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Galatians 3:10–141 F or over fifty years I have studied and read a host of tomes written about the meaning of the cross of Christ, and yet I still believe that I have not been able to do anything more than touch the surface of the depths and the riches that are contained in that moment of redemptive history. I suspect that when my eyes open in heaven for the first time, I will be absolutely staggered by the sudden increase of understanding that will come to me when I behold the Lamb who was slain and hear angels and archangels singing in my ears, 132 R. C. Sproul “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev.
5:12), and when I see the apostle Paul and say, “Thank you for knowing nothing but Christ and him crucified.” When we go to the New Testament and read not only the narrative event of the cross but the many didactic expressions that explain to us its meaning and significance, I think we are soon aware that there is no one image or dimension that can comprehensively explain the cross. Rather, we find many images and metaphors that would indicate that the cross is a multifaceted event. It is by no means one-dimensional. It is as a magnificent tapestry woven by several distinct brightly hued threads that, when brought together, give us a magnificent finished work of art.
When the New Testament speaks of the atonement of Jesus, it does so in terms of substitution; it calls attention to a death that in some way was vicarious. The New Testament speaks of the satisfaction of the justice and wrath of God. In Scripture we see the metaphor of the kinsman redeemer who paid the bridal price to purchase his bride with his blood, releasing her from bondage. We see that motif used in the New Testament when it speaks of ransom that is paid. We find the motif of victory over Satan and the powers of darkness when the serpent’s head is crushed under the bruised heel of the Redeemer.
But one image, one aspect, of the atonement has receded in our day almost into obscurity. We have been made aware of present-day attempts to preach a more gentle and kind gospel. In our effort to communicate the work of Christ more kindly we flee from any mention of a curse inflicted by God upon his Son. We shrink in horror from the words of the prophet Isaiah (chap. 53) that describe the ministry of the suffering servant of Israel and tells us that it pleased the Lord to bruise him. Can you take that in? Somehow the Father took pleasure in bruising the Son when he set before him that awful cup of divine wrath. How could the Father be pleased by bruising
THE CURSE MOTIF OF THE ATONEMENThis Son were it not for his eternal purpose through that bruising to restore us as his children?
But there is the curse motif that seems utterly foreign to us, particularly in this time in history. When we speak today of the idea of curse, what do we think of? We think perhaps of a voodoo witch doctor that places pins in a doll made to replicate his enemy.
We think of an occultist who is involved in witchcraft, putting spells and hexes upon people. The very word curse in our culture suggests some kind of superstition, but in biblical categories there is nothing superstitious about it.
Blessings and Curses in Biblical History The idea of the curse is deeply rooted in biblical history. We need only to go to the opening chapters of Genesis to the record of the fall of man, the event that provoked from God his anathema on the serpent, who was cursed to go around on his belly. The curse was then given to the earth itself: it would bring forth thorns and briars, making it difficult for Adam to live by the toil of his brow.
The curse also brought excruciating (I choose that word carefully) pain to women during childbirth.
But not only do we find this idea of curse early in Genesis, but if we fast-forward to the giving of the law under Moses, we see that God attached to the covenant he made with his people at Sinai a positive sanction and a negative sanction. The positive sanction is
articulated there in terms of the concept of blessedness:
of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out. (Deut. 28:1–6) God adds that if his people keep his Word, he will bless them— in the city and the country, when they rise up and lie down. God will bless them in the kitchen, the bedroom, and the living room.
He will bless their fields, their goats, their sheep, and their cows. If they keep his Word, their lives will be nothing but an experience of
divine benediction and blessedness. But God goes on to say:
If you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or to be careful to do all his commandments and his statues that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.
Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock.
Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out. (vv. 15–19) In the kitchen, in the living room, in the bedroom, in the garage— cursed.
One of the things I love about Christmas is the singing of carols.
One of my favorites is “Joy to the World”:
How far do we find that curse? The apostle Paul says that the whole creation groans together in travail waiting for the manifestation of the
THE CURSE MOTIF OF THE ATONEMENTsons of God. We live on a planet that is under the curse of God. I’d like to take some time to explore the significance of God’s divine curse.
Oracles of Weal and Woe When the prophets of the Old Testament spoke—not their opinions but the word that God placed in their mouths—the favorite method the prophets used to express the word of God was the oracle. It seems that sometimes the only place we see the concept of the oracle is in Greek mythology, such as in the Oracle of Delphi, where we find people going to self-appointed prophets to get a divine pronouncement. Well, there were oracles before Delphi—there was one called Isaiah and others called Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, Ezekiel, and Daniel. They used the oracular form to communicate the Word of God.
There were two basic kinds of oracles known to the prophets.
There was the oracle of weal, which was an oracle of good news, an announcement of prosperity coming from the hand of God, and there was the oracle of woe, an announcement of doom also coming from the hand of God. The oracle of weal was typically uttered by the use of the term blessed, the pronouncement of a divine benediction.
David begins the Psalms:
How often did our Lord exercise the function of the prophet and make oracular pronouncements such as he did on the Sermon on the Mount? There he looked to his disciples and said, “Blessed are the poor.... Blessed are those who mourn.... Blessed are the meek....
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.... Blessed are the pure in heart.... Blessed are the peacemakers.... Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matt. 5:3–10).
We call that section of the sermon “the Beatitudes” because Jesus pronounces the blessing of God upon certain people.
The oracle of doom, in contrast, was normally prefaced by the word woe. When Amos pronounced the judgments of God on the nations he said, “Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!...
Woe to those who are at ease in Zion.... Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory” (Amos 5:18; 6:1, 4). When Isaiah beheld the unveiled holiness of God, he pronounced an oracle of doom upon himself because he understood God (Isa. 6:5).
We love to hear the story of blessedness, but we never want to hear the woe. Besides ours, I don’t think there has been a culture in the history of the world that has experienced more discontinuity at that level. Everywhere in America we see automobiles with bumper stickers that read God Bless America. After 9/11 Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell suggested that perhaps the events of that day were God’s judgments upon America, and the outrage of the press was so severe they had to recant their musings on that point. We believe in a God who is infinitely capable of blessing people but is utterly incapable of cursing them. When I was a young Christian, I heard a sermon from Billy Graham in which he said, “If God does not judge America, he’s going to have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.” But the idea of God bringing judgment and wrath and
THE CURSE MOTIF OF THE ATONEMENTcurse upon a nation has been expurgated from our Bibles and from our theologies.
The Hebrew Benediction If you really want to understand what it meant to a Jew to be cursed, I think the simplest way is to look at the famous Hebrew benediction in the Old Testament, one which clergy often use as the
concluding benediction in a church service:
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
(Num. 6:24–26) The structure of that famous benediction follows a common Hebrew poetic form known as parallelism. There are various types of parallelism in Hebrew literature. There’s antithetical parallelism in which ideas are set in contrast one to another. There is synthetic parallelism, which contains a building crescendo of ideas. But one of the most common forms of parallelism is synonymous parallelism, and, as the words suggest, this type restates something with different words. There is no clearer example of synonymous parallelism anywhere in Scripture than in the benediction in Numbers 6, where exactly the same thing is said in three different ways. If you don’t understand one line of it, then look to the next one, and maybe it will reveal to you the meaning.
We see in the benediction three stanzas with two elements in each one: “bless” and “keep”; “face shine” and “be gracious”; and “lift up the light of his countenance” and “give you peace.” For the Jew, to be blessed by God was to be bathed in the refulgent glory that emanates from his face. “The Lord bless you” means “the Lord make his face to shine upon you.” Is this not what Moses begged for on the mountain when he asked to see God? Yet God told him that no man 138 R. C. Sproul can see him and live. So God carved out a niche in the rock and placed Moses in the cleft of it, and God allowed Moses to see a glimpse of his backward parts but not of his face. After Moses had gotten that brief glance of the back side of God, his face shone for an extended period of time. But what the Jew longed for was to see God’s face, just once.
The Jews’ ultimate hope was the same hope that is given to us in the New Testament, the final eschatological hope of the beatific vision: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Don’t you want to see him? The hardest thing about being a Christian is serving a God you have never seen, which is why the Jew asked for that.
There is a scene in the movie Ben Hur where Ben has been reduced to slavery and is being dragged behind his captor. They finally come to a well in the midst of the desert. Ben’s lips are parched and he is overcome with thirst. All of a sudden we see someone come out of the shadows, and he stoops over and gives Ben a cup of cold water. The camera is positioned to reflect Ben Hur’s vision. As he looks up into the face of the one giving him the water, Ben’s face begins to shine. The viewer doesn’t have to be told who gave him the drink of water; it is understood that the Lord Jesus made his face to shine upon this slave.
But my purpose here is not to explain the blessing of God but its polar opposite, its antithesis, which again can be seen in vivid contrast to the benediction. The supreme malediction would read 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.” The Core of the Gospel There are several animals involved in the ritual performed on the Day of Atonement. Before the high priest can enter into the Most
THE CURSE MOTIF OF THE ATONEMENTHoly Place (which he alone can do only one day each year), he must make a blood sacrifice and go through an elaborate process of purification. There are two more animals involved, one that is killed and another that survives. The one that is killed yields blood, which the high priest takes into the inner sanctum and sprinkles on the mercy seat to bring reconciliation. Yet, in this drama there is no power in that blood other than its pointing forward to the blood of the Lamb, even as the blood on the doorposts on the night of Passover pointed beyond itself to Christ.
We know two things from the Day of Atonement. First, that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. We also learn from the author of Hebrews that the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sin. But in the drama of the blood sacrifice that is sprinkled on the mercy seat, an act of propitiation is symbolized, which some brilliant translators in the middle of the twentieth century decided to take out of the New Testament, to their everlasting shame.
Those are two words at the core of the gospel—propitiation and expiation. They have the same root but different prefixes.
People must understand propitiation and expiation if they are going to understand the gospel. I use the structure of my church, St.