Jesus’ Blood May Not be Precious for the Reasons You Think
On 9/16/15 I tweeted the following:
This came out of a discussion I had with a friend in which we reflected on a popular misunderstanding of Christ’s blood. As the tweet hit my Facebook account it engendered a bit of discussion, which was both expected and welcome. There are several reasons I think it’s wise to avoid affirming anything like magical properties in the blood of Jesus. There biblical reasons, linguistic reasons, and theological reasons.
Biblical reasons. I think we would agree that the death of Christ, and how it “works” in atoning for our sin, is patterned after the OT sacrificial system commanded by God. The quickest way to talk about this is to jump to Lev. 16, the Day of Atonement. There, starting in v. 11 we read, “Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself.” And again, from verses 15-19 we reading the longer explanation:
Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. No one may be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the Holy Place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel. Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel.
I believe the point here, the point the priests would have understood, is this: The shedding of blood, apart from the actual death of the animal would not atone for sin. Applying the blood, sprinkling the blood, etc. was all to symbolically demonstrate that death had taken place. This is because of the sacrificial principle of substitution. The animal was killed in place of the worshipper who offered it, in their place. The worshipper deserves death, but through the sacrificial system God graciously provided a way in which fellowship with him could be maintained and the worshipper themselves not be destroyed. If the blood was offered by wounding (but not killing) the animal, there would be no atonement. So the blood is by no means meaningless. The blood is proof of death.
Applying this to of Christ we find the same principle at play. If Jesus was merely wounded and shed tons of blood but didn’t die, then he would not be fulfilling the role of an OT sacrifice, and therefore atonement would not be complete.
Linguistic reasons. But I think there are linguistic reasons to support the first point I just made. I would say that speaking of the atonement in terms of the “blood” is what is called a metonymy. It’s a technical literary term for a concept we’re all familiar with, and the Bible itself employs. A metonymy is a figure of speech that
consists of the use of the name of one object or concept for that of another to which it is related, or of which it is a part, as “scepter” for “sovereignty,” or “the bottle” for “strong drink,” or “count heads (or noses)” for “count people.”
Further examples of this can be found in Isa. 22:22, 29:1 Matt. 16:19, and Luke 16:29. So speaking of the precious “blood” of Christ is the way the biblical writers refers to the sacrifice-onto-death of Jesus. Of course, it’s a perfectly legitimate way of speaking, and I wouldn’t dare “censor” the Bible’s way of speaking.
Another really good example of this principle is found in Ezekiel 18:20, “The soul that sins shall die.” Obviously, the verse isn’t saying that if a soul (as opposed or distinct from a body) sins, only the soul will die. Here Ezekiel is using a metonymy, “soul” (a part of what makes up a person) is used to refer to the whole person. So the meaning is “The person who sins will die.”
Like I said, it’s a fairly common concept, and this should give you an idea of how I would read passages such as Lev. 17:11 Ps. 72:14 John 6:53-54 Rev. 12:11.
Theological reasons. The last reason I said what I did basically takes the last two points and draws some theological conclusions. The problem is that if we say that Christ’s blood, the actual physical hemoglobin, had healing or spiritual power we are functional docetists,
Docetism is a subdivision of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. Gnostics believed that the material world was bad, and the immaterial (“spiritual”) world was superior. In contrast, the Bible tells us when God created the physical world he repeatedly called it “good.” The docetists applied this principle to the incarnation and therefore denied that Jesus Christ (who is good) took on a real, material, fully human body (which, in their minds, would be bad). The Greek term dokéo means “to seem,” as in Jesus only seemed to possess a material body. And so while there aren’t many explicit docetists in the church today, many are functional docetists because of what they believe about Christ’s humanity.
Jesus’ body was fully human, and humans (even perfectly sinless humans) do not possess magic or supernatural blood. His blood was the blood of a normal human being. And so just as real, normal humans do not have special properties to their hemoglobin, neither did Jesus. In terms of its physical nature, his blood was no different than the blood of any other ancient Mediterranean Jewish male. That’s not to take away from the glory of the incarnation. Rather I say that to robustly affirm the incarnation. Jesus became a real human, not a superhuman.
I should probably also clarify something I said that would be misunderstood. I wrote, “There’s nothing ontologically special about Jesus’ blood.” The key word for me in writing that was “ontologically.” In technical terms people are confusing ethics with ontology (being or nature). The worth of Christ’s sacrifice was because he was morally perfect (“without spot or wrinkle”), not because of any physical characteristics of his humanity (such as his blood). If there were, he wouldn’t be truly human, and therefore an unfit substitute for fallen and sinful humans. I believe this is a category confusion, and one that endangers a robust biblical Christology.
The Bible is very clear that our fallenness is a moral/ethical problem (rebellion to our Creator), and not an ontological/metaphysical problem (some about our created nature/being). Therefore the solution to the problem is moral as well, not ontological (it’s Christ’s obedience that is valued, not his hemoglobin).
The “blood” of Jesus– as in the value, power, and efficacy of his death– is of infinite value.