Hundreds of years before the death of Christ, the prophet Isaiah graphically depicted his sufferings on the cross: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa 53:6). This passage describes the total depravity of humans who have rebelled in our sin as well as the substitutionary atonement of Christ in our place. In 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul expresses this unfathomable truth as well: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
We find the key to understanding what it means to be purchased by Jesus in the prepositional phrase “for our sake.” The little preposition is hyper in the Greek, which means “in the place of or as a substitute for.” The gospel proclaims that Jesus died in place of sinners as our sacrificial substitute. Paul also describes how Jesus purchased us for himself in Galatian 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it the is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” What does it mean that Jesus redeemed us from the curse by becoming a curse for us? Paul does not say Christ was simply cursed, but notice carefully that he says Christ “became” a curse.
How can the sinless, spotless Jesus, as the Lamb of God, become a curse on our behalf? Let us begin by stating what it does not mean. It doesn’t mean that Jesus became a sinner. Jesus was absolutely perfect in thought, word, and deed, and obeyed his Father completely. When Paul says that Jesus became sin, it means that our sins were imputed or credited to Christ so that at the moment he hung on that cross, God treated him as if he were a sinner in our place.
Matthew 27:45–46 describes the spiritual torment Jesus suffered on the cross: “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” What does it mean that the Father abandoned the Son? In those three hours of darkness, Jesus bore the full brunt of God’s wrath against us for our sins. Jesus felt the tremendous weight of being a curse because the Father imputed or credited to him our sins as if he committed the transgressions we committed. This is staggering because Jesus never once sinned. As he bore our transgressions and paid the penalty of the Father’s justice, God treated Jesus as a sinner in our place.
God must respond in anger to the breaking of his law. He can’t just brush our sin under the carpet and give it a little wink! He has to punish our evil. He did this in Christ! Jesus stood in our place as a substitute in that God treated him as condemned–—not because of his own sin, but because of our wicked infractions perpetrated against a holy God. Theologically, we call this propitiation, which involves the turning aside from or appeasing of God’s wrath.
While on the cross, Jesus experienced the full justice of God in his body against our sin by absorbing God’s righteous anger against sin. First Peter 2:24 describes how Jesus bore this penalty on the cross: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” Would you spend time contemplating the glories of the cross and your salvation by grace alone!