Without blood flowing through our veins, human beings wouldn't last very long. We like to hang onto our precious bloodily fluids, which is why blood is such an important and powerful symbol in the Bible.
That's the Power of Blood
First, let's get in the way-back machine and take a look at what blood meant for the ancient Israelites. According to the Hebrew Bible, blood was a special symbol that could stand for a whole bunch of things:
- Covenant. "You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you." (Genesis 17:11)
- Salvation. "When I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt." (Exodus 12:13)
- Impurity. "When a woman has a discharge of blood that is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days." (Leviticus 15:19)
- Atonement. "I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement." (Leviticus 17:11)
- Life. "Only be sure that you do not eat the blood; for the blood is the life." (Deuteronomy 12:23) (Source)
Yeah, blood is everywhere.
But the big symbolic feature we're working with here in Hebrews is atonement. In Leviticus, God lays out all kinds of rules for how people can make up for their sins. One of the big ways is through animal sacrifice…which involves some bloodshed. An animal is slaughtered and its blood is sprinkled on the altar in the Holy of Holies (the most restricted inner sanctuary of the tabernacle). Hebrews describes it like this:
The high priest goes into the second [tent], and he but once a year, and not without taking the blood that he offers for himself and for the sins committed unintentionally by the people […] Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. (Hebrews 9:8, 22)
Friday, Bloody Friday
The author of Hebrews is using all this backstory to come to his own understanding of what exactly Jesus' death means for Christians. Basically, he says that Jesus' crucifixion was pretty much God's ways of fixing the world:
When Christ came as a high priest […] he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, 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 worship the living God! (Hebrews 9:11-14)
Did you get all that?
What that means is that Jesus is acting like the high priest in the tabernacle. But instead of sacrificing a goat and bringing its blood into the Holy of Holies, Jesus does humanity one better. He sacrifices himself and allows his own blood to be spilled so that everyone's sins can be forgiven once and for all.
The symbolism of the blood hasn't changed in the new covenant—just its effect. Namely, it's way more powerful than it ever way before:
- "It is by God's will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." (Hebrews 10:10)
- "We have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus." (Hebrews 10:19)
- "The blood of the eternal covenant." (Hebrews 13:20)
That's some good blood. It's also why you'll see a lot of imagery around blood in Christian dogma and worship. Roman Catholics drink "the blood of Christ" during the Eucharistic meal. Some Christians also believe that the water during baptism is symbolic of Jesus' "cleansing blood." There's even a whole bunch of gospel songs about it.