I had never really given this little word much thought growing up, even though I sang it often in that classic Christmas hymn you no doubt sang recently celebrating the birth of Jesus. In fact, I had never given it any thought at all until my twenties when I went to seminary to study the Bible.
When we hear the word “curse,” we tend to think of someone using foul language. Or, perhaps more rarely, we picture a primitive tribal witch doctor pronouncing a “curse” on someone. But neither our classic hymn nor the Bible mean these.
Likely borrowing from a nearby culture (the Hittites), the Hebrew people under Moses’ leadership used the word curse to mean bad consequences or punishment, specifically from God. God was their authority, their King. And they were His people. If they obeyed, He’d take care of them. However, if they disobeyed their king, He’d punish them. So much of the Old Testament drama between God and His people revolved around this fundamental principle: If the Israelites obeyed God, they’d be blessed. If they disobeyed, they’d be cursed, or punished. It was either “blessing” or “cursing.” (Deut. 11:26-28; NRSV) Interestingly, in our twenty-first century, we now have a kind of secular version of this dynamic: karma. What goes around, comes around.
To understand our Christmas hymn’s meaning—to really understand Jesus’ birth—we need to go back to Genesis 3, where we first encounter the word curse. Adam and Eve were instructed to not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. That is, they were not to engage in the dance between good and evil, perpetrating sin and evil on one another. But they—and we—did. That was their—and our— “original sin.” As a result, Adam was to work the soil by the sweat of his brow. And Eve was to have enormous pain in childbearing. That was their—and our— curse.
Likely, the meaning of those examples is that the human race was to struggle for its survival as well as suffer in this life—and we were to suffer because of our inexplicable enmeshment with evil. The exclamation point on that curse was that all of us were required to die: from dust to dust. So the simple but grand panorama of this epic story is that we somehow engaged evil—and in doing so, we mysteriously brought upon ourselves a short and miserable existence ending in death. So our “original sin” gave rise to our “original condemnation.” We became cursed. (Rom. 5:16; NRSV)
Fast forward to the apostle Paul’s take on Jesus and Christmas. The apostle did not say Jesus was born only to illustrate God’s love for us. If we think that, we miss the real punch of God’s love in Jesus. Jesus was born in order for God himself—as Jesus—to suffer life’s miserable strains and stresses as well as mental and physical pain. Then He was to die. Jesus did sweat blood in the garden because He was terrified, and was then whipped and brutally murdered in a Roman crucifixion.
So God suffered and died in Jesus. In his mind-boggling interpretation, the apostle asserts that God did this, leaving His eternally cushy position as God, stepping down from the glory only God could have, to enter the drama of our small and pathetic existence as a human being. But why? Was it to show us His love? No. Instead, it was from that lowly position as a helpless baby—from that position of weakness joining our dreadful struggle for survival—that our God got the leverage to undo all of life’s harrowing nonsense. (Phil. 2:6-8; NRSV)
In becoming a baby, God came under the curse to redeem us from that same curse. (Gal. 3:13; NRSV) So when we celebrated Christmas last month, we were celebrating that God left His position of unimaginable power and knowledge to become a baby—but a baby condemned just like us in order to reverse that original condemnation against us. That’s why the apostle asserts, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:1; NRSV)
When we read John 3:16 in the context of this Christmas perspective, we could understand what the apostle John was saying in this way:
God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son to be condemned just like us, so that whoever believes in him may no longer stand condemned and be lost, but have eternal life.
(NCV; integrated with the apostle Paul’s meaning of Christmas)
Brothers and sisters in Christ, as we think back over the past several weeks to our singing that famous classic, may we carry into the new year the keen awareness that, in the end, we have been set free from life’s nonsense—far as the curse is found. Far as the curse is found. Joy to the world, friends…the Lord has come.