No doubt many Christians would quickly respond, “to atone for our sin.” Yes, but why on a cross? There were other forms of execution available to the-powers-that-be in the first century. John the Baptist was beheaded. Stephen stoned.
The informed listener might volunteer, “Because that was barbaric Rome’s favorite way of putting criminal’s to death.” True, but I believe it’s safe to say the cross was central to God’s plans. So couldn’t Rome’s barbarism be seen as His way of insuring His son would die on that wooden stake?
The answer to the question is found in this verse: “Messiah 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.’” (Gal. 3:13/ Deut. 21:23).
For years that verse meant little to me. It was just some obscure connection to the Mosaic Law. But after a recent visit to the hills of Samaria where Moses had instructed Israel to read all the blessings and curses attached to the Law, I now have a much clearer understanding.
When Israel entered the land, Moses had told them to place six tribes before Mt. Gerazim and read all the blessings God would give them. The other six tribes were told to stand before Mt. Ebal and read all the curses with their punishments. The factor that determined whether Israel would be cursed or blessed rested on one mutually agreed upon stipulation - “Keep ALL the commandments which I command you today” (Deut 27:1).
In other words, Israel had to obey every jot and title if they wanted to be blessed. If they missed even one jot or tittle they’d be cursed. That was the agreement. As James, the Lord’s brother put it, “For whoever keeps the whole law and stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10).
Yeshua, in his sermon on the Mount, raised the stakes even higher. He said we didn’t even have to carry out the violations to inherit the curses. If we lusted or coveted or grew angry in our heart we were equally as guilty (see Matt. 5:21-30). That’s how impossible it truly was for any man to keep the Law. And Israel demonstrated that in spades. Three horrific expulsions from the land testify to their complete inability to keep all the laws as prescribed under the Old Covenant and avoid the curses.
But then God knew all along that would happen. Because the Law in that form was merely a temporary covenant given “until the seed would come to whom the promises had been made” (Gal. 3:19).
When Yeshua came in the fullness of time, he was “born under the Law” (Gal 4:5). He lived his whole life under it and kept every jot and tittle. Not once did he sin. Yet the world nailed him to that wooden cross, which according to Deuteronomy 21:23, made him accursed of God. And in so doing, all the judgment that should rightfully fall upon Israel was legally transferred to this innocent man. He redeemed us, not only from the never-ending cycle of judgments for failure to obey the Law, but also the ultimate curse - eternal death. You just had to believe it to receive it.
When Yeshua cried out, “It is finished,” it signaled that the demands of the Mosaic Law had been fulfilled. Its only purpose had been to reveal we had a genetic sin problem we couldn’t solve, which would lead us to Messiah. At his death, Israel immediately came into the New Covenant Messiah had inaugurated the night before, as promised through Jeremiah 600 years earlier. “And when He said, ‘a new covenant, He has made the first obsolete. And whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear” (Heb. 8:23).
As evidence of this, the veil of the Holy of Holies was ripped from top to bottom. That signified all who believed he was “the way” could now enter into the presence of God, righteous and forgiven. Before then, only the high priest on Yom Kippur was permitted that honor, and that via the blood of animals. But Yeshua had provided access through his own shed blood, bringing the Levitical priesthood and the man-made temple complex to a close - forever.
Today, God’s presence dwells among His people by His spirit. “For we are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor. 6:16). We are the living stones “growing into a temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:2) that will one day be brought together with the sons of Judah in a spiritual edifice more glorious than even Solomon’s temple. “For God does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (Acts. 7:4-50).
In fulfilling that former covenant, Yeshua not only redeemed us from the curses we had incurred, he made it possible for us to finally become truly “Torah observant” – by simply loving God and our neighbor as our selves. “For he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the Law” (Rom. 13:8).
All Father God asks us to do now is to honor His son’s sacrifice on that tree and be Yeshua-Observant. And we will always walk righteously before Him.
Brian Hennessy is author of Valley of the Steeples