Galatians 3:10–12 has painted a very grim picture of the human situation.
The law requires a life of perfect obedience in order to be right with God. Yet no person can meet such a high standard.
Consequently, everyone in the world has become “imprisoned … under sin’s power” (3:22), suffering the just condemnation of the curse of the law.
Given this state of affairs, we are prompted to ask with the disciples, “Then who can be saved?” (Luke 18:26). If what Paul said about the gravity of sin and the certainty of judgment is true, then human beings can only despair of ever obtaining divine favor.
Like the character of Sisyphus in Greek mythology, they are forever consigned to rolling a huge boulder up a mountain only to have it come crashing down upon their heads again and again. Now this is precisely the situation of all persons who are under the curse of the law, a verdict that is universal in scope including both Jews and Gentiles alike.
Paul’s answer to the dilemma he had just posed came in the form of a confessional statement that may well have circulated in early Jewish Christian communities as a kind of shorthand summary of the gospel itself: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.”
This is the first time in Galatians Paul used the word “redeemed,” although the idea of rescue and deliverance through the self-sacrifice of Christ has been presupposed from the beginning.
The word “redeemed” means literally “to buy off,” “to set free by the payment of a price.” The root word for redemption in Greek is agora, “marketplace,” the site of the slave auction where every day in ancient Rome, human beings were put up for sale to the highest bidder.
The word “redemption” declares that we have been bought with a price. “We are not saved by the Lord Jesus Christ by some method that cost him nothing.” The “ransom” for our sins was nothing less than the very life blood of the Son of God himself.
But in what sense could Christ have become a curse for us? Although Jesus was born “under the law” (Gal. 4:4), He did not merit the curse of the law for any wrongdoing He had committed because He was as “an unblemished and spotless lamb” (1 Pet. 1:19). Yet both the fact and the manner of His death brought Him inexorably under the curse of the law.
To prove this point from Scripture, Paul again reached back to Deuteronomy 21:23 and quoted the text: “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” However, the original reference was not to crucifixion, a Roman style of execution abhorrent to the Jewish people.
The Talmud recognizes four modes of capital punishment that were sanctioned by the Jewish people: stoning, burning, beheading and strangling the criminal as he stood on the ground.
After the execution had been carried out, the corpse of the criminal would then be hoisted onto a piece of timber, a stake or “tree,” as an indication that this person had been justly condemned as a transgressor of the divine law.
It was important that the criminal’s corpse not be exposed beyond sundown because this would dishonor God and defile the land.
Thus, according to John’s Gospel, the bodies of Jesus and the two thieves crucified with Him were removed from their crosses before nightfall so as not to desecrate the Passover Sabbath (John 19:31).
Thus by being impaled on a cross, becoming a gory spectacle for all to see, Jesus exposed Himself to the curse of the law.
Paul’s citation of the text from Deuteronomy shows that there was nothing accidental or coincidental about the death of Christ. The reference to Jesus’ death as a “hanging on a tree” occurs frequently in early Christian presentations of the gospel as a witness to the fact that Christ’s death on the cross was a fulfillment of Old Testament Scripture.
While it is true that being hung on a tree was not the curse itself but rather the public proof that the one so impaled had incurred the curse, the clear inference of the New Testament is that the death of Jesus by crucifixion was not a quirk of fate but instead the deliberate design of God.
Thus in Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost, he declared that Jesus was handed over to His executioners to be put to death by crucifixion “according to God’s determined plan and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23).
The cross was neither an accident of history nor a divine emergency measure brought in to remedy an unforeseen situation.
There was a cross in the heart of God from all eternity, for Jesus was “the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world.”
Why was the cross such a stumbling block to the Jews, including presumably Saul of Tarsus before he met Christ?
Christians claimed that Jesus was the Messiah, and yet it was known to all that their Messiah had been brutally crucified by the Romans outside the gates of Jerusalem. The Messiah was the epitome of blessing, but one “hung on a tree” was by definition “accursed by God.”
The only explanation could be that the Messiah had willingly taken upon Himself the dreaded curse that rightly belonged to others.
Here is the genesis of the Christian doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. Indeed, as John Stott has suggested, it may well have been reflection on the very text Paul cited in Galatians 3:13 that led the early Christians to understand the death of Jesus in this way.
Stott says, “The apostles were quite familiar with this legislation [Deut. 21:22–23], and with its implication that Jesus died under the divine curse.
“Yet, instead of hushing it up, they deliberately drew people’s attention to it. So evidently they were not embarrassed by it. They did not think of Jesus as in any sense deserving to be accursed by God. They must, therefore, have at least begun to understand that it was our curse which He was bearing.”
It is not only Jews of antiquity who have stumbled over Paul’s theology of the cross, however.
The liberal Baptist scholar Ernest DeWitt Burton rejected the idea that the curse of the law was in any sense the real judgment of God.
According to this view, Christ’s work on the cross must be seen in purely ethical, not forensic, terms. No ransom was paid, no transaction occurred, no substitution was made. What Christ did by dying on the cross was to demonstrate the divine character of self-giving love and the divine attitude of forgiveness that flows from it.
Surely there is a large element of truth in this way of putting things. Jesus’ death on the cross is a window into the character of God, and the example of His forgiving love is a vital force in the life of believers.
But such a view, when taken alone, trivializes the death of Christ by reducing it to the significance of an advice column or a well-meant lecture on good behavior.
Jesus did not need to get Himself “strung up on a tree like a damned fool,” to quote Clarence Jordan’s jarring but accurate Cotton Patch translation of Galatians 3:13, in order to pass on pious platitudes about how human beings should get along with one another and make the world a better place in which to live. No, “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Cor. 5:19).
Bringing several of these strands of thought together, we can summarize Paul’s understanding of Christ’s death in this passage in three affirmations.
- Christ was cursed. As we have seen, Paul related the curse of the law to the specific prophecy concerning a criminal who had been “hung on a tree.” However, the curse in this context assumes an almost personified form, indicating the totality of God’s righteous judgment and wrath that finally will be displayed in the blazing fire and eternal punishment of those “who don’t know God” and reject “the revelation of the Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:7–9).
As Paul explains, the curse of the law for Jews had resulted in their bondage to the Mosaic legislation; for Gentiles, the curse had resulted in their slavery to the principalities and powers who hold sway in “this present evil age.” In both cases the curse of the law is damning, irrevocable and inescapable.
- Christ was cursed by God. Some scholars have made much of the fact that Paul omitted the words “by God” in his quotation of Deuteronomy 21:23. However, the curse of the law that Christ bore was the curse of God’s law.
Although He was put to death by wicked men in a horrible miscarriage of justice, this happened, as we have seen, in accordance with the eternal purpose and predetermined plan of God. Thus Galatians 3:13 should be interpreted in the light of 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”
From the perspective of salvation history, then, the curse Christ bore upon the cross was not a curse that wrongly rested upon Him; it was a curse that rightly rested upon Him as the sinless substitutionary sacrifice “sent” by the Father for this very purpose.
- Christ was cursed by God for us. The dilemma of Galatians 3:10 — all are under a curse — is resolved by the remedy of verse 13 — Christ redeemed us from the curse. Paul was working here with the idea of an “exchange curse” by which the sin, guilt and hell of lost men and women are placed upon Christ while His righteousness, blessing and merit are imputed to those in whose place He stands.
Luther spoke of this atoning transaction as “a happy exchange.” It was an exchange that involved a fierce struggle with the powers of darkness in which “not only my sins and yours, but the sins of the entire world, past, present and future, attack Him, try to damn Him and do, in fact, damn Him.”
Yet Christ emerged victorious over sin, death and the eternal curse. This He did “for us.”
For this reason, the doctrine of atonement can never be merely a matter of cool theologizing or dispassionate discourse. For us, the Son of God became a curse. For us, He shed His precious blood. For us, He who from all eternity knew only the intimacy of the Father’s bosom came “to stand in that relation with God which normally is the result of sin, estranged from God and the object of His wrath.”
All this — for us! What response can we offer except that of wonder, devotion and trust!
EDITOR’S NOTE — Timothy George is Distinguished Professor at Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and the general editor of the 28-volume Reformation Commentary on Scripture.
This piece is taken from his recently released commentary on Galatians in the Christian Standard Commentary series from B&H Academic, which aims to help “the reader understand each biblical book’s theology, its place in the broader narrative of Scripture and its importance for the church today.” The series is available from Lifeway and other booksellers.