Are we saved by the blood sacrifice of Jesus?
Christians are quick to say they are "saved by the blood of Jesus." But are we to understand this affirmation literally, as meaning that our salvation required the bloody death of Jesus? Can it really be that God required a human, blood sacrifice to redeem the sins of humanity?
This is at odds with the witness to Godís love that dominates the Bible story, because a loving God cannot require a human sacrifice. The story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22 condemns human sacrifice to God, but leaves animal sacrifice as a way of respecting and remembering that all life comes from God. The story of Jesus puts an end to animal sacrifice.
The witness of Jesus builds on the writings of the prophets of ancient Israel, which proclaim that God desires justice, rather than the sacrifice of animals. Listen to Micah: "With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on highÖwith burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of [sacrificed] ramsÖ? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" (Mic. 6:6-7) No, the prophet answers. For God requires of us not human or animal sacrifice, but "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly" with God. (Mic. 6:8)
When the Romans put down the Jewish rebellion in 70 CE, they destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and that ended Jewish animal sacrifice, as Jews believe such sacrifice can only be offered in the temple. But the witness of Jesus ended animal sacrifice for the first Christians, who were all Jewish, because it described Jesus as Godís act of loving self-sacrifice.
This is what grace means and why grace is saving. Roman emperors sat in coliseums and watched the gory slaughter of innocent men, women and children. The emperor, who claimed to be divine, clearly demanded human sacrifice. But the living God does not! The God of love that we know through the Bible cannot have required the slaughter of an innocent human being to redeem a debt, not even the enormous debt of humanity for all its sins.
So, how are we to understand what the crucifixion of Jesus means for our salvation?
Moses sealed the covenant between God and the Israelites by killing oxen and throwing blood on the people. (Ex. 24:8) The Jewish authors of the New Testament, who witness to Jesus as representing a new covenant with God, affirm that Godís new relationship with all people is also sealed with blood, by the death of Jesus on the cross.
The church celebrates this new relationships in the sacramental act of sharing the body and blood of Christ. We take the elements of bread and wine into our bodies to signify that our lives are one with, and discovered anew, in the body of Christ, in the life and witness of the church. It is not blood flowing from a body on a cross, in its death agony, that gives new life. Instead, new life comes in recognizing and remembering that God gives life out of love for us, a love we find manifested in the innocent death of Jesus, because this death represents Godís self-sacrifice for the sake of the world.
This is how we need to hear the words of Isaiah, in the passages concerning the suffering servant: "he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed." (Is. 53:5) The suffering servant passages in Isaiah seek to make sense of the suffering of Israel by affirming some redeeming purpose in the brutal subjugation of the people by their enemies.
But the claim of the old covenant that "the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Is. 53:6) is not the new covenant in Jesus Christ. Our faith is that God was in Christ, and thus the sacrifice made by Jesus on the cross is Godís self-sacrifice and not a human sacrifice made to a bloodthirsty God!
In "Christ crucified," to use a favorite phrase of Paul, God enters into the human experience of suffering, injustice and death to reveal to all humanity that nothing "will be able to separate us from the love of God" (Rom. 8:39), even though we suffer, bleed and die.
Paul, who is a Pharisee, understands Christ on the basis of Jewish scripture, which is the only scripture he knows. "God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God." (Rom. 5:8-9) We can understand Paul as claiming we deserve Godís wrath because of our sin, but that doesnít mean we have to believe in a God of wrath. Like a loving parent confronting an ungrateful and unruly child, God has every reason to be angry. But the parable of the loving father who forgives his prodigal son (Lk. 15:11-32) is a story about God and us, a story that reveals God to be merciful despite human sin.
We find in Jesus, Paul says, "the grace of God" because in him God reaches out to embrace us, as sinners, with love. (Rom. 5:15-16) Paul writes to the church at Corinth: "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creationÖ.All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us." (2 Cor. 5:17-19)
The crucifixion of Jesus is Godís act of reconciling love, not an act of human sacrifice to appease a wrathful God. This is how we can best understand the witness of Paul. "For in him [the Lord] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross." (Col. 1:19-20) As the faithful act of a human being, the death of Jesus is a voluntary, human sacrifice. But Christians affirm that Jesus is God as well as man, because otherwise Jesus would be literally, rather than symbolically, a "sacrificial lamb" killed for a God who demands blood justice.
Jesus is Godís self-sacrifice for us. The crucifixion of Jesus is Godís reconciling act of love. When we say "Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us," we are praying to God using the ancient, mythological language of sacrifice. We are not literally talking about the sacrifice of one life for all our lives, for that would deny the love of God and demean us. The cross is the symbol of our faith, because it put an end to the blood sacrifice of animals and also of men, who we see as enemies of Godís will on earth.
Look again at the "blood of Christ" passages of the New Testament. The author of the gospel of Matthew adds to the story of the trial of Jesus, after Pilate proclaims his innocence: "Then the people as a whole answered, ĎHis blood be on us and on our children!í" (Mt. 27:25) The phrase "the people as a whole" reveals that this is not historical fact, but bitter polemic against Jews who are resisting the growth of the church at the time the gospel was written near the end of the first century. This condemning statement is only in the gospel of Matthew, but the horrific consequences of taking this statement literally fill our history books and Holocaust museums.
Reading Matthew 27:25 as a comment on Exodus 24:8, where the blood of slaughtered oxen is thrown on the people to mark their sharing in the covenant made by Moses with God, gives a less literal and more ironic meaning. The Jews will participate in the world of the new covenant, whether they accept it or not, because it is Godís act and thus changes reality for everyone.
The other comments in the first three New Testament gospels concerning a blood covenant refer to the last supper, not to the crucifixion (Mt. 26:28, Mk. 14:24, Lk. 22:20). And in the gospel of John all talk of a blood covenant comes in four verses of chapter 6, where Jesus is arguing with some of his disciples. "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me."" (Jn. 6:56-57) This is clearly a reference to the sacrament celebrated in the church. We are not talking here about an actual blood sacrifice, but about the life of the Father that is shared by the Son and, through him, by all those who are members of the body of Christ.
Although the gospels tell the story of the crucifixion, the belief that Jesus was a blood sacrifice rests largely on passages in four late writings in the New Testament. The letter to the Hebrews is full of references to Jewish blood sacrifice, because it argues that the blood of Jesus atones for human sin. "For if the blood of goats and bullsÖsanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, 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 worship the living God!" (Heb. 9:13-14)
1 Peter 1:2 refers to Exodus 24:8 by saying that Christians have been "destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood." And the author of this letter affirms: "You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect of blemish." (1 Pe. 1:18-19)
In 1 John 1:7 we read that "the blood of JesusÖcleanses us from all sin." And three times this letter refers to Jesus as the one who "came by water and blood." Finally, in the Revelation to John we read that the elect at the end of time "have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" and that angels have defeated the Devil "by the blood of the Lamb." (Rev. 7:14, 12:11) The rider named "Faithful and True" on a white horse is said to be "clothed in a robe dipped in blood" and to have a secret name, "The Word of God." (Rev. 19:12-13)
These scripture passages have been read by many Christians as revealing that God demanded the blood sacrifice of Jesus. But we must remember that the sacramental focus of the early church was a celebration involving bread and wine eaten as the body and blood of Jesus. Blood is a code word throughout scripture for covenant. In the New Testament, references to the blood of Jesus represent the mystery of communion. John 19:34, which describes the "water and blood" that flowed from the side of Jesus after he was pierced on the cross, is not just a gory detail concerning the death of Jesus, but represents baptism and the celebration of the last supper in the witness of the church.
Moreover, language in the latter part of the New Testament about the blood of Christ has to be read in light of the gospel stories. The gospels tell of the death of Jesus in order to proclaim his new life and to verify our hope for eternal life with God. The gospels of Matthew and Luke relate that Jesus taught his disciples to pray, as we do, for Godís forgiveness, in the prayer we call the "Our Father" or the "Lordís Prayer." (Mt. 6:9-13, Lk. 11:2-4) All the New Testament gospels teach that Jesus called his followers to respond with faith and repentance, and that many of his followers did. The heart of Christian faith is not Good Friday, for this terrible day is only "good" because of what follows. Ours is an Easter faith, a faith celebrating the love of God, the forgiveness we know through Godís self-sacrifice as Emmanuel, "God-with-us," and the hope we find through participation in the (spiritual) body of Christ.
Our core Christian affirmations of Godís love, salvation by the grace of God, and being guided by the Holy Spirit require that we understand references to "the blood sacrifice of Jesus" as metaphorical language. We are not saved by the murder of Jesus, but by the love of God! The life, death, and continued new life with God that we find in Jesus manifest Godís steadfast and forgiving love. Because the elements we use in the sacrament of communion represent Godís gifts of life and love, we call them the body and blood of Christ. By taking these into our bodies we symbolically affirm in faith that we are, despite our sins, one with God through Christ, in our life in the church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
This sacramental understanding of the blood of Christ informs both our reading of scripture and our Christian living. Godís self-sacrifice reveals that animal and human sacrifice are not Godís will, and so we must read texts about animal and human sacrifice in the Bible on the basis of the judgment of the cross. It is the guidance of the Spirit, moreover, that allows us to interpret scripture in this way. In the Spirit, we see that a spiritual rather than a literal reading of passages concerning the blood sacrifice of Jesus will reveal Godís love and not a God demanding death. The sacrament of communion strengthens our faith and our conviction to live in response to the God whose love is without end.
The God of grace is a God of love, who offers us the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This, and not a human blood sacrifice, is the good news of the gospel.
1 in Faith: A Christian Bible Study Ü Copyright © 2000 by Robert Traer