April 14, 2017

What Does It Mean That Christ Became a Curse For Us on the Cross?

By St. Cyril of Alexandria

(Commentary on John)

John 19:16-18 - They took Jesus therefore. And He went out, bearing the Cross for Himself, unto the place called the place of a skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, where they crucified Him, and with Him two others, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst.

They lead away, then, to death the Author of Life; and for our sakes was this done, for by the power and incomprehensible Providence of God, Christ's death resulted in an unexpected reversal of things. For His suffering was prepared as a snare for the power of death, and the death of the Lord was the source of the renewal of mankind in incorruption and newness of life. Bearing the Cross upon His shoulders, on which He was about to be crucified, He went forth; His doom was already fixed, and He had undergone, for our sakes, though innocent, the sentence of death. For, in His own Person, He bore the sentence righteously pronounced against sinners by the Law. For He became a curse for us, according to the Scripture: "For cursed is everyone," it is said, "that hangs on a tree." And accursed are we all, for we are not able to fulfill the Law of God: For in many things we all stumble; and very prone to sin is the nature of man. And since, too, the Law of God says: "Cursed is he which continues not in all things that are written in the book of this Law, to do them," the curse, then, belongs unto us, and not to others. For those against whom the transgression of the Law may be charged, and who are very prone to err from its commandments, surely deserve chastisement. Therefore, He That knew no sin was accursed for our sakes, that He might deliver us from the old curse. For all-sufficient was the God Who is above all, so dying for all; and by the death of His own Body, purchasing the redemption of all mankind.

The Cross, then, that Christ bore, was not for His own deserving, but was the cross that awaited us, and was our due, through our condemnation by the Law. For as He was numbered among the dead, not for Himself, but for our sakes, that we might find in Him, the Author of everlasting life, subduing of Himself the power of death; so also, He took upon Himself the Cross that was our due, passing on Himself the condemnation of the Law, that the mouth of all lawlessness might henceforth be stopped, according to the saying of the Psalmist; the Sinless having suffered condemnation for the sin of all. And of great profit will the deed which Christ performed be to our souls - I mean, as a type of true manliness in God's service. For in no other way can we triumphantly attain to perfection in all virtue, and perfect union with God, save by setting our love toward Him above the earthly life, and zealously waging battle for the truth, if occasion calls us so to do. Moreover, our Lord Jesus Christ says: "Every man that does not take his cross and follow after Me, is not worthy of Me." And taking up the Cross means, I think, nothing else than bidding farewell to the world for God's sake, and preferring, if the opportunity arise, the hope of future glory to life in the body. But our Lord Jesus Christ is not ashamed to bear the Cross that is our due, and to suffer this indignity for love towards us; while we, poor wretches that we are, whose mother is the insensate earth beneath our feet, and who have been called into being out of nothing, sometimes do not even dare to touch the skirt of tribulation in God's service; but, if we have anything to bear in the service of Christ, at once account the shame intolerable, and shrinking from the ridicule of our adversaries, and those who sit in the seat of the scornful, as an accursed thing, and preferring to God's pleasure this paltry and ill-timed craving for reputation, fall sick of the disease of disdainful arrogance, which is the mother, so to say, of all evils, and so make ourselves subject to the charge. For thus is the servant above his lord, and the disciple above his master, and thinks and acts accordingly. Alas, for this grievous infirmity, which always in some strange shape lies athwart our path, and leads us astray from the pursuit of what is meet!

Call to mind, too, how the inspired Peter could not endure Christ's prophecy, when He foretold His sufferings upon the Cross, for He said: "Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man is betrayed unto the hands of sinners; and they shall crucify Him, and kill Him." The disciple, not yet understanding the mysterious ways of God's providence, God-loving and teachable as he was, was moved by his scruples to exclaim: "Be it far from You, Lord; this shall never be unto You." What answered Christ? "Get behind Me, Satan; you are a stumbling block unto Me. For you mind not the things of God, but the things of men." But we may hence derive no small profit, for we shall know, that when occasion calls us to exhibit courage in God's service, and we are compelled to endure conflicts that ensue for virtue's sake; yea, even if they who honor and love us best strive to hinder us from doing anything that may tend to establish virtue, alleging, it may be, our consequent dishonor among men, or from some worldly motive, we must not yield. For they, then, are in nowise unlike Satan, who loves and is ever wont to cast stumbling blocks in our path by diverse deceits, and sometimes by smooth words, so as to divert from the pursuit of what is meet, the man who is urged thereto by the spirit of piety. And I think Christ meant something like this, when He said: "If, therefore, your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it away." For that which does us injury is no longer our own, even though united to us by the bond of love, and though its connection with us be but its natural deserving.

Two robbers were crucified together with Christ, and this was owing to the malice of the Jews. For, as though to emphasize the dishonor of our Savior's death, they involved the just Man in the same condemnation as the transgressors of the Law. And we may take the condemned criminals, who hung by Christ's side, as symbolical of the two nations who were shortly about to be brought into close contact with Him, I mean the children of Israel and the Gentiles. And why do we take condemned criminals as the type? Because the Jews were condemned by the Law, for they were guilty of transgressing it; and the Greeks by their idolatry, for they worshiped the creature more than the Creator.

And after another manner those who are united with Christ are also crucified with Him; for enduring, as it were, death to their old conversation in the flesh, they are reformed into a new life, according to the Gospel. Yea, Paul said: "And they that are of Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh, with the passions and the lusts thereof;" and again, speaking of himself in words applicable to all men: "For I, through the Law, died unto the Law, that I might live unto God. I have been crucified with Christ: yet I live; and yet no longer I, but Christ lives in me." And he exhorts also the Colossians: "Wherefore, if you died to the world, why do you behave yourselves as though living in the world?" For, by becoming dead unto worldly conversation, we are brought to the rudiments of conduct and life in Christ. Therefore the crucifixion of the two robbers, side by side with Christ, signifies in a manner to us, through the medium of that event, the juxtaposition of the two nations, dying together, as it were, with the Savior Christ, by bidding farewell to worldly pleasures, and refusing any longer to live after the flesh, and preferring to live with their Lord, so far as may be, by fashioning their lives according to Him, and consecrating them in His service. And the meaning of the figure is in no way affected by the fact, that the men who hung by His side were malefactors; for we were by nature children of wrath, before we believed in Christ, and were all doomed to death, as we said before.

19:19 - And Pilate wrote a title also, and put it on the Cross. And there was written, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews."

This is, in fact, the bond against us which, as the inspired Paul says, the Lord nailed to His Cross, and in it led in triumph the principalities and the powers as vanquished, and as having revolted from His rule. And if it were not Christ Himself that fixed the title on the Cross, but the fellow-worker and minister of the Jews, still, as He suffered it so to be, it is as though He were recorded as having inscribed it with His own hand. And He triumphed over principalities in it. For it was open to the view of all who chose to learn, pointing to Him Who suffered for our sake, and Who was giving His life as a ransom for the lives of all. For all men upon the earth, in that they have fallen into the snare of sin (for all have gone astray, and have all together become filthy, according to the Scripture), had made themselves liable to the accusation of the devil, and were living a hateful and miserable life. And the title contained a handwriting against us - the curse that, by the Divine Law, impends over the transgressors, and the sentence that went forth against all who erred against those ancient ordinances of the Law, like unto Adam's curse, which went forth against all mankind, in that all alike broke God's decrees. For God's anger did not cease with Adam's fall, but He was also provoked by those who after him dishonored the Creator's decree; and the denunciation of the Law against transgressors was extended continuously over all. We were, then, accursed and condemned, by the sentence of God, through Adam's transgression, and through breach of the Law laid down after him; but the Savior wiped out the handwriting against us, by nailing the title to His Cross, which very clearly pointed to the death upon the Cross which He underwent for the salvation of men, who lay under condemnation. For our sake He paid the penalty for our sins. For though He was One that suffered, yet was He far above any creature, as God, and more precious than the life of all. Therefore, as the Psalmist says, the mouth of all lawlessness was stopped, and the tongue of sin was silenced, unable any more to speak against sinners. For we are justified, now that Christ has paid the penalty for us, "for by His stripes we are healed," according to the Scripture. And just as by the Cross the sin of our revolt was perfected, so also by the Cross was achieved our return to our original state, and the acceptable recovery of heavenly blessings; Christ, as it were, gathering up into Himself, for us, the very fount and origin of our infirmity.

19:20 - This title therefore read many of the Jews, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near to the city, and it was written in Hebrew, and in Latin, and in Greek.

We may remark that it was very providential, and the fruit of God's inexpressible purpose, that the title that was written embraced three inscriptions - one in Hebrew, another in Latin, and another in Greek. For it lay open to the view, proclaiming the Kingdom of our Savior Christ in three languages, the most widely known of all, and bringing to the Crucified One the first-fruits, as it were, of the prophecy that had been spoken concerning Him. For the wise Daniel said that there was given Him glory and a Kingdom, and all nations and languages shall serve Him; and, to like effect, the holy Paul teaches us, crying out that every knee shall bow; of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth; and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore the title proclaiming Jesus King was, as it were, the true first-fruits of the confession of tongues. And, in another sense, it accused the impiety of the Jews, and all but proclaimed expressly, to those who congregated to read it, that they had crucified their King and Lord, blind wretches that they were, without thought of love toward Him, and sunk in crass insensibility.