“Life is in the Blood”
Hebrews 9:11-15, 19-28
Two missionary doctors working in India, both surgeons, were frustrated by the unwillingness of most Indians to donate blood. To the Indians, blood was life, and they couldn’t get past the idea of sacrificing any of their precious life-force. Parents were often even unwilling to donate blood to save the lives of their own children.
One day a 12 year-old girl was brought into their hospital suffering from a severely diseased lung that needed to be removed immediately. The surgery would require at least three pints of blood. Fortunately, the girl was an AB+ blood type, a “universal recipient,” meaning that she could receive the blood of any donor, regardless of type. But the hospital had only two pints of blood on hand, so they needed one more from the family. After learning this and conferring together, the family pooled their money and offered to buy the additional pint.
Dr. Reeve Betts, one of the surgeons,explained that there was no blood to be bought, and that if the family didn’t provide it themselves they might as well take the girl back home to die. So the family huddled once again, and finally they pushed forward a frail old woman weighing under 100 pounds, the smallest and weakest member of the family.
Dr. Betts looked around at the healthy, well-fed men who’d made that decision, and he lost his temper. In his broken Tamil dialect he berated the dozen or so other family members, jabbing his finger back and forth from the strong men to the frail old woman. They cowered in the face of his anger, but even then no one stepped forward.
Finally, Reeve rolled up his own sleeve and told his colleague, Dr. Paul Brand, “I can’t stand by and let that girl die. Take my blood.” The family fell silent and watched in awe as Paul cuffed his arm, slipped the needle into his vein, and the rich, red flow of blood spurted into the bottle. A collective “ahhh,” sound arose from among the family members, and Reeve heard them saying, “Look, the sahib doctor is giving his own life.” It was an act of sacrificial love in their eyes, one that witnessed to them more than any sermon ever could have, and it saved that young girl’s life.
In the Bible, too, blood is equated with life. Israel was taught that “life is in the blood.” It was always to be treated reverently, as an expression of the sacred gift of life itself.
Even in our day of highly sophisticated medical science, there’s no substitute for blood--no such thing as synthetic blood. Blood is still a precious commodity, an essential, God-given element of physical life. Too often we take it for granted, but every major surgery requires the blood of multiple donors who understand that vital fact. (In fact, blood donors are among the unsung heroes in our society.) And the first course of treatment in trauma cases when there is serious bleeding is to stop the loss of blood, and to replace it as quickly as possible.
A father of fours active young children once told me, half kiddingly, that he could tell his parenting style had mellowed over the years because, whereas he had been quick to respond and intervene in some of the squabbles between his first two children, after the third and fourth arrived, his rule of them had become, “If I see any blood, I’ll get involved.” Blood was the sign that it was becoming serious.
It’s often been said that the Bible is a bloody book, and that’s very true. In the Old Testament, there’s a “scarlet thread” running from the blood of Abel to the circumcision of Abraham and every Jewish male thereafter, to the blood of the Passover on the doorposts of Israel’s homes, to the sprinkling with blood of the altar and all of its elements of worship, including the scrolls of Scripture--and even the sprinkling with blood of all the people on the most consecrated occasions. The old covenant was sealed in blood.
All of the innocent blood shed through the centuries, including the lives of literally more than a million animals sacrificed at the Temple--bulls, cattle, oxen, goats and sheep, and even pigeons and doves for those too poor to won livestock (like Joseph and Mary)--all of that tragic shed blood was a vivid prelude to what God would do in the sacrifice of his Son to forge a new covenant, sealed in his own sacred blood.
Without wanting to be gruesome, it’s important to point out that it would have been an utterly horrifying sight to witness the bloodied body of Jesus on the cross. From his head to his feet, Jesus’ blood would have been dripping, even streaming at times. His crown of thorns, made from the 3-4 inch long, razor-sharp black thorns native to Palestine, had been driven deep into his scalp by the Roman soldiers’ repeated strikes from his staff. His face would also have been bloodied from the blows of their fists. He was then severely flogged with a Roman whip of several leather thongs, each tipped with sharp, jagged metal or bone fragments, leaving his back and shoulders in ribbons. His knees were bruised and bloodied from repeated falls onto the cobblestone pavement under the weight of the crossbar he was forced to carry to the site of his crucifixion. It was there that large, crude spikes were driven into his wrists and ankles. And the longer he hung on the cross, the more he would have bled through his nose and mouth.
Even our most graphic depictions of Jesus’ crucifixion, as in the film, “The Passion of the Christ,” have been heavily sanitized and fail to capture fully the gruesome reality of that scene. Isaiah’s prophetic description tells us, “There were many who were appalled at him; his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man, and his form marred beyond human likeness” (52:14). This is saying that his body had been so grotesquely brutalized and bloodied that he barely looked human.
It’s important that we consider these things in order to appreciate the reality of “the new covenant in his blood.” Christ’s death was the culmination of God’s saving work through Israel and ultimate expression of his redeeming love, wrought by his own flesh and blood.
Listen to how the writer of Hebrews speaks about this (Hebrews 9:11-15, 19-28):
(But) when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. 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. 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, 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!
For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.
When Moses had proclaimed every command of the law to all the people, he took the blood of calves, together with water, scarlet wool and branches of hyssop, and sprinkled the scroll and all the people. He said, “This is the blood of the covenant, which God has commanded you to keep.” In the same way, he sprinkled with the blood both the tabernacle and everything used in its ceremonies. In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.
It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.
When we claim the blood of Christ as the essence of God’s new covenant with us, let’s take to heart what that really means. “Life is in the blood,” and Jesus willingly shed his precious blood--his innocent life itself--for the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of our salvation. There could never be a more personal, more sacrificial or more sacred expression of God’s saving love.