He himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.
1 Peter 2:24
In September 2005, a convoy of American military vehicles took a wrong turn outside Fallujah. The mistake provoked an eruption of violence against the convoy and led to the ghastly deaths of at least four civilian contractors who were shot, burned, mutilated, and hung from a bridge for all the world to see. You may very well remember those images.
The act was more than an expression of indignation. It was a message—a message of outrage at what they considered to be foreign meddling in a sovereign nation.
It may also be the closest thing we know of to the pronouncement of a curse. Designed not only to thwart the intentions of its victims, the violence intended to strip those men of their dignity. Make someone an object of revulsion and you remove any sense of what formerly gave them honor. That’s what curses do.
It’s easy to miss, but when Peter reminds us that Jesus bore our sins in His body on the tree, we’re meant to notice something more specific about a death on a cross. Those who put Jesus to death intended to silence Him. What’s more, they also sought to make a public mockery of Him, to strip Him of his dignity, so that no one would see Him as worthy of any honor or respect. Paul makes the same point in Galatians 3:13 when he quotes Moses’s declaration that those hung on a tree are cursed of God (Deuteronomy 21:23; there, even the Lord stipulates that bodies hung on a tree must be removed before sundown, lest they be drained of all honor). That Jesus underwent a curse made His work all the more difficult to accept, and yet all the more compelling.
Those who killed him sought to send a message. The Romans proclaimed by His crucifixion that no man could claim authority over Caesar and live—the Jews proclaimed that no one could claim authority alongside God and live. But those messages faded into the backdrop of the more poignant message sent not by men but by God. It was God, Himself, who sent His Son to the cross (Acts 2:23), and His message to all was that you shall not meddle in sin and live.
In suffering the indignities of those curses, the Lord Jesus did two things.
He ascribed to us the highest dignity. For the glory of His heavenly Father, Jesus bore His cross. For the good of those He came to save He did the same. Surely the message of wrath against sin displayed on the cross was designed to make us sober. Any sin is heinous to our God. But a message of divine honor accompanied the message of wrath. Those who’d defaced the image of God by sin needed to remember that they still bore that image. Thus, even in our darkest, most loathsome moments, we must make it our discipline to see the true and unassailable dignity of our lives, since His death confirmed His regard for us. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). How can the object of an unsurpassable love justify denying its own dignity and worth? In other words, who are we to despise, in ourselves or in our neighbor, what the Lord Jesus cherished?
Furthermore, ascribing to us that dignity by His willingness to suffer indignity had designs far greater than merely showing His appreciation for us. In fact, the dignity He ascribes us intends to affect every choice we make.
He called us to find our dignity where He found His: in His heavenly Father. Jesus willingly suffered ridicule, torture, revulsion, and a heinous, public death because He knew there was a deeper dignity that could not be taken from Him, no matter what men said or did. He did not need to protect or preserve what could not be assailed. Our Lord therefore refused to retaliate, not only because it would have kept Him from His appointed task, but also because it would have expressed mistrust in where His dignity came from.
You and I are faced with a similar challenge whenever we feel our dignity is being threatened. The first step toward sin is to forget where that dignity is found. Then all manner of anger, resentment, bitterness, and estrangement may follow as we seek to protect counterfeit versions of what defines our dignity. Holiness follows when we remember who defines and validates that dignity.
Advent approaches. The indignities Jesus endured began not at Calvary, but in the feeding trough of animals. Isn’t it time to reflect again on how He paid us the highest compliment and set before us the highest calling by suffering the indignities of a curse?