Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” (Galatians 3:13)
Did God curse Jesus on the cross? Now, that may seem to you quite an odd question, and I am very glad if it does. From a Trinitarian viewpoint — which understands the one God as Three Persons in mutually interpenetrating, mutually indwelling union — the idea of the Father cursing the Son makes that union sound very dysfunctional. Is that what the Scriptures teach?
In recent discussion about the atonement — how the death of Christ on the cross saves the world — a friend of mine took the penal view, that the cross was a divinely imposed penalty Christ paid for us. I agree that what Christ did on the cross, he did for our sake and on our behalf, accomplishing for us what we never could have done for ourselves. But I do not believe it was a matter of paying any sort of divine penalty. In support of his view, my friend offered this passage:
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will 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 hung on a pole.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Galatians 3:10-14)For those who believe the penal view of atonement, this may at first sound like God cursed Jesus in order to deliver us from the curse. After all, did not the Law of Moses say, “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole?” And did not Jesus hang on a cross, a pole? But let us look carefully at the Scripture Paul quotes, understand it in its own context, and then compare it with how Paul uses it. The line Paul cites is from Deuteronomy 21:22-23.
If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.
As we compare this passage with how Paul uses it, there are three important things to note. First, this passage is about someone who has been guilty of a capital offense, been put to death, and their body exposed on a pole or tree. Does this apply to Jesus in the way that it is written? We know that Jesus was put to death and nailed to a cross, but was he guilty of any capital offense — or any offense at all, for that matter? No, not by the Law of Moses, he wasn’t. And though Scripture speaks of Christ bearing the sins of the world, it never holds him guilty of any of them.
The Law of Moses made no provision for putting an innocent man to death, not even for the sake of another. Indeed, the Law always condemns the shedding of innocent blood. So, if the Law had cursed Jesus, it would have violated itself and shown itself to be illegitimate for condemning an innocent man.
Second, in the Deuteronomy passage, the one hanging on the tree is said to be “under God’s curse.” But in Paul’s citation, that idea is conspicuously absent. Had he meant to teach that God cursed Jesus on the cross, this would have been the perfect opportunity for him to do so. Yet Paul deliberately leaves out “by God” when he quotes the Deuteronomy passage. The reason for that should be clear enough. Paul did not believe that God cursed Christ.
This is further supported by a third point: Paul does not tell us that Christ was cursed. Rather, he explicitly states that Jesus became a curse. Notice carefully: Jesus did not become cursed but he became a curse, and that is a very different thing. To understand why, we must look to see what Paul was addressing in the first place. We find that just a few verses earlier, in Galatians 3:10, “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law’” (Paul here quotes from Deuteronomy 27:26).
The Jews had failed to keep all the Law and by that very Law they stood condemned — under the curse. So, Jesus took the part of those who were under the curse of the Law. Yet it was impossible for him to be cursed either by God (because he is God, and God is not a dysfunctional relationship), or by the Law of Moses (which could not condemn an innocent man without condemning itself). The curse had no right to him, so Christ became a curse to the curse.
In Colossians 2:14, Paul tells us that Christ did with the curse of the Law: He “wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (NKJV). Or as the NIV says it, “having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.”
Now, Christ did not curse the Law itself but the indictment it brought, the “handwriting of requirements,” or the “charge of legal indebtedness.” At the cross, he wiped it all out. He did not pay a penalty to satisfy the “requirements,” or pay off whatever was the “indebtedness.” Instead, he cancelled it, rendering it null and void. He condemned it by “nailing it to the cross.” He cursed it with the curse of hanging it on a pole.
Why, then, did Paul quote a line from Deuteronomy that would otherwise seem to indicate the that one on the tree was cursed? It was because he was not offering a grammatical-historical exegesis — the Jewish interpretative tradition did not approach Scripture that way, nor did Paul or any of the other New Testament authors read the Old Testament that way. In Galatians 3, Paul was not explaining the way things were under the Law of Moses but showing what God has done in Christ, and what the true significance of the Law is in light of that. So, he related the two Scriptures he quoted from Deuteronomy on the basis of the word “cursed” — linking Scriptures by a shared word was a common method of Jewish interpretation. Then he picked up on the word “pole” in the latter text to make the very different point that the former curse was itself dealt with by a curse.
Christ was not cursed by God, by the Law or by anything at all. By his death on the cross, he became a curse to the curse that was on the Jews, and in that way not only redeemed them from the curse of the Law but opened the way for the long-promised blessing of Abraham to come upon the Gentiles as well.