And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that eateth any manner of blood, I will set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh atonement by reason of the life. Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood. And whatsoever man there be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, who taketh in hunting any beast or bird that may be eaten; he shall pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust. For as to the life of all flesh, the blood thereof is all one with the life thereof: therefore I said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh; for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof: whosoever eateth it shall be cut off (Leviticus 17:10-14).
There certainly seems to be a lot of blood involved in Christianity.
Many of the popular hymns prominently feature blood; many of its uses would be considered graphic and revolting if taken literally. In song people are encouraged to hide in Jesus’ blood, or request to be drawn near to Jesus’ “bleeding side.” But by far the most common imagery is drawn from Revelation 7:13-14: the saints as having white garments after washing them in the blood of the Lamb. Such an image cannot be taken literally, as anyone who has ever attempted to get bloodstains out of white clothing can attest. Such talk of blood is not limited to song; Christians seem to always be talking about the blood of Christ and cleansing that comes from it. How could an image so graphic and almost grotesque as if understood literally become so powerful in Christianity?
We do well to consider what blood is and why it is important to the body. We have discovered that blood is one of the main transport vehicles throughout the body, bringing oxygen and nutrients to cells throughout the body while taking away carbon dioxide, toxins, and the like. The functions of blood are entirely essential to life; if blood is not flowing to and from a given body part, it will die.
The critical value of blood to life is what makes it so powerful as an image, as we see in Leviticus 17:10-14. God commands Israel to not eat blood, and does so with some vehemence. The reasoning behind the prohibition should interest us greatly in both of its dimensions: the life of flesh is in the blood, and it is given upon the altar to make atonement. Blood makes atonement by virtue of the life it represents (cf. Leviticus 17:11).
Blood, therefore, represents life. The great interest in the Bible and in song regarding the blood of Jesus is really a strong interest in the life of Jesus which was offered up and sacrificed for our sins (Hebrews 7:26-28, 9:11-26). This imagery is only possible because of the second aspect of blood as life as declared by God in Leviticus: a life can be given to atone for another life. In the Old Testament, animals were sacrificed upon the altar in order to accomplish this atonement (Leviticus 4:1-35, 17:11). Yet, as the Hebrew author demonstrates, the blood of bulls and goats could not truly atone for sin (Hebrews 10:4). The Hebrew author goes on to explain how Jesus’ life, represented by His shed blood, proved fully sufficient to atone for sin (Hebrews 10:5-18). There is no other offering of blood (thus, life) that needs to be added to what Jesus gave; thus all animal sacrifices are concluded. Jesus’ life can provide atonement and thus life for all mankind (Hebrews 7:24-26)!
Another potent image for atonement is cleanliness; that which has been ritually cleansed is pure and holy and suitable for God. In Leviticus, the holy place (the Tabernacle) and the holy people (the priests) were consecrated and made holy through the sprinkling of anointing oil and blood (Leviticus 8:1-36). This makes no sense literally; oil and blood do not get anything physically clean. But the physical actions are the means by which the spiritual reality can be established: the blood, as representing the life of the slain sin offering, is devoted to God for the atonement of sin, and thus becomes holy, communicating holiness to whatever it touches (cf. Leviticus 6:24-30). This is how blood can provide cleansing power: not on account of any physical property of blood, but through faith in God in the atonement that comes through the offering of a life for a life and the sanctification of first the offering and then the one who provided the offering.
There is, therefore, wonderful working power in the blood, particularly in the life of which the blood is the concrete representation. The power is not found in the physical property of blood, although the centrality of blood to the proper functioning of the body is what gives meaning to the imagery. The power comes from God and the means by which He provides the opportunity for atonement, or cleansing, from sin and its consequences, and the restoration of relationship with Him. When we consider the image of blood in Scripture, in song, or in preaching and teaching, let us think soberly about the life which the blood is representing, and be ever thankful for the gift of life which we enjoy, both now in the flesh and eternally in the spirit and in the resurrection thanks to Jesus and His life which He freely offered for our atonement!
Ethan R. Longhenry