I had a rather long and interesting (but good!) lunch today. A little while ago I read on Thabiti Anyabwile’s blog that he never actually orders at restaurants anymore, but instead asks the server to just get something he or she thinks Thabiti would like. I ate today at an Italian place and really didn’t know what to order. So I just told the server to surprise me (but not with anything containing fish). It was only later that I learned this was only her third day on the job. But no matter, she ordered me something quite tasty and spaghetti-like, though I didn’t learn what it was. There were twenty or thirty of us eating together in that restaurant so it took some time for the food to be ready. When it showed up I slurped down my food (which is one of the advantages of eating Italian—it’s highly slurpable), I raced back to the convention center and then settled back in here for the session led by R.C. Sproul (though first we sang “I Will Glory in My Redeemer”). And I’m glad I made it back as it was easily one of the most powerful sermons I’ve ever heard.
Sproul discussed what it means that Jesus was cursed by God. Though Sproul has studied the subject for over fifty years, he still feels like he is barely scratching the surface of the meaning and significance of the cross of Christ. The cross is explained through many images and many metaphors to show that it is multi-faceted. It is woven by several distinct, brightly-hued threads that together form the beautiful work of art. The New Testament uses the language of substitution, of vicarious, of satisfaction of justice, of the metaphor of the kinsmen redeemer who pays the bridal price to purchase the bride. We see the motif that speaks of ransom, the motif of victory over Satan and the powers of darkness. But there is one image, one aspect, that has receded in our day into total obscurity and it is the curse inflicted by God on His own Son.
When we think today of curse, we think of voodoo or the occult—spells, hexes, pins jabbed into dolls. Curse implies some kind of superstition. But in biblical categories there is nothing superstitious about it. The idea is deeply rooted in biblical history and we need only go to the opening chapters of Genesis to see God’s anathema, His curse, on the serpent and on the earth itself. When God gives the law He attaches to it both negative and positive sanctions. The positive is articulated in terms of the concept of blessedness. The negative is articulated in terms of a curse.
The purpose of this talk was to explore the meaning and significance of the idea of God’s divine curse. When the prophets of the Old Testament spoke the words that God had placed in their mouths, the favorite method the prophets used to express the word of God was the method called the oracle. The prophets knew of two kinds of oracle—the oracle of weal and the oracle of woe. The oracle of weal would be known by the word blessed while the oracle of doom would be known by the word woe. In contrast, in North America today we believe in a God who is capable of infinitely blessing people but utterly incapable of bringing judgment upon them.
To understand what it meant to a Jew to be cursed is to look at the famous Hebrew benediction in the Old Testament. “May the Lord bless you and keep you…” There is no better example of “synonymous parallelism” than here where the same thing is said in three different ways: bless/keep, face to shine/be gracious, life up the light of His countenance/give you His peace. So how did the Jew understand blessing? To be blessed by God is to be bathed in the glory that emanates from His face. This is what Moses begged for on the mountain and when Moses saw even just the glimpse of the back parts of God, his face shone. The Jew’s ultimate hope was just to see God’s face. The Jew begged for such blessing that he might see God’s face.
The antithesis of this blessing can be seen in vivid contrast to the benediction. It would be the supreme malediction and would go something like this: “May the Lord curse you and abandon you. May the Lord keep you in darkness and give you only judgment without grace. May the Lord turn His back upon you and remove His peace from you forever.”
On the Day of Atonement there are several animals involved in the ritual. The High Priest, before he enters the Holy of Holies, involves two animals, one of which is killed and the other which survives. The one is killed and its blood is sprinkled on the mercy seat. But there is no power in this blood except that it points forward to the blood of the Lamb. What is symbolized is an act of propitiation—a vertical transaction. The other animal is not killed but becomes the object of imputation where the priest now lays his hands on its back, symbolically indicating the transfer or imputation of the guilt of the people to the goat. At the end of the ceremony, he lays his hands on the goat and drives that goat into the wilderness. He is driven outside the camp. To be driven outside the camp, outside the community, was to be driven to the place where God’s blessings did not reach. He was sent into the outer darkness; into the curse. This is expiation. In the cross not only is the Father’s justice satisfied by the atoning work of the Son, but in carrying our sins the Son removes them as far as the east is from the west. He does this by being cursed. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law not just by being cursed for us, but by becoming a curse for us. He who is the incarnation of the glory of God now becomes the very incarnation of the divine curse.
God is too holy to even look at sin. His eyes are averted from His Son. The light of His countenance is turned off; all blessedness is removed from His Son whom He loves. And in its place is the full measure of the divine curse. All the imagery that portrays the historical event of the cross is the imagery of the curse. Jesus needed to be delivered into the hands of the gentiles so He could be crucified outside the camp so the full measure of the curse and the darkness could be visited upon Him. God adds to these details others—God turns out the light of the sun so as God turns His face, even the sun won’t shine on Calvary. Bearing the full measure of the curse Christ screams “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus did not merely feel forsaken; He was forsaken. He was utterly, totally and completely forsaken by the Father.
There is none of this to be found in the pseudo-gospels of our day. When we hear that Jesus loves us all unconditionally, it is a travesty. What pagan when he hears this does not hear that he has no need of repentance? He can continue in sin without fear knowing that all has been taken care of. There is a profound sense that God does love people even in their corruption, but they are still under his anathema. Even in this hall today there are many who are under the curse of God; who have not yet fled to the cross; who are still counting on this idea of the unconditional love of God.
When Jesus was forsaken by God, when He bore the curse, it was as if Jesus heard the words “God damn you.” This is what it means to be under the anathema of the curse. It is far worse, far more powerful, far more profound than we can know. We cannot understand this, but we know it is true. Everyone who has not been covered by the righteousness of Christ draws every breath under the curse of God. If you believe that, you will stop adding to the gospel and start preaching it with clarity and with boldness because it is the only hope we have. And it is hope enough.