Romans (Part 49) – The Blood (Addendum to Atonement Series)
In our atonement series, we failed to discuss the particular role or emphasis of the Bible on the blood. Verses such as Hebrews 9:22, which tells us, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness,” indicate that an intricate and seemingly necessary relationship exists of blood shed to the atonement, which raises the question of whether shed blood was, in fact, necessary for atonement to take place.
My answer to that question is yes, but I have to explain what I mean. If the question regards only whether the technical release of blood from its housing in Christ at his crucifixion causedatonement, then I’d have to answer that question with a no. But the biblical purpose and emphasis placed on the blood forces us to see its symbolic purpose as essential in God’s revelation and working of his whole restoration plan.
Before we begin defending that idea, we need to define a few terms. Biblically, blood is the symbol of life. We can understand that essentially from its unseen, internal job to supply continuing vitality to our bodies. But life is more than continuing vitality. Life, biblically, means relationship with God. And without life (relationship with God), we plummet into our second term: death—separation from God.
Death, of course, has two aspects: spiritual and physical. Spiritual death is that ever-lasting separation of the created, image-bearing spirit from God. Physical death provides us with two relationship separators. On the one hand, physical death is separation of the created, image-bearing spirit from relational activity with therest of creation. And on the other hand, it is separation of the created, image-bearing spirit from God’sactive relational interactionregarding the original covenant of life. This physical death is what Christ suffered on the cross to free us from our prison in sin.
The third term to define is covenant. When discussing covenants (and covenant theology) many turn to O. Palmer Robertson and his book called The Christ of the Covenantsto find definition. There he says that a covenant may be defined as “a bond of blood sovereignly administered.” While I think Robertson has many great insights, I don’t really like this definition. We can think of several examples of covenants that are not inaugurated with blood. We talked about the two trinitarian covenants at the beginning of Romans: the covenant of creative purpose and the covenant of operational essence. No blood there. The original covenant of life with the adamalso saw no blood in its implementation. Additionally, other covenants in the Old Testament, like Isaac’s with the Philistine Abimelech, were inaugurated with a meal, not blood (Genesis 26).
For Robertson to say that this bond is sovereignly administered is also somewhat puzzling. Again, the Isaac-Abimelech covenant in Genesis 26 has no mention of God. If the argument for sovereign administration is that God is always present, why put that into our definition? God is always present in every situation. When defining commandment, sacrifice, or offering, for examples, we don’t tack on “sovereignly administered” to their definitions simply because we know that God sovereignly administers everything. By cutting out, then, “in blood sovereignly administered,” we are left with only the word bond. And a covenant is just that—a bond or agreement of persons for relationship.
Thus, the original covenant of life was an agreement between the persons of the Godhead and the persons of our created race for relationship. And so too is the new covenant of life an agreement of relationship between the persons of the Godhead and the man Jesus the Christ. God’s whole restoration plan for humankind involves the movement from the original covenant of life to the new covenant of life. Movement from, or out of, a covenant occurs by death, thus Jesus in moving from the covenant in Adam, died. Remember that one of the definitions of physical death is the separation of spirit from its relational activity with the rest of creation, which occurred in Jesus’s physical death. Movement to a new covenant (by the dead) can occur only with rebirth into life. And as mentioned, the symbol of life is blood. Thus, the born-again into life (relationship with God) image is the sprinkling of blood.
Regarding the new covenant, the Bible presents two aspects: a shadow and the true form. The shadow is a teaching tool, imaged by the Law. It is the Mosaic covenant, what is referred to in Hebrews as the old covenant. The true form is the new covenant actually realized by Christ’s atonement work. Those names (shadow and form) are mentioned in Hebrews 10:1 and put us in mind of Plato’s discussion of shadow and form in his Allegory of the Cave. In the allegory, Plato describes a cave in which prisoners sit chained facing one wall of the cave. (And they have been chained there for the entire conscious existence of their lives.) They cannot move, and they cannot turn their heads to look behind them. At the opposite wall behind them, a huge fire is kept burning. Between the prisoners and the fire is a roadway across which people travel. The people travelling the roadway (called puppeteers) hold up various items as they pass. The light from the fire behind results in shadows of the objects projected to the wall in front of the prisoners. Thus, if a puppeteer holds up a book, it is the shadow of the book that the prisoners see. Their terms for the shadowy images on the wall are their entire idea of reality, and yet those shadows are not the actual objects or forms. Plato relates our world in which we see and name objects as the world of shadows. The true forms exist in ideas alone—that which these objects (or shadows) represent.
Our point, of course, is not to determine Plato’s philosophy but rather to see how that same shadow-and-form idea relates to the Hebrews’ atonement discussion. The Law and its sacrificial system, tabernacle, and high priest were shadows, Hebrews’ author tells us, of the actual form that was realized in the atonement of Christ. That idea is important to realize because as we view the blood shed by the animals, separated from their bodies, we are to understand its life’s (the perfect spirit’s) separation in death from its cursed connection.
The first 10 verses of Hebrews 9 concentrate on the shadow imaging. We find described the tabernacle—the meeting place with God. Again, we need to recognize that the physical tabernacle, then, although an actual place of actual meeting with God, was in its grander sense to be understood as only an imaged precursor of the actual meeting place with God envisioned in the true form—the one of full spiritual significance.
In the Holy of Holies, only the high priest could enter and only carrying the blood of the sacrifice to be sprinkled within. The blood was from an unblemished animal, symbolizing the purity of the life. Its sprinkling cleansed the meeting place. Verse 9 insists that while the sprinkled blood effected its cleansing purpose, its significance in cleansing was only symbolic and not able to actually cleanse the conscience. Thayer’s lexicon mentions that the Greek translated here as conscience means “the soul as distinguishing between what is morally good and bad prompting to do the former and shun the latter.” However, we should understand the “good and bad” mentioned to encompass the entire gamut of truth, goodness, and beauty, so that perhaps a better definition may be “the subconscious basis upon which a person relies for the understanding of truth, goodness, and beauty.”
From verse 11 to verse 14, we learn about the true, or actual, form. Here the “more perfect tabernacle” is described. We should not confusingly picture this greater tabernacle as an actual building constructed in heaven. We must hang on to the understanding, as Jesus preached to the Samaritan woman at the well, that God is spirit, and we worship him in spirit, not in an actual physical location. As Stephen also preached, “The Most High does not dwell in sanctuaries made with hands” (Acts 7:48). Jesus entered the actual Holy of Holies, the one not of humankind’s fashioning but of God’s—resurrected creation. And Christ, our high priest, entered it with his own blood. Notice verse 12 states, “He entered the most holy place once for all, not by the blood of goats and calves, but by His own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.” That last phrase may be a bit misleading. It sounds as if Christ obtained eternal redemption, and then having obtained it, was able to enter the most holy place. But it is actually that entering the most holy place was how Christ obtained eternal redemption. Remember that eternal redemption is the reclaiming of the physical (as explained in Ruth as Boaz reclaims the land of Ruth and Naomi’s family). Thus, as Christ’s perfect spirit returns to its physical body, he reclaims it from sin curse for God. The word-for-word translation of the Greek shows this idea more clearly. Instead of reading “having obtained eternal redemption,” it reads that Christ entered the most holy place, “eternal redemption finding.” And so we can see that this application of the perfect, sinless spirit of Christ may actually cleanse our consciences, cleansing from dead works to living service.
In verses 15 through 23a, we read of will and inheritance. Of course, the idea of gaining an inheritance is that it was willed to the one who benefits by it. And a will, we are reminded, cannot become actuated until a death has occurred. Our inheritance is eternal life. But that life must be actuated through the death of the one who gives us that inheritance. By virtue of Jesus’s death, he freed our indebted essence from the covenant obligation of the original covenant of life to which we were joined in Adam. He thus enabled our new birth in the new covenant of life to receive our inheritance from the one who died. And all of that is shown by the symbol of life—the blood. The author tells us that even the old covenant (Mosaic covenant) was inaugurated with blood (Ex 24:3–8). It was done so because the death of the animals showed the release of the blood (the life desiring relationship with God) from the cursed condition of sinful movement apart from God. And that is why Hebrews 9:22 tells us that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (or better, “release,” the sending away). This separation, or release, must occur—a separation from the sin curse represented by the physical body to the rebirth of life in the cleansed physical body of new covenant with God. That’s the purpose of the blood—to show exactly that necessary release and restoration of life.
So, then, is the shedding of blood necessary? As I said initially, I believe the answer is yes. Without it, we lose the whole story specifically revealed through the shed blood.