Blood at the scene of a terrible accident or murder is a sign of death and injury. But when blood is coursing through our arteries and veins, or when it is given as a transfusion into a dying patient, it is a sign of life. It is the pale, pasty color of a face without blood that we take as a sign of death.
Our culture seems drawn towards violence, death and blood. For example, by sixth grade the average child in the United States sees 8000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence on TV. While TV violence is new, the culture—or cult—of violence is old. In the Crusades, in the Inquisition, in the Holocaust, those interested in power and wealth at any cost have seen death as the final solution. They have bloodied the teachings of the Bible and twisted the direction of the church to accomplish their unholy purposes and to justify—even glorify—the spilling of innocent blood.
In this culture, where a gory fascination with blood and death is so common and honest discussion of it is so rare, it is easy to misread the Bible, looking at the blood of Jesus only as a symbol of His death, rather than as a symbol of His Life and Truth.
Blood Means Life
When the Bible says that someone has blood upon them (see Matthew 27:25, Deuteronomy 19:10) or speaks of a city being “built with blood” (see Micah 3:10, Habakkuk 2:12) it means the people are guilty of murder. In cases like these, blood is a symbol of death. In other cases, blood does not mean death, but life. For example, in eating meat and sacrifices the people of Israel were always told that blood means life.
But flesh with its life, which is its blood, you shall not eat (Genesis 9:4).
You shall not eat the blood of any kind of flesh: for the life of all flesh is its blood (Leviticus 17:14).
Only be sure that you do not eat the blood: for the blood is the life; and you may not eat the life with the flesh (Deuteronomy 12:23).
For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you on the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that makes an atonement for the soul (Leviticus 17:11).
Thus in all the sacrifices and meals, the blood was a symbol of life. That is, it was not a symbol of taking away life, but of preserving or receiving life. Thus the blood of atonement was not a symbol of death or punishment, but a symbol of life. The same was true when Jesus spoke of His blood. It was not a symbol of His death, so much as of His life.
Then Jesus said to them, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, has eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day (John 6:53-54).
Clearly, Jesus was speaking symbolically, not asking us to eat physical flesh and drink material blood, but to receive His life, which is His flesh and blood spiritually understood.
Blood Means God’s Truth
The Bible sometimes refers to the “blood of the Covenant” (Exodus 24:8, Zechariah 9:11, Hebrews 10:29, 13:20). The Covenant is the Ten Commandments which God wrote on the tables of stone (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13. See also Leviticus 26:15; Deuteronomy 5: 1-6; 9:9-15; 1 Kings 8:9, 21; 2 Kings 23:3; 2 Chronicles 6:11, Psalms 103:18). The Ark or box containing the Ten Commandments was called the Ark of the Covenant (Numbers 10:33, 14:44; Deuteronomy 10:8, 31:25). In a broader sense, the Covenant is the Book of the Law or all of God’s Word (e.g. Psalm 105:8; 78:10). It was called the Book of the Covenant (2 Kings 23:2-3; 2 Chronicles 34:30-31) and was kept with the Ark of the Covenant (Deuteronomy 31:9, 25-26).
Of course, God is not content with our simply knowing the truth, or having it written on stone or paper. He wants us to obey the truth and live by it. He wants us to have that law inscribed on our hearts and minds. This is the true covenant.
“But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; after those days,” says the Lord, “I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33, cf. Isaiah 59:21).
Once we understand that the Covenant is the Lord’s Ten Commandments and in a broader sense, all of His Word or all His Truth, we can see that the Blood of the Covenant is blood used as a symbol of that truth.
For example when Moses sprinkled the blood on the people, he said, “Behold the blood of the Covenant, which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words” (Exodus 24:8). It is clear that the sprinkling of blood was a symbol of the people receiving God’s truth or law and keeping His Commandments. (He didn’t say, “This blood is the penalty God is demanding from you,” or “This blood is a symbol of the death you deserve.”)
The same thing is implied by Jesus in the New Testament. If He had meant His “blood” to be a symbol of His death, He might have said, “This is the blood of my death.” But what He actually said was, “This is My blood of the New Testament (or New Covenant)” (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24), and “This cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20). Again, the New Testament is God’s Truth or Law, which is to be written on our hearts (See Ezekiel 31:31,33).
Since blood in this context means God’s Truth it is identified with the light, and it is said to cleanse us from sins.
But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7).
We read that the blood bears witness and agrees with the Spirit, and the Spirit bears witness because it is Truth (1 John 5:6-8). Here again, blood is connected with truth. Blood is also associated with the Word in other passages:
And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the Word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death (Revelation 12:11).
And he was clothed with a garment dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God (Revelation 19:13).
When we understand that Blood means God’s Law, His Word, His Truth, we can see why it is said that we should drink His blood (John 6:53-56) and be purified or washed by His blood (Revelation 1:5; 7:14; 1 John 1:7; Hebrews 9:14,22). He wants us to drink in His Word, to be cleansed by His Truth. Jesus actually was the Word made flesh, or the eternal Wisdom of God in human form, so His life-blood is the Divine Truth, that is, the New Testament that was poured out for us and purifies us and brings us back to Himself.
God Doesn’t Want Blood
In the Old Testament sacrifices, it was not the blood itself that interested God. What God wanted was for them to keep His commandments, and to receive His life. There were many other religions in those times that used blood and sacrifices not only of animals, but also of people. But blood was not what God wanted. What made the religion of Israel different was that blood was used to symbolize the Divine Law and Life, and they were asked to go beyond the blood itself, to the life it represented. The blood in the sacrifices was used to symbolize this truth and life, but the physical blood itself did not bring about any atonement. It was what the blood symbolized (namely, keeping the commandments and receiving life) that brought at-one-ment with God. This is clear from the fact that the blood of sacrifice was repulsive to God when the sacrifices were made by people who broke the commandments and did not love others. The spilling of blood itself is not something that pleases God.
To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to me? says the LORD: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you: yes, when you make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood (Isaiah 1:11, 15).
The Lord doesn’t want blood, but thanksgiving and kept promises:
Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer unto God thanksgiving; and pay thy vows unto the most High: (Psalm 50:13-14).
For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins (Hebrews 10:4 Compare Ezekiel 44:7, Isaiah 66:3).
These passages show that God does not want literal blood. People completely misunderstood God when they assumed He actually wanted literal blood, instead of what the blood represents (that is, a life according to God’s Laws).
Some people have made the same mistake about the blood of Jesus. They have forgotten what the blood represents, and focused on the literal blood, instead of on the Life and Truth He gives us. When the Bible speaks of the blood of Jesus, some people just assume that blood symbolizes His death only, without ever really looking at what the Bible says the blood means. Then based on that assumptionthey further assume that Jesus saved us by His death, not His life, and that His death was a punishment from God for our sins.
Focus on Life, Not Death
At the core of the misunderstanding about the blood of Jesus is a misunderstanding about why He died. The Bible never says that Jesus by His death saved us from God’s punishment or penalty for sin, but from the power of the devil and bondage to sin.
One reason Jesus died was to overcome the power of hell. Jesus worked against evil spirits throughout His life, and His suffering was the final struggle against evil, and His resurrection the final victory over evil. For every person, overcoming evil involves temptation or struggle against evil, and “dying to sin and the world.” As we struggle against evil individually, Christ struggled against evil on a cosmic scale, and His death was the conclusion of that struggle. So the Bible says that God took on flesh and blood so that “through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14,15). Still, He saves us by His Life, more than by His death (Romans 5:10).
Another reason that Bible gives for Jesus’ death was that He might make His human nature completely one with His Divine nature, so that He could “to make in Himself of two one new man,” (Ephesians 2:14-16, cf. John 17:11,21; 10:30), so that He could “go to the Father” (John 13:3; 14:2,28; 16:10), or be “glorified” (John 17:1,5) or “enter into His glory” (Luke 24:26), that is, “be perfected” (Luke 13:32), or “sanctified” (John 17:19).
There is no doubt that Jesus died on account of our sins, for the purpose of setting us free from them. But the Bible teaches that through His temptations and death He overcame evil, perfected Himself, gave us life and revealed truth. So the question is not at all whether Christ died for us, but why He died.
It was not because the Father demanded punishment. The Bible never says that Christ redeemed us by becoming a fall guy for us, taking the rap so the guilty could get off scot-free. That interpretation simply isn’t Biblical, and didn’t even develop in the Christian world until about 1500 years after Christ. From the end of the eleventh century to the end of the thirteenth century after Christ, the Church was captivated by vengeful and politically motivated Crusades to spill the blood of the “infidels” (including the babies) in the Holy Land. They glorified—in a sense deified—this bloodlust with the battle cry, Deus vult! “God wills it!” They imagined that God Himself wanted the blood of the heathen in retaliation for their sin and unbelief.
One of the ways these crusades were funded was through the sale of “indulgences.” People who had committed some sin were expected to do some kind of penance, which was often a penalty imposed by a priest for their sin. With indulgences they could gain pardon for a price, so paying a price to avoid punishment for sin took a more central place in the Church.
Beginning with Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, the church began to think that God required “satisfaction”—that God’s demand for righteousness must be satisfied. It was Anselm who invented the concept of “satisfaction”—that God could only be “satisfied” by Jesus offering Himself in our place. Later, during the Reformation Calvin expanded this idea and focused on Jesus’ death as a punishment in our place. Calvin came up with the idea that the reason for Christ’s death was that God the Father demanded the blood and death of a sinless Man in retaliation for the sins of the human race.
This cult of blood and death is not true Christianity. Jesus never portrayed the angry, bloodthirsty God whose demand for “justice” could be appeased by the sight of His Son’s blood. Jesus did say that those who eat His flesh and drink His blood of the New Testament will receive life, but this was the only thing Jesus said about His blood, and His purpose in saying it was to take the focus off the bloody sacrifices and put it instead on His Life and Truth. His focus was always teaching us how to live in love for God and others, and He said nothing about being punished in our place. It would be well for all Christians today to follow His example, and take the focus off blood, death, and especially punishment, and put it instead on His teaching about how we should live.