Sacrificial Blood in the Economy of Redemption

Stan-William Ede

The simple definition of “sacrifice”, in the context of this article, is “the offering up of something precious and esteemed to God”. The very first time the bible explicitly talks about making an offering to God is in the story of Cain and Abel (cf. Gen 4:1-12). Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground while Abel brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. While Cain’s offering was rejected, Abel’s offering was accepted and in it there was the shedding of blood. But even before this took place, God himself had expressly set the stage for this realization. After Adam and Eve sinned and became naked, God slaughtered animals to provide clothing for them. And further, it happened that after God had destroyed the earth with water due to the sins of humankind, Noah as head of the only surviving family from the flood, took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird, and he offered them to the Lord. Noah’s offering which involved the shedding of animal blood was so much pleasing to the Lord that he declared: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man …” (cf. Gen 8:20-22).

From that moment onward, the Scripture is filled with sacrifices to God which involved the shedding of blood (the blood of animals). Let us consider the prescription in Lev. 3:7-8, “If he offers a lamb for his offering, then he shall offer it before the LORD, lay his hand on the head of his offering, and kill it in front of the tent of meeting; and Aaron’s sons shall pour the blood round about upon the altar”. Afterwards follows the act itself in Lev 9:8-9, “Then he killed the burnt offering, and Aaron’s sons handed him the blood, and he poured it round about upon the altar. (Lev 9:12). ). With this phenomenon of blood sacrifice extending throughout the Old Testament, it becomes really clear when we read the Scripture very well that it is only by the shedding of blood that sins can be forgiven. Why is it so? Why does God repose so much high importance in ‘blood’? In other words, what are the implications and the significance of blood sacrifice in the history of humankind’s relationship with God?

The answer coming from Scripture is simple and straightforward: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. … For the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off” (Lev 17:11-14). Man and other animals are composed of “flesh” and “blood”, and God who confers life has made the blood a vital principle for the flesh, hence the eating of blood is prohibited (Gen 9:4; Deut 12:23). Just as all life belongs to God, so does blood belong to Him. Being that the blood represents life, it is symbolically offered to God in the sacrificial system (Lev 1:5; 4:6-7, 25).

Does science or biology support this spiritual explanation that life is in the blood? Yes indeed! The evidence can be found in the properties of the human blood, as with animals too. Blood contains oxygen, protein and other nutrients which it distributes to all parts of the human body in the course of circulation. As such, every part of the body is supplied with oxygen and nutrients, and so stays alive. If any part of the body gets cut off from the supply of blood, the tissue would die and the problems that would follow are manifold. Much of the information we need in this regard is summarized by the Franklyn Institute in the following words: “The average adult has about five litres of blood living inside their body, coursing through their vessels, delivering essential elements, and removing harmful wastes. Without blood, the human body would stop working. Blood is the fluid of life, transporting oxygen from the lungs to body tissue and carbon dioxide from body tissue to the lungs. Blood is the fluid of growth, transporting nourishment from digestion and hormones from glands throughout the body. Blood is the fluid of health, transporting disease fighting substance to the tissue and waste to the kidneys. Because it contains living cells, blood is alive.

It is little wonder then that God warns again taking of human life, for to take life is to shed blood, for which therefore, everyone who falls guilty will be accountable to God (cf. Gen 9:5-6). When God chose Abraham as our father in faith, God entered into a covenant with him, which was made and sealed by blood and sacrifice (cf. Gen 15:9-10, 17-18). Amidst the series of offerings involving blood sacrifice rendered up to God by the chosen lineage in the Bible, the offering of the Passover lambs comes to the fore, opening the doors of a mighty deliverance for the people of Israel (Exod 12:1-14, 21-29). On their journey to the Promised Land, the first covenant between God and his chosen people is marked and sealed with the sprinkling of blood (Exod 24:1-8). And from that time on, year after year, the High Priest of the Israelite community invoked God on behalf of the people in atonement for the sins of Israel, after he had sprinkled the mercy seat (place of God’s presence) in Holy of Holies with the sacrificial blood (cf. Exod 25:22; Lev 16:2, 15-16; Num 7:89).

The centrality of blood therefore to animal sacrifice was highly significant. It signified the flow of life between God and man. Poured out on the altar, it joined the offerer to God because he had placed his hand on the animal and had become one with it. It was a ritual expression of the total surrender to God. God received the blood and returned it to the offerer in the form of divine life. Thus the desired effect of sacrifice, communion with God, was achieved.

Sacrificial blood was also a very important part of the ordination rites to the priesthood of the Old Testament. With the blood, the ears, hands and feet of those being ordained were anointed (Exod 29:20). The blood anointing of the extremities of the body reflected the dedication of the whole man to God. Here lies also the meaning of the final anointing in which the blood mixed with oil was sprinkled on the priests and their vestments. This made them “sacred” (Ex 29.21). The blood was the bearer of God’s life to the priests. Ordination made them holy because they were totally immersed in God’s own life.

While various sacrificial rituals and ceremonies sealed with blood continued to take place in the Old Testament for divine worship and in atonement for the sins of the people, Jesus Christ sanctified and perfected this offering with his own blood once and for all in the New Covenant and won for us our eternal redemption. The Letter to the Hebrews clearly explains what took place that was so highly transformational and eternally redemptive. “But when Christ appeared as a High Priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant … Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood” (Heb 9:11-18).

The relationship of blood to the redemptive economy is very clear, for, “Indeed, under the Law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:22). The Law and the Prophets find their fulfillment in Christ. The significance of the sacrificial shedding of blood in the Old Testament inheres in relation to the bloody sacrifice of Christ upon the cross by which he washed away our sins and brought life to the world. Indeed, the sacrifice of Jesus surpasses the bloody sacrifices of the Old Testament because beyond merely being a symbol of the flow of life between God and man, the blood of Jesus is divine blood which bears the life of God in itself and therefore imparts divine life on the faithful.

While he was dying on the cross, blood and water flowed from the heart of Jesus that was pierced (cf. Jn 19:34). In this St John assures us that the Spirit of God, whom water symbolizes, flows to us through the sacrifice of Jesus’ blood (1 Jn 5:6-8). Verily, Redemption comes through the precious and saving blood of Christ (Rom 5:9; Eph 1:7; 1 Pet 1:18-19). By the once and for all sacrifice of his own blood, Jesus completed and perfected all forms of sacrificial offering that require the shedding of blood, and he perpetuated this one unique sacrifice amongst us by a new form of expression, the sacramental expression. At the Last Supper just the night before his ultimate sacrifice and expiation on the cross, Jesus gave His disciples His blood to drink, sealing the new and everlasting covenant, and accomplishing the forgiveness of sins (Matt 26:27-28; Mk 14:23-24; Lk 22:20; Jn 6:53; 1 Cor 11:25). In this Jesus gives His blood as the life which is communicated from Him to His disciples through the Eucharist (Jn 6:53; 1 Cor 10:16.)

Following the command of Christ to do it in his memory, the Church repeats the Eucharistic action by a special sacrificial offering where the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus. The sacrificial blood of each Mass renews the covenant of Calvary, purges us of our sins, bestows upon us a share in the Divine life, bonds us into a close union with God, and guarantees us all the spiritual effects of the eternal Redemption that Christ won for us through the shedding of His precious blood.