During the rule of the Roman Empire, tens of thousands of people were put to death through crucifixion. Crucifixion was a shameful and excruciating way to die. For the Jew, death by crucifixion was a curse. Christ was made a curse. “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree:” (Gal. 3:13)
Galatians 3:13 does not mean “that Jesus was guilty, nor that he was not the object of the approbation and love of God, but that Jesus’ death was the same that it would have been if he had been the vilest of malefactors, and that that death was regarded by the Law as accursed.
It was by such SUBSTITUTED sorrows that we are saved; and he consented to die the most shameful and painful death, as if he were the vilest criminal, in order that the most guilty and vile of the human race might be saved. With regard to the way in which Jesus’ death is connected with our justification.” (Barnes’ Notes)
Despite a person normally being accursed by God, Jesus of Nazareth was approved by God so that today, His death by crucifixion is still celebrated worldwide. There are two reasons why the execution of Jesus stands out.
The first reason the death of Jesus is remembered, is because His execution was the execution of a King. In mockery, Pilate had a sign placed over the head of Jesus once He was on the cross.
“And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was, JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS.” (John 19:19)
“And they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture did they cast lots. 36 And sitting down they watched him there; 37 And set up over his head his accusation written, THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” (Matt. 27:35)
The second reason the death of Jesus is remembered, is because His execution was of cosmic significance, as He became the Substitute for Sinners. Jesus took the punishment of the elect. He stood in their place. “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
The crucifixion of Jesus looked to people to be just another execution of a criminal. But from a divine perspective, the crucifixion of Jesus was atonement for sin. This concept is important to comprehend. There is a human perspective of events in life, and there is a divine perspective.
From Pilate’s point of view, he was silencing a political rival of Romes authority, and quelling any potential rioting by nationalistic Jews.
From the point of view of the Sanhedrin, it was a matter of expediency that one man should die, and not the whole nation if a religious civil war broke out. (John 11:50)
From the vantage point of the Roman soldiers, it was just a job, another day of bloody violence. Yet, one of them did change his mind when he saw Jesus on the cross, and said, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” (Mark 15:39)
From the view of many citizens of Jerusalem, Jesus was someone to be mocked. “He saved others,” they said, “Himself He cannot save.” (Matt. 27:42)
What so many did not understand, was that from a Divine point of view, Jesus was making atonement for the sins of the world, of those who are the heirs of salivation. He was saving His people from their sins. (Matt. 1:21)
Jesus was a ransom being paid. He was a propitiation being made to satisfy the justice of God.
“Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.” (1 Tim. 2:6)
“And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)
The death of Christ must be viewed, not only in the writings of the New Testament, but also in the context of the Old Testament Scriptures that prepare us for the redemptive work of the Messiah.
In Matthew’s account, we are told that in the process of the execution of Jesus, Pilate placed a sign that stated for the public the charges that Rome leveled against Christ.
“And set up over his head his accusation written, THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS. 38 Then were there two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left. 39 And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads, 40 And saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross. 41 Likewise also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said, 42 He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. 43 He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God. 44 The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth.” (Matt. 27:37-44)
It is instructive that the words of those who mocked Jesus, those who reviled him were actually being blasphemous. The word blasphemy is a transliteration of a Greek word meaning literally “to speak harm.” It is an attitude of disrespect, that finds expression in a verbal attack against the character of God. It was God Incarnate on the Cross who was being blasphemed and mocked. The character of God in Christ was being assaulted, in as far as His power, His purpose, Kingship, and His ability to save others. Oh how terrible is the sin of unbelief!
“45 Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. 46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? That is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:45)
It is tradition in the Church, during the Easter week for ministers to give expositions on the words of Jesus from the Cross. There are seven sayings of Jesus from the Cross. This particular expression of Jesus is borrowed from the words of the text of Psalm 22.1. Jesus was not simply quoting poetry while hanging on the Cross. He was appealing to the deeper significance of that Messianic passage in the Psalm. It was midnight on Olive’s brow.
“Tis midnight, and on Olive’s brow
The star is dimmed that lately shone;
’Tis midnight in the garden now,
The suff’ring Savior prays alone.
’Tis midnight, and from all removed,
The Savior wrestles lone with fears—
E’en that disciple whom He loved
Heeds not his Master’s grief and tears.
’Tis midnight, and for other’s guilt
The Man of Sorrows weeps in blood;
Yet He that hath in anguish knelt
Is not forsaken by His God.
’Tis midnight, and from ether-plains
Is borne the song that angels know
Unheard by mortals are the strains
That sweetly soothe the Savior’s woe.”
In one sense it was true, as William Bradbury notes, that Jesus was not forsaken by His God. However, in another sense, William Bradbury is wrong. Jesus was being abandoned by God the Father, so that the work of redemption could be accomplished. That God the Father forsook Jesus is dramatized in every small event of the gospel narrative that is recorded.
The Father abandoned Jesus, as did His disciples, so that Jesus was arrested and falsely accused.
The Father abandoned Jesus as cruel individuals spit on Him, punched Him, and mocked Him.
The Father abandoned Jesus, so that Roman soldiers were free to flog Him, and rip open His back with a whipping instrument.
The Father abandoned Jesus so that He was compelled to carry His own Cross towards Calvary.
God the Father had to abandon Jesus, so that in His body He could bear the full punishment of Divine wrath against sin. In His Divine fury, God the Father poured out His wrath upon Jesus, so that in that moment Jesus was the most obscene and vile creature in the universe. Sin was concentrated on Jesus in a corporate way.
When Jesus was withering on the Cross, He was not just responding to the pain produced by the lashes, the wood rubbing on open wounds, and the excruciating agony of nails being driven into His flesh. Jesus was writhing in anguish and pain from the placement of sin upon His holy body. Jesus was under the fullness of Divine abandonment.
Now, to help the Galatian Christians, and all believers, understand the significance of the Crucifixion of Jesus, Paul wrote the following.
“ O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?” (Gal. 3:1)
“So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. 10 For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. 11 But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. 12 And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. 13 Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.” (Gal. 3:9-13)
Paul is explaining the death of Christ, not in Roman terms, but in Jewish terms. To a pious Jew, blessing was associated with obedience. “Blessed are they that keep his testimonies and that seek him with the whole heart.” (Psalm 119:2)
For those who violated the Law, for those who broke the terms of the Covenant, there was nothing but judgment, and a curse. Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them. And all the people shall say, Amen.” (Deut. 27:26) Blessing and Curse are the motif of the Old Testament Covenant.
Of course, the people did not keep the Law. No one has kept the Law perfectly, except Jesus. In matchless grace, God anticipated the failure of His people to obey, and provided an atonement for their sins. On the Day of Atonement, two lambs were used. One lamb was killed, and offered as a burnt offering, a propitiation for the sins of the people. Then there was the Scapegoat. The High Priest laid his hands on the back of the Scapegoat, and sent the animal far away into the wilderness, into the outer darkness, and away from the camp in order to represent how another has taken sin away from the presence of God.
Jesus was the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world. Jesus was also the Scapegoat, who took the sins of His people from the presence of God.
Jesus not only satisfies the curse, Jesus became the curse for sinners. As it is written, “Cursed is everyone that hangeth upon a tree.”
That Jesus had to be placed upon a tree, is in keeping with all the symbolism of the Old Testament, and all the prophesies that were made about the Suffering Messiah. Jesus could not have been stoned, as the Jewish Law demanded for capital offenses. Jesus could not have been thrown off a cliff, though people tried to do that.
Rather, Jesus had to be hung on a tree, to fulfill the provision of Deuteronomy, and to fulfill prophesy of being delivered to the Gentiles. “For he shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on:” (Luke 18:32) So Jesus was delivered to the Gentiles, who were considered by the Jews to be in outer darkness, and away from God. Jesus was separated from the Jewish people to go where the grace of God was not shining, or concentrated in its strength.
Not only was Jesus delivered to the Gentiles to be mocked, scourged, and beaten, but He was crucified outside of Jerusalem. Golgotha was outside the walls of Jerusalem. It was outside the confines of the Temple. It was outside Mt. Zion, the City of God.
Once Jesus was on the cross, a strange para normal activity took place in the middle of the day, from the 6th hour to the 9th hour, from noon to three. There was darkness over the land. On a typical day, the brightness of the desert sun was turned off and allowed His Son to be killed in darkness. This fulfilled the cruse motif. The supreme bless was withheld.
May the LORD bless thee, and keep thee:
May the LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee:
May the LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”
The supreme blessing for a soul to experience, was for the face of God to shine directly upon one’s life. The hope of every devout Jew was that someday the face of God would be seen. The Jew would be bathed in the glorious eminence of God that would radiate from that encounter. The soul could enter into the effulgence of God’s glory, and the angel would remove His flaming sword. All of this is spoken of in terms of unprecedented brilliance and light.
At Calvary, God the Father turned off the light, and plunged humanity into darkness. There was no blessedness. There was only the darkness, the antithesis of light, absolute darkness. Into the abyss where there is only weeping and gnashing of teeth. Where the glory of God does not penetrate. Only the curse of God is to be found. That is hell. Nevertheless, in the hour of darkness, Jesus called Him, “My God! My God!” In the midst of the curse the Son of Man trusted the Father, and drank the cup of divine wrath for us. He was abandoned so that we might be adopted as the sons of God.