“Sex has become the religion
of the most civilized portions of the earth.
The orgasm has replaced the Cross
as the focus of longing and the image of fulfillment.”
– Malcolm Muggeridge
A while back (on Good Friday) I began posting a series about the crucifixion of Jesus. I titled them “A Message for Those Struggling with Pornography.” I firmly believe that overcoming sin in our lives must involve the power of God—and the message of the cross is that power (Romans 1:16).
I hope this next post will of help to you as you continue pursuing a cross-centered vision. May the cross flood your mind and heart. May it be the centerpiece of your theology.
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In summary . . .
Part 1 – I spoke about the details of crucifixion, the horror of the act itself, and the utter shame and offensiveness of being crucified in the first century.
Part 2 – I wrote about what REALLY happened to Jesus on the cross, not so much the physical agony of execution, but the bearing of our sin and absorbing the wrath of God for that sin. When we realize what Jesus really experienced on the cross—the experience of living hell—we are given the clearest demonstration of both God’s great wrath against sinners and His great love and grace to send His Son in order to satisfy that wrath.
Part 3 – I wrote about the practical implications of the message of the cross. As our vision of God becomes “cross-centered” (to borrow the expression from CJ Mahaney), this will prompt us both to hate our sin as God does and express our love back to God in obedience.
My final encouragement was, “Study the cross. Try to grasp the mystery of what happened that day at Calvary. As study nurtures your mind, allow your imagination to nurture your heart.” I hope this post will be of further help in that endeavor.
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Christ Became a Curse for Us
Paul had so graphically and clearly spoken about the cross that he could later write to the Galatians, “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (Galatians 3:1). This was the jarring message Paul carried across the Roman Empire: Christ crucified.
But what was contained in that message? Was it just an account of the crucifixion’s brutality? No. The Galatians hardly needed such a description of what crucifixion was: they had seen the Roman highways lined with crucified criminals. What Paul offered them in his message was the meaning behind Jesus’ death. Read on . . .
“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” (Galatians 3:10-14)
Paul understood the cross of Christ in the context of two polar Hebrew concepts: blessing and curse. He uses this curse motif as a way of describing what happened to Jesus on the cross.
In order for us to grapple with the meaning of this text, we need to wrap our minds around what exactly it was to be blessed or cursed. Admittedly, for our 21st century American minds, a curse is somewhat archaic. What does it mean to be cursed?
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What Is the Curse?
Paul quotes from the last book of the Law, from Deuteronomy, saying, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” This quote comes from Deuteronomy 27:26, at the end of a long list of laws that were to be followed, and if broken would bring the curse of God. These curses are later enumerated:
“Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out. The Lord will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me.” (Deuteronomy 28:16-20)
These curses would touch every feasible area of life: all manner of physical and mental health, productivity and prosperity, family, weather, and relations with friends and enemies. The curse brought nothing but despair and exile from the Promises Land:
“You shall find no respite, and there shall be no resting place for the sole of your foot, but the Lord will give you there a trembling heart and failing eyes and a languishing soul. Your life shall hang in doubt before you” (Deuteronomy 28:64-65).
Your life would become a huge, monumental curse. This wholeheartedly depressing message sent shivers down the spines of the Hebrew people. As Deuteronomy draws to a close, God says, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
But what was the essence of these curses? What tied them all together?
The best way to understand the curse is to understand its antithesis: the blessing. The curse was the opposite of the blessing.
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What Is the Blessing?
“The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”
This familiar blessing was pronounced by the priests over the children of Israel. It defines what it means to be blessed by God. The priests invoked God to “keep” His people—for pilgrims, these desert nomads, constantly wandering and restless, to be “kept” was a treasured thing. They invoked God put a hedge around their lives, to He protect attend to them. The priests invoked the peace of God upon His people, His shalom, the blessing of wholeness, prosperity and unity. The priest invoked a blessing of God’s grace, His favor, His kindness.
The essence of this blessing is God giving Himself to the people. The priest invoked the “face of God” to shine upon them, the lifting up of His “countenance” upon them. Nothing was more blessed than to behold the face of God, to see God in His glory, to be able to be near to God. For the Hebrews, blessedness was directly related to God’s nearness. To be sure, blessing also included health, productivity, prosperity, fruitful wombs, and protection from enemies, but all of those were just fallout from the presence of God. His presence among them was the one distinguishing mark of His people (Exodus 33:15-16).
The blessing is God’s nearness; the curse is the opposite: God’s absence, banishment from the presence of God. We see this all throughout the Law of Moses when the cursed of God are sent “out of the camp” (Leviticus 24:14,23; Numbers 5:1ff; 15:35)—away from the presence of God and His covenant blessings.
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The world can be a very scary place full of pain and sadness, but there is nowhere on earth that is completely devoid of God’s presence. His common graces still fill the world, as Paul said, “He allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:16-17).
But in hell there are no such blessings. God is utterly absent. His face does not shine there, but “The face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (Psalm 34:16). There is no penetration of God’s glorious presence in hell. It is the land of the cursed, a wasteland, forever forsaken.
For Paul to say that Christ Jesus became a curse for us carries a great weight of meaning. He went through living hell on the cross—he experienced the torment of hell.
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The Real Suffering of the Cross
When studying the death of Christ, understanding the physical pains of crucifixion can certainly captivate our imagination. But we need not too much attention to the physical torture. Thousands of people in human history have died by being nailed to a tree. Only one went through living hell: Jesus Christ.
I recently heard a message by RC Sproul about this very subject, and something he said caught my attention. He recounted the pain of crucifixion, the physical torments, and then said, “I doubt if Jesus was even aware of the nails!” Why? Because it was the experience of being utterly forsaken by God in his human spirit that brought the greatest agony.
In your imagination, picture Jesus on the cross. See this Jewish man, a son of the covenant, not even given the dignity of a dying among his own people, but is handed over to the Romans, the Gentiles, and he is brought “outside the camp.” He is banished by His people.
This is the same Jesus who spoke so passionately about the great kindness of God who “makes His sun shine on the evil and on the good.” This same Jesus now hangs nailed to a piece of wood, and the sun refuses to shine on Him. A mysterious darkness falls upon the land. No radiance of God’s blessing is given to Jesus. For hours he hangs in agony.
This is the same Christ who existed since the days of eternity “in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18), in a relationship of infinite love and intimacy. Now, he faces the worst of all agonies: the loss of the fellowship with His Father. He is now in the black abyss of God’s absence and it is crushing. The night before, in the Garden of Gethsemane, just peering into this abyss was enough to send Jesus into shock. Now he is experiencing it in full.
Jesus cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” He has been drinking the full cup of God’s wrath for hours on end. Finally, at 3:00pm, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two”—the atonement was finished—“Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’” (Luke 23:45-46).
This is the spiritual drama that must be woven into the fabric of our souls if we are to truly understand who God is. Here at the cross we see the clearest demonstration of God’s hatred of our sin: the curse of His forsakenness. Here at the cross we will learn to hate our sin as well. It is here we also find the clearest demonstration of God’s love: it pleased God to crush His own Son that He might turn His wrath away from you. Here at the cross we will learn to rely on His love and never feel the weight of condemnation again. Jesus bore the curse so that we might experience the blessing. Jesus experienced hell that we might inherit heaven. Jesus was forsaken that we might be accepted. Jesus tastes death that we might taste life and be forever satisfied.
(Inspiration for this post came from a message by RC Sproul, “Sacrifice and Satisfaction,” spoken the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology)