On the cross, Jesus accomplished a number of things, a wide variety of things that we tend to boil down to a simple explanation. This is very unfortunate. By simplifying what Jesus did on the cross to a simple statement like, “Jesus died for my sins.” Or “Jesus’ blood covers my sins”, we do not do justice to the degree to which Jesus’ death turned the world upside down. What follows is just one of many other things that Jesus’ death accomplished.
The Roman world was based on patronage, people doing what was expected of them by others. Everyone had expectations. Slaves were indebted to their owners, sons to their fathers, the Elite to the Emperor, and the Emperor to the gods. Gifts and favors were given with an expectation of a return on the “investment”.
In contrast to this, Jesus set forth an alternative ethic, one in which we “die to ourselves take up our cross and follow him.” This ethic is found through out the gospels. For instance, we see the disciples fighting among themselves over who is the greatest. Jesus responds by saying that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. During the sermon on the mount, over and over he says, “you have herd it said, but I say unto you…” He invites the little children to come to him with out reservation, and shortly before he dies, he takes on the role of a lowly servant, washing his disciple’s feet. The teachings of Jesus have turned and are turning the world as we know it upside down.
Now none of these teachings constitutes something new for those of us who identify ourselves as Christians, but how far would these teachings have multiplied if Jesus had not died a horrible death on a cross? They would be lost. By making the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus set his other teachings and examples in concrete, causing them to be immovable objects. As Paul puts it “we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”
To draw an analogy, the life and teachings of Jesus are like a demolition team setting up a building for demolition. If the effort of the demolition team over the course of weeks doesn’t result in a gigantic explosion, bringing an old building to the ground, their effort is for not. Similarly, if Jesus hadn’t died, his teachings and life would be like a demolition team setting the charge but not igniting the fuse. If Jesus hadn't died, would we even know his name?
His teachings have changed the world, and continue to change the world, but none of this would be true if he hadn’t died the way he did. If his teachings had endured, but he hadn’t died, there would be a point at which we could say, “this far and no further, I am willing to give this much up, but no more.” Instead, because Jesus is our example, and because he went all they way, we have no option but to also go all the way… whatever that might mean. : )