by Chris Ritter
How do you feel about the sight of blood? Hollywood has learned how to get our attention and I reckon they must buy fake blood by the barrel. You probably know people who faint at the sight of blood. Doctors and nurses have strong stomachs, but their respect for blood is not lessened. When someone is bleeding, everything else stops until the problem is corrected.
Is blood a good thing or a bad thing? Blood is good. The red blood cells carry oxygen to our cells. White blood cells allow us to fight off disease and infection. Caring people donate blood because we realize it is essential. Even without reading Leviticus 17:11, we would know, “The life of the body is in the blood.” Blood is life.
When offerings were made under the Old Testament, blood was the only acceptable sacrifice. A financial offering, not matter how grand, would not suffice. Incense and grain were for other purposes. Hebrews 9 reminds us of a core Old Testament truth: “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.” Only something as special and precious as blood could atone.
Christianity, too, is a blood religion. I know Christians for whom this is an embarrassment. If you reduce the faith down to doing good and seeking justice, the spilling of blood can’t be anything but a negative. There is no place for an act of violence being redemptive. If your Christology is so low as to view Jesus as merely a great moral teacher, his death can’t be anything but bad news. But the shed blood of Jesus is written into the DNA code of our faith. Once again today, we will lift up the cup of Christ and remember his words, “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood.”
When Jesus says his blood is the blood of a New Covenant, it is instructive to understand something of the blood of the Old Covenant. This next section of the Book of Hebrews (8:1-10:18) seeks to help us with that and to understand that our salvation is based on purer, higher, and greater things.
A New Covenant
Hebrews isn’t calling us to dismiss the Old Testament, but understand it more fully. A well-known American preacher recently wrote that Christians should “un-hitch” the New Testament from the Hebrew scriptures. But these are the very scriptures that prepared the way for Christ. Our faith did not just drop out of the sky 2,000 years ago. There are deep roots of faith.
Hebrews wants to show that the Old Testament Scriptures themselves predicted and celebrated the future coming of Jesus. Hebrews 8 quotes Jeremiah 31 at length:
“The days are coming, declares the Lord,Hebrews 8/Jeremiah 31
when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
9 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
and I turned away from them,
declares the Lord.
10 This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel
after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
11 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
12 For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
The God of the Bible is relational. His relationships with humans are defined by solemn covenants. God made covenant with Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, and David. The flaw in these covenants was that they were made with fallible humans who could never truly live up to the righteous requirements demanded by a Holy God.
But notice the initiative God takes with the promise of a New Covenant: “I will put…” “I will be….” “I will forgive….” This covenant is not going to be new only in terms of “more recent.” It is going to be qualitatively different. It will supercede all that has come before.
First, this covenant brings a new relationship. There will be a change of heart, not just a change of behavior. The law of Moses set expectations from outside. Under the New Covenant, God promises, “I will write my law on their hearts.” The law of Moses started from the outside. The New Testament starts with the inside, the heart. It will bring a spiritual rebirth to those touched by it. Salvation will be first an inside job, a spiritual rebirth.
This will also bring a new experience of God. We go from knowing about God to knowing God experientially. Under the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit was associated with the ministry of prophets, priests, and kings. In the New Covenant, the Holy Spirit is given to each believer. We have God walking with us, guiding us, speaking to us. We recently celebrated Pentecost and noted how the Holy Spirit rested upon each one. Pastors, teachers and preachers still have their place, but the greatest Teacher of all lives within the heart of each believer.
Third, there is a final settlement of sin. Hebrews quotes Jeremiah: “I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more.” Remember, a Holy God does not wink at sin. Sin must be atoned for. God promises to deal with the sin problem in a comprehensive way under the New Covenant.
The Tabernacle System
At Sinai, God told Moses to construct a mobile temple called the Tabernacle. If you have ever read through Exodus, you know there is intense detail offered in the construction process. Later this tabernacle would be translated into a permanent structure in Jerusalem by King Solomon.
The tabernacle was based on increasing levels of holiness as one approached the center. An outer court could be entered by any ceremonially clean Israelite. The inner court, or Holy Place, was just for priests and provided a place where sacrifices and incense could be offered. Inside the Holy Place was another area that no one could enter except the High Priest, only once a year on the Day of Atonement. The “Holy of Holies,” sanctus sanctorum, contained the Ark of the Covenant, a golden box where the ten commandments and other items from the Exodus were kept. The lid of the ark, the Mercy Seat, was overshadowed by the golden figures of two cherubim. The High Priest would enter that holiest space once a year to offer the blood of a lamb for the sins of the people.
I lived in Georgia for three years as I attended seminary at Emory University in Atlanta. I lived in a little town called Manchester where I served Chalybeate Springs and St. James United Methodist churches. At St. James there was a very dignified Southern Lady by the name of Sara Ruth. She was a matriarch of the church.
One morning after worship at St. James I stood by the front doors to greet everyone as they departed. Sara Ruth came up to me and said, “Brother Ritter, you are a model preacher.” Well, I didn’t just walk home. I sort of strutted home. My wife was home by that time and asked why I looked so please with myself. I told her about Sara Ruth’s commentt… I was a model preacher.
“I would look that word up if I were you,” Becky told me. I got out my dictionary and here is what it said: “Model: (n.) A small imitation of the real thing.” That took the strut right out of me!
For birthdays and Christmas, some of us used to get model kits of cars and airplanes that came in a billions little plastic pieces with decal stickers and a tube of glue. Maybe it was the fumes from the glue, but I noticed that my results never looked like the picture on the front of the box.
Hebrews says that the Old Testament tabernacle was a mere model of the eternal abode of God in Heaven. Jesus entered that real, original, better, greater, eternal Tabernacle to make atonement for you and me. And he did so with a better sacrifice:
12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13 The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!Hebrews 9
The New Covenant is based on better blood. The blood of bulls and goats could never bring the sort of inner transformation that is necessary for a renewed life. The blood of Jesus, however, is a reflection of God’s perfect self-sacrificial love. It provides both a model and a means for a changed heart and a renewed conscience.
The self-giving of our Lord Jesus Christ and his shed blood is the basis for our covenant relationship with a holy God.
What’s Your Plea?
I was trained years ago to ask good diagnostic questions to people if you wanted to discuss issues and faith and belief with them. One question I have asked countless times over the years is this: “If you appeared at the Gate of Heaven today and God said, ‘Why should I let you in?’… what would you say?”
A few people, maybe 5%, reply that they knew God would not let them in so they would have nothing to say. I appreciate that response because it is honest and gives me an opportunity to talk to them about the grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation of Jesus.
The most common answer I get, however, is a litany of efforts: “I have tried to be a good person,” “I try to help other people,” or “I am not person, but I tried.” This tells me that most people hinge their eternal destiny on their own hit and miss efforts to be a good person. Some of us, I am convinced, hope that they fall somewhere in the upper fiftieth percentile of morality, as if God grades on the curve. The problem is that I can’t find that in the Scriptures anywhere.
In most people’s thinking, the default is heaven “unless you are a really bad person.” When you probe deeper, you find that they are the ones who get to decide what constitutes a bad person, and they draw that line in a way that puts themselves on the right side of the line. Friends, don’t hang your eternal destiny on some sort of moveable standard that you set for yourself. Even Hitler thought, I am sure, that he was a pretty good guy.
Our ideas of self-sufficiency crumble when we take a moment to analyze.
“Is stealing wrong?”
“Have you ever stolen anything?”
“Well, er, yes.”
The fact of the matter is this: We don’t even live up to our own standards of righteousness, much less God’s standard. There is a gap between us and our Creator that we could not fill with our best efforts in a million years. We need something we cannot give ourselves. We need saving. We need a Savior.
This is why Christians have the strange habit of singing about the Blood of Jesus:
- “What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the Blood of Jesus.”
- “O the Blood of Jesus. It washes white as snow.”
- “There is power, power, wonder-working power in the blood of the Lamb.”
- “My hope is built on nothing less that Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”
The Old Testament priests with their animal sacrifices were on a treadmill of endless blood-letting:
11 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. 14 For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.Hebrews 10
There used to be a Dunkin’ Doughnuts commercial where the man got up day after day with the words, “It is time to make the doughnuts.” For all the furnishings in the temple, there were no chairs. The work was never done.
When our High Priest, Jesus, offered his own blood in the Heavens, he then sat down at the right hand of God. A sufficient sacrifice had been made for all time. The price for my salvation has been paid by the blood of the New Covenant. The barrier wall I built between God and me has been torn down.
The relationship we are offered with God through Jesus Christ is not based on our merit. It is based on the finished work of Jesus on the cross. This is the New Testament in his blood. As we lift up the cup once again today, I wonder if you have asked for the inner transformation that only the blood of Jesus can bring. All other ground is sinking sand.