This week we were listening to Spotify in our home and the song “Sunday Bloody Sunday” by U2 came on. My son Jensen wanted to know if it was about Jesus ? It was a reasonable question, because Christianity talks a lot about blood. And it’s weird, let’s be honest. We talk about being “washed in the blood” and we sing songs with words like “there’s power in the blood,” and my personal favorite: “there is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins.” It’s a little gross.
Have you ever wondered what’s up with the whole “blood of Jesus” thing?
Hebrews chapter 9 helps us to understand why there’s always been so much talk about blood, and why after generations of bloodshed of humans and animals Jesus’s blood is finally enough.
It helps us understand why, as an acquaintance of mine–Fr. Kenneth Tanner—often says, “the cross means no other person ever has to die again to make the world right.”
The centrality of blood goes all the way back to the Old Testament; where blood sacrifice was a ritual requirement to deal with sin as a community.
“Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Hebrews 9:22, ESV)
Ever since sin entered the world, blood sacrifice has been required. And although it’s disturbing, it should be. That’s part of the point. In the Old Testament animal sacrifices were meant to highlight the deep brokenness of the world, our bodies, and our souls as a result of our sin.
The covenant sign between God and his people was circumcision, itself quite a bloody act. The point was to communicate under no uncertain terms that sin results in the draining of life, the dulling of our spiritual senses, and the marring of the image of God that we all bear in our bodies and souls as human beings.
In the Old Testament, we read about the Day of Atonement, when the high priest would make a blood sacrifice to symbolically cleanse and set apart the altar. He would sprinkle blood of a slain bull on it as a sign of repentance. Then he would place his hand on the head of living goat to symbolically transfer the sins of the people onto the animal, and then send it out into the wilderness to die.
I believe this was picture of sin as a disease. Without purification it infects everyone that comes close to it, rotting away at the very core of our being. It must be taken out and removed. When it runs its natural course, it results in death.
Now, certainly there was real forgiveness offered and received as the Israelites acknowledged and repented from their sin, and blood sacrifices certainly pointed to the evil of sin and its natural consequence of death, but they could not heal a broken soul. Animal blood sacrifices were never enough. There was always another sacrifice to make. Day after day, year after year.
As the author of Hebrews said, the Old Covenant sacrificial system was always just a copy, a shadow version of a spiritual reality, and a much better sacrifice than animals would be needed to affect the spiritual brokenness of the world. It’s a sacrifice that only God in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ, could make.
As one commentator says,
the high-priestly work of Christ has gone both higher and deeper than the blood shed and sprinkled under the old covenant. It has gone higher because his work carried him in definitive fashion into the true sanctuary, the Holy Place in heaven, in gaining our eternal redemption. It has gone deeper because it penetrates to the very core of our being, to the cleansing of our conscience in order that we may serve the living God.
“If the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkled ashes of cows made spiritually contaminated people holy and clean, how much more will the blood of Jesus wash our consciences clean from dead works in order to serve the living God? He offered himself to God through the eternal Spirit as a sacrifice without any flaw.” (Hebrews 9:13–14, CEB)
Just like the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement, Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the Cross both cleanses and removes sin.
But because he was and is perfect, his blood is able to purify us not just on the outside as sign, but on the inside effectually—in our hearts—which works its way out into our actions. So we are delivered from sinful actions that lead only to destruction—“dead works”—and we are given a way to life.
He took all our sin on himself, the way the priest would symbolically transfer sins to the scapegoat. He removed our sin and took it into the wilderness of death itself, running sin into the ground and conquering it by his Resurrection.
So you see, there’s no need to keep sacrificing animals. There’s no need to keep sketches and shadows, when the hope to which they pointed in faith has come to fruition in Jesus Christ. Jesus meant it when he said, “it is finished. ”
The work of atonement, that is, making things right between us and God, is done. The offering Jesus made of himself has been made, accepted, and vindicated. Sin has been defeated. Forgiveness has been accomplished, and it all happened two thousand years ago. This can’t be overstated. The work is done. Christ did it. We just have to receive it as the pure gift that it is.
We can never think of what we do here at the altar (when we celebrate Holy Eucharist) as a repetition of Christ’s sacrifice.
t’s a sacrifice, to be sure, but a sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise as we celebrate Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice, remembering it, relying on it, receiving it, even participating in it in a mysterious way…but never repeating it.
The author of Hebrews wrote,
“He didn’t enter [heaven] to offer himself over and over again, like the high priest enters the earthly holy place every year with blood that isn’t his. If that were so, then Jesus would have to suffer many times since the foundation of the world. Instead, he has now appeared once at the end of the ages to get rid of sin by sacrificing himself. People are destined to die once and then face judgment. In the same way, Christ was also offered once to take on himself the sins of many people. He will appear a second time, not to take away sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9:25–28, CEB)
So, we know that God’s work in our lives isn’t done yet.
We’re all being sanctified, made more like Jesus every day by the Spirit. We all have some more battles to let God fight for us. We are still waiting for our ultimate salvation. But the war has been won. The disease that was killing us, the madness that was driving us toward self-destruction, the rift that was separating us from life, all that has been dealt with…and that’s Good News.
We can never work hard enough to achieve forgiveness, to try to outweigh the bad things we’ve done by offering the good things. Jesus has already done the best thing and given the greatest gift by offering himself. By cleansing us with his blood. Removing our sins from us forever.
Brothers and sisters, you can rest from trying to make forgiveness happen. The objective reality is that’s already happened! The Good News is that you didn’t do it and you can’t undo it. It is finished.
Until Monday of last week we had a cement wall by the office at the church.
It was slowly pushing a supporting post into the ground, and no matter what it was going to pierce some underground plumbing we recently repaired there. It was only a matter of time until that pipe met certain doom! I’ve known for months now that I had to remove that wall to relieve the pressure, but I haven’t been able to do it. I haven’t had the resources of time or tools to make it happen. But you know what? A young man came to me this week needing some community service hours and offered to help. I gratefully accepted that offer, and the next day I came to our campus to find the wall demolished. The work had been done for me!
Sure there’s still some clean up and restoration to do, which we will partner with our new friend to get done. But the threat to the structural integrity of our plumbing system is gone permanently. And I didn’t have do anything at all except receive it. You don’t have to do anything at all to be forgiven. Just receive it. You can do that right here, right now.
Brothers and sisters, this is what we rest in.
This is what we celebrate every Sunday. This is what we witness to and give thanks for as a community of faith: No animal, no human, ever has to die again to make the world right.
Blood sacrifice is a thing of the past. Jesus’ death put an end to death. Jesus’ blood, perfectly innocent and divinely powerful, was enough, is enough, will always be enough to cure, to cleanse, to bring life to me, you, and the whole world.