did so many of his contemporaries conclude that he was cursed by God as a lawbreaker? The answer is found in another part of Deuteronomy’s teaching 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 faith, hope or love. No, the law stated plainly this: “Anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deut. 21:23). The Old Testament law required that a person who was guilty of a capital offense be executed by stoning. But after that, the criminal’s body had to be 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 the divine judgment. Hanging on a tree was a symbol of God’s condemnation, God’s judgment upon that sinful individual. The point was this: according to the Old Testament law, a man was not cursed because he was hanged; rather, he was hanged because he was cursed.

This sentence from the Old Testament law explains many things about Jesus’ death. One of the things that I used to wonder about is why the priests and the other authorities in Jerusalem took the risk of involving the Roman governor in Jesus’ execution. After all, there was a chance that Jesus might have been acquitted by Pontius 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 publicly crucified, and crucifixion – death by hanging on a tree – was the all-important point. Jesus’ enemies wanted to make sure that the curse was attached to him visibly. The instinctive reaction of every faithful and devout Jew who saw Jesus’ body hanging on that 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 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 is the hanging of them from a tree. Jesus was hung from a tree, therefore, Jesus was both a lawbreaker and cursed. He could not be the Messiah. Case closed.

But how wrong that was!

THEY WERE RIGHT

And yet in another sense, how right! Not right about Jesus being a lawbreaker or an evildoer. On the contrary, he was the best of men, the only sinless person who ever lived. But Jesus’ critics 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 indeed come upon him. What they didn’t realize, though, is that he went to the cross in the place of sinners, bearing the curse for our lawbreaking, not his own. Listen to how Paul explains it 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” – 14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

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 death his own Son would die when he declared long before, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”

Jesus’ critics 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. Instead of judgment and death, eternal life.

This, my friend, is the logic of the gospel, the logic of the cross.