Cursed is the One who Hangs On A Tree
Written by Brian Johnson, Pastor of Haymarket Church in Haymarket, VA.
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us—because it is written, Everyone who is hung on a tree is cursed.” – Galatians 3:13
Paul, the early Christian missionary who wrote much of the New Testament, had a problem. Paul had spent his life studying, learning, trying to obey God’s law. And, in the law – in what we would call the Old Testament – there is this very clear statement that “everyone who is hung on a tree is cursed” (Deuteronomy 21:23). Paul believed – as he had spent his whole life believing – that the law was a direct message to the people from God, a message that told them how to live, how to act, what mattered to God.
And so, when he heard about Jesus, he knew deep down that Jesus couldn’t be the Messiah, because the Messiah was the promised savior, God’s chosen and blessed one, and Jesus had died a cursed death: hanging on a cross, from a tree. So, Paul became an intense opponent of the early Christians, because he was sure that they were dead wrong. But then, Paul had this radical experience while traveling– overwhelmed by a blinding light, he heard the voice of Jesus speaking to him, calling him to follow Jesus and share his Good News.
So, now, Paul’s got a problem. He believes that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s chosen savior for the people. And if God has chosen Jesus, he must be blessed. But Paul also still believes that God’s word in the Old Testament is true – which means that Jesus, as someone who was put to death on a cross, is somehow cursed. How can Paul hold these two radically divergent – even contradictory – ideas together? How can someone be blessed – sent by God, even – and cursed at the same time?
The answer Paul comes up with – an answer he passes down to us through the New Testament – is that Jesus bore the curse for us. The logic of Paul’s argument is this: the law, as found in the Old Testament, is pretty clear: those who follow it, who do everything that it says we should do, will be blessed. But those who fail to keep the law in its entirety are under the law’s curse. The reality, as Paul points out (and as anyone who has ever been a human being knows), is that we all fall short, we all screw up, even the best of us fail sometimes. The line between good and evil, it has been said, doesn’t run between people, or between groups of people. The line between good and evil, between light and darkness, runs down the center of every human heart. So, says Paul, we are all deserving of punishment. We are all, in a sense, under a curse.
Paul sees Jesus hanging on a tree, on the cross, and he sees something amazing happen. Jesus, he says, is taking on the curse on behalf of the rest of us. He who had no sin, who was the only person ever to be free from the power of sin, has nevertheless accepted the full weight of sin, he has borne the curse for us, so that we might be set free, so that we might receive God’s promise, so that we might come to know, to be, God’s own righteousness. He takes what we deserve, and accepts it for himself, so that we might know, experience, revel in what he deserves: God’s goodness, God’s love, God’s light. Because Jesus accepted the full weight of sin, because he suffered under sin’s curse, everyone else who has ever been cursed, who has ever sinned, is given forgiveness instead.
We aren’t nearly as comfortable talking about curses these days as Paul and his contemporaries were. And, yet, let’s be honest: there is much about this world that is not as it should be. Disease, hatred, bigotry, injustice, oppression, greed, hunger, fear, white supremacy, poverty – there is much in this world that is broken. There is much that is wrong that needs to be put right. We might even, if we want to use spiritual language, call some of that stuff “a curse.” In Jesus, God says, “I see all the evil you’ve done, I see the injustice you’ve ignored, I see the broken systems that put the poor and vulnerable more at risk when things like famine and pandemic and disasters strike, and it’s going to take a lot of painful work to put it right, but I love you too much to make you bear the weight of your curse – and, anyway, it’s too much for you to bear – so, I’ll bear your curse myself.”
Jesus is God entering into our world and giving us something better than we deserve – better than we could ever earn on our own. Jesus is God saying, “there are real consequences to all the evil you have done – cosmic consequences. But I won’t make you face those consequences on your own. I will face them for you.”
No matter what brokenness we face, no matter what evils we encounter, we do not face them alone. God, in Jesus Christ, has borne the curse for us. Thanks be to God.