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Sacrificial Blood—If a Symbol, What Does It Mean?

Why did the Israelites offer millions of sacrificial victims in order to find forgiveness? How did the blood that was shed and applied to the sanctuary on a daily and yearly basis glorify God? With limited space to deal with this enormous topic, I have decided to devote it to one aspect—sacrificial blood.

Why the Blood?

Ancient ritual texts give little information as to the meaning of the rites performed, so we must draw certain conclusions from what has been stated. In Leviticus, the clearest statement regarding the blood is linked to a prohibition against eating it. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement” (17:11, NRSV). Here the blood makes atonement; it does that because the life is in it; but because that blood is shed, it may also represent death.

So how does blood—conveying life, also representing death—make atonement? Resorting to other ancient Near Eastern beliefs, some have concluded that it represents appeasement. While appeasement can be intended in certain contexts, the word kpr (“to atone”) as used in Leviticus is not applied directly to God as the one atoned. Instead, its prepositional object is sin. Furthermore, the term is used in a form (kipper) that correlates directly with the Akkadian word meaning “to wipe off.” A case can be made that the Hebrew term suggests the concept of cleansing.

The New Testament echoes this. Jesus’ blood cleanses us from every sin (1 John 1:7). A heavenly multitude washes their robes and makes them white in the Lamb’s blood (Rev. 7:14). Such a paradoxical statement (how can blood make a garment white?) makes it necessary for us to recognize that this is a metaphor. How, then, does Jesus’ blood, metaphorically speaking, cleanse us from sin?

In looking at the various contexts of blood, I have come to the conclusion that the blood represents truth, specifically, a truth revealed by Jesus’ death. A corollary to cleansing is the New Testament notion of sanctification. According to Hebrews 10:29 and 13:12, Jesus’ blood sanctifies. Yet Jesus noted that the truth sanctifies (John 17:17).

When Jesus discusses his flesh and blood with the multitude, he states that unless they gnaw on his flesh and drink his blood they would have no life in them (John 6:35). Shortly, he explains, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63, NRSV). Clearly, the blood in these references is tied to knowledge or truth or the Word of God.

In his first epistle, John speaks of three witnesses—the Spirit, the water, and the blood. “And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth” (5:6, NRSV). If the Spirit is the truth, it would seem that the other two represent truth as well. Interestingly, John employs these three “witnesses” throughout his Gospel by choosing stories from Jesus life that involve the Spirit, the water, and/or the blood. In chapters 8–12, the metaphors change from water, blood, and Spirit to symbols of freedom, life, and truth. The metaphor light predominates in these chapters. Then John returns to the original three elements as he concludes his Gospel.

Given the contextual clues above, as well as its sacrificial context, it seems that the blood represents the truth in relationship to Jesus’ death. Perhaps it is instructive to ask, Where in the accounts of Jesus’ death is his blood mentioned? In fact, there are only four places:

Matt. 27:4–8—Judas exclaims that he has shed innocent blood (mention of ‘blood money’ and ‘Field of blood’)

Matt. 27:24, 25—Pilate washes his hands, declaring himself innocent of Jesus’ blood; the people respond that his blood will be on them and their children

Luke 22:44—Jesus sweats drops like great drops of blood

John 19:34—Jesus’ side is pierced and blood and water flow out

None of these passages refers to the blood from his scourging, from the crown of thorns, or from the crucifixion. In the first two instances, Jesus’ blood is tied to those who are responsible for shedding it. In Luke 22:44, Jesus’ blood is the result of an extreme mental anguish that led him to say, “I am deeply grieved, even to death” (Matt. 26:38, NRSV).1

In the last passage, the peculiar separation of blood and water is noted, marking Jesus’ early death (before crucifixion should have killed him). As noted by the Gospels, the blood of Jesus seems to signify the nature of his death—that it was not due to common or even penal causes—but from his extreme mental anguish.

Perhaps more than any other passage, Romans 3:21–26 places the blood of Jesus within the context of the purpose of his death, thus suggesting its meaning. Using a cluster of verbs as a motif, the passage outlines this purpose:

But now…the righteousness of God has been disclosed…

It has been attested by the law and the prophets…

whom [Christ Jesus] God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood…

He did this to show his righteousness.

It was to prove…that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:21, 22, 25, 26, NRSV)

Once again, the blood points to a revelation of the truth, in this case, the truth about God’s righteousness. The reason for this is: “because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed” (Rom. 3:25, NRSV).

If we recall how God’s righteousness was questioned as sin began (see Gen. 3:4), we can logically recognize that atonement—the dealing with sin—would necessarily involve God’s righteousness, as well as the nature and results of sin. This the blood represents.

Notes and References

1. Though disputed textually, Luke 22:44 shows evidence of genuineness.

Jean Sheldon is professor of religion at Pacific Union College, Angwin, Calif.

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