Sacrificing animals to atone for sin was an important feature throughout the Bible. We see animal sacrifices being made by Abel, Noah and Abraham and there are many more places in the OT where animal sacrifices were carried out. A poignant example in the life of Abraham was being told by God to sacrifice his son and just before doing the act, God stopped him and made available a ram instead, pointing to the time when God was not only prepared to sacrifice His Son but did.
Sacrificing a lamb and applying the blood on their doors was an essential part of the Passover ritual that meant the firstborn in the houses of those who did so was spared: “And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you” Exodus 12:13. Sacrifice became a central feature of Tabernacle (Temple) worship. Applying the blood of sacrificed bulls and goats was an essential part of the what took place on the Day of Atonement, whereby the peoples’ sins could be atoned for along with the different sacrifices that could be made, although not all involved animal sacrifice.
Making animal sacrifices was a central aspect of OT Law, whereby sinful man could be reconciled with a holy God. But it was David who understood what God really wanted: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” Psalm 51:17. The words of Samuel are also pertinent “Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams” 1Samuel 1:15:22. And so are the words of Hosea: “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” Hosea 6:6. And yet blood sacrifices were incredibly important.
We are told in the Old Testament: “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” Leviticus 17:11. We are reminded in the New: “And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission” Hebrews 9:22. The central purpose of Jesus ministry is encapsulated in His own words: “For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” Mark 10:45. In predicting His own death, Jesus was merely confirming what was spoken concerning him by the prophet Isaiah: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth … Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand” Isaiah 53:7,10.
While “blood” and specifically shedding the blood of innocent animals might seem out of place in book about the prophets (if it been about priests, whose job included offering sacrificing animals, we might better understand maybe), yet the big picture, which each prophet had only parts of, could only be seen if we take into account the significance of blood and of atoning sacrifices. Going back to the Passover feast, it was when celebrating this with his disciples that Jesus could say: “For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” Matthew 26:28 and telling His disciples in future to remember Him in this way, knowing for Him the next step would be betrayal and ending up being crucified, where He really did shed his blood for the remission of sins.
The writer to the Hebrews speaks of the significance of what took place when Jesus died on the cross and how this achieved far more than what took place in the OT Law: “Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance” Hebrews 9:12-15.
Before turning to our next section, about the Gospel, with its central tenet being Christ dying on a cross and shedding His blood for our sin, it is worth considering what the last of our “Prophets of the Bible” said about blood, applying firstly to Christ washing us from our sins in his own blood, secondly how the Lamb that had been slain, now on the Throne, had redeemed us by His blood and was worthy, thirdly how those coming out of the great tribulation had washed their robes in His blood and fourthly, overcoming by the blood of the Lamb.
- “And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood” (1:5)
- “And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (5:9)
- “These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14)
- “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death” (12:11)