The story is told of a telephone operator in a small town who, every Monday morning for years, received a telephone call from the same man asking for the exact time. One day, the operator summoned up the courage to ask him the reason behind the regular phone calls.
“I’m foreman of the local sawmill,” explained the man. “Every day, I have to blow the whistle at noon, so I call you to get the exact time.”
The operator giggled. “That’s really funny,” she said. “All this time, we’ve been setting our clock by your whistle.”
This serves as a good example of what happens when we fail to have an exact and dependable standard: We miss the mark. So it is when it comes to worship. If we are not careful we will end up listening to the wrong standard and will miss the mark entirely—even eternally. Yes, it matters not only who we worship but also how we worship. As we began to see previously, it is for this very reason that, according to Leviticus 17, we need to prioritise both the place and the price of worship.
We Must Prioritise the Place of Worship
Previously, we considered vv. 1-9, and learned the need to prioritise the place of worship.
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron, to his sons, and to all the children of Israel, and say to them, ‘This is the thing which the LORD has commanded, saying: Whatever man of the house of Israel who kills an ox or lamb or goat in the camp, or who kills it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the door of the tabernacle of meeting to offer an offering to the LORD before the tabernacle of the LORD, the guilt of bloodshed shall be imputed to that man. He has shed blood; and that man shall be cut off from among his people, to the end that the children of Israel may bring their sacrifices which they offer in the open field, that they may bring them to the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of meeting, to the priest, and offer them as peace offerings to the LORD. And the priest shall sprinkle the blood on the altar of the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of meeting, and burn the fat for a sweet aroma to the LORD. They shall no more offer their sacrifices to demons, after whom they have played the harlot. This shall be a statute forever for them throughout their generations.’ Also you shall say to them: ‘Whatever man of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell among you, who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice, and does not bring it to the door of the tabernacle of meeting, to offer it to the LORD, that man shall be cut off from among his people.’”
We studied these verses under the theme of “Guarding the Gospel.” This is precisely what these laws, and those in the following chapters, are all about. God’s chosen people needed to be protected from pagan influences that would otherwise corrupt them and thus endanger (humanly speaking) the promised blessing that the nation was carrying (see Genesis 12:1-3). Their worship had to be guarded.
We learned previously that God commanded His people to sacrifice only at God’s appointed place of worship, the tabernacle. We learned the principle that, if we will guard the gospel with which we have been entrusted (1 Timothy 3:14-16) we must prioritise the place of worship, the local church. We must make this “place” central to our Christian faith and practice. We must beware of treating it as if we are consumers. Instead, we need to treat it with reverence and with deep commitment. After all, it is the Body of Christ.
We Must Prioritise the Price of Worship
As we move into the next section—vv. 10-16—we find the children of Israel challenged that, in addition to prioritising the place of worship, they must also prioritise the price of worship.
And whatever man of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell among you, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul. Therefore I said to the children of Israel, ‘No one among you shall eat blood, nor shall any stranger who dwells among you eat blood.’ Whatever man of the children of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell among you, who hunts and catches any animal or bird that may be eaten, he shall pour out its blood and cover it with dust; for it is the life of all flesh. Its blood sustains its life. Therefore I said to the children of Israel, ‘You shall not eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off.’
And every person who eats what died naturally or what was torn by beasts, whether he is a native of your own country or a stranger, he shall both wash his clothes and bathe in water, and be unclean until evening. Then he shall be clean. But if he does not wash them or bathe his body, then he shall bear his guilt.
There is an intimate connection between the subject matter of vv. 1-9 and that of vv. 10-16. The place of sacrifice was important because of what was being sacrificed: life. And, as this section makes clear, the life of the flesh is in the blood. These verses make it very clear that there is only one acceptable price to atone for our sins, and that price is blood. And not just any blood would do, but rather the blood of God’s prescribed substitutionary sacrifice. It was for this reason that the previous laws were given.
The laws given in this chapter were all about the blood. If God’s people disrespected the blood that God provided for their atonement, then they would not be able to worship Him. Yes, there is a price to worship God, and it is a price that is set by God.
I will say more about this later, but let me at this point observe that the atoning work of Christ is not a popular doctrine in the church of our day. To be fair, the doctrine of a blood-shedding atonement has always had it detractors. But perhaps the difference in our day is that so much of the “scandal” around what is referred to as “penal substitution” is heard from so-called evangelicals; from those who should know better.
The question remains: What is required if we will prioritise the price of worship? What is required of the church if we will continue to prioritise the atoning work of Christ on the cross? Our text this morning highlights at least four necessities.
We Must Protect the Price of Worship
First, we see the need to protect the price of worship.
Everything but the Blood
Verses 10 and 12-14 introduce a stipulation that was earlier revealed in 7:22-27. There, God prohibited both eating blood and the fat from the sacrifices. Here, He does the same. Verse 6 stipulates that the fat of the slaughtered animal was to be burnt as an offering to God rather than consumed by the worshipper. But here in these verses the emphasis is specifically upon the prohibition of eating blood. These laws are for the purpose of protecting the price of worship.
The same theme is evident in vv. 13-14. God allowed for the hunting of birds and game for food, but even then the blood was to be treated as “holy.” That is, it was to be respected along the same lines as v. 11. In such cases, the blood was to be poured out and covered with dust. It was not to be eaten. The reason given in v. 14 echoes the truth of v. 11: “for [blood] is the life of all flesh. Its blood sustains its life.” “All flesh was created by God from the ground and the act of draining the blood out onto the ground and covering it symbolized the return of that life to God who first gave it.”1 It was an action underlying a respect for the sanctity of life.
Because of this principle, any violation of this law resulted in the cutting off of the offender. Whether in the camp or outside the camp, God’s people were to be mindful and respectful of the blood, which God had given for their atonement. There was no artificial distinction between the sacred and secular.
According to vv. 15-16, it was forbidden for Israelites to eat the flesh of an animal that had died naturally or had been killed by a predator. The reason was that, because of blood coagulation, the flesh still contained blood, and consumption of blood was prohibited. In all of these cases, both Jew and resident alien could eat everything but the blood.
If anyone, whether ethnic Jew or resident alien, did eat blood, he was to be “cut off from among his people.” The exception was in the case described in vv. 15-16. In that situation, the person who inadvertently did so was rendered unclean until the evening, as long as he washed his body and clothes. The sanction here was less severe presumably because the offence was not deliberate.
But in the case of deliberately eating the blood, the offence was very serious. To be “cut off” implied that the individual was no longer to be accepted and treated as a member of God’s covenantal community. Because they did not prioritise and therefore protect the blood, they were not considered to be a part of God’s people.
So it is today. You cannot be a Christian and deny the blood-shedding death of Jesus Christ.
Verse 10 reads, “I will set My face against that person who eats blood.” The picture seems to be that of God personally cutting them off from among the covenanted community. It is a fearsome picture of God’s determination to punish violators of this law. To eat blood was to reject God’s authority and He would respond with wrath. Obviously, to eat blood was to take their lives into their own hands; in fact, it was to risk not only physical death but also eternal death. This was sufficient reason to protect God’s assigned price of worship.
We must contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
Let us note again how this ties in with the regulations concerning the place of worship. If the sacrifices were confined to the tabernacle then this would help to curtail the temptation to eat the blood. Let me put it like this: When the place of worship was prioritised then the protection of the price of worship would also be prioritised. The place of worship helped the worshipper to focus on the price of worship. And so it should be in our day.
We need to see the connection in this chapter that to prioritise the place of worship was a means to prioritise the price of worship—the blood of a substitutionary sacrifice. So it is today. When the place of worship (the local church) minimises and marginalises the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, it actually is no longer a place of acceptable worship. No doubt worship will continue; but it will be false worship.
I find that the older I get, the more time I spend studying the basics and basis of my faith in Christ: the cross of Christ. I am learning more and more of the significance of the blood of Christ. As I do so, I believe, more and more my local church will prioritise the price of worship. This is how it should be. What the pulpit emphasises the congregation will emphasise.
The local church must keep the cross work of Christ central. It must prioritise in its ministry the truth that the blood that God has appointed for our atonement, the blood of Christ, is the only acceptable price for our atonement. And to the degree that it is prioritised it will be protected. When the atoning work of Christ, by the shedding of His blood to death, is marginalised or eclipsed then the place of worship is actually no longer such a place. It is merely a whited sepulchre. Can you imagine the tabernacle without sacrificial blood? Of course not! As the writer to the Hebrews notes, “almost all things are purged by blood and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22).
It is vital that we protect the price that enables us to worship God, the blood of the Lamb. There is power in the blood and we must never lose sight of that. We must be on guard against domesticating the blood of Christ. We must never treat it as common. This, it seems to me, was one of the reasons for these laws: God was protecting the blood from being profaned. As the song says, the blood of Christ will never lose its power. But, sadly, it is possible for the church to fail to prioritise it and thus fail to protect it.
This, by the way, is one reason that we must fence the Communion Table. But I am getting ahead of myself, so let’s address the question, why was eating blood such a grievous offence? Verse 11 tells us.
We Must Prize the Price of Worship
According to v. 11—a verse that, no doubt, many reading this learned in Sunday school—we must prize the price of worship. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.”
Nothing but the Blood
The small word “for” indicates the reason for the prohibition of v. 10. The reason that blood was not permitted to be eaten was because of what it represented: “The life of the flesh is in the blood.”
At a fundamental level this is a given: Without blood there can be no life. God designed the body to live by blood. Loss of blood means of loss of life (which, as we saw, was no doubt one of the reasons for the bodily discharge laws). It is significant that we speak of people “bleeding to death.” In fact, the whole issue of blood clotting is an amazing grace of God.
But there is more to this verse than simply the truth that without blood there could be no life. This verse reveals that the life represented by the blood was being offered up as a substitute for sinners. Let me put it this way: The offering up of the physical life by the shedding of blood was essential for one to have eternal life. The ESV captures this well: “for it is the blood which makes atonement by the life.”
This “life” that was represented by the blood was being offered up to God. It belonged to God. He was the one who set the atonement price and the price had to be paid to Him. Wenham captures the essence of this verse when he notes that “the blood ransoms at the price of life.”2 Hence for a would-be worshipper to eat the blood would be to take from God what rightfully belonged to Him. In the words of Vasholz, “Eating blood, therefore, is an act of disdain for the means that God provides for atonement.”3 It was to reject the gospel (see Hebrews 10:26-31).
The word “atonement,” you will remember, carries with it a few ideas. First, it speaks of a “covering” and points to the fact that blood covers the sinner from the wrath of God (see Leviticus 16). Second, it also connotes the idea of paying a ransom to secure the freedom of another. Hence, blood was the God-ordained price for sinners to be released from the slavery of sin with its attendant wage of death (Romans 6:23).
We can therefore conclude that to eat blood was to assume the posture before God of self–salvation. It was to take one’s salvation into his own hands; it was to assume that he could take care of his own sin problem, thank you very much. God would have none of it. Salvation is of the Lord. This law was therefore designed to equip the people to prize the price set by God for salvation.
An author I was reading recently made the following poignant observation, “Atonement is about right relationships. Its past speaks of brokenness, alienations, and the death of love. Its present sees restoration, healing, and wholeness. Its future holds hope for deepening friendship and mutual confidence.”4, 7.]
These words help us to appreciate the truth of Leviticus 17, with special reference to v. 11. God was concerned that the means of reconciling man to Himself be respected. This is why He gave these laws with reference to the sanctity of blood.
The word “atonement” occurs some eighty times in the Old Testament, mostly in the Pentateuch, with the vast majority in Leviticus. The word means “to cover,” but also carries the idea of paying a ransom price to secure deliverance. The New Englishman’s Greek Lexicon offers the following definition: “to cover (spec. with bitumen); fig. to expiate or condone, to placate or cancel:—appease, make (an) atonement, cleanse, disannul, forgive, be merciful, pacify, pardon, to pitch, purge (away), put off, (make) reconcile (-liation).”
It is a rich word, which carries the supreme thought of reconciliation. It speaks to the issue of God’s righteous anger toward sinners being appeased and hence speaks of sinners being delivered from God’s wrath—a deliverance secured by a price. But this deliverance is not merely a negative emphasis, for by God’s grace atonement results in being delivered from wrath to a reconciled relationship with God.
It is interesting that, in the New Testament, the Greek word for atonement means “to change,” “to transform,” or “to exchange.” It carries with it the connotation of a change in relationship. That is why this word is often translated in the New Testament by the word “reconcile” or “reconciliation.” It refers to being reconciled to God.
As someone has said, when it comes to the change brought about by atonement, God has not changed; the change is in our relation to Him and consequently in our own lives. This is why preachers and theologians often describe the cross work of Christ as “the great exchange.” The Lord Jesus shed His blood to death on the cross with the result that His life was exchanged for ours. The Father poured out the penalty of our sins upon Christ in our place, and so there has been an eternal change in our relationship with God.
God did not change. He was and is still holy. He was and is still righteous. He was and still is just. He was and is still love. That is why the cross was necessary. God has not changed. He still has a settled determination to punish sin. The cross proves this. But neither has His love changed. Again, the cross proves this.
At the cross God made it possible for sinful man to be reconciled to Him by changing the enmity that existed between us because of our sin. Christ dying on our behalf was the exchange. God did not change, but our relationship with Him did. And this has resulted in a huge and lasting change in all our life—for all of eternity. No wonder the blood is so precious to God! No wonder He wanted His chosen and redeemed people to prize it. And He still does.
In the ancient world, and even in many parts of our contemporary world, blood was seen to have magical powers. This, no doubt, was one reason for the stipulation against eating blood. The pagan mind assumed that by eating blood humans took on the nature of that which they were consuming. In fact, this is still true in many pagan religions.
There was a very real danger that the people would succumb to the temptation to trust in the power of the sacrificial animal to secure atonement rather than in God. This is no doubt a major reason for the Lord’s emphasis here that the life—which God had given—was in the blood—the price that God had set. Harrison comments that blood “is given particular sanctity because God has appointed the blood of clean animals as the means of atonement.”5 Note he says that the blood was God’s appointed means of atonement. In other words, God, not the blood itself, is the One who literally makes atonement. How often we get this wrong! We tend to mystify and magnify the means of grace rather than the God who gives grace.
God’s people needed to learn that what they needed was God’s forgiveness, secured His way. And His way is by His appointed way—the Lord Jesus Christ (see John 14:6).
We are not immune to the temptation to separate the atoning blood from the atoning life. Many in the church, especially from the mid-1800s to the present, have put an unbiblical and thus unhealthy emphasis upon the blood of Christ. Please listen before jumping to conclusions.
In the early 1980’s John MacArthur preached through the book of Hebrews and subsequently published a commentary on it. In his sermons he pointed out that we are not saved by the red corpuscles and various cells that physically made up the blood of Christ, but are instead saved by His sacrificial death as our substitute; a death which came about violently on the cross. He said that the blood of Christ that flowed from His body on the cross went into the ground at the foot of the cross and that it remained there. For this MacArthur received perhaps the most intense criticism that his ministry has ever encountered. Bob Jones University published an article in their magazine Faith for the Family, which ignited nationwide denunciation of MacArthur as a heretic.
Several months after this some of the faculty of BJU did what they should have done in the first place: They sat down with MacArthur and asked him to explain his position. After hearing from him, they confessed that they had done him a grave wrong. However since the publication of their denunciation the magazine had gone defunct and so multitudes were left with a slanderous view of MacArthur. In fact, to this very day, many still denounce him as a heretic. That is tragic, for his teaching on this matter was, and still is, thoroughly orthodox.
In a strange irony, what MacArthur taught in fact harmonises with one of the very purposes for these laws in Leviticus 17. God wanted His people to both make much of the blood while at the same time to not make too much of it.
We know that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins (Hebrews 9:22) and that the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses believers from all sin (1 John 1:7). We affirm that our salvation is inseparable from the precious blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:19). Leviticus 17:11 lays a foundation for this essential doctrine of the efficacy of Christ’s shed blood for sinners. This law, the salvific principle of v. 11, undergirds the biblical teaching that our atonement was secured by Jesus Christ being offered in our place. Jesus’ life-giving (through blood-shedding) death secured the salvation (atonement) for all who will believe on Him. This is why the blood of Christ is so important. This doctrine must be guarded by the church.
But we must also note that the shed blood of Jesus Christ can never be separated from the truth that, in shedding His blood, His life was being substituted for ours. Don’t separate His blood from His life. The two are intimately connected, not only by Leviticus 17:11, but also by the New Testament as a whole (see, for example, Romans 5:8-11).
We need to be careful and thoughtful when we speak of the blood of Christ. There are a lot of Christians running around “pleading the blood” who have less than a biblical appreciation and understanding of what they are doing. I fear that many are actually guilty of a superstition that is not far off from the pagan superstition against which these laws were intended to guard in the first place.
We need to understand that, when the New Testament speaks of the “blood” of Christ, it is a word picture speaking of the blood-shedding, life-yielding death of Christ. In fact, the same can be said of the Old Testament usage. “Most of the occurrences of the word ‘blood’ in the Old Testament indicate death by violence. The focal point of the mention of blood was thus not of blood flowing through the veins but rather on shed blood, which indicated that life had ended.”6
The entire sacrificial system was grounded in the doctrine of substitution. You will remember the ritual of the laying on of the hands on the head of the sacrifice. This highlighted the transference of one’s sins onto another, which would die in the worshipper’s place. The shedding of the blood was the means of the loss of life for the deliverance of another. Two things should be noted.
First, there had to be death. This is implicit in the concept of sacrifice.
Second, the death had to be by the shedding of blood. A heart attack would not suffice. But why was this?
The partial answer is because God said so. He said so very clearly here in Leviticus 17:11. God’s atonement required the death of a substitute at the hands of another. A natural death would not suffice. A life had to be taken in order for life to be given.
But again, why was this necessary? Fundamentally, because “if the personal relation between God and man is to be renewed, a solution must be provided, which corresponds to man’s need and God’s demand.”7
You see, the wages of sin is death. And this is so because God is just. He cannot arbitrarily wave away guilt. Sinners (everyone) are under God’s condemnation. They are guilty and therefore are liable to the physical and spiritual death penalty. The only way to escape is to be delivered by this penalty through a perfectly innocent substitute who will die in the sinner’s place. Praise God for the Lamb of God who did just this for all who will believe on Him! But note that the Lamb of God (not merely His blood) is the One who takes away our just condemnation. It was His life-giving bloodshed that secures our forgiveness and just condemnation.
The Violence of the Cross
In the light of this, we should contemplate the reality that it is not the perfect corpuscles and blood cells of the plasma of Christ’s blood that saves us, but rather His substitutionary sacrifice that paid the price of our salvation. And that is a distinction with a difference. If it was merely the physical blood of Christ then His sweat-drops of blood in Gethsemane would have secured our salvation. But it was His blood-shedding, resulting in His death, that paid the atonement price.
Consider the following texts in the light of this doctrine:
- Romans 5:9-11—Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.
- Colossians 1:20-22—And by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight.
- Hebrews 10:19-20—Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh,
- 1 Peter 1:18-21—Knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you who through Him believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.
- Revelation 1:5—And from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth. To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood.
- Hebrews 2:14-15—Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.
If you study each of these references in its context, you will discover that the use of the word “blood” is descriptive for the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross for sinners. It does not speak of some mystical application of the physical blood of Christ, but refers to the life-giving (by blood-shedding) death of Jesus on behalf of sinners who deserve God’s wrath. Hebrews 9:11-28 makes this point abundantly clear when it connects the blood of Christ with the death of Christ by which the way to God was opened.
In summary, without the death of Christ there is no atonement. Likewise without blood-shedding as the means to that death there is no atonement. The two cannot be separated. If you remove the shedding of blood from the death of Christ at the hand of the Father then you have no atonement. All you have is an attempt at a feel good theology that will prove useless to atone and thus worthless to save from the wrath to come.
A Distinction without a Difference?
If you think that this is a distinction without a difference, I would beg to differ. It matters very much. Let me illustrate by referring to a fairly well known verse: “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:11).
This verse comes in the context of believers who were being persecuted for their faith in Christ—by Jews. We are told that they overcame and were victorious “by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony.” These were not two separate means by which they secured victory; rather, the one modifies the other. The “word of their testimony” was their witness to the lordship of the Lamb. They continued to believe Him in the midst of persecution. And the reason that they believed Him was because of His shed blood on their behalf. Because He had died on their behalf they had nothing to fear. After all, if God was for them who could be against them? For it was Christ who died for them; it was Christ who was interceding for them (see Romans 8:31, 34).
What this verse teaches is that these early believers overcame their temptation to deny Christ by standing on the gospel. It was the gospel that gave them victory in the midst of their spiritual warfare; nothing more, and nothing less. This is why they had a firm witness; they had a gospel assurance by the blood of the Lamb. Because Jesus experienced blood-shedding death in their place, they were recipients of a new life, which enabled them to stand. Their grasp of the gospel was the word by which they testified. They clung to the gospel. Because they knew that Jesus had paid the penalty for their sin they also knew that there was no condemnation upon them. They knew that they were reconciled to God and that He was for them. They persevered both in and by the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Be careful of a superstitious mysticism that throws around words and phrases that supposedly has some kind of magical power. It is the cross work of Jesus that saves us. Don’t ever separate His blood from the life from which it flowed.
Don’t speak irresponsibly of “pleading the blood.” There is nothing wrong with that phrase per se—so long as you mean that you are resting in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. This phrase divorced from biblical doctrinal content is nothing more than a talisman, and ultimately it is dishonouring to Christ. Beware the danger of mystifying the blood of Christ. This can become a form of idolatry.
We are justified in saying that the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ is the litmus test for all who name the name of Christ. If one denies this fundamental doctrine then one is cut off from God’s people regardless of one’s external claim to the contrary. In fact, John makes this very clear in his first epistle as he draws it to a close (1 John 5:16-21).
Doctrine matters. It really does matter what you believe about the blood-shedding death of the Lord Jesus Christ. It really does matter whether or not you see the cross of Christ as central to your worship of God. If you do not prize this truth then you may be dangerously close to eternal judgement. “The New Testament makes it very clear that wilful, sustained rejection of God’s gospel after receiving the knowledge of the truth demands the severest of penalties (Heb. 10:26-31).”8
This has practical implications, as we will see in our final two observations of this truth.
We Must Partake of the Price of Worship
When you consider that a Jew would have been familiar with this prohibition against drinking blood, the words of the Lord Jesus at the Last Supper must have been somewhat shocking to the disciples:
Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.”
A Command to Drink the Blood
When the new covenant church was established among the Gentiles (in Old Testament terms, among the “strangers”) the apostles and early believers were faced with some challenges. How were they to accommodate those who were at one time strangers to the covenant who were now part and parcel of the new covenant? The question of circumcision arose and there was much debate.
A certain element among the Jews argued that Gentiles must be circumcised to be accepted as true believers; in order to be acknowledged as members of the true Israel of God. This issue especially arose among the churches in Galatia (established in Acts 14) and so in Acts 15 the church in Jerusalem (its leaders, congregation and apostles) met to settle the matter. They concluded that Gentile believers in Christ did not need to be circumcised, for salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. But they also decided to instruct these Gentile believers, for the sake of harmony, that they were to abstain from meat offered to idols, from fornication, from eating blood and from things strangled (therefore from the potential of consuming blood as in Leviticus 17:15) (Acts 15:29). Because the early church was predominantly Jewish these godly people admonished caution for the sake of harmony and unity in the early church. The issue of eating blood was a particularly kosher issue, and so the Gentile believers were exhorted to consider their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ and to avoid needless offence.
There is much debate as to whether these commands are binding for believers today. Certainly we would agree that believers today need to abstain from sexual immorality. But what about the other matters addressed here? In Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8—10, Paul argued that it was lawful to eat meat that had been offered to idols, but that believers must be sensitive to the bigger picture. If one believer’s partaking offended another, then the believer who felt the liberty to partake should rather abstain. But clearly there was liberty concerning this matter. This is evidence enough that these requirements (minus the one addressing fornication) are not binding on all future generations of believers. It is for this reason that I am compelled to conclude that it is not unlawful for a believer in our day to refrain from consuming rare meat.
More importantly, these laws in Leviticus pointed to Christ as the sinless, substitutionary sacrifice, who gave His life by the shedding of His blood. Therefore the shadow has become substance. The picture has been coloured in, and the law has been fulfilled in Christ. Hence there is no binding Scripture that legislates against this. If you enjoy black pudding, go ahead and eat it.
A New Kind of Kosher
But there is something else that helps us to understand the change that took place under the new covenant. The same Lord who prohibited His people from eating blood under the old covenant now actually commands all of His people to drink blood under the new covenant! In fact, we are to drink His blood. We are to consume the blood of the Lamb.
Let me put it another way: A true Jew (one believes in Jesus as Messiah) is most kosher when he drinks the blood of the sacrificial Lamb.
On the night in which the Lord Jesus was betrayed, He instituted the Lord’s Supper after the traditional Passover meal. He took the cup of wine, gave thanks to the Father and said that wine represented His blood. He instructed His followers to drink His blood. Can you imagine the shock that this would have been to these very Jewish men? This might have sounded like the most sacrilegious words they have ever heard—except that they came from the lips of their Lord.
This was not the first time that these men had heard such paradoxical words from the one whom they had witnessed perfectly fulfilling the law of God. Jesus perfectly obeyed the law in every jot and tittle. But in John 6 He clearly (and very publicly) stated that if anyone would be saved by Him then they would need to eat his flesh and drink His blood (John 6:53). No wonder the people were baffled and even offended (vv. 60-66). This sounded like sacrilege. But of course it was not; it was actually gospel. What many took as a repudiation of Leviticus 17 was actually its fulfilment. Jesus was saying that to drink His blood was to appropriate the benefits of His life laid down.9
In Leviticus 17:11 we learned that the blood represented life and was God’s gift to His people for their atonement. We learned that the blood stood for the life of a substitute which was sacrificed in the place of the sinner. The substitute would experience God’s wrath in the place of the deserving sinner. God therefore put a high premium on the blood, for without it there was no forgiveness. Without the blood-shedding, life-surrendering death of a sacrifice there could be no eternal life for the sinner on whose behalf it died. This, of course, was preparatory for the day when the Lamb of God would come to take away the sin of the world.
Drink, All of It
But now that Jesus Christ has come and shed His blood in His death for sinners, we are commanded to drink the cup of wine, which symbolises drinking His blood. And the reason is because this blood continues to be life-giving. It is not the blood of a mere animal, which could never take away sins. His blood is living and efficacious.
In a nutshell, the reason for the solemn but temporary prohibition was because God was guarding His people from trusting anything but Him for their salvation. There was only one place where this shed blood would be acceptable. Ultimately that one place was at Calvary. There was only one sacrifice that could ever be accepted as full and final price for ours sins: that of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Are you a partaker of the blood of Christ? He is your only hope. You can exchange your sins for His saving blood.
Tidball notes, “For the exchange to be complete, not only has Jesus to take the sinner’s place and lay down his life as a ransom, but sinners have to absorb his life so that they may begin to live for God. . . . To drink his blood is to assimilate the benefits of his death and infuse every part of our being with his life. . . . Only with their personal involvement would the benefits of the atoning blood flow into their lives, forgiving their sins.”10 And we become personally involved when we repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.
We Must Proclaim the Price of Worship
Paul wrote with reference to the Lord’s Supper: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). The word “proclaim” means “to declare” or “to preach.” The idea is that, when the church participates in the Lord’s Supper, it is preaching the gospel. The price of worship is being proclaimed.
It is a serious thing to reject the Lord’s Table. And it is a serious offence for the local church to marginalise it. The local church must prize the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ as members gather to corporately proclaim this glorious gospel. As we do so, we are also protecting the price.
As we come to a close, let me appeal to you to trust in Christ alone for the payment for your sins. You are in debt to God and you cannot pay it. You are humanly hopeless. But the blood of Christ was shed as He gave up His life for sinners. He experienced God’s wrath for all who will believe in and on Him. He proved the acceptability of His death for sinners when He arose from the dead. He now lives to make intercession for all who come to Him by grace alone through faith alone in Him alone.
His blood-shedding death is your only hope and His resurrection secures that hope. So turn from your idols and trust Christ. That is the gospel truth. Believe it and celebrate it.
- Philip H. Eveson, The Beauty of Holiness: The Book of Leviticus Simply Explained (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2007), 227. ↩
- Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 245. ↩
- Robert I. Vasholz, Leviticus: A Mentor Commentary (Ross-shire: Mentor, 2007), 204. ↩
- Paul Wells, Cross Words: The Biblical Doctrine of Atonement (Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2006 ↩
- R. K. Harrison, Leviticus: Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), 181. ↩
- Mark F. Rooker, Leviticus: The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 236. ↩
- Wells, Cross Words, 76. ↩
- Eveson, The Beauty of Holiness, 225. ↩
- Eveson, The Beauty of Holiness, 230. ↩
- Derek Tidball, The Message of Leviticus: Free to Be Holy (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2005), 214-15. ↩