Far As the Curse Is Found
- Thursday, December 24, 2009
When on the cross, not only was the Father's justice satisfied by the atoning work of the Son, but in bearing our sins the Lamb of God removed our sins from us as far as the east is from the west. He did it by being cursed. "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'" (Gal. 3:13). He who is the incarnation of the glory of God became the very incarnation of the divine curse.
Many years ago I was asked by the Quaker community of Pennsylvania, the Society of Friends, to come to one of their meetings and explain to them the difference between the old covenant and the new covenant. I talked about the Day of Atonement in Israel and the crucifixion of Christ in the New Testament. As I spoke of Christ becoming cursed, my message was interrupted by a guy in the back who stood up and shouted, "That's primitive and obscene!" I was taken aback, and just to give myself a chance to think I said, "What did you say?" as if I hadn't heard him. (Everybody in the room heard him.)
With great hostility he repeated himself, so I told him that I loved the words he'd chosen. What could be more primitive than killing animals and placing the blood over the throne of God or taking a human being and pouring out his blood as a human sacrifice? One of the things I love about the gospel is that it wasn't written merely for an agnostic elite group of scholars. The drama of redemption is communicated in terms so simple, so crass and primitive, that a child can understand it. I really like the second word he used—obscene. If there ever was an obscenity that violates contemporary community standards, it was Jesus on the cross. After he became the scapegoat and the Father had imputed to him every sin of every one of his people, the most intense, dense concentration of evil ever experienced on this planet was exhibited. Jesus was the ultimate obscenity.
So what happened? God is too holy to look at sin. He could not bear to look at that concentrated monumental condensation of evil, so he averted his eyes from his Son. The light of his countenance was turned off. All blessedness was removed from his Son, whom he loved, and in its place was the full measure of the divine curse.
All the imagery that betrays the historical event of the cross is the imagery of the curse. It was necessary for the Scriptures to be fulfilled that Jesus not be crucified by Jews; he had to be delivered into the hands of the Gentiles. He had to be executed not by stoning but by Gentiles outside the camp so that the full measure of the curse and the darkness that attends it be visited upon Jesus.
God adds to these details astronomical perturbations. At midday he turned the lights out on the hill outside of Jerusalem so that when his face moved away, when the light of his countenance shut down, even the sun couldn't shine on Calvary. Bearing the full measure of the curse, Christ screamed, "Eli, Eli lema sabachthani," that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:46).
Jesus took that occasion to identify with the psalmist in Psalm 22 in order to call attention to those looking upon the spectacle that what they were witnessing was really a fulfillment of prophecy. I don't think Jesus was in a Bible-quoting mood at the time. His cry was not, as Albert Schweitzer opined, the cry of a disillusioned prophet who had believed that God was going to rescue him at the eleventh hour and then felt forsaken. He didn't just feel forsaken; he was forsaken. For Jesus to become the curse, he had to be completely forsaken by the Father.
As I said, I've been thinking about these things for fifty years, and I can't begin to penetrate all it meant for Jesus to be forsaken by God. But there is none of that to be found in the pseudo-gospels of our day. Every time I hear a preacher tell his people that God loves them unconditionally, I want to ask that the man be defrocked for such a violation of the Word of God. What pagan does not hear in that statement that he has no need of repentance, so he can continue in sin without fear, knowing that it's all taken care of? There is a profound sense in which God does love people even in their corruption, but they are still under his anathema
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