A Commentary by John Stott
Galatians 3:13, 14. 3). The alternative of faith.
The second alternative introduces Jesus Christ. It tells us that Jesus Christ has done for us on the cross what we could not do for ourselves. The only way to escape the curse is not by our work, but by His. He has redeemed us, ransomed us, set us free from the awful condition of bondage to which the curse of the law had brought us. Verse 13: *Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us*. These are astonishing words. As Bishop Blunt put it: ‘the language here is startling, almost shocking. We should not have dared to use it. Yet Paul means every word of it.’ In its context in which it must be read, the phrase can mean only one thing, for the ‘curse’ of verses 10 and 13 is evidently the same curse. The ‘curse of the law’ from which Christ redeemed us must be the curse resting upon us for our disobedience (verse 10). And He redeemed us from it by ‘becoming a curse’ Himself. The curse was transferred from us to Him. He took it voluntarily upon Himself, in order to deliver us from it. It is this ‘becoming a curse for us’ which explains the awful cry of dereliction, of God-forsakenness which He uttered from the cross.
Paul now adds a scriptural confirmation of what he has just said about the cross. He quotes Deuteronomy 21:23: *for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree’* (verse 13b). Every criminal sentenced to death under the Mosaic legislation and executed, usually by stoning, was then fixed to a stake or ‘hanged on a tree’ as a symbol of his divine rejection. Dr, Cole says the quotation means ‘not…that a man is cursed by God because he is hanged, but that death by hanging was the outward sign in Israel of a man who was thus cursed’. The fact that the Romans executed by crucifixion rather than hanging makes no difference. To be nailed to a cross was equivalent to being hanged on a tree. So Christ crucified was described as having been ‘hanged on a tree’
(e.g. Acts 5:30; 1 Pet.2:24), and was recognized as having died under the divine curse. No wonder the Jews at first could not believe that Jesus was the Christ. How could Christ, the anointed of God, instead of reigning on a throne, hang on a tree? It was incredible to them. Perhaps, as Bishop Stephen Neill suggests, when Christ crucified was preached, Jews would sometimes shout back ‘Jesus is accursed!’, which is the dreadful ejaculation mentioned in 1 Corinthian 12:3.
The fact that Jesus died hanging on a tree remained for Jews an insurmountable obstacle to faith, until they saw that the curse He bore was for *them*. He did not die for his own sins; He became a curse ‘for us’.
Does this mean that everybody has been redeemed from the law’s curse through the curse-bearing cross of Christ? Indeed not, for verse 13 must not be read without verse 14, where it is written that Christ became a curse for us, *that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith*. It was *in Christ* that God acted for our salvation, and so we must be *in Christ* to receive it. We are not saved by a distant Christ, who died hundreds of years ago and lives millions of miles away, but by an existential Christ, who, having died and risen again, is now our contemporary. As a result we can be ‘in Him’, personally and vitally united to Him today.
But how? Granted that He bore our curse, and that we must be ‘in Him’ to be redeemed from it, how do we become united to Him? The answer is ‘through faith’. Paul has already quoted Habakkuk: ‘he who *through faith* is righteous shall live’ (verse 11). Now he says it himself: ‘We…receive the promise of the Spirit *through faith*’ (verse 14).
Faith is laying hold of Jesus Christ personally. There is no merit in it. It is not another ‘work’. Its value is not in itself, but entirely in its object, Jesus Christ. As Luther put it, ‘faith …apprehendeth nothing else but that precious jewel Christ Jesus.’ Christ is the Bread of Life; faith feeds upon Him. Christ was lifted up on the cross; faith gazes at Him there.
Tomorrow: Galatians 3. Conclusion.