We continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).
In this post we begin Chapter 6, ‘The Blood Sacrifice’
I think Rutledge is right to say at the start of this chapter that there is, in some quarters, a certain distaste or disdain for much talk of the blood imagery of the Bible today. She tells stories of where she was politely requested not to talk of ‘the blood’ at Easter sermons.
Yet, the theme of ‘blood’ is a prominent one in the New Testament.
How much is this image of Christ’s work on the cross talked about today in the church circles where you move? If not, why not?
What is your reaction to hymns and poetry that rejoice in the ‘blood of Christ’? For example:
William Cowper?: “There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins”
John Donne: God “wrote your name in the blood of that lamb which was slain for you”.
Does this not all seem a bit, vulgar, violent and, well, bloody?
Is this an image that is simply ‘out of step’ and ‘out of touch’ with modern life? Shoudl we dispense or downplay all this talk of blood when it comes to the work of Chirst? Rutledge says a big ‘No’ to this.
Rutledge lists four NT texts written by four different authors – many other examples could have been chosen:
Acts 20:28: 28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.
Colossians 1:19-20: 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
1 Peter 1:18-19: 18 For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.
Hebrews 13:11-12: 11 The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. 12 And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.
And so Rutledge comments that
The motif of sacrifice, and specifically blood sacrifice, is central to the story of our salvation through Jesus Christ, and without this theme the Christian proclamation loses much of its power, becoming both theologically and ethically undernourished. (233)
We will come back to that emphasis on ethical undernourishment.
But what does ‘the blood’ mean? Rutledge has a good discussion of this question.
‘The blood of Christ’ as metaphor
Our modern discomfort with the word ‘blood’ may be due, at least in part, to a failure of imagination.
Or perhaps it is also because we live in a sanitized Western culture where blood is hidden away from everyday life.
Yet, the word is obviously a metaphor. The Gospels and the rest of the NT are remarkably restrained when it comes to the actual bloody details of the death of Jesus. There is no lingering at all on the biological consequences of Roman barbarity and cruelty.
The real focus of the New Testament writers is in what Rutledge calls the ‘inner significance’ of the blood of Christ (235) – the spiritual effect of the death of the Messiah.
References to the blood of Christ are three times as numerous in the New Testament as the death of Christ (236).
The framework of the OT sacrificial system prepared the way for God’s people to appreciate that without the ‘shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins’ (Heb 9:22).
Jesus’ own actions and words at the Lord’s Supper refer to a sacrificial death: ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many (Mark 14:24).
And so Rutledge affirms what has always been believed by Christians from the very beginning,
‘Jesus’ death interpreted as a sacrifice, and specifically a sacrifice for sin, is one of the dominant ideas of the New Testament’ (236)
A Metaphor for Life or for Death?
But what is ‘blood’ a metaphor for?
There are those who argue ‘blood’ refers to the pouring out of ‘life’. Rutledge summarises the argument. A key text is:
Lev 17:11: 11 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.
See also Gen 9:4 “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.”
Deut 12:23: 23 But be sure you do not eat the blood, because the blood is the life, and you must not eat the life with the meat.
Thus, the case goes, ‘blood’ refers to the pouring out of life. Death is not the main focus, it is almost only a consequence of the giving of life.
Does this matter? Rutledge says, emphatically, yes it does.
‘If all the emphasis is on the giving of Jesus’ life, then we are left with no explanation of his being Godforsaken or under any kind of a curse, which … is one of the most profound aspects of Christ’s crucifixion. (238)
Yes, of course Christ gives his life, but to try to take the focus off his death
… means that we cannot speak of representation, substitution, propitiation, vicarious suffering, or even exchange happening on the cross because the whole idea of Christ coming under the judgement of God is eliminated. (238)
Next, we follow Rutledge’s unpacking of the theological theme of sacrifice.