QUESTION: Why do Galatians 3:13 and 1 Peter 2:24 say that Jesus was hung upon a tree, when other verses say He actually died upon a cross?
ANSWER: To begin with, we recognize and would emphasize that the Spirit of God guided the writers of Scripture not only in the general thoughts He expressed, but in the very words they used. In Galatians 3:13 the apostle Paul cites a portion of Deuteronomy 21:22-23. The Jews were not to allow the dead body of one who had been hanged to remain all night on the tree. Such a one was to be buried before sundown. One who had been hanged was under God’s curse, and if his body was not promptly buried, the land would be defiled thereby.
The apostle Peter points out that the Lord Jesus was made to suffer wrongfully. He did no sin but rather bore our sins in His body on the tree. Peter too is alluding to the passage in Deuteronomy referred to above, but is making a contrast, because in Deuteronomy the one hanged on a tree had committed a sin worthy of death. He is showing Christians who were being made to suffer wrongfully how they were to act in such situations, pointing out that Christ not only suffered for us who were guilty, but that the attitude He displayed when He was made to suffer unjustly is the example for us to follow.
At the time Deuteronomy was written, crucifixion was unknown to the Jews. Crucifixion was a cruel and distinctly Roman method of execution. Yet, interestingly enough, Psalm 22, written by King David approximately 1000 years before Christ's crucifixion, gives a most graphic description of the physical suffering endured by one who was crucified. But the suffering described in this psalm goes far beyond physical sufferings, as we see in the first verses and then again and again throughout the psalm. Both Peter and Paul refer to the Lord Jesus as having been crucified. Paul specifically refers to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ in Galatians 6:14. The cross was not only an instrument of cruelty. Crucifixion was too degrading a means of execution to be applied to Roman citizens. At that time it was, generally speaking, reserved for the lowest of criminals and for slaves.
In New Testament days, no sane person would have worn a cross as jewelry or for decorative purposes any more than someone would wear a miniature gallows or electric chair for that purpose today. For someone to make much of the cross and of one who had been executed upon a cross was, as we see in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, offensive to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles - in fact, to all who perish!
In summary, yes, the Lord Jesus died upon the cross. It was the most shameful and cruel form of death the Romans could impose on Him. The Jewish mob, led by their religious leaders, demanded this of Pilate. The Spirit of God used different words for the same awful instrument of execution when He wanted to emphasize different aspects of what the Lord did in dying there for us. The expression “cross” or “crucified” is used many times in connection with the death of our Lord Jesus. But the cross was made of wood. Wood comes from trees, and the Greek word for wood was applied to the cross, to stocks, and other such ignominious and forcible means of punishment. And the Spirit of God applies the verses in Deuteronomy about one who is hanged on a tree specifically to the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus.
May we love and appreciate greatly the One who was absolutely holy and sinless Himself, but was hanged on a tree – that is, died on the cross – for our sins!
By Eugene P. Vedder, Jr.
“They took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha. There they crucified Him.” John 19:17-18 NASB
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org