This morning we resume looking at who Jesus is, this time looking at the death of Christ on the cross. Now perhaps you have wondered at some point, “Why the cross?” Certainly there were other means of execution available in the ancient world. Is it merely the fact that the cross was the favorite means of execution among the Romans at that time?
I. Let’s look first at the curse of the Law.
Some of the Galatians believed in both grace and righteousness earned by works. They certainly believed that Jesus died and rose again to win victory over sin. But they also believed that the way to benefit from this victory – the way to achieve eternal life with God – was to obey the Jewish Old Testament law. So Paul says in chapter 3:1, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” It can only be one or the other, but it cannot be both. If you want to follow the law, that is fine; it is a great guide for life. But if you are looking to it as a way to salvation by trying to obey it, all you can expect is a curse.
Now let’s be clear: the Old Testament view of the law was good. In the law God called his people to live with him, to walk with him daily in obedience. The law was given to them so that the people could enjoy life with God. But they could not obey the law perfectly and the law pointed that out to them. Yet the law was still saturated in God’s grace. It assured them of God’s forgiveness when they made a sacrifice of atonement according to the law; they could know that God had forgiven them. They then could go on in life under God’s grace.
But in the time between the Old and New Testaments, a clear shift in attitude occurred. The people now viewed obeying the law as a way to earn God’s favor. They ignored God’s grace and began relying on their own abilities and goodness. This attitude is a central part of the error that Paul deals with in Galatians. In verse 10, Paul says that if they try to earn eternal life by trying to obey the law, fine, but one mistake and you are guilty of it all and it leads to the curse of death. God’s standard for obeying the law is perfection and no one can do that. No one except Jesus himself was ever able to do this. The result is that all are under the curse of death.
We need to remember this for we still tend to flirt with works-righteousness. “If I do good things, do nice things or help people, God will like me and will save me.” However, anything that is based on our doing will only lead to a curse. “Doing” is not the way to eternal life. What is? Verse 11 says very clearly: “The righteous will live by faith!” The gift of grace is ours already by faith; we don’t have to work for it.
II. Now in order to understand that, we need to understand the curse of the cross.
Now again, it is important to go back and understand Old Testament history. In Old Testament Israelite society, a person who was convicted of a crime that warranted death was likely stoned. Then afterwards the person’s body would be hung from a tree or on a pole. Hanging on a tree was a public declaration that he was guilty of a horrible crime. In fact, anyone who hangs in such a manner on a tree was an accursed one by God. Deuteronomy 21:22-23a says, “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.” Hanging from a tree was a public statement that God had rejected this person.
Now Paul says in Galatians 3:13 that Jesus was crucified on a cross. Roman crucifixion was certainly different from the hanging on a pole or a tree in Israelite history, but the same idea is here. In fact, Jesus not only was hung on a tree; he actually died on that tree. His dying on that cross, that tree, made a public declaration: “Jesus is an accursed person in God’s sight and is rejected by God, his own Father. Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, my God.. Why have you forsaken me?” In fact, he suffered the torments of hell, being cursed and separated from God.
The good news is that we don’t need to be cursed because Christ took our curse on him. We broke the law and as a result we deserved to die and receive God’s curse. But Jesus suffered our curse when he died in humiliation on the cross. And the result is that we are now free from the curse because he bore it for us. A man and his son about five years old were walking home from town; the man carrying a package. After a bit, his son said, "Dad, I want to carry the package." His dad said, "It is too large for you." The boy said, "Oh no! I can carry it. Let me have it;" and he tried to take the package. The dad said, "Very well, it is too large and heavy for you; but if you want it, here it is." The boy did his best; but it grew heavier, and his strength began to fail. He said, "It is very heavy!" His dad said, "I told you it was too heavy, and yet you wanted to carry it." The boy said, "It is very heavy -- too heavy: will you carry it?" The dad said, "Of course! Why didn’t you ask me before?" We so often think we can carry the load of our sinful burden by ourselves. Jesus willingly took the punishment and curse for the whole world on himself.
Question 39 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “Is it significant that he was ‘crucified’ instead of dying some other way.” Answer: “Yes. This death convinces me that he shouldered the curse which lay on me, since death by crucifixion was accursed by God.” But you see we didn’t just lose the curse; we also gained a great benefit as a result.
III. The blessing of the Spirit is the benefit that comes to us now.
Paul speaks of this blessing in verse 14 with God’s blessing of Abraham in mind. In Genesis 17:1-2, God made a covenant with Abraham. God promised to go with, bless and protect him wherever Abraham went. Geneses 17:9 says that Abraham in return had to love, honor, trust and obey God. Then God promised that if Abraham did this, he would be greatly blessed. In Genesis 17:8, God would be a God to him and to his descendants after him. Moreover, God promised that all the nations of the world would be blessed because of Abraham. Before Christ, sin blocked this promise, but now Christ has redeemed us from the curse and now the blessings are for us all.
This blessing comes to us who believe today through the promise of the Holy Spirit. Through the Holy Spirit, God now lives with us, walks with us, guides, loves and strengthens us and this is just as God did with Abraham so long ago. We can literally walk in the presence of the Holy God every day because of this. All because Jesus was willing to suffer the curse of the death on the cross.
This can happen only by faith! There are two roads that we can travel on in this life. The first road is the road of “doing,” which is a life filled with our efforts where we keep trying over and over and over to do better and better and sin less and less. We can try to do better, try to obey better, to love better. We can try to stop sinning and doing the wrong things. This road, however, is always a dead end! It leads to a curse.
And that is important for our role in being witnesses for Christ for people often resist becoming Christians because they think that Christians must live such good lives. We should strive to do good, but becoming a Christian does not mean that we first attain a certain level of goodness and then we are good enough to become a Christian. If you are going to wait to become a Christian until you are good enough to be acceptable to God on your own actions, you will wait forever; it won’t happen. Jesus wants you as you are, and he wants you to believe in him, trust in him and to walk with him. If you believe that Jesus took your curse away, then you will receive the Holy Spirit. And if you have the Spirit, then the Holy Spirit will enable you to do the good that should be evident in the life of Christians. And the Spirit inside you will enable you to share the good news with others.
“Grace does not make everything right. Grace's trick is to show us that it is right for us to live; that it is truly good, wonderful even, for us to be breathing, and feeling at the same time that everything clustering around us is wholly wretched. Grace is not a ticket to Fantasy Island; Fantasy Island is dreamy fiction. Grace is not a potion to charm life to our liking; charms are magic. Grace does not cure all our cancers, transform all our kids into winners, or send us all soaring into the high skies of sex and success. Grace is rather an amazing power to look earthy reality full in the face, see its sad and tragic edges, feel its cruel cuts, join in the primeval chorus against its outrageous unfairness, and yet feel in your deepest being that it is good and right for you to be alive on God's good earth. Grace is power, I say, to see life very clearly, admit it is sometimes all wrong, and still know that somehow, in the center of your life, ‘It's all right.’ This is one reason we call it amazing grace--. Grace is the one word for all that God is for us in the form of Jesus Christ.”
That’s the grace of God in our lives. Jesus took our sin upon himself and did what we couldn’t do. We stand forgiven and bask triumphantly in Jesus’ glory. And for now, we live, even in very trying, painful and even tragic circumstances, in that marvelous grace of God. Because Jesus did take our curse of death away. Are we submitting our lives fully to the Spirit’s control so that we may walk closely with him?