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Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Better Word

“Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?”

Washed in the blood. I’ll be frank: that’s kind of a grisly image, though a very popular one in late 19th and 20th century hymnology. If some of our modern churchgoers cringe at the mental picture it conjures, we can hardly blame them.

Elisha Hoffman’s lyric presumably riffs on Revelation 7, where John sees an innumerable multitude of worshipers in front of the throne of God and is told, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

In Revelation it is the robes that are washed in the blood, not the worshipers themselves. Hoffman probably understood this, though his title is a bit too ambiguous for me.

What we do find much more often in scripture is sprinkled blood.

Blood That Speaks

Now, sprinkled blood may not be the most appealing thing to visualize either, but I will happily double down on sprinkling because it IS a significant Bible theme. Like it or not, it’s all over the place in the word of God, and there’s important spiritual truth we Christians need to understand from it.

Hebrews 12 sums up the difference between Judaism and Christianity by providing us with a short list of things to which the believer in Jesus Christ has NOT come (a blazing fire, darkness, gloom and tempest), followed by a longer list of things to which the believer HAS come.

Mount Zion. The city of the living God. The heavenly Jerusalem. Innumerable angels in festal gathering. The assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven. God, the judge of all. The spirits of the righteous made perfect. Jesus, the mediator of a New Covenant.

Last but not least: as believers in Jesus Christ, we have come to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Speaking About What and to Whom?

Now, when we read the story of Cain and Abel, we find that Abel’s blood didn’t just speak, it cried out to God. And Abel’s blood was not sprinkled ceremonially; rather, it was violently shed by his brother in a fit of murderous jealousy.

When something speaks, it is relevant to ask to whom it is speaking. In one sense, of course, the sprinkled blood speaks to us to remind us of some very important truths. But by contrasting it with the blood of Abel that cried out to God, I think the writer to the Hebrews also has in view the fact that the sprinkled blood of the Lord Jesus speaks to God on our behalf.

It is also relevant to ask what is being spoken about. We’re not told what Abel’s blood said (“speaking” is after all a metaphor, if a very vivid one), but it seems likely justice or even vengeance was its subject. The sprinkled blood of Jesus Christ “speaks a better word”.

So what then is it saying?

 Done With Works

The sprinkled blood says that mankind is done with performing works as a means of getting right with God:
“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 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 serve the living God.”
Under the Law of Moses, the sprinkled blood of a sacrifice set apart the person who was sprinkled for the “purification of the flesh”. But the sprinkled blood of Christ purifies the conscience. William MacDonald calls this a “moral renewal”, an act that no accumulation of religious services performed in hope of pleasing God can ever truly accomplish.

 Inaugurating a New Covenant

The sprinkled blood is also the evidence Christ has died, and the proof that a New Covenant between God and man has been brought into force by his death:
“For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.’ And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”
Indeed, under the law, “almost everything” was purified by sprinkled blood. Moses sprinkled the people of Israel. The altar and the priests were consecrated with sprinkled blood, set apart for the service of God. The blood from burnt offerings (Leviticus 1), peace offerings (chap. 3) and guilt offerings (chap. 7) was regularly sprinkled on the sides of the altar at the entrance to the tent of meeting.

But where the sprinkled blood under the Old Covenant could only anticipate the death of Messiah, the sprinkled blood of Jesus Christ is permanent evidence in the court of God that sin has been once and forever dealt with and that all the blessings of the New Covenant may be freely shared with those who are under it.

 Draw Me Nearer

Sprinkling also speaks of access to God. The writer to the Hebrews says:
“Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”
Here we are not talking about the once-for-all entrance of the Lord Jesus into the heavenly holy place on our behalf, but rather “we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus”. Under the Old Covenant, only the priests were ever privileged to draw near. Under the New Covenant, all believers may have full assurance of faith and fellowship because we are in Christ, who has perpetual access into the Holy of Holies.

Sprinkling and the Passover

In passing, I should probably note that many commentators on Hebrews 9-12 seem to associate the sprinkling of blood with the Passover. They say things like:
“When we trust Christ, we appropriate the value of His blood. Figuratively speaking, we sprinkle our hearts with it, just as the Israelites sprinkled their doors with the blood of the Passover lamb. This delivers us from an evil conscience.”
Personally, I very much doubt either Peter or the writer to the Hebrews intended to refer back to the Passover. The idea has probably come to us rather naturally from English translations of Hebrews 11, where we are told that:
“By faith [Moses] kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood …”
Now, the Greek word consistently translated “sprinkled” in both Hebrews and 1 Peter is either rhantizō or a very close relative. These words (found seven times in this connection in our New Testaments) refer us back unambiguously to the ceremonial sprinkling of the holy things under the Law of Moses. In contrast, the word translated “sprinkled” in chapter 11 in association with the Passover is próschysis, a word which occurs nowhere else in the New Testament and the meaning of which remains a bit ambiguous to modern translators.

Blood on the Doorposts

Does it matter that much? Yes, I think it does. When we look back to the actual Passover narrative in Exodus, we read:
“They shall take some of the blood and put it [nathan] on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it.”
A few verses later on, Moses repeats:
“Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch [naga`] the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin.”
In neither case is the ordinary Hebrew word for “sprinkle” [zaraq] employed. I can’t help but think there is an intentional distinction being made for us.

The Passover symbolism, after all, reminds us that God has judged another on our behalf. Many people acknowledge this truth in principle without personally appropriating it, just as many unbelievers survived that dreadful night and left Egypt with the Israelites only to die in the wilderness when the reality of their faith was tested and failed. By way of contrast, all the New Testament references to sprinkled blood have to do with the genuine believer, his relationship with and his ongoing access to God. Put another way, the Passover symbolism only gets us through the door of the Christian life. It frees us from slavery, if you like. It cannot “bring us near”.

There is much, MUCH more to the Christian life than merely dodging a bullet. Too many professing Christians do not fully understand that truth.

Speaking a Better Word

The sprinkled blood of Jesus Christ speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. As I have already mentioned, I take this to mean Abel’s own blood, which cried out to God from the ground. Others sometimes take it to mean the blood of Abel’s sacrifice.

Frankly, either interpretation works, though I am inclined to the former. If it was Abel’s own blood, it cried out for justice and vengeance, whereas the sprinkled blood of Jesus speaks of forgiveness and peace with God. Alternatively, if it was the blood of Abel’s sacrifice, it speaks of that which was only a momentary respite in God’s wrath against sin, a respite that because of its temporary nature demanded the shedding of blood over and over and over again. The blood of Jesus Christ, however, has (both from God’s perspective and from the perspective of the individual conscience) once and for all done away with individual sins, as well as with the ongoing problem of sinfulness as a state of being.

Truly a “better word”.

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