Why blood? (Hebrews 9:11-14)

Why all the blood?

One objection you might have to Christianity is this peculiar focus on blood.  Sure, it may have been excusable in the era of the Old Testament.  After all, these were a primitive people, right?  Surely we can move beyond this.  But no, in the world of the first century, the cross of Christ emblemizes the devotion to Jesus.  In the second century, a writer named Tertullian wrote that “at every forward step and movement…in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign [of the cross].”  You might recognize this as the origin of “crossing oneself,” tracing the shape of the cross in the air above your face and chest.  Yet when Mel Gibson’s Passion film was released in the early 2000’s, film critics were mortified.  One critic even dubbed the film “Jesus chainsaw massacre,” while others complained that the film focused too graphically on the manner of Christ’s death rather than the teachings of his life.

Perhaps this is a good point.  Of all the sermons Jesus ever preached, of all the miracles he ever performed, of all the acts of love, compassion, generosity, humility—the symbol of the Christian faith is an instrument of torture and disgrace.  Why?

First, we must understand that for Jesus, his death was not a tragedy, but a victory over sin and death (cf. Colossians 2:15).  Second, Jesus was no unwilling victim. “No one takes my life from me,” he says.  “I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18).  But most significantly, the blood connects us to the understanding of both life and sin.

Leviticus tells us that “life is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11).  This lent a sense of reverence to rituals involving sacrifice and death.  But blood disgusts us as well; I know people who faint at the mere sight of blood.  So, in an indirect way, the sacrificial system was God’s way of saying: Sin is as disgusting to me as blood is to you. 

When the writer of Hebrews describes the sacrificial system, he reminds us of both the necessity and inadequacy of bloodshed.  Necessity—because “without blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).  Inadequacy—because no animal sacrifice could possibly pay the infinite debt against God.

So the writer says:

11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:11-14)

The temple system is “handmade” (v. 11).  It is finite, only a symbol of man’s true purpose for relationship with God.  The blood of animals might have granted priests access to an earthly temple, but we could never possibly hope to stand before the actual living God and expect mere external rituals to save us. No; we needed something more, something that would purify us so that we could move beyond the superficial nature of the temple system and into fellowship with God alone.

Growing up, I hated “church clothes.”  I still hate dressing up, frankly (try and look surprised).  Coming from a more traditional church, I grew up with khaki pants and button-up shirts (always neatly tucked in, mind you), uncomfortable shoes and the occasional necktie.  Sunday afternoons were great; they represented the longest span of time before the next time I had to put on my church clothes again.  I think a lot of people feel that way about religion in general and probably Christianity in particular.  Religion seems like a lot of work, a lot of effort to put on our Sunday best.  Our sacrifices get repeated week by week by week—not to mention a host of activities such as Bible studies, small groups, and church events.  Don’t get me wrong, we do those things for a reason.  But the reason isn’t so you and I can look good.  In fact it’s quite the opposite.  When we come to Jesus, we can’t possibly dress ourselves up enough to impress him (I can hear God saying: “Armani suit?  You know I made the Orion Nebula, right?”).  Instead we come with what rags we have, because in our transparency, in our authenticity, we are given fine linen to put on, to be clothed in his righteousness alone.

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