The Curse and the Tree
October 1st, 1972 @ 10:50 AM
THE CURSE AND THE TREE
Dr. W. A. Criswell
10-1-72 10:50 a.m.
On the radio and on television you are worshipping with us in the First Baptist Church of Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the morning message. In the providence of God I have changed from the subject that was announced, having decided to follow through the series of sermons that are delivered, prepared, and preached from the Book of Galatians. We are now in the third chapter of this letter of Paul to the churches on his first missionary journey. The title of the message is The Curse and the Tree. And as a background, first could I read from the Book of Deuteronomy the verse that Paul will quote in the passage that is our text this morning?
In the twenty-first chapter of Deuteronomy, concluding that chapter are these words. “And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he 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” [Deuteronomy 21:22-23]. That passage—”for he that is hanged is accursed of God”—now look for that passage, that verse, in this text from Galatians chapter 3:
So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.
For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.
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—
and the apostle quotes that passage from Deuteronomy 21:23—
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.
“Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every man, every one that is hanged on a tree” [Galatians 3:13]. Among the trees that grew around Jerusalem in the days of Pontius Pilate, the [governor], there was one that was tall and towering, a beautiful and magnificent specimen of God’s handiwork, a marvelous and glorious, tall and towering tree. But debased and degraded and cruel men took that beautiful tree in hand and cut it down. They denuded it. They defoliated it of its beautiful leaves. They tore off its branches. They ripped off its bark. They cut its body in two. And they made of it a harsh, rude, cruel cross. They prepared it for the execution of a traitor, a malefactor, an enemy of the people. It was the harsh, crude, cruel way of execution on the part of the Roman soldiers.
Among the men who lived in the days of Pontius Pilate, there was one Man who towered above all others. He was the Son of God, holy, pure, heavenly, good in His life, merciful, compassionate, unselfish, giving Himself for those who needed the healing touch and the saving presence of God [Matthew 20:28; 2 Corinthians 8:9]. Him did debased and degraded and cruel and bloodthirsty men take, and they stripped Him of His glory. They divided among themselves His garments, even casting lots upon His seamless robe [John 19:23-24]. And exposed and naked, they nailed Him to that cross [John 19:17-18]. And both of them were lifted up beyond the earth and beneath the sky, that Man and that tree, both of them scourged, cut, debased, degraded. They dug a hole in the earth. They sat one end of that tree down in the dirt, the other end pointed toward God in heaven. An outreaching crossbeam to the east and to the west held against its naked heart the agonizing, suffering, dying Son of God [John 19:16-19].
After the agony was over, men separated the dead Man from the dead wood [John 19:38]. But inseparable forever in memory and in mind, in thought and in history, is that Man and that tree—that Christ and that cross. And that hole in the ground in which they placed that tree has become the pivot around which swings the destiny of the civilized world. In the power and in the glory of God, that dead Man lived again—raised from among those who have fallen into the arms of corruption and decay [Matthew 28:5-7]. The glad announcement to the disciples, “He is alive!” [John 20:18]—the glorious good news, like liquid fire, spread from heart to heart, and mouth to mouth, and tongue to tongue, and word to word until it filled all Jerusalem, spilled over into Judea and Samaria, spread around through the Roman roads, across the Mediterranean, turned the literal civilization of the Greco-Roman world into a new channel and into a new course.
Christ, the Son of God, who died on the tree, is alive again! [1 Corinthians 6:14]. And that tree began to grow. It set down deep roots into the heart of the earth. And those great roots pierced through fire, and through flood, and through hearts, and through souls, and through times, and through centuries, and through cultures, and through civilization. It bears twelve manner of fruits, and yielded its fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations [Revelation 22:2]. The tree of life in the garden of Eden [Genesis 3:22]—the tree of life in the paradise of God in heaven [Revelation 22:2] is none other than that tree that was so cruelly cut down, denuded and made into the form of a cruel and rugged cross. In the power of God, in an astonishing, miraculous intervention from the heaven, its ugliness, and its shame, and its horror, and its agony have been turned into beauty and into glory, into hope and into salvation [1 Peter 2:24], ugliness into beauty.
What could have been more disdainful to taste, to sensitivity, to beauty, than two crossties—a beautiful tree cut down and the beams diametrically opposite to one another? Many of you have been in the Coliseum in Rome. For years there has stood there on one side of that Coliseum, where the Christians by the thousands had been fed to the lions—there has stood a rugged, rugged cross, and as I think of it, an instrument of execution. What an astonishing miracle from heaven, an intervention from God, that this apostle who wrote this letter should say in the last chapter of his book, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” [Galatians 6:14]. It has become—in poetry, and in art, and in literature, and in song, and in sermon—it has become glorified and immortalized—that tree, that cross, and the Son of God, who was nailed to it and died on it [Matthew 27:32-50].
Beautiful temples all over this earth have been built, made in the form of that cross with a great nave and the transepts on either side. Beautiful gems have been cut, precious stones in the form of that cross. Silver has been chased and gold fashioned in the form of that cross. And on countless numbers of houses of worship there will you find that tree lifted high, pointing toward the hope of man in God who so loved us He sent His Son to die for us [John 3:16].
From Hong Kong one time I went to Macao—the Portuguese colony now under the surveillance of Red China. I suppose the most impressive thing in the city, one of the most distinctive things you will find there, on a high hill with tremendous flights of steps leading up to it from the heart of the city, there is what remains of St. Paul’s Cathedral. There is nothing there but the facade of the church, the front of the church, and on top of it a great towering cross. In a violent earthquake, followed by fire and fury and hurricane and storm, the entire church was destroyed—torn down, swept away. But there remained that front wall with a great cross towering at its pinnacle. John Bowring, born in 1792, visited Macao and, looking up on that spectacular sight of the facade of that church and the cross at the zenith—standing there just alone, barren through the centuries—he wrote that beautiful hymn,
In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.
Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure
By the cross are sanctified;
Peace is there that knows no measure,
And joys that through all time abide.
[“In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” John Bowring]
Ugliness into beauty, and the curse into a blessing: “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 to us, the Gentiles, through Jesus Christ; and that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” [Galatians 3:13-14]—the curse into a blessing and into a promise.
What hath God wrought with that tree so cut down, so cut through, used for such ugly and inhuman purposes? What hath God wrought with that tree? For through the cross has come to us our hope of salvation. As Paul wrote in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, verse 18 [1 Corinthians 1:18] and then  and following: “For we preach Christ crucified” [1 Corinthians 1:23]—Christ nailed to a tree, Christ dying in sobs and tears, Christ bathed in His own blood—“we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a skandalon—translated “a stumbling block.” How could a man in his right mind glorify a gallows, an electric chair, a cross—the instrument of the cruelest execution ever devised by the mind of man? “To the Jews a skandalon, a stumbling block, to the Greeks—mōrian—moronic idiocy and foolishness” [1 Corinthians 1:23]. How could a man who calls himself rational and reasonable stand in the presence of philosophers, trained in the universities of Athens, and proclaim salvation through the cross, the execution of a man? “To the Greeks idiocy, inanity, foolishness; but unto us who are saved the apostle wrote: He is Christ crucified, the Son of God, the power of God, the love of God, the wisdom of God” [1 Corinthians 1:23-24].
As music finds its expression through an instrument, and as electricity finds its expression through lines and cables and wires, so does the spiritual power of God find its outreach, its blessing, its expression in the cross of Jesus Christ, mediated to us. The presence, the love, the saving grace of God is in that tree so cruelly cut down. It is the aegis and the sign of our freedom and of our liberty, of our deliverance.
Through the centuries and through the ages, men have been oppressed by darkness, and by ignorance, and by the fear of death, and by inhumanity and cruelty, but in that cross we have found truth, and freedom, and liberty, and deliverance. As the Lord said in the eighth chapter of the Book of John, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” [John 8:32]—the truth. And as He said in the fourteenth chapter of the same Gospel of John, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” [John 14:6]. This liberty and this freedom has come to us in the cross of the Son of God [1 Peter 2:24]. It came to the gladiators forever shut down, and its very ruins and decay are tribute to its truth! Shut down forever those gladiatorial combats that stained the sandy floor of the Coliseum with rich red human blood. In that cross came deliverance to the gladiator. In that cross came liberty and freedom to the slaves and serfs of the world. In that cross came protection for the captives. In that cross came elevation for womanhood. In that cross came ministries to innocent children. In that cross came education for the darkened mind. In that cross came care for the sick and the needy. Wherever the cross of Christ has been raised, wherever that tree has been lifted up, there will you find the orphan home, the hospital, the school, the church with its star pointing men to hope in heaven.
And in that cross is mediated to us the transforming power of Christ, God’s only Son. Out of its darkness came light, and out of its death came life, and out of its sufferings came salvation. Three years of His ministry, three dark hours when the sun refused to shine as He died on the cross [Matthew 27:45], three days in the cold, dark tomb [Matthew 12:38-40, 27:57-60, 62-66], and then glory, glory, glory, He is raised from the dead [Matthew 28:1-7]. And the news of His Pentecostal transforming, changing, regenerating power has made new men! Simon Peter is a coward no more [Matthew 26:69-75; Acts 2:14-40]. The cowering disciples that crawled in eleven shadows, hiding from the face of Jerusalem [John 20:19], are bold like lions! They are standing and spreading abroad the glorious news that Christ is raised from the dead, and in Him there is power, power to live, power to rise from the grave, power to see God’s face! [1 Corinthians 6:14]. They’re new people. They’re new men [Acts 4:13]. And that same transforming power touched the Greco-Roman world, and it was a new civilization. And wherever it has gone in any darkened land, any darkened country, there does it spread light, and glory, and triumph, and victory! And that transforming power of the cross has reached down even to us in our lives, in our hearts, in our homes where we live. In Him we are new people. The believer is a new creation [2 Corinthians 5:17]. He is something else. He is transformed by the power of the gospel in the preaching of the cross.
In preparation for this sermon, upon the time I read the most unusual story illustrating the transforming power of the grace of God in Christ Jesus. There was a man who was a drunkard. He took his paycheck and he spent it on alcohol. And he lived in the dirt and in the vomit of the gutter. His children were ragged and hungry. His wife was neglected and starved. His home was a shambles. They even came and repossessed his furniture, and they lived in an open, barren house. This man who spent his wages on alcohol, a drunkard, in the kind and merciful providences of God, the transforming power of the cross of Christ reached down to him, and he became a new man—a regenerated man. There came back the furniture, and there continued the payments on the mortgage, and there was created the new home, and the new house, and the new life, and the new day.
Upon a time one of his old cronies who had in years past been drinking with him—one of his old cronies began to ridicule him about becoming a Christian and about believing the Bible. And one of his barbs of sarcasm and ridicule concerned something that Jesus did in His miraculous power, turning water into wine [John 2:1-11]. And that old crony sarcastically said to this regenerated believer, “Do you mean to tell me that you believe that stuff in the Bible? Take that story of the Lord transforming, changing water into wine. Do you believe such a thing as that?” And the man replied—he said, “Sir, I am no theologian. I’m an unlettered and an unlearned man, and I’m unable to answer. I don’t know how He did it. All I know is this, that in my life, He changed beer into furniture, and whiskey into mortgage payments, and drunkenness into the worship of God. And that is good enough for me.” And the concluding sentence of that man’s testimony, “And that is good enough for me,” has rung in my heart and my mind.
All the days of my conscious life I have studied the Bible—as a boy and in college and in the seminary and in graduate work. And after the passing of a life and a generation, I humbly, but honestly confess, there are ten thousand things about the eons and the ages past, there are other ten thousand things about the time and the millennia of the future, there are no less ten thousand things of the miraculous present around me and above me that I do not understand—my finite mind is not able to enter into the infinitude of the mysteries of God. All I know is this, what I see of God’s grace around me; I see the goodness of God working in the lives of our children, and that is good enough for me. I see the blessing and grace of God in the re-creation of men and women, and that is good enough for me. I see the hope of heaven in the faces and in the voices of those who are facing inevitable death, and that is good enough for me. And I feel in my own soul the hope of heaven in my heart, beyond the days of the pilgrimage of this life, when God shall give us these whom we’ve loved and lost for a while, when the Lord shall open to us doors and vistas of glory, and that is good enough for me. All the grace and graciousness and goodness of God in Christ Jesus, that tree and that Man, that cross and that Christ, to us immortalize, glorify, forever [Galatians 6:14]. And of that hope we seek an appeal.
In a moment when we stand, a family you, or a couple you, or just one somebody you, down one of these stairways; if you’re on the last, top seat of the top-most balcony, there is time and to spare, come. From the press of people on this lower floor, into the aisle and down to the front, come. “Pastor, I offer you my hand. I have given my heart to God. This is the sign and the seal of that decision and that commitment. I’m coming now.” Do it. Do it. Make the decision now in your heart. And in this moment when we stand up to sing, stand walking down that stairway, coming down that aisle. “Here I am, pastor. I want to be numbered among God’s people. When He calls the roll in heaven, I’ll be there to answer to my name. I’m coming to God, and here I am.” Do it. Make it now, while we stand and while we sing.