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.” Gal. 3:13
As we consider the death of Jesus, many things of significance could be taken into account. It is, of course, of the utmost significance that the death of Jesus was the sacrifice that accomplished the salvation of God’s elect. The angel said to Joseph, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). The book of Hebrews very carefully instructs us concerning the sacrificial and substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death (Heb. 9:14, 28). He died in the place of guilty sinners as their substitute. The death that He endured was not His own insofar as the sins were not His own, the guilt was not His own, and the punishment He endured was not His own.
While the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ death is of the utmost importance, the manner of His execution is not to be overlooked. The death of Jesus on the cross at the hands of Roman soldiers was not accidental or simply one of many ways by which He could have died. The manner of His death upon a tree is also of weighty symbolic significance for several reasons. Crucifixion, the hanging of the convicted person on a wooden cross (tree), was reserved for the most despicable of criminals. In fact, Roman citizens were rarely executed in this manner. It is fitting that Jesus was executed by crucifixion as He became the most reprehensible sinner in the sight of a holy God, and this by virtue of placing upon Him the sins of all for whom He died. As the Apostle Paul puts it, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus bore our sins, our guilt, and then also bore the awful wrath of God in our place—the punishment we deserved because of our sin.
However, it is also significant that Jesus was crucified on a tree as it demonstrates that He bore in His body the covenantal curse that Adam’s rebellion justly brought upon us. Adam broke the covenant of life (Westminster Shorter Catechism 12) and brought death to himself and all mankind. In disobedience to God’s explicit command, Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the covenantal curse of an eternal death fell upon him. This curse is manifestly symbolized in the shame and humiliation of being hung on a tree. Deuteronomy 21:22–23 states, “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.”
John Calvin comments on this passage, “Moses does not here speak generally, but only of those malefactors who are unworthy of burial, ”and “the man so hanged is called ‘the curse of God,’ because this kind of punishment is detestable in itself.” Of all the possible ways in which Jesus could have been executed, He was hung on a tree to demonstrate the covenantal curse that rested upon Him for our sake. The Apostle Paul makes this very point in Galatians 3:13, where he states that “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.’” Here the gospel is displayed in the starkest of terms. The innocent and blessed Son of God was hung on a tree as though He was a reprehensible criminal, and He suffered the unspeakable experience of the wrath of God—the covenantal curse—in our place, that we might experience unspeakable new covenant blessings.