Jesus - Sin and Curse
Fr. Thomas Hopko · June 26, 2010
The Son of God became the Son of Man and was "made sin" according to the Scriptures. What should we understand about this way of speaking of Jesus?
In our reflections on the names and the titles of Jesus, we have reflected on Jesus as the Righteous One, the Holy One of God, the Beloved, the Chosen, and certainly as God’s Son, and even as God himself in human flesh, the Logos of God incarnate. We also reflected on Jesus as the Suffering Servant, the one upon whom the Lord places all the sins of the world, who bears our iniquities, who carries our diseases, who suffers our sufferings, who is completely and totally identified with the sinful, fallen, corrupted world, taking on himself the sin of the world, bearing the sins of the world.
And when we reflected on Jesus as the suffering servant of Yahweh, the servant of the Lord, we saw that in this action of Jesus’ total identification with us, where it says that God has given him up for the sake of our sins—because of our sins he was humiliated; he was an offering for sin; he bore the sin; he was numbered among the sinners; he bore the sins of many—those are all quotations of the Prophet Isaiah: he bore our sins, is pained for us, suffering and in affliction. I mean, we have reflected on this and we can do so forever and ever and never really exhaust the understanding and the deep meaning of the Son of God becoming the Son of Man, as it says in the Philippian letter of Paul.
Although he was in the form of God, he was in the likeness of a human being, en homoiosis tou anthropou, and then, being found in the likeness of man, he became a doulos, he became a slave, he took on the form of a slave, and was obedient to God even unto death, even death on the cross in the most vile way, and in doing this, he reconciles us to God. He heals our infirmities; our sins are pardoned and forgiven. We are purified; we are cleansed. We are bought, so that we belong to him and become everything that he is. We are redeemed. We have received propitiation, expiation for all the sins. We are saved.
And this is certainly the teaching, then, and we reflect on it again and again, but today, just very briefly, there are two texts in the Holy Scripture that require us to make a very particular reflection, and we could even say that in these two texts, we can dare to say that Jesus has received the title of Sin. He became sin, or he was made sin. But also, he became Curse. So there is a sense [in which] we can say, “Jesus is sin. Jesus is curse.” Not only, “He’s a sin-offering,” or that he was cursed and put himself in the condition of all those who are cursed under the wrath of God, but he becomes a curse, he becomes sin for us. And this is about the depth to which we could come, that the Holy One of God would become sin; that the blessed of God, the chosen and beloved of God would become curse.
What is that all about? How can we understand that? What should we be understanding here? And I think that, very simply put, overly simple perhaps, it should be put that what is affirmed in these two texts which we will now read is that Jesus, being totally without sin… And that’s a very clear scriptural teaching, that he is without sin; he has no sin, and here if you want the chapters and verses, we could simply quote the Letter to the Hebrews where, in the Letter to the Hebrews it says very, very clearly that he partook of flesh and blood and became [in] everything like unto his brethren except sin, so that he could be tested and tried as we are tested and tried, and be able to overcome those temptations and trials and tests, in order to be victorious over sin and death, over the devil himself.
Let’s just remind [ourselves] of this in what is said in this letter to the Hebrews. It says, “We see Jesus who for a little while was made lower than the angels,” less than God, so to speak, becoming really human, “crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God, he might taste God for everyone. It was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should be made the author of their salvation, should make the author of their salvation”—that’s Christ—“perfect through his suffering.”
Then it says—I’m skipping some verses; I’m reading in the second chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews. Then it says, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise,” and in the RSV it says, “partook of the same nature.” Well, that term, “nature,” is not in Greek. It simply says, “He himself partook of the same,” partook of the same things. He became the same thing. He became flesh and blood. “That through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil. And deliver all those who through the fear of death were subjected to lifelong bondage.” Then it is written, “For surely it is not with angels that he is concerned, but with the descendants of Abraham,” the seed of Abraham.
Therefore, he had to be made like his brethren in every respect so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.
So that is saying that he is really human. He becomes flesh and blood. He suffers everything that we suffer. He’s tempted in every way that we are tempted. He goes through everything that we go through. Yet he does this as God’s Son without sinning at all in himself. And this is what it says very specifically in the fourth chapter in the same Letter to [the] Hebrews. So let’s read this:
For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have a high priest, one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
“Yet without sin—chōris hamartias” in Greek: apart from sin, having no sin. And this is absolutely important because it is clearly a doctrine that the Lord Jesus Christ did not sin in any way. He was totally the righteousness of God, the holy one of God. He was divine in every way in his humanity; his humanity was completely and totally sanctified when it was united to his divinity. And so he is everything that we are, like his brethren in every respect, yet without sin, apart from sin.
So if we look at that actually in the Letter to the Hebrews in the King James translation, it would be said this way:
For we have not a high priest which cannot be touched with the feelings of our infirmities, but was in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin.
You see [what] it says? And if you translate it more literally, you could say, “We have a high priest who is not unable to sympathize or to suffer together with our weaknesses, the weaknesses of us, for he has been tempted or was tempted in all respects—de kata panta—in every possible way—kat’ homiotēta—according to our likeness, according to the likeness of us—chōris hamartias—apart from sin, without sin.” So then it continues:
Let us therefore come boldly into the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace and help in our time of need.
So Jesus becomes one of us, literally, human in every possible way, suffering everything that we can suffer, offering himself as the high priest according to Melchizedek, with great prayers and supplications and tears, giving himself totally and completely to God on our behalf. And in doing this as the high priest and becoming the victim, he does become an offering for sin. He becomes an offering for peace, for reconciliation. He becomes an offering for sin in that, in his offering, the sins are forgiven. He becomes an offering for purification and cleansing. He becomes the offering for everything that there were offerings for in the Old Testament according to the Levitical law and the Levitical priesthood.
But right now we want to look at the texts that seem to say, to go, you might even dare to say even a bit deeper, into something even more astounding, where it says that not only he became an offering for sin, but he became sin. He became sin, and this is literally what it says in St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. The Apostle Paul says literally, he writes this sentence literally. I’m reading from the Revised Standard Version. It says (II Corinthians 5:20-21):
Through Christ, we are reconciled to God who gives us this ministry of reconciliation that we have.
So then it says:
We beseech you all on behalf of Christ: be reconciled to God. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.
But then St. Paul writes:
For our sake (because of us, for us), God made him to be sin who knew no sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
The King James version translates it this way:
For he hath made him to be sin
He hath made him sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.
It’s worth reading that in Greek, you see? It says, “Ton mē gnonta hamartian—the one who, not knowing sin—hyper hēmōn—for us or on behalf of us—hamartian epoiēsen—he made sin.” So it’s saying that God, with whom we are reconciled in Christ, God, on our behalf, for us, made him sin who does not know sin, and then the reason is given: “hina hēmeis genōmetha [dikaiosynē] theou en aftō—so that or in order that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” So he is made sin that we might become righteousness. He becomes sin, and it doesn’t say he becomes a sinner; he becomes sin. And it even says, “Ton mē gnonta hamartian—not knowing sin.” Not knowing sin, not knowing sin in any way, being without sin, he became sin. God made him sin, so that in him who has become sin, we might become [the] righteousness of God—dikaiosynē theou.
First of all, I think that it’s important, interpreting this text, exegeting this text, that we do not translate it, “He became an offering for sin” or “He became a sin-offering.” That is a teaching of the Holy Scripture, yes. Jesus became an offering for sin. Even in the Isaiah suffering servant songs, it says, “He was an offering for our sin.” He offered his life, his psychē, his soul, on behalf of us for our sin, so that our sin could be forgiven. That’s certainly a teaching of Holy Scripture; no doubt about it. But here, being very careful, we see that it simply doesn’t say, “He became a sin-offering” or an offering for sin, but he became sin, so that through him, we might become righteousness.
I think in traditional patristic-type language, the language of ancient Christianity, we could say that what this really means, what is being said here, could be put in this way, in these words of St. Irenaeus, one of the great early Christian theologians of the third century. He lived in the 200s. He was probably a disciple of Polycarp who was a disciple of John, and he was a bishop, and he wrote. He’s just one of the… Sometimes I think St. Irenaeus should be read and studied a lot more than he is, especially by Orthodox who are inclined to patristic studies. We get into later Byzantine studies, the Cappadocian fathers and then those after them, after Athanasios and Basil and Gregory and Gregory and Chrysostom, we get into Maximus and Dionysius… But Irenaeus is earlier, and Irenaeus, it seems to me… He’s before Nicaea, so his way of speaking is much more biblical than when the holy Fathers got into all these metaphysical and philosophical discussions and theologizing about the very nature of Christ and so on.
Irenaeus speaks in a much more biblical manner. In fact, he wrote a little treatise called A Complete Exposition of the Apostolic Preaching, never quoting one sentence from the New Testament. He quotes only the Scriptures of the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets, to show what the apostolic teaching is concerning Jesus Christ. Well, he has a wonderful sentence where he said, in Christ, in the incarnation of the Son and Word of God, God’s Son who is completely divine and totally divine—Nicaea will say, “with exactly the same divinity as God the Father. Well, what Irenaeus said was he became completely and totally like us so that we could be completely and totally like him.
Another way of putting Irenaeus’ sentence would be: he became what we are so that we could become what he is. Now, later Church Fathers will say, like Athanasius: God became human to make humans god. God became man, human being, to make humanity divine. Or St. Maximus, later in the seventh century, will say, in Christ, God became everything that we are so that, by grace and by faith, we could become everything that God is by his very nature, according to his very divinity, so that [a] human being is a being with a commandment to be by grace and by faith everything that God is by nature. Those are classical teachings of ancient Christianity.
But when Irenaeus says, “He became everything that we are so that we could become everything that he is,” the further step here—what Vladimir Lossky would call the “second moment” of the Incarnation or the “second dimension,” the “second aspect,” which you find also in that hymn in Philippians that I just quoted—is that the Son of God, being really divine and holy and completely sinless, becomes a man—a man, a human being—exactly the way we are, becoming flesh and blood like his brethren in every respect, except that he doesn’t sin, as we just heard from the Letter to the Hebrews. And no, no Christian would claim that Jesus is a sinner. He is apart from sin. He has no sin.
But the point that is being made here is that, even though he has no sin and becomes a real human being without sinning, he also assumes and takes upon himself the condition of being a sinner, not being a sinner. In other words, he doesn’t only become human, he takes on the sin of the world and actually experiences what it means to be a sinner, not being a sinner. And it seems pretty clear that that’s what the Apostle is saying in this text, that he who had no sin, who was apart from sin, God epoiēsen, made him sin. God made him sin. Not: God made him to sin, but he made him, the noun: sin. You might say, God gave him the title: “You are sin.” Because of his complete and total identification with human beings in their sinful, fallen, corrupted condition.
Vladimir Lossky, a great patristic theologian of our time—and this is not unique to him; others say exactly the same thing, but I like the way he put it in his book, Mystical Theology, where he said, when you contemplate the Incarnation, the Son of God becoming human, the first moment, the first aspect of the Incarnation is simply becoming human. He becomes a human being. But the second moment is: he becomes sin. He becomes a human being voluntarily taking on himself the sin of the world to such an extent, to such a depth, that the Scripture can actually say, the Apostle Paul can actually say, “God made him sin—theos epoiēsen hamartian,” the one ton mē gnonta hamartian, the one who knew no sin, so that en aftō, in him, we could genōmetha, might become dikaiosynē theou, righteousness of God.” So he became sin, that we might become righteousness.
He had the condition of being a sinner so that we could literally become righteous people. We could be made righteous through him, being made righteous through faith and grace, through him. But we become righteous, not only in him who became human, [not only] in him who became a slave, a servant, not only who became obedient to God unto death, death on a cross, but the one who, in doing all these things, can literally [be] said to have become sin, to have been made sin. Now that’s really mind-blowing, and we really have to think about that, that the Son of God becomes not only human, not only a servant, not only the suffering servant, not only the afflicted, the tempted, the tried, the beaten, the reviled, the persecuted, the tormented, the ridiculed, the mocked, the spit-upon, the beaten-upon, the speared, the crucified, the dead, but, because he was willing to take all that on himself, he really experienced the situation of what it is to be sin. He tasted sin.
Not being a sinner. You’ve got to always add: having no sin, not being a sinner, being the holy one of God, the righteousness of God. And here we would even go a step a little bit further. We could say he would not be the chosen one, he would not be the beloved one, he would not be the blessed one, he would not be the beloved one, if he did not become sin, if he was not willing for God to make him sin, to make him to be sin, to literally, literally, literally experience and be what sin is. That’s just amazing. That’s just totally amazing, and that’s the depth to which you cannot go further.
Of course, the Holy Scripture teaches that the wages of sin is death, and therefore he had to become sin in order to die. He had to have really the situation of being a sinful person to take on the sin of the world in order to die. When he takes on sin and becomes sin, he takes on mortality and becomes dead, and he does it by his free will; he does it by grace. He has the power to keep himself alive. He has the power to forgive sins. He has the power to open the eyes of the blind. He has the power to raise the dead. He can say, “Your sins are forgiven you.” Yet he becomes sin and becomes dead.
So he becomes not only sin, he becomes dead. You could say he becomes death itself, when he’s a corpse. And you don’t get a self-emptying, a kenosis, an outpouring, an identification with us deeper than that. There is nothing deeper than that. There’s nothing more inclusive than that. So [this is] what we are learning here, when it says this mind-blowing sentence, that God has made him sin, the one who knew no sin, so that through him we might become the righteousness of God. You don’t get deeper than that.
It’s important for us to remember that, being in the form of God, he not only became human, not only became man, not only as man did he become slave, obedient to death, not only as man did he take upon himself the sin of the world, becoming the Lamb of God who is sacrificed, the suffering servant, the man of sorrows, but he actually became sin. He was made sin. You can’t say it more strongly than that: what he really experienced for us, what he went through, what he endured, what he suffered, but he did it all without being [sinful] at all, being totally righteous, totally holy, the holy one of God. And this is the mystery of our salvation.
He not only became sin, according to St. Paul, but he became curse. He became a curse, and this is found, this text is found in the Letter to [the] Galatians, in the third chapter. In the third chapter of the Letter to the Galatians, this is what the Apostle writes. I’ll read it first in the Revised Standard translation. This is what the Revised Standard translation says. It says (Galatians 3:10-14):
For all who rely on works of the Law are under a curse, for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law and do them.”
So St. Paul says very simply, in this RSV translation, anyone who is under the Law is, by definition, cursed, because there is no one who has kept the Law, beginning with Adam himself. No human being has kept the law of God perfectly. No one. So we’re all cursed. Then it says:
Now it is evident, therefore, that no person is justified before God by the Law.
So if we want to say we’re justified by keeping the Law, no one is justified. No one is made righteous. No one can be considered righteous according to the Law, because according to the Law we’re all cursed because we’ve all broken the Law. Therefore, it is written:
He who through faith is righteous shall live.
Or, another way of translating it: the righteous shall live by faith. And by the way, that was a prophecy of Habbakuk. Back in the Old Testament, the Prophet Habbakuk was one of the prophets, who has one of the canticles, one of the canticles always sung during the canticles in the Orthodox Church. At vespers or at compline you have the Song of Habbakuk. It’s a wonderful canticle, Habbakuk. It’s the one where it says, “He makes our feet like hinds’ feet.” Some people have used that as titles of books, and that he says that the people who believe in God and are with God, that no matter what happens, they never ever lose their joy and their faith in God.
Let me just find it here. I think it’s worth reading: the famous ending of the Prophecy of Habbakuk.
Though the fig tree do not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail, and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord. I will joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, Yahweh is my strength. He makes my feet like hinds’ feet, and makes me tread upon high places.
And it’s Habbakuk who also says that “the Lord looks down and measures the earth.” It’s Habbakuk who also says that “from the mountains overflowing in the darkness will come the savior of the world.” We sing that at Christmastime. And every time we have the canticle, the number four ode is always about Habbakuk, from Habbakuk’s canticle.
But you also have in Habbakuk this sentence which the Apostle Paul and others will really quote again and again. And by the way, this was quoted very much in the Dead Sea Scrolls, I learned recently. And what it is is that famous line, that “the righteous shall live by faith” or “faithfulness.” And this is what you find in Habbakuk. I’ll read it from the beginning of chapter two:
I will take my stand to watch and station myself on the tower and look forth to see what he will say to me and what I will answer concerning my complaint. The Lord answered me, “Write the vision. Make it plain upon tablets so he may run who reads it, for still the vision awaits its time.”
It’s not here yet.
“It hastens to the end. It will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it! Wait for it; it will surely come. It will not delay. Behold, he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail, but the righteous shall live by faith.”
So this… St. Paul makes a big point of that, that Abraham himself was righteous before God because he believed in him, not by circumcision, not by works of the Law. When Abraham was there, there wasn’t even a Mosaic law. But the righteous are made righteous by their faith, and this is what you find in the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament, certainly according to the teachings of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament Scriptures.
This is what he says here: “He who through faith is righteous shall live” or “The righteous shall live by faith.” And this is quoting the Law and the Prophets. It’s nothing new here, the Apostle is saying. To belong to Israel is not a matter of flesh and blood. It’s not a matter of biology; it’s a matter of faith. But, he continues, but the Law does not rest on faith, for he who does them shall live by them. So the Law, if one wants to be righteous by the Law, they’re just under a curse. Then the Apostle continues:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law…
And here’s what we want today:
...having become a curse for us. For it is written, “Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree.”
And that’s Deuteronomy 21:23. I’ll read it in a minute.
For in Christ the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles. We might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
We receive the righteousness through faith. And the faith is believing that God has made the suffering servant, his Son Jesus Christ the Messiah, sin for us so that, even though he has no sin, through him we might become righteous, righteousness. Now we become righteousness by faith and by grace and receive the blessing of God by faith, but it’s in him who not only was made sin, but who became a curse for us.
In the King James version, this is what it says. I’ll read it now to you from King James. In the King James version, this is how it is written. It says this (Galatians 3:13): “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law.” In Greek: “Christos hēmas exēgorasen ek tēs kataras tou nomou.” And that “exēgorasen,” it means “bought.” Bought like you would buy back a slave: to buy out or to buy back. So Christ has bought us back, has redeemed us, purchased us out of the curse of the Law: ek tēs kataras tou nomou. Out of the curse of the Law, and then it tells how: “genomenos hyper hēmōn katara,” so the King James version says, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the Law,’ and it says in English, “being made a curse for us.”
Now that “being made,” it would be “epoiēsen”; it would be what you’d find in Romans, but here it doesn’t say “having been made”; it says “becoming”: “genomenos, becoming.” It simply means “becoming.” “Katara—a curse—hyper hēmōn—on our behalf, for us.” Then it says, “because it’s written”: “hoti gegraptai—because it’s written—Epikataratos—Cursed—pas—everyone—ho kremamenos epi xylou—who is hanging upon the cross.” “Accursed is everyone who is hanging on a cross.” Actually, it doesn’t even say “cross”; it says “tree”: who is hanging upon a tree.
Then it says, “That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” Now, the blessing comes upon us because he is cursed, because he has become curse for us. So the same way that we become righteousness because he was made sin, so, according to the Holy Scripture, we receive the blessing of God because he has become curse, because he has become a curse.
This business about the one hanging on the tree of the cross becoming curse, that is found in the law of God, and the actual text is found in Deuteronomy, in the law of God according to Deuteronomy. And this is what is written there. It’s Deuteronomy 21:22:
If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree…
“Xylos” means “tree.” It’s what you found here in Galatians.
...his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man (one who’s hanged upon a tree) is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land which the Lord your God gave you for an inheritance.
So you defile it if you’ve got a dead man hanging on the tree. You’ve got to take him down. Now we know in the Gospels, that’s why Joseph goes to get Jesus’ body and to take it down from the tree, because, according to the law of Moses, a dead man cannot be hanging on the tree, and certainly not on the great Sabbath, and certainly not overnight. He’s got to be taken down, because otherwise there’s a defilement in the land. So to keep the land pure for the celebration of the festival, all who are crucified have to be taken down from the tree.
Here we have St. Paul simply quoting this, quoting this actual sentence in the Letter to the Galatians, by saying that it is curséd, that everyone who hangs upon the tree is cursed:
Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law by being made a curse for us, for it is written, “Accursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”
That’s a direct quotation of the law of Moses in Deuteronomy. But then it says Jesus has to become a curse so that, through his being cursed, we can be blessed. So he becomes sin so we become righteous. He becomes a curse so that we are blessed.
It’s interesting again here: a noun is used. Just like in the Corinthian letter where it says, “epoiēsen hamartian—he became sin,” so here it says, “genomenos—becoming—katara—becoming curse.” He became sin; he became curse.
So the same point is here being made. You can’t get more defiled, you can’t get more vile, you can’t get treated more violently, you cannot become more of a pollution to the land and the people, you cannot be anything more horrid and corrupting than if you’re a corpse hanging on a tree. And he really became a corpse hanging on a tree, so he really became curse. He really identified with the sinners so much that he not only dies because the wages of sin is death, but he dies by execution. He dies by being executed as a sinner. He becomes sin and is executed as a sinner, and thereby becomes curse because he is put to death by being hanged upon a tree.
God made him to be sin, and by God’s will he was given over unto death by being crucified, hung upon a tree, which according to the law of God in Moses is to become curse, a curse. And so this is what we want to think about today: he is made sin and becomes curse. Jesus is sin; he is curse. He not only is identified with sinners, he’s not only a sin-offering, he’s not only identified with those who are cursed, but he is real curse and he is real sin. And that’s how powerfully the Apostle Paul wants to put it in his letters. He wants to show us to what extent, beyond which you cannot go, God has acted through his Son, Jesus Christ, for our forgiveness, for our redemption, for our expiation, for propitiation, for healing, for cleansing, for restoration, for renewal, for sanctification, for glorification, for deification.
You can’t speak about how high God has taken us into Christ, seating us in Christ at the very right hand of the Father, the Apostles say. But who is he who takes us up to heaven and seats us on the throne of God? The same one who has descended into the pit of death, becoming sin and becoming curse. This is what we confess about our Lord Jesus Christ, and these are among his names and titles. He’s not only the righteous one; he is sin. He’s not only the righteousness of God; he is human sin. He is not only the blessed of God, but he’s the cursed. He’s not only the blessing, he is the curse, a curse. This is who our Lord Jesus Christ is and what he has become for our salvation.
And so, this is what we reflect upon today. We have become righteousness and blessedness in God himself through Jesus, but we have become this way because God made him sin, and he became curse.