The Blessed Cursed Tree
An important biblical theological idea emerges out of Paul's use of Deuteronomy 21:23 in Galatians 3:13. In the middle of the most polemical book in the New Testament, Paul made the astounding declaration: "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree')." The immediate context shows that the curse to which Paul is referring is the curse of the law (Gal. 3:10-11). Returning to Deuteronomy 21, out of which Paul takes the command for capital punishment and applies it to Christ, we discover the theological riches of Gal. 3:13. In Deuteronomy 21:23 we read:
"If a man has committed a sin deserving of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God." (Deut. 21:22-23)
The civil law, given to Israel in redemptive-history, was meant to prepare God's people for the coming Redeemer. Just as the moral and ceremonial laws pointed to Jesus and our need for Him, so too did the judicial principles of the civil law. The civil law as a redemptive-historical guide is one that has often been neglected--and yet it is one of the richest in all the Scriptures.
Before considering the redemptive-historical purpose of the civil law, as it pertains to Galatians 3:13, we must turn our attention to the other purposes of the civil law given to Old Covenant Israel. God gave Israel civil law in general-and the death penalty specifically-to reflect His justice among the covenant people and the nations. In so doing, the holiness and justice of God was manifest to all. Additionally, the civil law was meant to restrain civil disobedience in the theocratic church-state of Israel in the Old Testament. The OT civil law was given because "bad company corrupts good morals" (cf. 1 Cor 15:33). The more unrighteousness was permitted to exist among the covenant people, the more Jehovah's holiness was obstructed.
The death penalty was the most severe of the juridical laws given to Israel. This irremediable punishment reflected what all men deserve by nature. God had told Adam, "Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it, in dying you will die" (Gen. 2:17). In the Mosaic Law, the death penalty was accompanied by a public display of justice. Death came in by virtue of Adam's relation to the tree, therefore in the exhibition of the curse of God--in the civil law--the offending party would be hung on the tree as a reminder of that curse (Deut. 21:22). Physical death symbolized eternal death, by which the sinner was banished from God's favorable presence. When the life of an offending party was taken away, the curse of God was displayed before the eyes of others.
Not all crimes in Israel merited the death penalty. God had arranged a just system to adequately reflect the severity of the crime. We see this distinguishing characteristic in the phrase, "you shall put away the evil from among you." This verse is repeated nine times in the book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 13:5; 17:7, 12; 19:18; 21:21, 22, 24; and 24:7). It is used with reference to the death penalty for those worthy of receiving it. By putting away the evil one from the congregation, the influence of morally unacceptable practices were restrained.
The law always was, in and of itself, powerless to change the heart of the sinner. Obedience to God could never be legislated. Habakkuk declared, "The law is powerless" (Hab. 1:4). The apostle Paul explained this powerlessness when he said, "What the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin, He condemned sin in the flesh" (Rom. 8:3-4).
The limited restraining influence of the civil law served the redemptive-historical purposes of God. By its limited restraint, the nation could continue until the Redeemer came. In this sense, the civil law given to Israel was given to preserve the nation for the coming of the Redeemer; but it was also meant to prepare the nations for the Redeemer and His saving work through typological elements. The civil law, like the moral law was given to show men what they deserved for their sin, and set the stage for the punishment that Christ would endure in the place of His people.
The Law's powerlessness leads to a greater appreciation for the redemptive-historical significance of the civil law. When we come to the New Testament we do not find the apostles insisting on the church's implementation of civil law into the governments. Rather, we find them applying it spiritually to the life of the New Covenant church. The greatest example of this spiritual application comes from the apostle Paul's use of the phrase "You shall put the evil away from among you" (Deut. 13:5; 17:7, 12; 19:18; 21:21, 22, 24; and 24:7) in 1 Corinthians 5:13. The phrase, which was always tied to the death penalty in Israel's civil law, is now applicable for spiritual discipline in the church.
In the NT, the apostles apply case laws from the Old Testament spiritually to the life of the church precisely because of their understanding of the relationship between the law and the saving work of Christ. Galatians 3:13 becomes a supremely important example of this principle. Christ was judged in a human court in order to show, as Heidelberg Catechism Q. 38 states, "that he, being innocent, and yet condemned by a temporal judge, might thereby free us from the severe judgment of God to which we were exposed." There was something typological about the civil laws themselves--just as the laws of retribution/restoration were preparatory for the restitution that Christ makes for us in the Gospel.
The typological nature of the civil law given to OT Israel finds it's fullest expression in the execution of Christ at Calvary. The application of these laws from the national to the spiritual realm can only be accounted for by the "spiritualizing" and "eternalizing" of the preparatory nature of the Old Testament in the finished work of Christ. Geerhardus Vos explained this so well when he wrote:
Eschatological revelation is presented in the language of the Mosaic institutions. The New Testament first transposes it into a new key. Here in the New Testament it is spiritualized. In the Old Testament it is expressed in terms of perfection of the forms of Israel's theocracy. The holy city is center; offices, organizations, peace, abundance, etc. are there, but this all is to be eternalized in the Messainic era, and will be free of the vicissitudes of the present era. All this is the content of revelation.(1)
Paul's use of Deut. 21:23 in Gal. 3:13 establishes the point about the redemptive-historical purpose of the civil law when we give careful consideration to the context of Deut. 21. In Deuteronomy 21 we read of the case law concerning the disobedient son who was to be put to death. This case law (Deut. 21:18-20) comes immediately before the command of Deut. 21:23 to hang such a one on a tree. Though the law concerning the rebellious son was not the only case law in which the death penalty applied, it is not an accident that it is closely tied to the directive of Deut. 21:22-24. When Paul picks up on the relationship between Deut. 21:23 and the death of Christ, surely he understands that there is also a relationship between Deut. 21:20 and the suffering of Christ. Though Paul does not draw this out explicitly, it is implied in the use of Deut. 21:23.
Furthermore, undertones of Deut. 21:20 are found in the false accusations that the Jews level against Christ in Matthew 11:19. The nature of Jesus' ministry was that of "sitting with tax collectors and sinners." Because of the approach with which Jesus brought this joyous message to such "sinners" many of the Jews accused Him of being "a glutton and a drunkard." It is impossible not to see the correlation between Deut. 21:20, Matthew 11:19 and Galatians 3:13 when read through the lens of such passages as 2 Corinthians 5:21 and 1 Peter 3:18. Though He was the obedient Son who never sinned, He was constituted as the disobedient son. He did this so that disobedient sons might receive the righteous standing as sons of God through faith wrought union with Him. At the cross, the obedient son was treated as the disobedient son. In this sense, He "was made a curse for us."
While we may not have committed civil crimes by which we would incur the death penalty, we all deserve "the death penalty" from the Divine court for the sins that we have committed against the infinite and eternal God. If the punishment fits the crime, then the punishment for sin against an eternal God is eternal punishment. Vern Poythress explains the relationship between the death penalty in Israel's civil law and the punishment unregenerate sinners will experience in the hereafter when he writes:
For those outside of Christ, the death penalty for violations of God's holiness says something else...The wicked must experience eternal death, because they are violators of the holiness of Christ. God's love for Christ also implies his hatred for Christ's enemies and his zeal to vindicate Christ's honor. "Those who honor me I will honor" (1 Sam. 2:30) is true also at the last day. When Christ receives the full honor due to him (Phil. 2:10-11), all rebellion is utterly crushed. (2)
When Christ hung on the cross, He became a curse for us. The tree was a sign of God's righteous judgment. In the case of Christ, the tree was a symbol of death.
For us, it is now a symbol of life. Adam, the son of God (Luke 3:38), forfeited our right to the Tree of Life by taking the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Christ, the second Adam, gives us access to the Tree of Life by hanging on the cursed tree. Sinclair Ferguson helpfully explains the relationship between the first Adam--and the Tree from which he ate--and the second Adam--and the Tree from which He ate (spiritually)--when he said:
What was the nature of Jesus' temptation in the Garden that made Him say, "Let this cup pass from Me--that's My desire"? That was a perfectly holy desire. Any other desire would have been an unholy and godless desire. Why? Because a holy man can never have any wish or desire or purpose to experience a sense of divine desolation. It was not within our Lord Jesus' holy humanity to ever desire to be in a position where He would cry out, "My God, I am forsaken by You. Why?"
The holiness of the soul of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane was compelled to say to the Father, "Not that tree;" and in doing so He was undoing what Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden, did--because the tree in the Garden of Eden is described in exactly the same terms as any other tree--there's no other difference. If you had walked past that tree there was no crooked branches saying, "I'm ugly; don't touch me." There would have been nothing about the fruit saying "I'm horrible; don't eat me." Just read the opening of Genesis 3you'll see that tree is described in terms of its nature exactly the same way as every other tree is described. So there was nothing in that tree itself that make Adam say, "Oh, I don't want that tree."
What Adam was called to do was to say, "There is no reason in that tree itself for me to say I do not want it--except God has said, "Don't touch it." And so, at this point, I have to bow before God and say, "I trust you" even though everything in me says, "That tree looks absolutely delicious." That's actually obvious because God would not deceive a human being by making a tree that looked delicious and yet tasted poisonous...And so, as it were, on the other end of this strange spectrum of human history Jesus is facing another tree, and everything about that tree--in contrast with the tree in the Garden of Eden--is saying "You do not want me," and His Father is saying, "That's the tree whose fruit I want you to eat, and to do it simply because I'm Your Father, and I'm commanding You to save men and women in this way--So Jesus, take the cup." And the wonder of it all is (and Hebrews goes on to speak about those loud cryings and tears), is that He took the bitter fruit of Calvary's tree and consumed its last bitter dregs. That's why Paul said, "He became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.(3)
Ferguson continues to develop this in the following way:
The New Testament doesn't make much of the fact that there is a connectedness between the tree in the Garden of Eden and the tree on which Christ was crucified except that we do have Man coming to the tree and the curse falling upon Him because of what happens at the tree; and then there is, inbuilt into the Old Testament law, that the man who hangs on a tree is accursed of God--and Paul picks that up...in Galatians 3:13 to say quite specifically "It's not accidental that Jesus was not stoned to death." There is a huge divine significance in the manner in which He died. That's another exposition of why it is that He dies by crucifixion and not by any other way...
That parallel then is rooted in the notion of Paul in Romans 5:12-21--I think it lies behind Philippians 2:5-11--that the first Adam is disobedient; the second Adam is obedient. The first Adam grasps at equality with God; the second Adam who possesses equality with God doesn't count it a thing to be made a special consideration for Himself but humbles Himself, takes the form of a servant--being found in human form--He dies, and not just dies, but specifically dies the death of the cross.(4)
1. Geerhardus Vos, The Eschatology of the Old Testament (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2001) pp. 118.
2. Vern Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses.
3. Sinclair Ferguson "Why the God-Man?" from the 2011 Ligonier Ministries National Conference (at he 53:33 mark).
4. Ferguson "Q & A" from 2011 Ligonier Ministries National Conference (beginning at the 31:34 mark).
This article first appeared at Reformation21 in May of 2013.