Paul writes: “… he (Jesus) humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8)
Why was death on a cross such a big deal? Because of Deuteronomy 21:23:
“…his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury it in that day; for every one that is hanged on a tree is cursed of God”.
The Jews believed that if anyone was hung on a tree to die then they were under God’s curse. It was a slam dunk.
The Jewish leaders had been plotting to kill Jesus and had already tried to stone him twice (John 8:58-59, John 10:31-33). Their personal charge against Jesus was always blasphemy (Mark 14:64) and the Law of Moses required a blasphemer to be stoned to death by the entire assembly (Lev 24:16). But Jesus was popular, and the Pharisees were afraid of the people (Luke 20:19). Realising that stoning him was no longer an option, they devised a plan to trap Jesus in a crime against Caesar so that he could be handed over to the Roman Governor (Luke 20:20-26). They clearly reasoned that they could kill two birds with one stone: if they could get Jesus executed by the Romans then they would not be the perpetrators, and if it was by crucifixion that would also disqualify Jesus from being the Messiah.
And so even when Jesus was found to have done nothing worthy of death according to Rome (Luke 23:4,14,22), and Pilate accordingly had tried repeatedly to release him, the Jewish leaders stood firm and demanded death by crucifixion (Luke 23:21,23). Their wish was granted.
For those seeing (or later hearing of) Jesus being crucified, unaware of the motives at play, it would have appeared that Jesus was indeed cursed by God.
Yet Jesus was not cursed by God!
The New Testament narratives show that Jesus was certainly cursed by man, but was he cursed by God? We find our answer in the book of Acts. Both Paul and Peter make a distinct point of demonstrating God’s total vindication of Jesus despite him dying on a tree:
– Peter explicitly contrasts Jesus dying on a tree with God then exalting him (Acts 5:30-31).
– Paul similarly and no less pointedly contrasts Jesus being hung on a tree with God then raising him from the dead (Acts 10:39-40).
This contrast is clearly there in order to eradicate any confusion; despite dying on a tree God didn’t curse Jesus, he vindicated him!
And so also, when Paul alludes to that Deuteronomic passage he is very selective: “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). Paul omits the reference to God. Why? Because rather than being cursed by God, Jesus was actually vindicated by him.
Christ crucified = a stumbling block
And so we can see that for Paul it would have been a huge deal that Christ humbled himself not just to death, but death on a cross. In so doing, Jesus not only allowed himself to be numbered with the transgressors (Mark 15:27-28), but allowed himself to be portrayed in the eyes of all the Jews as cursed.
This explains why Paul calls the preaching of Christ crucified a stumbling block to the Jews (1 Cor 1:23). It’s a contradiction in terms: the Messiah, God’s Anointed One, crucified?
Of course crucifixion was a stumbling block!