Galatians 3:13 (NKJV)
“Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us [huper hēmōn] (for it is written, ‘CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE’)” (emphasis mine). As it was pointed out in the previous post on 2 Corinthians 5:21, it must be kept in mind that it is not the more general meaning of huper (viz., “on behalf of”) that I’m claiming is on exhibition here in Galatians 3:13. Instead, it’s the stricter sense of “instead of” or “in place of” that I have in mind. The context has to do with us being “redeemed…from the curse of the law,” which is the forensic aspect of what Jesus did for us, as well as Him “having become a curse for us,” which is the substitutionary aspect of what He did for us. But how was such a thing even possible? It is just here that I’m reminded of what Paul said about the work of Jesus in Romans 3:25a—namely, that it was Christ Jesus “whom God set forth as a propitiation [hilastērion] by His blood, through faith” (emphasis mine). As the hilastērion, Jesus took upon Himself the curse which was deserved by us. Hence, the idea of an exchange is built right into the very context of this passage and, as such, must not be ignored, for despite the curse being rightly ours, Jesus graciously allowed Himself to be made a curse in our stead.
So, even though one can correctly argue that the general use of huper is “on behalf of,” and this without any idea of “in the place of” coming into play, to make such an argument apart from the context, which in this case implies some sort of exchange is going on, is completely without warrant and, in turn, gives rise to the thought that those making such a claim may very well be engaged in some sort of theological shell game intended to direct attention away from what’s actually going on in the context itself. I’m not accusing anyone of this, mind you; what I’m doing is emphasizing the need to tread lightly when making a claim about the meaning of huper that ignores the context in which it’s found.
As already noted, Galatians 3:13 has to do with the forensic or penal aspect of things (i.e., “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law”), as well as the substitutionary aspect of things (i.e., “having become a curse for us”). So, although this passage is viewed by many commentators as a rather abrupt interjection that’s inconsistent with the context, such could not be further from the truth. Such thinking demonstrates, among other things, the danger of tunnel vision that can occur within an otherwise expositional framework. In other words, it seems as if such expositors get so caught up in the overall context that they view verse 13 as just sitting there by itself. No, no, no, a thousand times, no! Truth is, the very essence of our freedom, as sinners, from the system of justification by perfect law keeping (cf. vv. Gal. 2:15-3-12) is found in the cross work of our Lord as Savior Jesus Christ extolled in Galatians 3:13, all of which, the following verses inform us, was done so that reconciled and redeemed Jews and Gentiles could be one in Christ Jesus through faith (cf. vv. 14-29).
As Paul made clear in the general context mentioned above, all of us “were dead in trespasses and sins” (cf. Eph. 2:1). This is exactly the same thing he had also said in 2 Corinthians 5:14, for “if One died for all [i.e., instead of all, as the context indicates], then all died [i.e., all had become dead in their trespasses and sins and in need of redemption].” In other words, the story never changes, in that it is Jesus of Nazareth, the Word made flesh, who suffered and died in our stead (there’s the substitutionary aspect) in order to both satisfy and propitiate God’s penal (judicial) wrath (there’s the forensic aspect) in order that, by faith, we could be reconciled and redeemed (there’s the salvation aspect). This is described elsewhere in Scripture as “being ransomed by the precious blood of Christ” (cf. Matt. 20:26; Mk. 10:45; 1 Tim. 2:6; 1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23).
Having cited Mark 10:45 and 1 Timothy 2:6 above as being part of the larger context of Galatians 3:13, it is helpful to understand that these passages use anti and huper practically interchangeably. Notice Mark 10:45, which reads, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many [anti polús]” (emphasis mine). Now notice 1 Timothy 2:6. Speaking of “the Man Jesus,” Paul wrote, “who gave Himself a ransom for all [huper pas], to be testified in due time” (emphasis mine). The similarity of these two passages is glaring. Consequently, there is no need to jump through a bunch of semantic hoops in order to understand that the prepositions anti, which generally means “instead of” or “in place of” and huper, which generally means “for” or “on behalf of,” can be used, depending upon the context, practically interchangeably. In the case at hand, it is clear that the one (i.e., Jesus) died “in exchange for” or “in the place of” the many. Additionally, it’s simply impossible to deny that built right into the fabric of “ransom” (lútron in Mk. 10:45 and antílutron in 1 Tim. 2:6) is the idea of exchange/substitution.
Other passages where huper is most likely understood as indicating substitution are John 10:11; 11:50; and Romans 16:4. Then, there’s Philemon 13, where Paul, writing to Philemon about Onesimus, says, “Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead [huper soú] he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel” (KJV, emphasis mine). The reader of this verse (as with the others) does not need to know anything about Koine Greek to understand that an “in the place of” exchange is what’s being referred to. For our purpose here, on the other hand, it is important to understand that it is the context, not one’s doctrinal presupposition, that drives the meaning of huper.
So, when viewed within the immediate and general context of Galatians 3:13, which includes the verse itself as well as the verses which come before and after, the case for Jesus’ substitutionary death is compelling. When viewed in the even larger context of more remote passages, which includes Isaiah 53, the evidence is overwhelming, or so it seems to me.
In the next post, which will focus on 1 Peter 2:24 and its context, I also plan to spend some “quality time,” as they say, with Isaiah 53.