Ask Ivor

Many Names asks:

"What, pray tell, is the significance of 'the blood,' and how is it, that it 'saves' us?"

While rescuing the Israelites out of Egypt, God struck down all the firstborn sons in that land, but first warned the Israelites to put the blood of slaughtered lambs on their doorframes, so that the "destroyer" would pass over their homes. This is the origin of the Passover ceremony, and the beginning of the significance of blood in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Three months later, at Mount Sinai, God's covenant with the Israelites—"If you obey me fully... then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.... You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation"—was sealed with the blood of bulls; half sprinkled on an altar, half on the people.

After this God gave the Israelites extensive instructions for using the blood of animals: A house that had been cleansed of mildew was purified by being sprinkled with bird's blood. People having suffered infectious disease were purified by being sprinkled with bird's blood and having it applied to their right ear lobe, right thumb, and right big toe. Blood was involved in most of the sacrificial rites: The fellowship offering required cattle, sheep or goat's blood, the burnt offering required the blood of a ram or a bull, and the guilt offering required ram's blood. The blood of these slaughtered animals was sprinkled on the sides of the bronze altar. In the sin offering, different animals were variously required, depending upon who had sinned, and the blood was poured out at the base of the bronze altar, and also applied either to the top of the bronze altar or the top of the incense altar, and sometimes also sprinkled in front of the curtain of the sanctuary. Most of these sacrifices required animals "without defect or blemish."

God explained to the Israelites that "the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar."

On the Day of Atonement, a bull, two rams and a goat were all sacrificed. Their blood was variously applied to the bronze altar, the incense altar, and upon the ark of the covenant, within the Most Holy Place. During this ceremony the high priest also laid his hands upon the head of a live goat and confessed over it "all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins," and put them on the goat's head; this goat was then sent into the desert, carrying away all the sins of the people. This ceremony was performed once a year.

These blood sacrifices continued for some fifteen hundred years, until the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. by the Romans. Curiously, about forty years before that, a fellow named Jesus came along and prophesied the Temple's destruction: "Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down." Jesus also, at a Passover meal the night before he was arrested and crucified, referred to his own blood as the "blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." He also claimed that his blood could convey "eternal life."

The New Testament is full of depictions of Jesus as a blood sacrifice: "The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world"; "God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement"; "We have... been justified by his blood"; "Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed"; "Christ died for our sins"; "We have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins"; "Christ came as high priest.... He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place... by his own blood"; "You were redeemed... with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect"; "The blood of Jesus purifies us from every sin...."

Unlike the animal sacrifices on the annual Day of Atonement, Christ's sacrifice was only needed once: "Christ did not... offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year.... He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.... By one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy."

Why was Christ's sacrifice sufficient "once for all"? Because of his sinlessness: "He appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin"; "God made him who had no sin to be a sin offering for us"; "We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin"; "Such a high priest meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens"; "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.... He... bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed."

And if you believe all that, then you can sing along with Bob Dylan: "I was blinded by the devil, born already ruined, stone cold dead as I stepped out of the womb. By his grace I have been touched, by his word I have been healed, by his hand I've been delivered, by his spirit I've been sealed. I've been saved by the blood of the Lamb...."