Cursed is Anyone Who is Hung on a Tree

Title: Cursed is Anyone Who is Hung on a Tree
Text: Deuteronomy 21:23
Time: April 5th, 2015

Recently, I was reading along in the Old Testament as part of my annual One Year Bible reading program and I stumbled upon a verse that had a very strong connection with Easter. And since we are in the Easter season I was naturally interested in exploring it further. Now when you read the One Year Bible, that is, the yearly Bible reading program that gives us verses from the Old Testament, New Testament and Psalms and Proverbs every day, with the goal of reading through the Bible in one year – during the most popular Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter, the reading don’t particularly match up with the calendar. That means you’ll be reading nothing in particular in the Bible related to Christmas during that season, or during the Easter season you won’t be reading anything in particular relevant to that season either. But here I stumbled upon a verse that had direct relevancy in respect to Easter. Deuteronomy 21:22-23, “If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a true is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.” We can obviously see Jesus Christ in this passage, particularly at his crucifixion. And the New Testament Christians saw the same thing. The Apostle Paul in particular wrote in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a cruse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’” Here we have a clear and definite link between the New Testament and the Old Testament on the matter of Christ’s crucifixion, but that connection needs unpacking. That’s what I’d like to do this morning. But there’s another angle to this same topic, and that’s the Judas Iscariot angle. If you remember the disciple who betrayed Jesus, Judas, was also hanging from a tree, because, of course, he hung himself seeing that he’d betrayed innocent blood. What, if any, does this connection have to do with the Old Testament passage or Christ’s death on the cross? I’d like to explain further. What I’ll show is that the Old Testament passage claims that anyone hung on a tree is cursed of God, and so both Jesus and Judas were cursed of God, but for different reasons. Jesus was cursed by God the Father in our place, to bear our sins, to experience our punishment, and to win our salvation. Judas is cursed by God the Father for his own sins because he chose to bear the penalty for his own sins himself. Yes, he was cursed, just as we all deserve to be cursed for our sins. But through faith we can benefit from the curse God the Father laid on Jesus on our behalf. I hope this all makes sense as we go further in the message.

First, The Old Testament passage lays the foundation for the death of Jesus and Judas. Deuteronomy 21:22-23, “If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a true is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.” Now the immediate context for this passage is the very practical issue of capital punishment in ancient Israel. The Jews, like any nation, had to deal with criminals, and how they dealt with them depended upon the particular crime. For capital offenses, such as murder, the penalty was death. The passage we’re looking at deals with the particular form of capital punishment that involves hanging the person from a tree. Now at this moment you might be thinking, “Wait a minute. I didn’t know that Jews crucified people? I’ve never heard of that before.” And you’re right. There’s no direct mention of Jews ever crucifying criminals, although we know ancient pagan nations did, for example, the Assyrians were know to crucify enemies they conquered. And then, of course, much later the Romans would make crucifixion a common practice during their reign. But does this passage actually refer to crucifixion in the Jewish context? No, but there were other forms of capital punishment that the Jews might have used that involved hanging bodies on trees. For one, they might have hung criminals with a rope from a tree, or in other words, hanging. Did Jews hang people? Again, we don’t have a lot of evidence that they did, but it’s possible. But hanging isn’t the only other option. Another thing, they might have executed a criminal by some other means, such as stoning, which we know for sure they did carry out, and then hang the dead body upon a tree so as to show what happens to criminals in Israel. This is probably the most likely explanation of the verse. So then, under this description, the passage is saying when Jews execute someone for a capital offense and they hang the body up in a tree as a public deterrent for crime, they must not leave the body up there overnight, but instead must bury it that same day, otherwise, it might desecrate the land in the eyes of God. This is the immediate context for the passage. But as the Apostle Paul points out in the New Testament, there is a prophetic meaning for the verse as well. And as I also pointed out, there might be a double prophetic reference if we include the death of Judas as well. But whether it’s single or double prophetic, it’s no doubt prophetic nonetheless. In this we can see how the Old Testament provides the foundation for the New Testament. We owe so much to the Old Testament and we should never, ever forget it, especially during the Easter season. But there’s more.

Second, the Apostle Paul applies the Old Testament passage directly to the death of Christ. Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a cruse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’” Of course, Paul isn’t saying that the verse doesn’t have an Old Testament application for the Jews of ancient times, or even for that matter, for Jews of his time. As a rabbi and Bible scholar, Paul knew that it was the practice of the Jews to never leave executed Jewish criminals unburied overnight, probably, mainly, based on this very passage. So he was well aware that the verse had an older meaning, but he was also aware that it had a newer messianic prophetic meaning as well. Listen again to what the Apostle Paul says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” He’s speaking of Christ’s sacrificial atoning death on our behalf in order to bear our punishment before God the Father. If every sin must receive its just recompense, then we either bear the weight of our own punishment ourselves or someone else pays for us. In the case of Jesus, he paid the price of sin on our behalf for us on the cross. When he hung on the cross – or on the “tree,” in keeping with the verse – then his sacrifice benefited us, our sins were forgiven through his blood, our debt paid by him by his death. Now think about this – Jesus could have died by any number of different means, logically, naturally, at the hands of the Romans. Sometimes the Romans executed men by sword or knife or spear. At other times they beat their victims to death – something they almost did in the case of Jesus with pre-crucifixion violence against him. And there are many other ways Romans killed which we don’t have time to go into today, and also which wouldn’t be particularly pleasant to describe anyway. But in fulfillment of prophecy, Deuteronomy 21:22-23, Jesus was put on a tree, a cross is really a tree that was cut and fitted for execution, to die. The early Christians saw the prophecy as fulfilled in Jesus Christ. We can see it fulfilled also. “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree,” means that Jesus was cursed by God the Father for our sins, not his own sins, but our sins. He became a curse, accursed of God, in order that he might pay the penalty for sin and death. Or as another Bible passage says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” 2 Corinthians 5:21. Jesus was cursed in our place, on our behalf, in order that we might be saved. Praise God for Jesus and his willingness to die for you and me. If you haven’t given your life to him, do so now, in light of what he did for you!

Third, Judas was cursed of God for his own sins on his own behalf apart from Christ. Matthew 27:5, “So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.” In most painting scenes as well as biblical movies Judas is shown hanging himself from a tree – and we can make that assumption as well. After all, that’s the most natural and logical means to hanging oneself. Of course, there are other means other than a tree to hang, but a tree is probably the most common way to imagine a hanging. If Judas hung from a tree, which he probably did, then he was in a backhanded way fulfilling prophecy as well. The Old Testament verse we’ve been talking about, Deuteronomy 22:22-23, says cursed is anyone hung on a tree. We already talked about how Jesus was cursed by God the Father on our behalf as he hung on the cross or tree in order to win our salvation. But in the case of Judas, he was cursed of God directly, without any redeemer paying. Judas was cursed directly by God the Father for his own sins. He could have repented of his sins, even the sin of betrayal, and Jesus could have born his sins upon the cross as an atoning sacrifice even for Judas the betrayer. But Judas never turned to Jesus for forgiveness in this way. Instead, he became judge, jury and executioner for his own sins. He bore the weight of his own sins, without the forgiveness or grace found in Jesus Christ. This is the terrible option that some people make in respect to their own sins. Jesus is offering a way of escape from the guilt and penalty for sin, yet many people refuse to come humbly to Jesus to ask. Judas certainly did not turn to Jesus for forgiveness; he could have. Peter, the other disciple, denied Jesus three times, felt terrible, and was eventually forgiven and reconciled to Jesus after the resurrection. Something similarly could have happened in the case of Judas – if, if, he’d repented and trusted in the mercy and grace of God through Christ. But instead, he bore the full weight of his own sins and as a sign of his self-atoning mindset he hung himself. He became his own curse in fulfillment of the prophecy, “Cursed is anyone who is hung on a tree.” Judas truly was cursed. Not because he had to be cursed, but because he chose to be cursed. He chose to hang himself, he chose to be a cursed man hanging from a tree. He could have let Jesus be cursed in his place, as all true Christians have permitted Jesus to fulfill that role in their life. But Judas chose to be his own curse, in this life and also cursed in the life to come forever. What a tragedy, but it’s something that men and women are doing to themselves today. Instead of surrendering their life to Christ, they chose to go it alone without divine help. How foolish.

Have you given your sins to Jesus Christ? Have you received his righteousness on your behalf? Jesus died on the cross, he bore the penalty for sins, he became a curse so that we night not be cursed. Have you embraced that transaction? It does no good to simply know about it without committing to it. It takes a definite decision to embrace the Savior Jesus. Have you make that decision. I encourage you today to embrace the Savior. Don’t be like Judas who for whatever reason decided to bear the weight of his own sin upon his own shoulders. He perhaps thought he was making atonement for his sin against Jesus, but he didn’t realize that Jesus was offering to bear the weight of sin for anyone who is willing. Little did Judas know that his act of self-destruction would still not be enough to atone for his sins. It wasn’t just his sin of betrayal that needed atoning, it was all the other sins he’d committed in life that needed dealt with as well. He might have thought that by hanging himself that he’d atone for that one sin, life for life, he betrayed Jesus to death, so he’d die also along with Jesus. But even if his capital punishment of himself could atone for his betrayal, it couldn’t atone for all his sins, all his other sins, a lifetime of sin. Only the cross of Christ can remove all sins. Only by turning to Jesus by faith could Judas or anyone receive complete and full forgiveness. When we think of Judas we are sad because of what could have become of him. Judas could have turned, repented, believed and received God’s mercy and grace. He could have been saved. But instead he turned away and faced destruction in this life and in the life to come. Please, whatever you do, don’t make that same mistake. Make 100% sure you’re saved. Make sure you’re atoned for by Jesus Christ. Don’t think you can sin and then make up for it or atone for it yourself. You can’t, that is, you can’t and live. If you have a guilty conscience over sin, turn to Jesus today for forgiveness. If you are worried about facing a God of judgment, turn to Jesus today and get your sins forgiven. Don’t wait to the last moment; get things right with God today. This is Easter 2015. Time is slipping by. We don’t know how much longer we’ll be on this earthly level. Don’t wait for a deathbed conversion; convert to God today through Jesus Christ.

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