I heard a missionary tell about a boy who appeared at a mission hospital in Kenya with a gaping wound in his foot. He had been accidentally injured while cutting grass far out in the jungle. Part of his heel was cut off. Without waiting to inform anyone of the mishap, he set out across country to find the mission station where he had heard medical help was available. Every time the little foot touched the sandy earth it left a faint trace of blood. The journey was long and difficult, but at last he arrived.
A little while later the boy’s mother appeared. The doctors were surprised that she found the way. There were no well-defined trails, and she had never made the trip before.
“How did you do it?” she was asked. The dear woman, overjoyed to be with her child, replied, “Oh, it was easy. I just followed the blood!”
In a much more profound sense, that is how we come to Jesus. The path is sometimes rough and may lead through many trials but we need not fear getting lost. All we have to do is follow His footprints. They are easy to find, for each one is stained with blood. The blood will always lead to the Savior.
No word in the Bible more graphically reveals the purpose of our Lord’s coming to this earth. It is said to be the means of our redemption (1 Peter 1:19; Eph. 1:7), justification (Rom. 5:9), forgiveness (Heb. 9:22), peace (Col. 1:20), cleansing (1 John 1:7; Rev. 7:14), eternal life (John 6:54), and every other benefit of the cross. Altogether there are 460 specific references to the term, and if related concepts were considered, like altar, sacrifice, priesthood, and many more, there would hardly be a page of Scripture that does not have some illusion to the blood. It is the scarlet thread that weaves the whole scope of God’s revelation into one harmonious witness to the Gospel of salvation.
To see how the message unfolds, let’s go back to the Old Testament. Leviticus 17:11 offers a concise introduction: “The life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.” Note three defining words: life, altar and atonement.
Life in the Blood
The text starts with life. This vital fluid courses through the flesh of all higher forms of animate existence, bringing the food and oxygen that sustain bodily functions. The blood also fights disease that enters the body and assists in getting rid of waste products.
In an average human being, it circulates twice every minute. As the heart pumps the blood through the network of arteries, capillaries, and veins, every cell in the body is continually supplied and cleansed.
Most adults have five to seven quarts of this red substance made up of plasma, corpuscles and platelets. Every cubic millimeter of the blood — a speck the size of a pinhead — has in it approximately 5,500,000 living cells. The cells live 110 to 120 days. To replenish those cells which have fulfilled their life function, the body manufactures almost 2,000,000 new cells every second.
Truly it is amazing! Though medical research has probed deep into its mystery, there is still locked within its elements a secret known only to the Creator. Yet whatever remains hidden, it is clear that the blood is the essential ingredient of physical life. In a very real way, life becomes visible through the blood. We can understand then the Bible’s speaking of “lifeblood” (Gen. 9:6, cf. 1 Chron. 11:19).
Since the heart is the center of the blood circulatory system, it becomes the epitome of life. The term is used this way hundreds of times in the Bible to designate the total personality of man (e.s. Joel 2:13; Matt. 15:19; Rom. 10:10; Ezk. 11:10, al).
Because of its association with worship, the Israelites were told not to use blood for food. The flesh could be eaten only after the blood was drained from it (Lev. 19:26), “for the life of a creature is in the blood,” and it was the substance through which sacrifice was offered to God (Lev. 17:14).
In ancient Israel, not only was the blood to be taken from any beast or fowl before it could be eaten, but the law stipulated that the blood must be poured out on the earth and then covered with dust (Lev. 17:13; Deut. 12:16). Returning the blood to the earth suggested that life was being given back to the Creator of the earth, God wanted to teach His people very early that the blood had a sacred essence, and was not to be treated lightly. In its highest reference, it spoke of Him who one day would give His own life for the world, the incarnate Son Himself. Though our primitive forebearers could not visualize its ultimate message, still they knew that the blood belonged to God, and that somehow it was the means of communication with their Creator.
The text specifies that blood was to be offered at the “altar,” the place of sacrifice. There life given through the blood is taken in the shedding of blood; not in the sense that life is released from the flesh, but rather that life is brought to an end. It is finished. Thus drained out of the body, blood means death, and usually has this reference in the Bible.
Sacrifice is a voluntary surrender of that which is most precious to man in the earnest desire to establish communion with God. As such, it expressed the highest devotion of which man was capable. In the shed blood, life was poured out unto death — nothing more could one give, yet nothing less could God accept.
The act of worship was represented through the offering of an animal substituted for the worshiper. Whatever kind of animal was used, it had to be a male “without defect or blemish” (Lev. 22:21).
Having selected a fitting substitute, the individual brought it to the door of the tabernacle (Lev. 1:3). The sacrificer then placed his hands upon the head of the offering while stating the reason for his sacrifice. It was as though the person transferred sin from himself to the body of the helpless animal. In certain public sacrifices for the people, the “elders,” as representatives of the congregation, laid on hands (Lev. 4:15). On the Day of Atonement the High Priest himself laid on his hands for the nation (Lev. 16:21).
In most private offerings the person killed his own sacrifice. Public sacrifices were slain by the priests. The animal was always killed in a violent way, usually by splitting the throat with a sharp knife. Any animal that had died from natural causes, or that had been torn by beasts, could not be used (Lev. 22:8). The death had to be inflicted clearly as a consequence of its sacrificial purpose.
The shed blood was caught in a censor and poured out on the altar by the officiating priest. It expressed the sorrow and repentance of the worshiper for his sin, while also conveying his complete surrender to God. Moreover, resting on the altar, the blood declared an unqualified trust in God’s Word. The act of obedience in giving the sacrifice evidenced this faith. Thus, for example, when Moses sprinkled the blood of the Covenant, it was only fitting that the people cry out, “All that the Lord has said we will do” (Ex. 24:3-8).
The whole validity of the offering in God’s sight, of course, was in the sincerity with which one’s identity with the blood was intended. Where the sacrifice was desecrated by making it a mere ceremony, as was often the case in Israel, the people were severely punished by God. True sacrifice never could be fulfilled by external rites — it was only an object lesson of an inward spiritual experience.
Properly observed, sacrifice was an offering of love — a demonstration of that quality of moral holiness that cannot be put in words. The blood on the altar, when the offerer was fully conscious of its meaning, represented a choice of complete abandon to God and thereby expressed a perfectly holy desire. As such, this desire was without sin. It was this fact, and this fact alone, that made the blood acceptable in God’s sight.
What is equally precious, the blood upon the altar represented God’s reception of the sacrifice, and was therefore a perfect expression of his love to man. It was the token of His grace, whereby God disclosed His merciful purpose to save His people. Though God was altogether holy and separate from sinners, and though His justice demanded that all uncleanness be separated from His presence, the shed blood on His altar made known that He still loved His creation. It said that at any cost He wanted to restore union with that life which He made. Hence, the Sovereign Lord was willing, even seeking, to be reconciled in a way whereby His integrity could be preserved. The blood offered upon His altar was that way — the way that His love could be demonstrated in justice and holiness.
Atonement through the Blood
The text states that the blood on “the altar . . .made atonement for one’s life” (Lev. 17:11). Spiritually understood, it was literally a blood transfusion of life. Life relinquished in the shedding of blood becomes life provided through the blood.
In its most elemental sense, the atoning blood covered sin from God’s view, and hence, held back His wrath. This idea is embodied in the root form of the word “atonement” in the Old Testament. The word occurs this way when speaking of the covering or pitch used to hold back the waters about the ark of Noah (Gen. 6:14). The idea, of course, comes out in the first sacrifice of an innocent animal when God made “garments of skin” in the garden to cover the nakedness of Adam and Eve so that they could appear in His presence (Gen. 3:21).
By covering the sin which separated them, the blood effected reconciliation of God with man so that now they could have fellowship in peace. The “Mercy Seat,” the place where they met together, actually is derived from the word “atonement,” which literally means at-one-ment with God.
The blood on the altar witnessed to this bond of union, declaring an agreement between them that would not be broken. Interestingly, the word “covenant,” used nearly 300 times in the Bible, probably comes from a root meaning “to cut the flesh.” Among primitive people this quality was dramatized by the shedding of blood in some kind of ceremonial testimony. For example, it two persons wanted to enter into a friendship pact, they might cut the palms of their hands so the blood freely flowed. Then they would clasp their palms, much like we shake hands today. The intermingling of the blood bound their lives together in an undying witness of solidarity. Doubtless this custom was in the mind of the prophet when he said of God, “Behold, I have graven you upon the palms of my hands (Isa.49:16).
In the same sense of covenanting, if a person wanted to impress a congregation of people with the veracity of his word, he might cut his forearm in their presence. Then lifting it up toward God, he would make his statement. As the blood ran down his arm, the symbol of his strength, it bore witness that what he said with his lips he would support with his life. Very likely this was in the thinking of Isaiah when he wrote: “The Lord has sworn by his right hand, and by the arm of His strength” (Isa. 62:8). The practice even today of lifting up the arm when taking an oath, as in a court of justice, may trace back to this ancient custom of swearing by one’s blood.
However it may be expressed, blood was inherent in the concept of a covenant and was implied in all the sacrifices of the Old Testament. Of course, the offerings of the old covenant always indicated something beyond — a setting forth in advance of heavenly things (Heb. 9:11). In symbol and prophecy they spoke of that day when Christ would offer His blood on the altar of the cross for the sins of the world.
Common sense would have taught the Jews that the sacrifice of bulls and goats in themselves could never take away sin (Heb. 10:4). Had they made a lasting reconciliation for the people, they would have ceased to be offered. As it was, the bloody public sacrifice had to be repeated day after day, year after year. Even the personal offerings had to be reenacted as the occasion required. Although God honored the sacrifices of believing Israelites, it was only by reason of the promised Savior to which they all pointed.
Symbol Becomes Reality
When Jesus came into the world, He said to the Father: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me . . . I have come to do your will, O God” (Heb. 10:7,8). It was not the slaughter of beasts that pleased God. The Father wanted a life to be lived before Him in perfect obedience. Only such an offering could fulfill the intent of true sacrifice.
Thus Jesus clothed Himself with a “body” to do the will of God. Through the miraculous conception of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin, the eternal Word became “flesh and blood” (Heb. 2:14). With our identity, He bore our sorrows and carried our griefs, being tempted in every respect as we are. Yet, unlike the priests of old who had to offer up sacrifices daily for their sin (as well as for the sins of the people), Jesus had no sin. So as one blameless under the law, He could offer Himself as a perfect sacrifice, once and for all.
Identifying with His blood by faith, we appropriate the saving reality of His life. Jesus says: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54).
But the question might be asked: Why did He invite us to drink His blood? Was not the drinking of blood directly forbidden by the law?
The answer immediately brings into focus the ultimate spiritual meaning of the blood — a truth faintly seen in every sacrifice, but only fully disclosed at the cross of Christ. To drink of His blood is to take into our heart the life-renewing power of the Spirit. Only He who was to die as our perfect sacrifice could offer us the privilege of union with Himself.
Veiled in this infusion of life through death is the principle of the resurrection. That which is relinquished in the shedding of blood thus became the basis of a new creation in Christ.
What the blood accomplished for us, His Spirit now effects in us. There is an actual partaking of the divine nature. The Christian life is not a ritual or a dogma; it is participation in the very life of Him who gave Himself for us.
The blood on the cross is the objective witness of that love which would not let us go. It is as though God lifts His holy arm, and proclaims to the ends of the earth: All that I said, I have done; I so loved the world that I have given My one and only Son to die for you, “That whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Bearing witness to this promise, the Bible tells us that Christ through His own blood has entered the sanctuary not made with hands “to appear for us in God’s presence” (Heb. 9:24). Here the blood takes on its highest meaning. We are left utterly breathless in wonder. Though the details are not explained, the death of Christ has dimensions reaching into eternity. For like the resurrected body of our Lord, His blood remains incorruptible, and in its true spiritual substance, will always appear in heaven as witness to God’s everlasting covenant.
It is there now before the Throne. It will be there forever — the remembrance of His unspeakable gift and the revelation of His unchanging word.
With this in mind, I make seven concluding observations.
1) The blood of the human race ultimately flows into and out from the cross of Christ. Every drop of blood in the veins of mankind from the beginning of time speaks of the life of God’s Son poured out for us. Apart from this indisputable fact of history, our life would have no value or destiny.
2) Supremely, the blood of Christ’s vicarious death gives meaning to His life on this earth. His incarnation in the flesh was for the purpose of His atoning sacrifice. His experience from infancy to maturity was significant in that He demonstrated in human personality the reality of His sinless nature — a lamb without spot or blemish. His resurrection, ascension and heavenly reign has infinite importance because this same Jesus died for our sins.
3) The blood of Christ finally, completely and forever answers the problem of perishing mankind. Jesus accepted in His body the penalty of our sin. Though blameless, He identified Himself with us, and so bore our judgment.
Robert G. Lee tells an unforgettable experience he had the first time he visited Calvary on a tour of Israel. His excitement was such that soon he outdistanced his guide in climbing the hill. As he reached the summit and stood there at the very place his Lord had poured out His blood, the preacher’s emotions were so stirred that his body started to tremble. When at last the breathless guide caught up with him, he asked, “Sir, have you been here before?” For a moment there was a troubling silence. Then in a whispered tone Dr. Lee replied, “Yes, I was here nearly two thousand years ago.”
We were all there nearly two thousand years ago. Jesus died in our place. As our Representative, He suffered for us, “The Just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).
However we may seek an explanation for it, the fact is that His act of love broke the bondage of sin and death. A perfect atonement was made for the human race.
4) By His blood we are now brought to a crisis of decision. We cannot be neutral before the cross. Beholding the bleeding body of the Lamb of God, every person must honestly ask: Why? The blood demands an answer. Upon the verdict hangs the destiny of every immortal soul.
5) The blood does not permit any compromise. There can be no trifling with sin. Clearly God calls us to total repentance and unreserved faith. Half-hearted commitment can never be reconciled with the sacrifice of Him who gave all for us. Only as we learn the principle of dying to ourselves can we experience the fullness of His life. The outpouring of the Spirit comes on the other side of the cross. Our understanding of Christ’s claims upon our life will deepen as we grow in His likeness, but at any time we should be ready to obey all that we do know of His will. In this daily abiding of full obedience we realize the constant triumph of His resurrection.
6) The preaching of the blood will always be an offense to this world. Of course, some may react out of ignorance of its meaning, and do not mean to reject the truth. Still we must admit in all fairness that there is no way the cross can be made compatible with the egotistical wisdom of men. It says that human achievement is vanity. Persons infatuated with their own goodness naturally will look upon the blood as a stumbling block. Others who view religion only in terms of beautiful ideals will regard the cross as foolishness. We might as well face it. Proud unrepentant worldlings resent the testimony of the blood against their self-sufficiency.
7) But, thanks be to God, I can say that persons who come to the end of all their spiritual resources — who realize that they are utterly lost and undone — they will hear of the shed blood of Christ with tears of joy and shouts of praise. Oh, this is the Gospel! When our hearts are broken, and mercy is our only hope, then the cross is seen as the wisdom and the power and the glory of God.
There is a legend of a rich man seeking entry into heaven. As he stood at the gate, an angel asked him to give the password. The finely dressed gentleman replied, “I have contributed generously to the church. My morality is beyond dispute. Everywhere I am respected among men. Surely I have earned a place in heaven.”
But the angel answered, “That is not the password. You cannot enter.”
As the famous benefactor was turned away, another man of distinguished appearance knocked on heaven’s door. Challenged by the angel to give the password, he replied, “I have served the Lord as a minister of the cloth. I have performed great works of righteousness in His name. Renowned institutions have honored me with their highest degrees. I deserve heaven’s favor.”
But the angel answered, “That is not the password. You do not know the King.”
No sooner was the man cast out than an old woman approached the gate. Her body was bowed from many years of toil. But there was a twinkle in her eyes and a shine on her face. Asked by the angel to give the password, she lifted her hands and started to sing: “The blood, the blood, is all my plea, Hallelujah! It cleanseth me. Hallelujah! It cleanseth me.”
Immediately the gates of pearl swung open and as the dear spirit entered into the celestial city, the choirs of heaven joined in singing her song.
The theology of this old story may be oversimplified, but the point cannot be missed. When all is said, our only claim to heaven is the blood of Jesus Christ. Here is the password into the presence of God: “Just as I am without on plea, But that thy blood was shed for me. And that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee. O Lamb of God, I come. I come.”
Robert E. Coleman, Distinguished Professor of Evangelism and Discipleship, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, MA