Positive Hope in Jesus Christ
Christ 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”—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (3:13–14)
Turning again to the positive, Paul reminds the Jewish believers in Galatia of the fact that Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having been a curse for us.
Redeemed is from exagorazō, a word commonly used of buying a slave’s freedom. Christ justifies those who believe in Him by buying them back from their slavery to sin. The price He paid was the only one high enough to redeem all of mankind, the “precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:19).
The curse of the Law was the punishment demanded because no man could keep from violating its demands, but Christ took that curse upon Himself as a substitute for sinners and became a curse for us in His crucifixion, for it is written (Deut. 21:23), “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”
In ancient Judaism a criminal who was executed, usually by stoning, was then tied to a post, a type of tree, where his body would hang until sunset as a visible representation of rejection by God. It was not that a person became cursed by being hanged on a tree but that he was hanged on a tree because he was cursed. Jesus did not become a curse because He was crucified but was crucified because he was cursed in taking the full sin of the world upon Himself. “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed” (1 Pet. 2:24; cf. Acts 5:30).
That truth was extremely hard for most Jews to accept, because they could not imagine the Messiah’s being cursed by God and having to hang on a tree. First Corinthians 12:3 suggests that “Jesus is accursed” was a common, demon-inspired saying among unbelieving Jews of that day. To them, Jesus’ crucifixion was final and absolute proof that He was not the promised Messiah.
But for those who trust in Him, the two words for us become the two most beautiful words in all of Scripture. Because God sent His Son to bear the penalty for man’s sin, every person who puts his trust in the crucified Savior has had the curse borne for him.
Jesus’ sacrifice was total and for all men, in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. On man’s part, the curse is lifted by faith, which God, on His part and by grace, counts as righteousness on the believer’s behalf, and the river of blessing begins to flow as the rushing water of God’s grace engulfs the believer. Jesus Christ bore the curse, Paul affirms, to bring the blessing of Abraham … to the Gentiles. Salvation was for the purpose of God’s blessing the world. All that God desired for and promised to Abraham of salvation and its benefits would spread to the nations. A coordinate purpose clause is added—so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (cf. Acts 1:4–5; Eph. 1:13), who comes as the resident, indwelling Person to bless us with power.
All of this blessing is through faith. Justifying faith involves self-renunciation, putting away all confidence in one’s own merit and works. Like the Israelites who had Pharaoh’s pursuing army behind them and the impassable Red Sea in front of them, the sinner must acknowledge his sinfulness and his total inability to save himself. When he sees God’s justice pursuing him and God’s judgment ahead of him, he realizes his helplessness in himself and realizes he has nowhere to turn but to God’s mercy and grace.
Justifying faith also involves reliance on and submission to the Lord. When a sinner sees that he has no way to escape and no power in his own resources, he knows he must rely on God’s provision and power. Finally, justifying faith involves appropriation, as the sinner gratefully receives the free gift of pardon Christ offers and submits to His authority.
Justifying faith does not have to be strong faith; it only has to be true faith. And true faith not only brings salvation to the believer but glory to the One who saves.
When a person receives Christ as Lord and Savior, he receives the promised blessing and the promised Spirit, which Paul describes in Ephesians as being “blessed … with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (1:3). This blessing gives a testimony of praise to “the glory of His grace” (1:6). God receives glory when His attributes are on display, and nowhere is His grace more evident than in the sending of His only Son to be crucified on man’s behalf, the Sinless paying the debt of the sinful. Believers are “raised … up with Him, and seated … with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus, in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward [them] in Christ Jesus” (2:6–7).
Men are redeemed in order to exhibit God’s majestic being before all creation. His supreme purpose is to demonstrate His glorious grace against the backdrop of man’s sinfulness, lostness, and hopelessness. The very purpose of the church is to “stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy” and to praise “the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, … [for His] glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever” (Jude 24–25).
13–14 Paul’s point about justification by faith is now established. He again alludes to the “curse” brought about by employing the law as a means of justification (cf. v. 10). Here in v. 13, after suddenly changing the subject from curse to redemption, Paul joins the concept of the curse as found in Deuteronomy 27:26 (referred to in v. 10) to the concept of curse as found in Deuteronomy 21:23. He interprets the former in terms of the latter by means of the Jewish exegetical principle of gezerah shawah (a verbal analogy from one verse to another; cf. Fung, 147–48). Paul adapts his citation of Deuteronomy 21:23 to the curses of Deuteronomy 27:26 in order to make the factual statement (“everyone is accursed who hangs on a tree”) an anathema (“cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”). So Paul is able to demonstrate that Christ’s death fit both the demands of the law for disobedience and the extension of the promise made to Abraham to all who express faith as Abraham did. Because the sinless Christ paid the price for sin in his death on the “tree,” anyone exercising faith in him and that death is redeemed, and hence justified. One who exercises faith in the work of Christ believes the promise of God (for forgiveness), and God credits it to him as righteousness. This is referred to as an “exchange curse”: Jesus takes on himself the curse of sin and the law and extends his righteousness to those who trust in him (cf. 2 Co 5:21). So God fulfills the Abrahamic covenant in the cross of Christ, and Gentiles are included in the community of God’s people in the newly inaugurated age of the Spirit received by faith.
Christ a curse for us (v. 13)
In what is without question one of the most remarkable statements in the New Testament on the death of Christ, Paul says in verse 13, ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” ’ (ESV). The cross was a scene of redemption, an idea with which Paul’s first-century readers were more familiar than we are today. To redeem someone (a slave, for example) was to secure his or her freedom by the payment of a price. And it was in order to redeem us, to secure our freedom from the curse of the law, that Jesus died on Calvary.
What a price he paid for it! He redeemed us from the curse of the law, says Paul, by ‘becoming a curse for us’ (v. 13). The penalty of our law-breaking was transferred to him. For a wrath-deserving people he became the wrath-bearer, an accursed one, bearing the curse that should have been borne by us.
In confirmation of that, Paul quotes yet another Old Testament Scripture (Deut. 21:23): ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’ When a criminal under Old Testament law was put to death by being hanged on a tree it pointed to the fact that he or she was under the curse of God. The nailing of Jesus to the cross symbolized the very same thing. Frequently in the New Testament the cross of Calvary is thought of and spoken of as a tree (Acts 5:30; 13:29; 1 Peter 2:24). That is because the Christ who died there was under the curse of God—redeeming us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.
3:13 / Paul believes that the change in the relationship between law and faith within Judaism results from Christ’s death, which Paul interprets in various ways throughout his letters. As M. D. Hooker has noted, none of the images Paul uses to speak about the cross “is complete in itself” (Not Ashamed of the Gospel: New Testament Interpretation of the Death of Christ [Carlisle: Paternoster, 1994], p. 45). Here it serves the apostle’s purpose to interpret Christ’s death as one in which Christ became a curse. This description should be understood in the context of the following scriptural quotation. Paul uses metonymy: Christ did not become as the law is (the curse of the law); Christ took on the position of those under the law—he became accursed. Citing Deuteronomy 21:23, Paul describes Christ’s death as one who was accursed, cut off from his people and from God. This place of curse is one that Paul and others were in until Christ redeemed them. Through his death Christ delivered believers from the “curse of the law” and thereby severed the relationship between faith in him and law. There is no need to follow law, for those who believe in Christ are released from law.
The quotation from Deuteronomy 21:23 contains the word “curse,” as did the first quotation (3:10, citing Deut. 27:26). In the scriptural context of each quotation the word “curse” indicates exclusion from the community. In Deuteronomy 27:26 all the people say “amen” to the curse, thereby affirming their stand against the behavior cursed and their willingness to shun anyone disobeying the law. The context of the Deuteronomy 21:23 quote is instruction about the burial of a criminal’s corpse: when someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and so executed and hung on a tree, the corpse must not remain all night upon the tree but should be buried that day, for “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” The exposed corpse of a dead criminal would defile the land God gives as an inheritance. The language of curse in relation to Christ’s death serves Paul’s point of emphasizing that through the Galatians’ faith in the death of Christ (3:1) they already are descendants of Abraham (3:7). He affirms that Christ’s death released believers from the curse of potentially being excluded from the people of God and effected inclusion within the people of God for those in Christ.
Paul’s use of Deuteronomy 21:23, in which the cursed person is a criminal deserving death, and his statement that Christ’s death was in our stead (for us), make plain that Paul thinks that Christ died for our sins. Nevertheless, Paul does not say explicitly that Christ died for our sins; he does not state directly that Christ’s death was a “sin offering” (cf. Rom. 8:3–4). The mechanics of salvation are beyond the rational realm. It is probably best to take Paul’s words as metaphorical. He seeks to explain his conviction that Christ’s death has effected the end of the law and opened the way for all to benefit from being the people of God. Paul’s focus is not on the manner in which Christ’s death made salvation available but on the fact that salvation is in Christ, apart from the law, and that those who believe in Christ are now incorporated into Christ.
Paul’s use of the first person plural pronoun us does not indicate that the Galatians had been following the Jewish law before they came to faith in Christ. In fact, we know that they had been pagans (4:8). Rather, Paul is describing the stages of God’s salvation plan, which he will describe in more depth in the subsequent verses. Before Christ everyone, Jew and pagan, was in slavery to the law (cf. 3:23), for whether one was a Jew or a pagan, there was no other way to deal with sin than through the law one knew (cf. Rom. 2:14). The ancient world understood law in a general sense to be that which reflected justice. As Aristotle says, “ ‘The just’ therefore means that which is lawful or that which is equal and fair” (Eth. nic. 5.1.8 [Rackham, LCL]). Law was a way of measuring and achieving justice. By broadening the field to speak about law in general Paul asserts that the Galatians have already followed the law. This is an effective rhetorical strategy, for the conclusion is plain that through believing in Christ crucified (cf. 3:1), the Galatians have already once turned from following law.
The Alternative of Faith (verses13,14)
This second alternative introduces Jesus Christ. It tells us that Jesus Christ has done for us on the cross what we could not do for ourselves. The only way to escape the curse is not by our work, but by His. He has redeemed us, ransomed us, set us free from the awful condition of bondage to which the curse of the law had brought us. Verse 13: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us. These are astonishing words. As Bishop Blunt put it: ‘the language here is startling, almost shocking. We should not have dared to use it. Yet Paul means every word of it.’ In its context, in which it must be read, the phrase can mean only one thing, for the ‘curse’ of verses 10 and 13 is evidently the same curse. The ‘curse of the law’ from which Christ redeemed us must be the curse resting upon us for our disobedience (verse 10). And He redeemed us from it by ‘becoming a curse’ Himself. The curse was transferred from us to Him. He took it voluntarily upon Himself, in order to deliver us from it. It is this ‘becoming a curse for us’ which explains the awful cry of dereliction, of God-forsakenness, which He uttered from the cross.
Paul now adds a scriptural confirmation of what he has just said about the cross. He quotes Deuteronomy 21:23: for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree’ (verse 13b). Every criminal sentenced to death under the Mosaic legislation and executed, usually by stoning, was then fixed to a stake or ‘hanged on a tree’ as a symbol of his divine rejection. Dr. Cole says the quotation means ‘not … that a man is cursed by God because he is hanged, but that death by hanging was the outward sign in Israel of a man who was thus cursed’. The fact that the Romans executed by crucifixion rather than hanging makes no difference. To be nailed to a cross was equivalent to being hanged on a tree. So Christ crucified was described as having been ‘hanged on a tree’ (e.g. Acts 5:30; 1 Pet. 2:24), and was recognized as having died under the divine curse. No wonder the Jews at first could not believe that Jesus was the Christ. How could Christ, the anointed of God, instead of reigning on a throne, hang on a tree? It was incredible to them. Perhaps, as Bishop Stephen Neill suggests, when Christ crucified was preached, Jews would sometimes shout back ‘Jesus is accursed!’, which is the dreadful ejaculation mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:3.
The fact that Jesus died hanging on a tree remained for Jews an insurmountable obstacle to faith, until they saw that the curse He bore was for them. He did not die for His own sins; He became a curse ‘for us’.
Does this mean that everybody has been redeemed from the law’s curse through the sin-bearing, curse-bearing cross of Christ? Indeed not, for verse 13 must not be read without verse 14, where it is written that Christ became a curse for us, that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. It was in Christ that God acted for our salvation, and so we must be in Christ to receive it. We are not saved by a distant Christ, who died hundreds of years ago and lives millions of miles away, but by an existential Christ, who, having died and risen again, is now our contemporary. As a result we can be ‘in Him’, personally and vitally united to Him today.
But how? Granted that He bore our curse, and that we must be ‘in Him’ to be redeemed from it, how do we become united to Him? The answer is ‘through faith’. Paul has already quoted Habakkuk: ‘he who through faith is righteous shall live’ (verse 11). Now he says it himself: ‘We … receive the promise of the Spirit through faith’ (verse 14).
Faith is laying hold of Jesus Christ personally. There is no merit in it. It is not another ‘work’. Its value is not in itself, but entirely in its object, Jesus Christ. As Luther put it, ‘faith … apprehendeth nothing else but that precious jewel Christ Jesus.’ Christ is the Bread of life; faith feeds upon Him. Christ was lifted up on the cross; faith gazes at Him there.
redeemed us from the curse of the law. Redeem means “to buy out of slavery by paying a price.” This word was used when someone purchased a slave for the purpose of freeing them. When Jesus died on the cross, he took our curse upon himself. Through his substitutionary atonement, Christ paid the penalty of the curse. When we believe in him, he frees us from the slavery of the law.
13. The penitent sinner does not need to despair, however. To be sure, he is by nature under the curse of the law, as has been indicated. From this pitiable situation he is unable to deliver himself. But God has provided the remedy: Christ redeemed us—Gentiles as well as Jews (see verse 14)—from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us. Christ purchased us free from the curse of the law. He bought us back from the sentence of condemnation which the law pronounced on us and from the punishment of eternal death which it exacted (Gen. 2:17; Deut. 30:15, 19; John 3:36; Rom. 5:12; 8:1; Eph. 2:3). He rescued us by the payment of a ransom (Exod. 21:30), the ransom price being his own precious blood (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23; Rev. 5:9; cf. 1 Peter 1:18, 19). He became a curse—that is, “an accursed one”—for us.
It is, indeed, difficult to conceive of the majestic Christ as being accursed. What! Jesus anathema? In the face of 1 Cor. 12:3 how would one dare to say that? This becomes all the more a problem when we consider that we generally—and rightly—associate the curse with sin, and Christ had no sin (Isa. 53:9; John 8:46; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22). The only solution is the one supplied by the beautiful words of Isa. 53:6: “Jehovah laid on him the iniquity of us all”; cf. also verses 10–12. Christ’s curse-bearing, then, was vicarious: “Him who knew no sin he made to be sin for our sake, in order that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). This eminently scriptural truth of Christ’s substitutionary atonement is being denied by ever so many people. It has been called “butchershop theology.” Nevertheless, not only is it taught here in Gal. 3:13 in unmistakable language but it is the doctrine of Scripture throughout (Exod. 12:13; Lev. 1:4; 16:20–22; 17:11; Ps. 40:6, 7; 49:7, 8; Isa. 53; Zech. 13:1; Matt. 20:28; 26:27, 28; Mark 10:45; Luke 22:14–23; John 1:29; 10:11, 14; Acts 20:28; Rom. 3:24, 25; 8:3, 4; 1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23; 2 Cor. 5:18–21; Gal. 1:4; 2:20; Eph. 1:7; 2:16; Col. 1:19–23; Heb. 9:22, 28; 1 Peter 1:18, 19; 2:24; 3:18; 1 John 1:7; 2:2; 4:10; Rev. 5:9; 7:14).
In support of the idea that Christ became a curse for us Paul appeals to Deut. 21:23: for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanging on a tree.” In its Old Testament context, however, that passage does not refer to death by crucifixion, which was not known among the Israelites as a mode of capital punishment. It refers, instead, to the custom according to which after a wrong-doer had been executed, his dead body was nailed to a post or tree. But if, in the sight of God, the hanging of a dead body was a curse, how much more would not the slow, painful, and shameful death by crucifixion of a living person be a curse, especially when that dying one was experiencing anguish beyond the power of description! See Matt. 27:46.
3:13 To redeem is to buy back, or to deliver by paying the price. The curse of the law is death—the penalty for breaking its commandments. Christ has delivered those under law from paying the penalty of death demanded by the law. (Paul is undoubtedly speaking primarily of believing Jews when he uses the pronoun us, although the Jews were representatives of the entire human race.)
Cynddylan Jones says:
The Galatians imagined that Christ only half purchased them, and that they had to purchase the rest by their submission to circumcision and other Jewish rites and ceremonies. Hence their readiness to be led away by false teachers and to mix up Christianity and Judaism. Paul says here: (according to the Welsh translation) “Christ hath wholly purchased us from the curse of the law.”
Christ redeemed men by dying in their place, enduring the dreadful wrath of God against sins. The curse of God fell on Him as man’s Substitute. He did not become sinful in Himself, but man’s sins were placed upon Him.
Christ did not redeem men from the curse of the law by keeping the Ten Commandments perfectly during His lifetime. Scripture does not teach that His perfect obedience to the law is reckoned to us. Rather He delivered men from the law by bearing its dreadful curse in death. Apart from His death there could be no salvation. The law taught that when condemned criminals were hanged on a tree, it was a sign of their being under the curse of God (Deut. 21:23). Here the Holy Spirit sees in that passage a prophecy of the manner in which the Savior would die to bear the curse for His creatures. He was hung between heaven and earth as though unworthy of either. In His death by crucifixion, He is said to have been hanged on a tree (Acts 5:30; 1 Pet. 2:24).
3:13. The positive side of Paul’s argument emphasized that there is hope for all who have broken the Law and are therefore under its curse. That hope is not in man but in Christ who redeemed us from the curse of the Law. But how did Christ redeem (exēgorasen, lit., “buy out of slavery”; cf. 4:5; see chart “New Testament Words for Redemption” at Mark 10:45) man? The answer is by becoming a curse for us. This is a strong declaration of substitutionary redemption whereby Christ took the penalty of all guilty lawbreakers on Himself. Thus the “curse of the Law” was transferred from sinners to Christ, the sinless One (cf. 1 Peter 3:18), and He delivered people from it. The confirming quotation from Deuteronomy 21:23 refers to the fact that in Old Testament times criminals were executed (normally by stoning) and then displayed on a stake or post to show God’s divine rejection. When Christ was crucified, it was evidence He had come under the curse of God. The manner of His death was a great obstacle to faith for Jews until they realized the curse He bore was for them (cf. Isa. 53).
This salvation comes through Christ (vv. 13–14). These two verses beautifully summarize all that Paul has been saying in this section. Does the Law put sinners under a curse? Then Christ has redeemed us from that curse! Do you want the blessing of Abraham? It comes through Christ! Do you want the gift of the Spirit, but you are a Gentile? This gift is given through Christ to the Gentiles! All that you need is in Christ! There is no reason to go back to Moses.
Paul quotes Deuteronomy again, “He that is hanged is accursed of God” (Deut. 21:23, nkjv). The Jews did not crucify criminals; they stoned them to death. But in cases of shameful violation of the Law, the body was hung on a tree and exposed for all to see. This was a great humiliation, because the Jewish people were very careful in their treatment of a dead body. After the body had been exposed for a time, it was taken down and buried (see Josh. 8:29; 10:26; 2 Sam. 4:12).
Of course, Paul’s reference to a “tree” relates to the cross on which Jesus died (Acts 5:30; 1 Peter 2:24). He was not stoned and then His dead body exposed; He was nailed alive to a tree and left there to die. But by dying on the cross, Jesus Christ bore the curse of the Law for us; so that now the believer is no longer under the Law and its awful curse. “The blessing of Abraham” (justification by faith and the gift of the Spirit) is now ours through faith in Jesus Christ.
The word redeemed in Galatians 3:13 means to purchase a slave for the purpose of setting him free. It is possible to purchase a slave and keep him as a slave, but this is not what Christ did. By shedding His blood on the cross, He purchased us that we might be set free. The Judaizers wanted to lead the Christians into slavery, but Christ died to set them free. Salvation is not exchanging one form of bondage for another. Salvation is being set free from the bondage of sin and the Law into the liberty of God’s grace through Christ.
This raises an interesting question: how could these Judaizers ever convince the Galatian Christians that the way of Law was better than the way of grace? Why would any believer deliberately want to choose bondage instead of liberty? Perhaps part of the answer is found in the word bewitched that Paul uses in Galatians 3:1. The word means “to cast a spell, to fascinate.” What is there about legalism that can so fascinate the Christian that he will turn from grace to Law?
For one thing, legalism appeals to the flesh. The flesh loves to be “religious”—to obey laws, to observe holy occasions, even to fast (see Gal. 4:10). Certainly there is nothing wrong with obedience, fasting, or solemn times of spiritual worship, provided that the Holy Spirit does the motivating and the empowering. The flesh loves to boast about its religious achievements—how many prayers were offered, or how many gifts were given (see Luke 18:9–14; Phil. 3:1–10).
Another characteristic of religious legalism that fascinates people is the appeal to the senses. Instead of worshiping God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24), the legalist invents his own system that satisfies his senses. He cannot walk by faith; he has to walk by sight and hearing and tasting and smelling and feeling. To be sure, true Spirit-led worship does not deny the five senses. We see other believers; we sing and hear the hymns; we taste and feel the elements of the Lord’s Supper. But these external things are but windows through which faith perceives the eternal. They are not ends in themselves.
The person who depends on religion can measure himself and compare himself with others. This is another fascination to legalism. But the true believer measures himself with Christ, not other Christians (Eph. 4:11ff). There is no room for pride in the spiritual walk of the Christian who lives by grace; but the legalist constantly boasts about his achievements and his converts (Gal. 6:13–14).
Yes, there is a fascination to the Law, but it is only bait that leads to a trap; and once the believer takes the bait, he finds himself in bondage. Far better to take God at His Word and rest on His grace. We were saved “by grace, through faith” and we must live “by grace, through faith.” This is the way to blessing. The other way is the way to bondage.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1983). Galatians (pp. 78–79). Chicago: Moody Press.
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