Christianity is a religion of love: ‘God is love, and he who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him’(1 John 4:16). What then has this ugly sounding Old Testament law about capital punishment got to do with that? Surely it can’t be from the same religion? Strangely, despite superficial appearances, this law is very much about love.
It was given to Israel through the prophet Moses, and for him and the ancient Israelites the message would have been clear but simple. In their time the bodies of executed criminals were often left on full view as they rotted. This law, although recognizing the reality of capital punishment, was about limiting the public spectacle of such a shameful and defiling death. That in itself shows something of God’s love and compassion (and His distaste for the display of evil and its consequences). But in the fullness of time God knew that this law would have more significance than its initial simple application.
God’s words through prophets often have meaning beyond what either the prophet or his original hearers realise. Only God knew that over a thousand years later this law would be applied to Himself, as He hung as the man Jesus on the cross (which being wooden was regarded as a tree for the purposes of applying this law). So He was taken down and laid in a tomb on the night that He died, made ready for His resurrection on the third day!
Of even more prophetic significance than that however is the word ‘accursed’. God’s amazing plan involved Himself as the man Jesus absorbing a ‘curse’ due to us, as He ‘bore our sins in his body on the tree’(1 Peter 2:24). When preaching, both Peter and Paul referred to the cross as a ‘“tree”’(Acts 5:30,10:39&13:29), deliberately making a connection between this verse in Deuteronomy, the ‘curse’, and what God had achieved as Jesus on the cross.
This ‘curse’ is first mentioned in the book of Genesis after Adam’s disobedience resulted in shame and ultimately death for him. So Paul could say ‘sin entered into the world through one man, and death through sin; and so death passed to all men, because all sinned’(Romans 5:12). The introduction of the law by Moses merely exacerbated the problem. The more laws, the more potential for disobedience. So we’re all under this curse, because we’ve all been disobedient to some degree, and ‘“‘Cursed is he who doesn’t confirm the words of this law to do them’”’(Deuteronomy 27:26). Paul made precisely this point in his letter to the Galatians, and went on to cite Deuteronomy 21:22-23 to show how Jesus took our curse for us: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us. For it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree,”’(Galatians 3:13).
This was an amazing demonstration of God’s ultimate quality, self sacrificial love. It’s what John meant by ‘God is love’(1 John 4:16). By reflecting on it we can learn what real love is, as John also wrote, ‘By this we know love, because he laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.’(1 John 3:16)
Notice, at the foot of the cross we are not simply to receive God’s love, but learn from it, even emulate it. Paul agrees with John: ‘be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God also in Christ forgave you. Be therefore imitators of God, as beloved children. Walk in love, even as Christ also loved you, and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice’(Ephesians 4:32-5:2).
This is hard, since we still inhabit weak flesh in a cursed world, and so ‘we who are in this tent do groan’(2 Corinthians 5:4). Yet our gracious God does not sit aloof. He has come down and, though sinless, felt our pain, even experienced our shame on the tree. He has walked our path as we must walk His, arms round shoulders as ‘brothers’(Hebrews 2:11). If from our pain and shame we humbly ask of Him, ‘“Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”’(Luke 23:42), He will lovingly reply, ‘“you will be with me in Paradise”’(Luke 23:43), where, ‘There will be no curse any more.’(Revelation 22:3)