What if… Jesus never died?
Since we started this series, I’ve been asking “what if” not just about the Bible but about my own life. You look at a specific moment and ask, what if things had turned out differently?
What if mom hadn’t signed me up for show choir auditions behind my back in high school? I can imagine a world where I’m a professional French horn player in Iowa or something.
Or what if I hadn’t gone to live in Kenya after dropping out of Bible college? I probably would never have returned to ministry.
Any number of small changes in my past and I never would have met Olivia, I never would have traveled the world, I never would have become a pastor at Grace…
When you look back at and ask “What if?” it gives you new perspective and appreciation for the fact that things did turn out this way.
Which is why today we’re asking “What if Jesus had never died on that cross?” It’s Good Friday and Easter next weekend, but what if it wasn’t?
Another way of asking this is, what actually changed in our world because of the crucifixion? What was different at 6pm on the first Good Friday when Jesus breathed his last on the cross?
And how would our lives be different today if it had never happened?
That’s our topic for today.
First, a couple of confessions. We are breaking protocol. Because this is technically what’s called Palm Sunday, where we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (the palm branches, etc.). But today we’re talking about the cross. So, sorry. No palm branches today.
Second confession: I almost always ask you to grab your Bibles and turn to a specific passage when I’m preaching, because I want us to dig in and go deep. But today’s topic is so far reaching, that we’re going to be all over the Bible.
You’re welcome to flip through and follow along, but we’re not camping out on one particular passage.
So, back to our main question for the day. What if Jesus never died? What actually happened on the cross?
Now, most of the time, when we in the American Church talk about the crucifixion, we tend to talk about it in a vacuum: “Jesus died for our sins.”
The problem is, this doesn’t really help us understand the why behind it. Why was Jesus a Jewish man 2000 years ago? What does a Roman cross have to do with sin? And if he was God why did Jesus have to die at all?
Let’s look at Scripture for answers. In 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul summarizes the crucifixion like this:
1 Corinthians 15:3
Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said.
That sounds a bit like our vacuum statement, doesn’t it? Except, look at that second phrase: “just as the Scriptures said.”
What we have here is like a thread that when you start pulling it unravels the whole sweater. Because, remember: Paul didn’t have the New Testament. He helped write the New Testament.
So when he says “Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said,” he’s talking about the Old Testament. He’s talking about the Jewish Scriptures and the whole story of the people of Israel.
To Paul, that is the story in which Christ’s death finds its meaning. We’re not going to understand the cross until we understand the story.
So let’s talk about it.
One of the ways you can look at the story of Israel is to say that it’s about two things: blessings and curses.
Let’s talk about blessings first. Blessing is a way of describing wholeness, abundance, peace, and most of all, God’s presence…
From the very beginning of the story it’s clear God desires to bring his blessing to the world. That’s what the whole Garden of Eden story is about.
Humanity is meant to live an Eden kind of life, where we are blessed. Where we’re God’s representatives on the earth, spreading his creative life, nurturing the earth - naming animals and eating stuff off of trees, caring for one another.
An abundant, creative life as the benevolent masters of the earth. And all the while God is with us and walking among us. That is the blessing we are meant to have.
But in the story, of course, humanity had different plans. We rejected God’s blessing and wanted to do things our own way. Things went downhill pretty quickly.
But God wasn’t done yet. He still wanted humanity to live in his blessing, so he chose a people - the descendants of a man named Abraham - to bring his blessing to the world.
Here’s what he told Abraham:
I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.
So Abraham’s family, who eventually became called the Israelites, were God’s chosen instruments to bring humanity back to Eden. The Eden of abundance and peace and the presence of God - blessing.
But as you probably noticed, in that same promise to Abraham comes the possibility of being cursed. What does it mean to be cursed?
Well, I know it’s easy to think that if blessing is God giving good things, then curses are when God zaps you in anger. That he’s punishing you. But that’s not really how the story plays out.
Curses in the Old Testament are really more about the consequences of choosing something other than blessing. It’s more like us being condemned to get exactly what we want.
For example, God offers us the blessing of enough. Of knowing that he will always provide for us and meet our needs. But we choose something other than that blessing. We pursue wealth because we want more than enough. We want to meet our own needs.
The curse of pursuing wealth is that it doesn’t take long for us to become enslaved to money.
Suddenly money and possessions, which were meant to be instruments we use to spread God’s blessing, instead become gods that rule over us. You know how this goes. The pursuit of wealth becomes like a bottomless pit. Money has power over us now.
We are cursed by our own rejection of what God offered us and now we can’t escape the consequences.
Or another example. God offers us the blessing of living in harmony with one another - seeing others as brothers and sisters and even serving them as they serve us.
But instead we want to be better than others. We choose judgmentalism and superiority. We gossip. We hate.
And so we are cursed by that choice - we become slaves to the gods of bitterness and rage and pride. And it’s really hard to break free.
What I’m describing here is sin. All sin is a rejection of the blessings of God.
And the consequences of sin - the curse that comes because of it - is enslavement to the powers of this world. The idols of greed and lust and power become our masters and the gate to Eden is shut.
When we reject God’s offer of the blessing of life, the ultimate consequence of that rejection - the ultimate thing these gods demand of us - is death and separation from God.
This is why, when God gives the law of Moses to the descendants of Abraham - the Israelites, he says this:
Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live!
Choose life! Choose blessings!
As you can probably guess, the people of Israel did not choose life. They didn’t choose blessings. Instead they did just what everyone else was doing and they allowed their sin to rule their lives and the consequences were disastrous.
And as time went on, these individual sins - these rejections of blessing - began to build on one another and gain strength. Little s “sins” became big S “Sin” and it started to take on a mind of its own.
Sin began to spread from generation to generation, and with it, the curse.
You’ve seen this. Many of the things you struggle with in your life - alcoholism, abuse, anger management, greed - you struggle because your parents struggled, and I be their parents struggled too.
Or the sins you perpetuate on others are the same things others have perpetuated on you. Entire communities or nations become defined by specific sins. Sin is in control.
That’s what happens in the Old Testament. As the story goes on, the blessings of God get fainter and fainter, while the curses of consequence seem to grow. The people of Israel seem incapable of choosing life.
The gods - the man-made idols of this world - gain power to the point where vast empires openly ruled by these gods - like Assyria and Babylon and Rome - were completely dominant.
Humanity was cursed. It’s like we were in quicksand. The spiral of sin had become so strong that we couldn’t even choose blessing if we wanted to. Death - the curse - had won the day.
Let’s pause for just a moment and think about our own lives. Because we’ve all experienced this curse in one way or another.
We’ve all rejected God’s blessing: sin patterns, selfishness, hatred… And of course we’ve been hurt by others around us rejecting God’s blessing: abuse, greed, judgmentalism…
Just take a second and think about this: How have you experienced the curse of sin? [pause]
The reason I want you to think about this is because it’s our answer to the question for the day: what if Jesus never died?
As we’ll see in a moment, the death of Jesus dealt with the curse. His death gave us the ability to choose blessing again.
But if he never died that curse would be all there is. That’s a sobering thought.
Can we be thankful right that we serve a God of unfailing love and faithfulness? A God of second chances, as we talked about a couple of weeks ago?
Because God was not content to let the story end in curses. His whole point was bringing blessing to humanity and he wasn’t done yet. Death is not the end of the story.
So, how do you deal with a curse that is so powerful? With gods that have enslaved us from generation to generation? How do you deal with the consequence of death?
Well, this is a question the prophets of the Old Testament wrestled with. As they listened to the Holy Spirit, they understood that something - or someone - greater was needed to break this cycle and bring blessings back to the world.
They understood that one day a righteous Israelite (one who chose blessing) would end the curse by bringing Israel’s sins on himself. Here’s how the prophet Isaiah put it:
He was despised and rejected—
a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.
We turned our backs on him and looked the other way.
He was despised, and we did not care.
Yet it was our weaknesses he carried;
it was our sorrows that weighed him down.
And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God,
a punishment for his own sins!
But he was pierced for our rebellion,
crushed for our sins.
He was beaten so we could be whole.
He was whipped so we could be healed.
All of us, like sheep, have strayed away.
We have left God’s paths to follow our own.
Yet the LORD laid on him
the sins of us all.
This was the hope ringing in the ears of the Israelites as the Old Testament comes to an end. And this is what Paul means when he says “Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said.” This is the storyline he’s referring to.
Because Jesus was that righteous Israelite. (This is why he had to be Jewish, because it was the children of Abraham God chose to bring blessing to the world!)
Jesus was that someone greater. And why was he greater? Because he was the Son of God, the divine entering our world. Think about that – God loved us so much he took our curse upon himself!
He was the embodiment of God’s self-giving love and he showed us what a life of blessing could look like.
Jesus didn’t just follow the law of Moses, he went way beyond it. He didn’t just not murder, he loved his enemies. He didn’t just act with justice, he lived out sacrificial compassion.
He chose God’s blessings every single time. Everywhere he went Eden was springing up again.
But then he chose greatest act of self-giving love of all time. He willingly went to the cross and brought the curse of humanity - the consequence of sin - on himself so that we could be free of it.
Paul says it this way in Galatians 3:
Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When he was hung on the cross, he took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing.
Literally, he “by becoming a curse for us.”
Think about what happened in that moment on the cross. Jesus had spent his entire life rejecting the idolatrous gods of greed and lust and injustice and power (the gods we were enslaved to), and yet here he was offering up his life to them.
What a prize! Right? These powers of our world were salivating at the chance. Because here was the one person who hadn’t earned the curse, and yet here he was ready to experience the final consequence of it.
The idolatrous powers gathered their strength, the sins of humanity piled up onto him, even Rome itself - the quintessential idolatrous empire, offered its instrument of torture, the cross, to help out. Death was standing ready.
All the dark forces of our world gathered into one place: the body of Jesus on that cross to strike the finishing blow and keep humanity enslaved forever. On the cross Jesus became the curse.
For a moment it seemed like the curse had won. Jesus breathed his last and it was finished.
What the powers and idols and sins and empires of this world didn’t realize is that they had just signed their own death warrant. They went down with Jesus into the tomb. But guess what? He didn’t stay there. But they did.
At 6pm on Good Friday, they may not have realized it yet, but death had been defeated, the idolatrous powers had been shamed and stripped of their authority, and the curse of humanity’s choice to reject God’s blessing had been broken.
So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins.
If Jesus never died, we would still be trapped under the enslaving power of sin. And all of our stories would end in death - the final price that sin demands of us.
But we don’t even have to imagine that kind of world because it happened. Jesus took the curse on himself so that we wouldn’t have to bear it.
Sin has no power over us anymore. Generational curses can be broken. We can live in freedom. And we can finally choose God’s blessing again.
The curse is over.
The gates of Eden are open and now we can live in the presence of God. And I want to tell you about what a life of blessing can be… next week.
That’s what Easter’s all about… the power of the resurrection.
For now, I want us to spend a bit more time letting the good news of what Jesus accomplished on that cross wash over us.
In a few moments we are going to practice Communion together. It’s an act of remembering. We take the bread and the cup, symbolizing the body and blood of Jesus, to remember that we are a part of what happened on that cross.
That our sins - that the curse of our choices - were put to death in Christ’s body. That we can live in freedom because of his sacrifice. And that our bodies, too, will be resurrected with his to live in the New Creation.
God’s blessing. His presence. Living together in a new Eden… forever.
That’s what the cross accomplished and this act helps us remember it.
But not just us. This act is also a reminder to the powers of our world - the sins still grasping for control. It’s a message to them: you have no power anymore.
Lust? You’re done.
Greed, rage, violence? I don’t have to listen to you anymore.
Shame? The curse is over. In Jesus’ name the curse is over.
A few moments ago we spent some time thinking about how we’ve experienced the curse. As we take the cup and bread together, I encourage you to remember the fact that on the cross, that curse died with Jesus. Think about that!
God’s grace and his self-giving love are far more powerful than your brokenness.
“Jesus died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said.”
And if you do not yet follow Jesus, you don’t have to take Communion with us.
But in this time I would like you to ask yourself something. Are you living in freedom from the powers of this world? Is your life filled with God’s blessing? Peace, abundance, joy…
If not, please just consider this: the door is wide open. Jesus took your shame, your brokenness, your sin, your curse on himself when he died so that you can live free.
Whether or not you believe it, it happened.
Is it time for you to start living like that’s true?