Would you be free from the burden of sin? There’s power in the blood .. in the precious blood of the lamb.
Lewis E. Jones, AD 1899
This is my body given for you. This is my blood poured out for you.
Jesus of Nazareth, circa AD 30
What are we to do with the bloody imagery of communion? Of the New Testament writings? Of the teaching of the church throughout the ages? Is it merely a relic of more primitive, blood-thirsty era? Can we wipe the blood from the communion table (and the communion ritual) and still experience God’s grace there?
Many Christians have only one predominant understanding of the New Testament’s references to Jesus’ blood and sacrifice: Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins. We deserved death and eternal punishment. If humans were to live in God’s presence forever, it was necessary that a perfect, sinless sacrifice die in our place. Jesus was that sacrifice.
It is unfortunate, however, that this is the ONLY lesson that so many Christians draw from Jesus’ death. The Old Testament, to which the earliest Christians turned to understand the death of Jesus, has a rich, broad and complex picture of sacrifice.
Remember that the New Testament author’s wrote after the earthly life, death and resurrection of Jesus. They knew that Jesus’ death was the watershed event in his life. They also knew what effects they had experienced in their own lives and in the community. Since they believed that Jesus was the climax of God’s story of salvation, they looked to the Old Testament to understand what had just happened. A variety of Old Testament sacrificial images helped them talk about the power they experienced in Jesus.
Let’s look at a few of the Old Testament images of sacrifice:
Passover. The death of the Passover lamb brought deliverance from Egyptian oppressors to those marked with its blood. The New Testament authors found meaning in the fact that Jesus’ death took place at Passover. The Gospel of John looks at Jesus as our Passover lamb. Paul says that “Christ our Passover has been sacrifice for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7). The New Testament’s theme of Christ as victor is an echo of Passover.
Covenant. In ancient covenant ceremonies – in which two parties pledged loyalty to each other and made promises to each other – the covenant was sealed with a sacrifice. In Exodus 24, Moses takes the blood of the covenant sacrifice and sprinkles it on all those gathered, marking them as people who belong within the framework of Israel’s covenant with God. Jesus takes up the theme of the covenant at the Last Supper. “This cup in the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 2:20).
Day of Atonement. The Day of Atonement occurs just once each year. In the Biblical era, the High Priest – and only the High Priest – entered the Holy of Holies (the innermost part of the temple or tabernacle which was completely off-limits for the rest of the year) to offer the blood of a sacrifice at the mercy seat. (In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it is called the hilasterion. It was the center-top section of the Ark of the Covenant where God sat enthroned between the cherubim). This sacrifice was offered for the sin of the entire community, not an just for the sin of an individual. This was also a ritual through which Israel experienced the presence and holiness of God. A number of New Testament allusions are drawn from Day of Atonement imagery. Paul call’s Jesus our “hilasterion” in Romans 3:25. The author of Hebrews makes an extensive comparison between Jesus and the high priest on the Day of Atonement and tells Christians that they are free to enter the holy-of-holies by the blood of Jesus (Hebrews 10:19) . In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ death causes the curtain in front of the holy-of-holies to tear (Matthew 27:51). All of these authors are saying that Jesus’ death had a Day-of-Atonement surpassing effect.
Temple Sacrifice. Routine temple sacrifices were much more complex and nuanced than most people realize. It was not simply a matter of “killing an animal so God will forgive my sins.” Sacrifices could be offered to give thanks to God, to experience fellowship with God, to experience reconciliation with God and God’s community, to make ritual purification from some uncleanness (which, like childbirth, may not have been sinful), and to experience God’s forgiveness and cleansing from guilt. Although the ancient Israelites thought about the mystery of life and death in their sacrifices, sacrifice was never simply a magical rite by which the victim’s death mechanically created some sort of heavenly effect. Worshippers identified with the sacrifices offered for them by placing their hands on them. Sacrifice was as much a matter of prayer as it was anything else. Like their New Testament counterpart, Old Testament sacrifices were a “means of grace.” Sacrifices did not “buy God off.” Furthermore, sacrifice was hardly a bloodthirsty ritual. We buy our meat wrapped in plastic, but Israel’s sacrificial rites required that worshippers recognize and respect the life of the animals involved. In many sacrifices, a portion of the sacrificial meat went to the priests to eat and another portion went to the worshippers so that they could have to have a meal together. Given this broader view, it’s easy to see why many early Christians talked about Jesus’ death as a sacrifice. Jesus’ death made it possible for Christians to experience God in ways that surpassed even that experienced by temple worshippers.
I recommend The Atonement by Leon Morris for further reading (although I don’t think Morris gets “hilasterion” right. It’s a place, not an action.)
The first Christians used the Old Testament’s sacrificial imagery as they looked for words to describe what Jesus had done. Their language was born out of faith seeking understanding. When contemporary Christians speak of Jesus’ blood today, few can really identify with the arguments and images involved. If we were to become more Biblically literate, we would realize that the Bible’s own language is not the narrow, bloodthirsty, legalistic prose we think it is. The Biblical imagery is rich and varied. If we believe that Jesus is really the fulfillment of a process that God began with Abraham and Sarah, then we – like those first Christians – need to be familiar with the entire Biblical story. We won’t make much sense out of the New Testament without understanding what the first Christians saw when they looked at the Old. We may not live in Biblical times, but if we’re to be Christians, we have to understand something about them.
And perhaps we should note that we’re not as far beyond blood sacrifice as we may think we are. When celebrating a special occasion, have you ever thought that it called for a steak? When bringing the family together at the table, chances are that something died to make that occasion possible. And we still talk about those who give their lives for others as having made the “ultimate sacrifice.”
There is indeed power in the blood.