I have an old acquaintance I’ll call Pete who by almost everyone’s estimate is one of the finest guitar players just about anywhere… and for a good while he was the guitarist backing up a young man, we’ll call Michael, who later left rock and roll to become a pastor. But Pastor Michael was concerned about guitar-player Pete because Pete had never shown any interest at all in anything to do with Jesus… but this young pastor thought that if he could just get Pete to play in his church’s worship band, maybe something would change for Pete. So, Pastor Michael asked Pete if he’d be willing to play at his church one weekend and surprisingly Pete said, ‘Sure.’ So, Michael sent Pete the song charts for the weekend’s service and one of the songs happened to be a ‘moderned-up’ version of the old hymn, ‘There is a Fountain.’ Well, not even an hour had passed before Pete called Michael and said there was no chance that he was going to play that song or ever attend a church that would sing a song with such offensive lyrics… about blood. You may know that old hymn’s first verse: “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins; and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.’ I can see why Pete, someone with absolutely no exposure to Christian things, would have such a response to this song. A fountain filled with blood? Blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins, whoever Emmanuel is? Sinners plunged beneath a fountain of blood? Really? Now for those of us schooled in the theology and images of Christianity we know what William Cooper meant in 1792 when he penned those lyrics, but let’s be honest, they’re still pretty unnerving. And so can be the fact that there is so much blood in the Bible. It’s no exaggeration to say that blood can be found from the front of the Bible to the back… Blood is one of those ‘themes’ that runs throughout the entire library of scrolls (as we have been calling the Bible throughout our Threads series, our series looking at some of the themes that run through the Bible) and I must say that when we encounter blood in the Bible, if we do so holding on to our modern sensibilities related to blood, whatever our sensibilities may be, we will miss what the ancient authors of the Bible were trying to tell us. And SO, my hope today is that we can discover together today not only why blood plays such a prominent role in the Bible, but also why, when we run into this theme of blood in the Bible, it should be something that ultimately leads us to hope and thanksgiving.
The first place we find blood playing a role in the Bible is in Genesis 4, but before we jump into this passage, I want to say that there is absolutely nothing in common between the way ancient people thought our bodies worked and how we think about our bodies. The ancients believed that our bodies contained 4 fluids: Phlegm, Black bile, Yellow Bile, and Blood; and these four fluids needed to all be in balance for a person to stay healthy. The ancients also didn’t have any idea what our internal organs did; they thought that all that weird stuff that they found inside of us was simply there to be the pathways for the four fluids to move around in our bodies. And blood was particularly important because, as the ancients believed, our blood, and in all honesty, the blood of any creature, carried some sort of mystical, spiritual force that gives us life. In fact, there was almost no difference in the ancient mind between their notions of blood and life… And they also believed that certain parts of our bodies were completely separate ‘creatures’ if you will, that lived within us… our hearts, our intestines, a woman’s uterus, and our blood, while you found them inside of us, they actually lived separately from us, and they often had minds of their own. Now, I know this all sounds crazy, but it was the science of the ancient, western world and we need to keep these things in mind when we read this first passage that deals with blood in Genesis 4. In this chapter we learn about two brothers: Cain and Abel who were Adam and Eve’s sons. And the story tells us that these two brothers each brought an offering to God. What we find is that there was something about Abel’s attitude in giving God his gift that God approved of and there was something in Cain’s attitude in giving his gift to God that God disapproved of… and Cain, rather than changing his attitude, killed his brother in jealousy. Then we read this in verse 9 where God is confronting Cain about all of this: Afterward the LORD asked Cain, “Where is your brother? Where is Abel?” “I don’t know,” Cain responded. “Am I my brother’s guardian?” But the LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground! Abel’s blood was ‘crying out’ from the ground. Now to us that sounds like God is getting metaphorical… we don’t think of blood as literally having a voice that would cry out, but to the first readers of this story it would have made perfect sense for God to say that Abel’s blood was ‘crying out’ from the ground. Abel’s life was in his blood; the force within Abel that gave Abel dignity and made Abel a vibrant and living man had been drained out his body and onto the ground due to a jealous rage. It would have made perfect sense to ancient readers that Abel’s blood, as a separate aspect of Abel’s being, would cry out for justice in a way that God could hear.
And this notion of our blood being the fluid that carries the force that gives us life and that blood is deserving of great honor and dignity is carried right on into the rest of the Bible. Possibly the most overt example of this is found in Leviticus 17 in the part of the Bible where God is giving the Jewish people the Law, God’s rules for living that will set his people apart, in a good way from the rest of the nations of the world. As we read this passage it’s important to keep in mind that ancient people were primarily vegetarians; animals were far too valuable to kill and eat. Animals like goats, cattle and sheep gave the people milk for food and wool for clothing and as Barry said last week, these pasture animals were considered a person’s wealth. But when special times came, such as moments of great celebration or important sacred times when it became necessary to take the life of an animal and then eat its meat, God’s law said this was never to be done cavalierly. The animal was giving its life, in other words, shedding its blood, so that others could live, and you needed to treat its life, its blood, with great dignity. In fact, Chapter 17 begins by saying there was only one place that you could kill a bull or a lamb or a goat: right at the entrance to the tabernacle. God was saying, ‘This is a sacred act, and you are not to do it just any old place; you are only to do it at the most sacred of places… and with the help of a priest! Then in verse 8 we read this: “Give them this command as well. If any native Israelite or foreigner living among you offers a burnt offering or a sacrifice, (in other words, kills an animal) but does not bring it to the entrance of the Tabernacle to offer it to the LORD, that person will be cut off from the community. You can see how serious God was about where you are to take the life of an animal! “And if any native Israelite or foreigner living among you eats or drinks blood in any form, I will turn against that person and cut him off from the community of your people, for the life of the body is in its blood. I have given you the blood on the altar to purify you, making you right with the LORD. It is the blood, given in exchange for a life, that makes purification possible. That is why I have said to the people of Israel, ‘You must never eat or drink blood—neither you nor the foreigners living among you.’ “And if any native Israelite or foreigner living among you goes hunting and kills an animal or bird that is approved for eating, he must drain its blood and cover it with earth. (Give it a proper burial) The life of every creature is in its blood. That is why I have said to the people of Israel, ‘You must never eat or drink blood, for the life of any creature is in its blood.’ So, whoever consumes blood will be cut off from the community. God says, ‘The life, the Nephesh in the Hebrew, of every creature is in its blood! Nephesh is a huge Hebrew word. It can be used in a multitude of ways… it can be used to speak of the soul, or the living aspect of our being; it can be used to speak of the dignity and unique qualities of an individual; it is used to speak of our desires, our appetites, our emotions and even our passions. It is a big word that encompasses just about everything that makes us vibrant and alive. And God tells the Israelites that the ‘nephesh’ of every creature is in their blood, so you don’t eat meat that still has blood, or its life, in it, and you certainly don’t ever drink blood. No, you are to show the blood of an animal great honor when you take its life so that you can live. And if this is how we are to dignify the blood of animals then think of how important it was to dignify the blood, the life force, of men and women… and this is exactly where this theme is taking us… to the dignity we are to give the life… the blood… of someone who is willing to give their life so that others can live!
And having read these laws in Leviticus we can see why just about everyone had such a disgusted response to Jesus when he said in John 6 that unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood we cannot enter into eternal life. We believe that Jesus was talking metaphorically about us taking his life into ours when he said this, but to the people first hearing Jesus, Jewish people who had spent their entire lives avoiding blood, Jesus saying we need to drink his blood to live with God was a dealbreaker… and while it may have been confusing for them to hear what Jesus said in that moment, one thing was certain… Jesus saying these things was clearly disgusting, heretical and completely ridiculous to the first people to hear Jesus say this. And I have to be honest… some of that initial confusion surrounding exactly what Jesus meant then still exists in some ways, today. As you may know there are whole branches of Christianity that believe that we do literally drink the blood of Jesus in communion; these Christians believe that something mystical happens to the wine in communion when it is blessed by an officiant, and it literally becomes Jesus’ blood. And while we don’t have time to flesh all of this out today, the reasoning behind this understanding goes back to this idea that Jesus’ life force, his perfect being, is contained in his blood and when we take communion, we are taking in Jesus’ life and with his life comes the power to live as only he lived.
And there is one more aspect of blood related to Jesus that I must bring up. We are all aware, as the hymn I mentioned at the beginning says, that Jesus shed his blood for us… and that he did this for a number of reasons, not the least of which was to be the ultimate sacrifice that paid the price for mankind’s sin. We know from early church history that for the first followers of Jesus, the fact of Jesus allowing himself to bleed to death and Jesus’ willingness to give up his life for those he loved was in essence the same thing. You can find tons of statements in the New Testament letters from Paul and John and Peter and, in particular, the writer of the Book of Hebrews, that speak to this. Once the early followers of Jesus started thinking about what Jesus’ death and resurrection meant for the world, they couldn’t help but talk about how we’ve been given freedom and grace and power and a life of unfettered relationship with God through Jesus shedding his blood or another way to say it, laying down his life for us. And as I have thought about all of this, I can’t help but believe that when Jesus silently and willingly died on the cross, when his life flowed out of his body and onto the ground, like Abel, Jesus’ blood in some mystical way also cried out… but unlike Abel’s blood, Jesus’ blood did not cry out for justice. No, it cried out, ‘I have finally brought justice… for everyone. The need for more shedding of blood is finished! It is finished!’
There is so much more we could talk about related to this theme of blood… how it plays into the sacrificial system and the meaning of atonement through the shedding of an animal’s blood… or how at times blood is used by God to bring judgement on people… or how blood on their doorposts was the saving element for the Israelites on the night of the first Passover… or how life being in our blood makes what happened to Jesus when he gave up his life on the cross something other than what we often imagine. Maybe that’s for another sermon or a class on the subject. But what I want to emphasize is this: Blood enters the Bible as something that signifies dignity and that dignity rachets up as we move through the Bible… and this theme culminates when we come to the part of the Bible that shows us Jesus living a life, a life that is contained in his blood, that is literally all that true life can be, and what come to find is that Jesus not only wants us to share in his life, but that he was willing to sacrifice his life, shed his blood, so that we can know the freedom and grace and power of an unfettered relationship with his heavenly father. And so, yes, the Bible is full of blood… blood that makes us wonder about things and can seem distant from the loving God we have come to know… but here is my final point… every time you run into blood in the Bible, just remember that it is there because it is taking us someplace…. Someplace specific… but not to William Cowper’s fountain filled with blood… I promise you that somewhere in whatever you are reading in the Bible related to blood, the mention of blood is in, some way, pointing us specifically to life in all its possibilities, again the possibilities of freedom and grace and justice and power that comes from an unfettered life with God. Never forget that this blood theme will conclude in one final giving of one life, one shedding of blood, for the life of everyone. I don’t think it is a coincidence that once we read that Jesus has risen from the dead every mention of the shedding of blood in the Bible, in any context, is in the past tense. All the need for a continuation of the theme of blood ends when Jesus rises from the dead and offers us life… his life. So, this theme, while it can seem uncomfortable, is one that should, when we encounter it, give us hope and a deep sense of thanksgiving… hope because we know it is leading us somewhere unimaginable and thanksgiving because it is not only heading to the cross but also the empty tomb and the promise of new life… And in that ultimate new life I am certain our new bodies will be filled with new blood, new blood that mystically carries all of the life that can be found in Jesus… life that is full of the freedom and the power and the dignity and the grace and the joy that comes from having an unfettered relationship with our heavenly father through faith in Jesus Christ our lord… the one who give his life… the one who shed his blood to give us eternal, new life.
Homework: read Hebrews 9:1-15… and I suggest that you read it in both our NLT and the Message… you can find it in both translations easily online… and, in particular, focus in on verse 14. And as you read these verses any place you read the word ‘blood,’ you can substitute the word ‘life’ and anyplace you read the word ‘life’ you can substitute the word ‘blood.’
Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins.