Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Leviticus--Blood Atonement

When Christ came as high priest...he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made.... 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, having obtained eternal redemption. 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. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ...cleanse our consciences.... In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. ...so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people.... Hebrews 9:11-28 NIV
For 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. ...none of you may eat blood.” Leviticus 17:11, 12 NIV
Blood. We need it to live. For this reason, the blood (or life) of one can “buy” or be exchanged for the blood (or life) of another.

The penalty for sin is death. But we all sin. What then? Shall we all die? This is what God warned would happen if Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit:
‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ Genesis 3:3 NIV
But God created us because he wants relationship with us and he can hardly have that if, the instant we sin, we drop dead. Moreover, he wants eternal relationship with us and for that we need to be completely clean of sin. How can this happen?

In the Old Testament a copy of heavenly things was instituted for God’s people here on earth (see Hebrews link above). And so, when someone sinned, God’s provision was that the sinner could bring an animal to the altar at the tabernacle (and later the temple), where it would be killed in a particular way to drain all its blood from it.

If the sin was by the anointed priest or the whole community, the animal was a bull that had to be completely burned up and its blood dealt with in a particular way. If the sin was that of a leader or member of the community, the animal was a sheep, goat or even two birds if the offender was poor enough. Only part of that animal was burned up and the rest was stewed and eaten by the priests. In both cases, some of the blood was applied to the horns of the altar (the altar of incense inside the Holy Place for the sin of the priest or community and the altar of burnt offering in the temple courtyard for the sin of the leader or community member) and the rest of the blood was poured out at the base of the altar of burnt offering.

The key part of the sin offering was that the animal died and its blood treated with honour and respect (not eaten or drunk) because that animal had given its life as a ransom for the life of the sinner.

Once a year a more elaborate ritual was followed, intended to cleanse all sin from all the people from the previous year (in case they had missed any). The blood of this offering was taken into the Most Holy Place--the place where the ark of the covenant sat, the very presence of God on earth--and this blood was sprinkled on the cover of the ark. The high priest (and no other priest or person) could enter this room only once a year on the Day of Atonement, and then ONLY if he brought with him the blood of the special offering for that event.

Remember, all this was a copy. In the Real, “[Christ] entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.” (see Hebrews passage above, emphasis added.) Whereas the blood of the animal the priest took into the Most Holy Place brought redemption from the sins of the past year, Christ’s blood brought everlasting redemption!

In addition to outright (though unintentional) sin, there were many ways an Israelite (later called Jews) could become ceremonially unclean: having sex, touching a dead body (even if the dead body was a spider), nightly emissions, menstruation, touching anything that a menstruating woman touched, certain diseases, giving birth to a child and so on. There were various ways prescribed for a person to become “clean” again, but most of them involved water of a particular kind.

In Numbers 19, God instructs Aaron about this water. First a red heifer (a virgin cow) was taken out of the camp, slaughtered and burned up completely along with cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet wool (I haven’t figured out the significance of these items yet). All the ashes were gathered, put in a container and stored outside the camp. (The process of doing all this resulted in each person involved becoming “unclean” and needing to be purified.) These ashes were then added to water and only this water could be used for cleansing and the purification from sin.

Our Hebrews passage above says:
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. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ...cleanse our consciences....
All the killing of animals, the sprinkling of blood and of ash-containing water and the other rituals commanded by God were symbols only. They were a copy of the Real, and only the outside of the person or object being cleansed was affected. The sinner or unclean person drank neither the blood nor the water. It was forbidden to ingest the life-giving blood of another.

Contrast this with Jesus, the Real. Not only did he die, spilling his blood as an atonement for our sins but, but he commanded us to drink his blood! This was scandalous and revolutionary. A Jew, a follower of God, did not drink blood. In fact, at the Jerusalem Council, when the apostles were deciding which of the old Jewish laws the new Gentile believers should follow, abstaining from blood was one of only four laws they were told to obey. (Acts 15: 29)

And yet we are to drink the blood of Jesus. (1 Corinthians 11:25)

This drinking of blood that was otherwise forbidden seems clearly a symbol of the cleansing work Jesus’ blood does in us. It doesn’t affect only the outside that everyone can see (can you imagine what people’s clothes must have looked like after they’d been sprinkled with blood a few times?) but it cleanses our core, our very inner being.

Jesus’ blood is like no other. It is his blood poured out on us and in us that atones for our lives. We live because he gave his life.

Thank you, Jesus, for your death that has given me life. Fill me with your life and with your presence!

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