THE CURSE AND THE TREE
Dr. W. A. Criswell
7-29-56 10:50 a.m.
You are listening to the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. This is the pastor bringing the morning message. Last Sunday evening we concluded at the eleventh verse of the third chapter of the Book of Galatians. So this morning we begin at the twelfth verse and read through the fourteenth. Galatians the third chapter, the eleventh verse was this:
But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.
And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them.
Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree:
That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
The title of the sermon is The Curse and the Tree. “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” [Galatians 3:13]; that is a quotation from the law of Moses. You will read it in the twenty-first chapter of Deuteronomy, the twenty-second and following verses:
And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, he shall be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree:
His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;) that thy land be not defiled, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.
And this passage in Galatians 3:13 is a quotation from Deuteronomy 21:23; “For it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.” That word “tree” there is used in the New Testament to refer to the cross of Christ. In the fifth chapter of the Book of Acts and in the tenth chapter of the Book of Acts that you just got through reading, you will find in those passages words like this: whom they slew, “Jesus, whom they slew and hanged on a tree” [Acts 5:30, 10:39].
You will find Paul using that same expression in the thirteenth chapter of the Book of Acts in his address to the church at the city in Antioch [Acts 13:29]. You will find the same expression in the [second] chapter of the Book of 1 Peter, “Who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree” [1 Peter 2:24]. “Whom they slew and hanged on a tree” [Acts 5:30, 10:39]; I say the word “tree” is used all through the New Testament as another description for the cross. They referred to it as a “tree.”
Now this passage has a putting together of opposites. That also is very typical of the Christian faith:
Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Christ Jesus; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
There you have those two things in juxtaposition again. The curse; Christ has been made a curse for us. “Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: That the blessing of Abraham might be ours; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit” [Galatians 3:13-14]. Through the curse; the blessing out of death, our life—out of darkness, our light. For example, out of a multitude of things, you will find that New Testament interpretation of blessing, and life, and heaven, and glory, out of death and cursing and agony and sorrow; you will find that described in the twenty-first chapter of the Book of John and the eighteenth verse where the Lord says to Simon Peter:
Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not. This spake He, signifying by what death he should glorify God.
The Lord spake of Simon Peter, that he should die by the stretching out of the hands, “carried whether he wouldest not,” that is, he should die on a tree. He should die crucified, with his hands outstretched. Now look at the description by which Jesus describes that agony and that death, “This spake He, signifying by what death he should glorify God” [John 21:19].
It is hardly of the world; it is hardly of anything mundane, terrestrial. It is impossible, I would think, in a man’s philosophy, in his interpretation of life, that crucifixion and agony and suffering are blessings; that they glorify, that they honor God. But that is the New Testament interpretation of the sacrifice and the blessing that is dedicated to the Lord. “This spake Jesus, signifying by what death,” by crucifixion, by suffering and untold indescribable agony, “by what death he should glorify God” [John 21:19].
Glorifying God in crucifixion, in agony, in suffering; now, you find that here I say, in my text. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: that the blessing might come on us, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit [Galatians 3:13-14].
In the days of Caiaphas the high priest, there was a tree growing somewhere near Jerusalem. And that that tree might be glorified, cruel hands cut it down, and stripped it of all of its boughs, and bereft it of all of its foliage and flowers. I say flowers because the legend of the dogwood is that the tree upon which Jesus was hanged was a dogwood. And because of the hurt and sorrow of the tree in holding up in agony the Son of God, it thereafter refused to grow large enough to bear up the frame and body of a man. And its flowers thereafter had in the cross of their form, on each of the cross pieces, it had the print of the nail of the Lord.
That tree, I say, somewhere that grew around Jerusalem was cut down, and its branches were cut off, and it was stripped of its foliage and its flowers. And then its bark was peeled off, and then it was made into the form of a crossbeam; one piece and another piece. And then on a hill outside of the city wall, they lifted up that scarred and ruined and broken tree [John 19:20; Hebrews 13:12]. And there in a pivot in the ground, they lifted it up, with it pointing toward heaven and with its cross arms pointing to the wide, wide world [John 19:16-20].
There was in the days of Pontius Pilate a Man whom God delighted to honor. He was the Lord God’s only begotten Son [John 3:16]. And that He might be given a name which is above every name, and that in His presence every knee should bow and every tongue confess Him to be Lord, things in heaven and things in earth and things under the earth, that He might be glorified [Philippians 2:9-11], He was cut down, and He was stripped; everything that He had was taken away [John 19:23-24].
One soldier said, “I will take His headdress.” A second soldier said, “And I will take His outer garment.” And a third soldier said, “And I will take the sash.” And the fourth said, “And I will take His sandals.” But there was one garment left: the robe, woven without seam [John 19:23]. And the quaternion of men that crucified Him said, “Let us not divide it, but let us cast lots for it” [John 19:24]. So they knelt at the foot of the cross, and they cast lots for the soldier that would receive untorn the robe woven without seam [John 19:24].
And then naked and exposed and stripped, they nailed the Son of God to the cross, and they lifted Him up, both Jesus and the tree. They were raised high together, that tree cut down and broken and that Lord and Savior cut down and broken [John 3:14]. After the agony was over, they looked upon the dead tree and the dead body.
There was a bright and happy tree:
The wind with music laced its boughs,
Thither across the houseless sea
Came singing birds to house.
Men grudged the tree its happy eves,
It’s happy dawns of eager sound;
So all that crown and tower of leaves
They leveled with the ground.
They made an upright of the stem,
A cross piece of a bough they made:
No shadow of their deed on them
The fallen branches laid.
But blackly since the year was young
When they a fitting hill did find,
There on the happy tree they hung
The Savior of mankind.
[“The Happy Tree,” Gerald Gould, 1926]
And there they are together, the dead wood and the dead Savior. I say, after the agony was over, there came friends and carefully took down the body of the Lord and separated the dead wood from the dead Son [John 19:38]. But the years passed, and the day became a week, and the week a month, and a month a year, and the year now two millenniums. But in the hearts of men and in their memory, and in their souls, and in the gospel that they began to preach, the wood and the Savior were forever inseparable; the cross and the Son of God [1 Corinthians 1:23, 2:2].
And the tree began to grow. Job 14:7 says, “There is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will grow again.” Isaiah, the great prophet, said of the Son, “And there shall arise a Root out of the stump of Jesse” [Isaiah 11:1, 10]. And it began to grow, that tree. The new roots began to enter men’s hearts and men’s souls. Those new roots began to sink deep into the lives of a people—and a nation, and a kingdom, and an empire—and it grew and it grew, that tree grew again. “And it bare twelve manner of fruits, each fruit in its month. And its leaves were for the healing of the nations” [Revelation 22:2].
Burne-Jones, the wonderful painter and intimate friend of Robert Browning, Burne-Jones’ most beautiful painting is The Tree of Life. And it grew and it grew, and under that great and beautiful tree, the artist painted in pictures of families, and people, men, women and children, and on one side is a garden, and on the other side is a harvest of grain, and along the margin did he write, “In the world ye shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” [John 16:33].
The tree of life was in the paradise of Eden [Genesis 2:9]. And that tree of life bore up the Son of God, our Savior, and you’ll find it again in the paradise of God [Revelation 22:2]. By the river of life and under its shade, God’s sainted children are gathering home. What beauty out of such scarred ugliness! What blessing out of such turmoil and death. What promise out of such darkness and despair. I supposed the rough angularity of form of a cross violates every law of known beauty. And yet that rude and crude and cruel and rugged cross has been made the inspiration of the finest paintings, and the most glorious architecture, the most sublime music, and the most heavenly poetry that mankind has ever given to the story and race of humanity.
The old churches were built with baptisteries—all of them—just in these modern times, relatively, they build churches without baptisteries. When you go to the church at Pisa, the bell tower is leaning, the leaning tower of Pisa. That’s where the bells hung, and they rang the bells for the people to come to church. Then right there is the church, and then right by the side of the church is a beautiful baptistery; you see, those old churches had baptisteries.
When you go to Rome, one of the most beautiful churches in the world is St. Paul’s; where he was beheaded on the Ostian Way, there did they build a church. And I have not seen in any church in this world so beautiful a baptistery; they don’t use it anymore. They haven’t used it for centuries, but they used to.
The old churches had baptisteries in them, and I say not in this earth have I seen any baptistery as beautiful as the beautiful baptistery in St. Paul’s in Rome. I do believe in that baptistery I could baptize seventy-five or one hundred people at one time, all of us in there together, a beautiful thing.
In the glorious cathedral in Florence, the Duomo where Savonarola preached the gospel of the Son of God, there beyond the front door of that glorious cathedral, there is the baptistery. And the people of Florence said “We want the finest in the earth to make the great bronze doors into this beautiful baptistery.” So after much searching and finding, they called Lorenzo Ghiberti to make those beautiful doors—he spent twenty years on just one leaf—and when finally after a lifetime they were wrought, the people of Florence came and said, “It is celestial music in sculpted form.” And in the years later when Michelangelo looked upon them, he said, “These doors are worthy to be the doors into paradise,” the most beautiful sculptured piece in all of the world or in all of history. And you look at them, and there you will find magnified that cross whose angularity of form, whose rudeness and crudeness is the opposite of all that we know of that is beautiful or celestial.
And that tree and that cross were made in the chaste silver forms and refined gold, and gems were cut into its shape. And in sanctuaries all over the land is it enshrined in epitome. And on top of temples of worship all over the world and in these stained-glass windows will you find the likeness of that tree.
Out of grimness, and out of cruelty, and out of the night, and out of death, and out of the blackness of despair came that light, and that glory, and that song, and that poetry, and that beauty, and that architecture, and that one other thing: “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us” [Galatians 3:13].
You know when you read that in English, there’s a whole lot in that preposition there that you don’t see, huper emou—instead of us—wherever you see that in the Bible you can read it like that. Galatians 2:20:
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself, huper emou me—instead of me, took my place—
Well, you find it here, huper emou. “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse, instead of us, in our place” [Galatians 3:13]. The wrath and the judgment of God was intended for us, but it didn’t fall on us. He took our place; it fell on Him. The agony and the suffering was to be ours, but He took it in our place [Isaiah 53:5; 2 Corinthians 5:21].
I’ve often thought the man of all men who have the clearest idea of the atonement that day Jesus died was Barabbas. When he looked at that center cross and that Man, unknown to him apparently, who was dying on that center cross, was dying in Barabbas’ stead—He took Barabbas’ place—that’s the atonement [Matthew 27:16-22].
“Cursed, cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree” [Galatians 3:13], and, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law” [Galatians 3:13]. We were worthy of death and to be hanged, “but Christ hath redeemed us from the curse, being made a curse for us . . . that the blessing might come through Jesus to us and that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” [Galatians 3:13-14]. Out of that curse and out of that agony and out of that death, came our salvation. That’s the way we come to know God; is through the spiritual power of the death of Jesus on the tree [1 John 3:16].
You can’t make music without an instrument. You can’t sing without vocal cords. You must have a piano. You must have an organ. You must have an instrument to make music. You couldn’t conduct this electricity into these shining lamps without a cable. Nor can a man know the spiritual power of God without the cross of the Son of God.
However a philosopher might inveigh against it, and however an infidel might deny it, and however the cruel and indifferent world might pass it by, “The preaching of the cross is to them that are perishing foolishness; but it is unto them who are being saved the power of God” [1 Corinthians 1:18].
It’s our liberty, Jesus said, “If the Son of Man shall make you free, you shall be free indeed” [John 8:36]. Victor Hugo, in Paris, making an address at the planting of the Tree of Liberty said, “But the first tree of liberty was planted by God on Golgotha.”
And it is our transformation, the glorious redemption of our lives. “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us” [Galatians 3:13], instead of us—all of the judgment and punishment of sin for us, meant for us—the law condemns us. But He bore it in our stead, He died in our place, He hath redeemed us from that judgment, that curse, that death. “Being made a curse for us,” instead of us, “for it is written, Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree: That the blessing of Abraham might come to us, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” [Galatians 3:13-14]. Our redemption, our liberty, our salvation, and our transformation comes to us through the accursed tree, through the cross of the Son of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord [1 Corinthians 1:18].
Those crude Western cowmen, unlettered and unlearned, with whom I grew up, whom I knew and would see constantly as a boy, some of the stories that they would tell stay in my heart. And they’re preachers—want to be converted and give his life to be a preacher—and how they’d preach stays in my heart. One of them said, “There was a man who stole our sheep, a thief, and they caught him.” And according to the crude day, they took a branding iron, and they branded in his flesh there on his forehead, where everyone could see and know what he was, they branded the initials ST; a “sheep thief.” And in the after years, that man found God and was wonderfully converted and became a Christian, and loved the Lord, and served the Lord, and down to age and down to death did he walk with the Lord.
And upon a time in his old age, some people were talking about that old sheepman up there with those strange initials cut in his flesh. And one of them said to another, “Isn’t that strange, that ST cut in his flesh? Wonder what it could mean?” And the other one replied, “I don’t know. I’ve never heard, but I’ve often thought it must stand for saint—he’s so good and so fine and so kind.”
This week I read about a fine preacher who was delivering a marvelous message. And right in the midst of his wonderful sermon, a man stood up and said, “Let’s sing ‘Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.’” Well, if the fellow did that to me, I’d do just like that preacher did, I’d just be overwhelmed! And he was amazed! What had happened was, he was preaching a glorious sermon, and that man just lost sight of where he was in the quietness and the dignity of the congregation, and in his gladness and joy, just stood up and said, “Let’s all sing ‘Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.’”
Well anyway, after he stood up and said it, why, he came to himself and looked at the preacher and apologized. And said to the preacher, “Oh, sir! I didn’t mean to do it. I beg your pardon. You see,” he said, “I haven’t been a Christian but three weeks; just three weeks ago I found the Lord, and I just couldn’t contain the joy in my heart as I heard you preach about His transforming power.” So the preacher was kind, and he said, “So, you’ve just been saved? Where?” And the man replied, “Out of iniquity. And, in the group that I work with and run with, there’s only one other fellow who is a Christian, just he and I,” and the man said, “and we have a hard time of it.”
“Well, how do you mean you have a hard time?”
“Well,” the man replied, he said, “they say all kinds of things about us and make all kinds of remarks about us.”
“Well,” said the preacher, “what kind of remarks?”
“Well,” said the man, “just yesterday a fellow came up to me, and he said, ‘Do you believe that stuff about Jesus turning water into wine?’”
And the preacher said, “And what did you say back to him?” And the man replied, “Sir, I told him I didn’t know anything about turning water into wine, but I said to him, I knew this: that the Lord Jesus Christ had turned beer into furniture, and turned whiskey into house payments, and turned drunkenness into a family altar.” And he said, “I replied, ‘That was a miracle enough for me.’”
That’s what the power of that cross does to humanity. And these marvelous miracles of grace and these monuments to the love and mercy of God, you see them every day that you live. There’s a man and here’s one; there is a mother in a home and a family; and there’s a youth, and there’s a houseful—and each one could stand up and say, “And this is what the cross has done for me.”
Oh, glory, glory, glory! Oh, glory to the Lamb!
Hallelujah, I am saved, and I’m so glad I am
Oh, glory, glory, glory! Glory to the Lamb!
Hallelujah! I am saved, and I’m bound for the Promised Land.
[from “Glory to the Lamb,” Selected Hymns, the New Onward and Upward (Logansport, Indiana; Home Music Co.) around 1900
Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse instead of us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: That in order that the blessing of Abraham might come on us who are Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
The channel of God’s love and mercy is to us through that cross, on that tree, in the sacrifice, the atoning suffering and death of Jesus, God’s Son and our Savior [1 Corinthians 1:18].
Before we have our memorial, the doors of the kingdom of God are wide open this day. “And Jesus breathed upon them, and said, Whosoever sins you retain, they are retained; whosoever sins you remit, they are remitted” [John 20:22-23]. That is speaking in the name of God, standing with hands uplifted in behalf of Christ, the fruit of the labor of your hands is according to God’s will in heaven. The doors of the kingdom of God are open wide today. Come in. Come in and be saved.
And the doors of the church of Jesus are open wide today for you, one somebody you, a family you, however the Lord shall say and lead, speak to your heart, would you come? Would you make it now? Come and stand by me, “Today, taking the Lord, today putting my life in the church.” While we stand and while we sing.