We are considering the gospel or good news in this series of sermons. And now we have come to examine the content of this good news, what it is that is being proclaimed as wonderful news to the world. We began last time with the incarnation: that God the Son came into the world as a man and lived among us so that he might save us from sin and death. The first part of the good news is this remarkable announcement that God himself, the Creator of heaven and earth, came to help us, stooped down to help us, humbled himself to become one of his own creatures for our sake. And why did he do that? Because our salvation was going to require payment for the penalty of our sin. Divine justice was going to require that our sins be atoned for. And in order to do that God had to become a man like other men so that he could die in our place, suffer on our behalf the punishment our sins deserved. The second part of the good news is that Christ died for us.
v.10 There is no “rely” in Paul’s Greek though the ESV has certainly captured the thought of “all who are of the works of the law.” But it is also important to recognize that there is an unspoken minor premise in Paul’s argument, viz. that no one, in fact, keeps the law. The law pronounces a curse on those who violate its commandments and that is everyone single one of us; we are all sinners; comprehensively and defiantly sinners, Elsewhere – especially in Romans 1, 2 & 3 – he demonstrates that fact, but here Paul assumes it.
v.12 Throughout the argument of Galatians, Paul sets the two fundamental principles of salvation over against one another: faith or works, God’s gift or man’s effort. And he uses biblical texts to elucidate each principle. Habakkuk 2:4 simply confirms that the Bible teaches that the just or the righteous come to be so by faith. Leviticus 18:5 is more problematic because in its original context it has nothing to do with justification by the works of the law, with earning one’s righteous status by obedience or moral performance. It is actually one of many texts in the Bible in which God promises to reward his faithful people. Here, however, Paul seems to be taking the verse as a statement of the salvation by works principle. It is an instance, of which there are a number in Paul’s writing, in which he assumes the position of his opponent. He wasn’t going to be able to find a verse in the Bible for the salvation by works principle, so he had to use a verse they used for the salvation by works principle. That is the way they took this text, as a matter of fact. They took it to mean that one can earn his way to heaven by being good. And Paul’s argument is, therefore, that if you take the text that way you must face the implication of your position. If you have to keep the law to be righteous before God then you must keep all the law, all the time; every single one of the commandments, a point he will make still more explicitly in 5:3. If you don’t obey all the commandments, which as a matter of simple fact no one does, then you must be subject to the law’s curse on the disobedient.
v.13 Redemption is one of the concepts employed in the New Testament to describe the work of Christ as our savior from sin. Redemption is the buying of someone out of bondage by the payment of a price, a price that is ordinarily referred to, even in our language today as a ransom. Still today we speak of redeeming coupons at the store. The idea of buying back or getting back lies at the root of the idea. In the Law of Moses, those who had become slaves to repay debt, could be ransomed or redeemed by a relative who would pay their debt. In biblical theology mankind’s bondage for which he needs to be redeemed or bought back is bondage to sin: both sin’s guilt – our liability to punishment – and its corruption, our inability to escape its influence in our hearts and lives. By his death in our place, by the payment of his life, Jesus delivered us from sin’s bondage in both respects.
“Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” in its original context in Deuteronomy didn’t refer to crucifixion. It referred rather to the practice of hanging the corpse of a criminal up after he had been executed. It was a public demonstration of his judgment. But, if being hung up after one was dead was a powerful sign of shame and curse, how much more being killed on the tree itself and exposed throughout the entire process of one’s death!
v.14 The blessing of Abraham is justification before God, the forgiveness of sins that Paul had been describing in earlier verses. And now that message of freedom from sin’s guilt and power through Christ’s curse-bearing on our behalf is being proclaimed to the whole world – to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Those Gentiles who believed in Jesus likewise received the Holy Spirit, whose work within them enabled them to rise above the corrupting power of sin and assured them of their inheritance in heaven.
The Jewish rabbis of the time argued at length about just how much righteousness was required to pass muster at the Last Judgment. Some said almost 100%, others just over 50% others something less. God’s mercy was counted on to tip the scales but one had to acquire the necessary righteousness first by his or her own efforts. That was accepted by all of them.
That was an idea that cannot be found anywhere in the Old Testament, viz. that we can accumulate merits before God, that God is counting up the number of our good works to reach a certain threshold at which point salvation becomes possible for us. By the first century the grace of God had become simply leniency that overlooked faults, not the monumental dealing with sin that the Bible promises everywhere. Sin was something to manage; not something that threatened the very life of men and women. But what is perfectly clear in the Jewish materials of the period was that no one, I mean no one, was expecting the Messiah to appear only to suffer and die in our place to pay the penalty of our sins. This is why the Lord’s disciples struggled so to accept this when the Lord told them plainly that he had come to die, to lay down his life for his friends. The Messiah in their view was a conquering hero not a suffering savior. As Alfred Edersheim, the great Jewish Christian scholar of the 19th century wrote, “Assuredly, the most unlike thing to Christ were his times.” That is, he didn’t conform to anyone’s expectations. He didn’t fit anyone’s idea of the Messiah. He didn’t do anything that they thought needed done. They wanted an earthly deliverance; he was at work saving their souls. They thought they could do that themselves!
By the way, this is one fabulously important evidence for the historicity, the authenticity of all this teaching about Jesus and the cross in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. No one anticipated these events. No one’s view of the coming Messiah included his suffering and dying for sin. It was a thought repugnant both to Jews and Gentiles for different reasons. That was not a story anyone would have thought to invent! The idea that the Messiah was God himself was likewise no one’s idea until it happened! The only thing that accounts for the history we find in the New Testament is that history itself! Everyone had to think utterly new thoughts because of what had happened!
Jesus, as is obvious in the four Gospels, had a completely different understanding of his calling than anyone else, including his disciples. John the Baptist, true prophet that he was, was given to know that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; that is, that he was the atoning sacrifice for our sins. But even John struggled to believe that over the months that followed before his death. But Jesus made it clear who he was and what he had come to do many times. He himself said that the “Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” He said that he was the good shepherd who would lay down his life for his sheep. He said that no one would take his life from him, but that he would lay it down of his own accord. Throughout the Gospels we learn that Jesus was pointing himself toward the crisis at the end when he would fall into the hands of his enemies. He never shirked from that because it was the reason he had come into the world. As he put it: “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life…”
Now, it is true that a Jew in that time, the Lord’s disciples among them, should have known that the Messiah’s ministry would involve his suffering and death for sin. The vast sacrificial system that lay at the heart of Israel’s worship taught them that without the death of a substitute there could be no atonement for sin. The prophets had taught not only that the servant of the Lord would endure hateful opposition but would be punished for the sins of his people. As Isaiah put it in the greatest of his prophesies of the coming Messiah:
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” [53:6]
In fact, in the prophecy of the coming servant of the Lord found in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah there can be found twelve distinct and explicit statements that the servant would suffer the penalty of other men’s sins, that is, that the servant’s death for the sake of the salvation of the world is penal – that is, having to do with just punishment – substitutionary – that is, offered by one in the place and on behalf of others – and atonement – that is, to turn away God’s wrath from them on account of their sin. [J.S. Whale, in Packer, What Did the Cross Achieve, 34] But, notwithstanding all of that prophecy, by the time of the first century Judaism had completely lost the idea of a Redeemer who would die for the sins of the world. It would never have occurred to the first century Jew to sing:
In my place condemned he stood;
Sealed my pardon with his blood.
And so, it continues today. No Jew for whom our Old Testament is still his Bible will say, “Of course the Messiah must die for the sins of the people, just not Jesus of Nazareth. He wasn’t really the Messiah.” No; Judaism is essentially the denial of any such need for a substitutionary atonement to be made for our sins. When a person, any person, either trusts himself or herself to be good enough for God, or trusts God not to care about our sins, the Bible’s assertion that Christ died for sinners falls on deaf ears. They do not wish to hear it. They do not see the need. On our tour of Israel several years ago our Jewish guide admitted that should the temple someday be restored to Israel he didn’t think the sacrificial worship demanded in the Law of Moses would be restored. Our good works, he thought, would be enough to please God. The problem of sin is a little problem for most people, however God makes it perfectly clear in his Word that it is in fact an immense problem; a horrendous problem beyond the power of mere men to solve, a problem that must be solved if we are to find peace with God and escape his righteous judgment, and a problem not only that he alone could solve but a problem he did solve by the death of his Son in the sinner’s place. We may wonder why such punishment was required; we may wonder precisely how Christ’s death amounted to that punishment we deserved; but there is no doubt that Christ’s death on the cross was not only absolutely necessary if we are to be saved but that vast multitudes of human beings have been saved by the cross of Christ and that no one has ever been saved by any other means!
And so it was that for the Apostle Paul, who had himself encountered the risen Christ after he was put to death on the cross, Christ’s death was the foundation of everything in salvation. Indeed, on one occasion Paul summed up his entire message, the subject of his preaching as simply “the message of the cross.” [1 Cor. 1:18] In fact, he began his letter to the Galatians:
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from this present evil age…” What does that mean? He offered his life in exchange for ours.
In chapter 2:20 he will say again that he lives by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. Then chapter 3 begins with still another reminder that Jesus Christ was crucified for these Galatian believers. When Paul came among them, he reminds them, he proclaimed to them Jesus Christ as crucified. So it is only to be expected that at the end of this same letter we should read Paul saying, “…far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ… The cross of the Son of God had changed his life. It had changed his fundamental understanding of his relationship with God. It had delivered him from sin’s bondage and opened for him the way to everlasting life. [J.I. Packer, “The Atonement in the Life of the Christian,” The Glory of the Atonement, 410-414]
Now what was it about the cross that had so transformed the thought and the life of this great man; the one real genius of the first century and one of the most powerful minds in the history of the world? It is a question worth our careful thought. And it will help if first we carry ourselves back to the first century and think again about how people then thought about a cross or a crucifixion.
We Christians have cast such a halo around the cross that it is very hard for us to appreciate how repugnant the very idea of salvation through crucifixion was in the first century. We sing of our love of the cross, we build our churches in the shape of a cross and adorn them with beautiful crosses of wood or metal; we wear crosses of gold or silver around our necks. The cross is emblazoned on the flags of many nations and on millions of tombstones around the world. Many Christians make the sign of the cross as an emblem of prayer. This was all unheard of in the first century; unheard of and literally unthinkable. As Paul wrote in the first chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, his message about the cross, about the Messiah dying on the cross, about the world’s salvation depending upon the death of the Son of God on the cross, was a scandal or stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.
The Jews, of course, were incensed by the claim of the Christians that the Messiah had come but that he had come to be crucified. They had an expectation of the coming of the Messiah — they were longing for him indeed — but weakness, suffering for sin, and an ignominious death had no place in their expectation. The Messiah’s coming would be in glory and worldly conquest, not humiliation. The Christian doctrine of Jesus Christ was a complete repudiation of Jewish thinking about the Messiah. No wonder they found it profoundly offensive, as most people do when someone comes up to them and tells them they’re wrong about virtually everything. But all of that repugnance to the Christian message of the Messiah dying for our sin on the cross had been greatly heightened by the Jews’ experience of crucifixion.
That terrible manner of execution, so brutal, so humiliating, had been used excessively by the Romans in the pacification of Judea and so was associated in the Jewish mind with their cruel mistreatment at the hands of the Romans. In other words, the cross to the Jew in the first century was something akin to the Auschwitz crematorium to the modern Jewish mind. What is more, the Jews took Deuteronomy 21:23 (“If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day.”) at least to indicate that crucifixion was a sign of God’s curse. So the idea of a crucified Messiah was even more completely impossible in their thinking. The Messiah, of all persons, would not be cursed by God! Later in Galatians, in 5:11, Paul will refer to “the offense of the cross.” He meant the offense that Jews took to the very idea that salvation would come through the ignominious humiliation of the Messiah on a cross.
But the Gentiles also found the cross offensive, though for quite different reasons. The notion that the meaning of the world should be found in a Jewish – Jews were not well thought of by Romans and Greeks – a Jewish rabbi who was crucified by Roman authority outside Jerusalem was, in their view, more than faintly ludicrous. People of the Greco-Roman world found the Christian celebration of crucifixion some evidence that Christians were actually unhinged.
In fact, they actually spoke of Christian belief in Jesus Christ, who had been crucified as a state criminal, as a “sick delusion” (figmenta male sanae opinionis) or a “senseless and crazy superstition” (vana et demens superstitio). And chief among the monstrosities of this new faith was that the Christians worship one who had been crucified. [Hengel, Crucifixion, 3] No criminal deserves to be worshipped, they thought, and certainly no criminal deserves to be thought a god! They would have thought about Jesus of Nazareth the way we think of a terrorist put to death for mass murder: hardly someone we should worship as the savior of the world! Imagine today hanging around your neck, ladies, a small, gold electric chair, or a silver gurney with the paraphernalia of a lethal injection attached to it all in shiny silver. As one theologian has written:
“There was no place in the whole world on the morning of the crucifixion which the human mind might have thought less likely to be the locus of the concentrated presence of our Redeeming God than the place called Golgatha.” [Macleod, The Humiliated and Exalted Lord, 34]
In a fascinating and important study of crucifixion in the ancient world, the German scholar, Martin Hengel, pointed out that references to crucifixion were few and far between in the literary remains of that culture even though it was happening all the time. The elite culture was ashamed of crucifixion, they thought it was beneath a culture as sophisticated as their own.
“…for the men of the ancient world, Greeks, Romans, barbarians, and Jews, the cross was not just a matter of indifference, just any kind of death. It was an utterly offensive affair, ‘obscene’ in the original sense of the word.” 
The cross may have precious associations for Christians, but for the people of that day, it was a brutal, ugly thing. Certainly nothing to boast about, to venerate, or to consider precious. You get a taste of the pagan reaction, how ridiculous they thought the message of the cross, in this jibe of the pagan critic Celsus reported to us by Origen.
“Everywhere they speak in their writings of the tree of life and of resurrection of the flesh by the tree – I imagine because their master was nailed to a cross and was a carpenter by trade. So that if he had happened to be thrown off a cliff, or pushed into a pit, or suffocated by strangling, or if he had been a cobbler or stonemason or blacksmith, there would have been a cliff of life above the heavens, or a pit of resurrection, or a rope of immortality, or a blessed stone, or an iron of love, or a holy hide of leather. Would not an old woman who sings a story to lull a little child to sleep have been ashamed to whisper such tales as these.” [Contra Cel. 6:34]
But there was a common thread to these Jewish and Gentile rejections of the Christian message about the cross of Jesus Christ. In neither case did these people reckon with the threat of God’s wrath against them for their sins. As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 1, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…” They are perishing precisely because they do not know themselves to be perishing and have, therefore, no conception of their being in desperate need of redemption. As Paul said of himself in Romans 7, Christ never made any sense to him until he first realized himself a sinner, in bondage to sin, and in desperate need of redemption. The cross is a desperate measure, it is a terrible, revolting death, and so it makes sense only to those who realize that nothing short of desperate measures would be sufficient to meet their need.
The cross was punishment for sin: the way, the only way to avert the wrath of God that threatened us on account of our sin. God’s wrath against our sin cannot be averted. That is justice. But it could be borne by another in our place. That is love. The two together—justice and love—is the meaning of the cross. But these people did not think themselves sinners in need of being saved. And that is as true today as it ever was in the first century.
The Greeks’ religion was very different from that of the Jews, of course. But in this one respect it was much the same. It had no real fear of sin or of the judgment of God. It was not shaped by a concern for divine forgiveness nor did it understand human sin to be the great obstacle to true fulfillment in this world or to entrance into heaven. In fact, it had comparatively little concern with the world to come. Greco-Roman religion had rather to do with ways of acquiring prosperity and happiness in this life. There was little reflection on eternal life or life after death. It is very interesting, for example, to read through the numerous personal questions asked of the oracle at Delphi:
How may I become a parent?
Shall I succeed?
Where shall I go or settle?
All the questions are about affairs in this life and about how things will turn out in the here and now. For such people, salvation had to do with health and happiness now, not peace with God and fellowship with God in the world to come. It is, of course, very much the same today. Western culture is very like the Gentile culture of the first century. We are not nearly as much like the Jews as the Gentiles. The Jews thought more of the world to come, even if they took their place in it largely for granted. The Gentiles hardly thought of it at all. But the result was the same: neither had any need of a Redeemer who would suffer and die for their sins. They didn’t need forgiveness, they needed a wife or a husband or more money; and so it is today: people, so they think, need a spouse, or a new job, a child, a better car; they need better health or they need a bigger house; they need a lighter heart, they need, as Francis Schaeffer used to say, “personal peace and affluence.”
If Jesus Christ did not come to give them that, what good is he? And if he cannot give me what I want, why in the world should I take seriously some long ago Jewish rabbi whom the Romans summarily dispatched in the most ignominious way. It’s absurd. Is this not the problem today?
But, you see, it is the offense of the cross, its cruelty, its inhumanity that is its entire point. On the cross the Lord Jesus bore our curse, our damnation. Of course, it was terrible; of course it was a death from which men would turn away their faces. It was horrible because it had to be horrible to be sufficient to atone for our many and terrible sins, one of the worst of which is our unwillingness even to admit how many and how terrible our sins actually are! The cross is the decisive revelation of the enormity of human sin and guilt, that God himself, now also a man, should have to suffer that ignominious and brutal death to pay the price of our sin so that we would not have to pay it ourselves. The horror of the cross is the measure of the love that sent Jesus to death there. The cross puts love, infinite love, divine love at the center of all true understanding of salvation: a terrible sacrifice made willingly for us.
Once you admit the reality of human sin and guilt the cross rises above you, terrible but luminously beautiful at the same time. It becomes for you the supreme demonstration of God’s love. For it met our need, your need, my need in the only way it could be met. Christ died for us: that is good news! Thrilling news! Transcendently wonderful news! Who loved me and gave his life for me!