‘Life Is in the Blood’ in Leviticus 17 from a NT Perspective

Modern sophisticates dismiss the blood in the Old Testament as too primitive and unnecessary. But Jesus and his apostles applied the theology behind it to their days, so how could it be below our modern sensibilities and dignity, unless we are above them? (Reference: Lev. 17)

Another theme in Lev. 17 requires us to ask, Should we start our own religion? Should we become spiritual without probing more deeply in Christianity, to find out what it really says? Or should we just make stuff as we go along?

This chapter in Leviticus guides us towards the right answer.

For a general overview of the interrelations between the Old Sinai Covenant and the New Covenant, click on:

What Does the New Covenant Retain from the Old?

How Jesus Christ Fulfills the Law: Matthew 5:17-19

Many (not even close to all) elements are retained, and what is kept is improved on or streamlined.

The NIV is used here, unless otherwise noted. Readers are invited to go to biblegateway.com, choose their own translation, and open another window to follow along.

Let’s begin.

In Lev. 17, God is restricting the place where people can sacrifice animals. They must bring to the tabernacle of the Lord. Why? “They must no longer offer any of their sacrifices to the goat idols to whom they prostitute themselves” (v. 7). And v. 5 says they were sacrificing in open fields. Apparently ancient Israelites were forming their own religion, instead of the right one established by God himself. 

Why the restriction? BTSB says that it was believed back then that Azazel may have been the name of a major goat idol in the wilderness (note on 17:7). Sacrificing to it meant they “prostituted themselves,” an act also is linked to the bloodthirsty deity Molek worship (in Lev. 18-20) and for turning to mediums and spiritists ((20:5-6; 18:21; 19:31; 20:27).

Ultimately the New Covenant Scriptures (New Testament) teach that demon spirits exist, and they come through false religions. Sacrificing to goat idols endangered the souls of God’s children. Therefore, the motive here is love, not irrational restrictions motivated by divine anger and a heavenly “killjoy.”

Things could get so far out of hand that God says those who form their own religion receive this punishment:

“Say to them: ‘Any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice and does not bring it to the entrance to the tent of meeting to sacrifice it to the Lord must be cut off from the people of Israel. (Lev. 17:8-9)

Verse 4 says that anyone who sheds an animal’s blood outside of the safe boundaries will be guilt of bloodshed, as if they had committed homicide (Torah, p. 875). “Cut off” could mean execution or exiled from Israel. It also assumes that a foreigner could join Israel. Anyone could convert, but he must follow the rules, not make them up as he wills.

What about forming one’s own religion today, as apparently Israelites were doing and putting their souls at risk? So many people nowadays join cults and sects. This  next passage teaches us that knowing Scripture, so that you are trained in righteousness and then do good works, is a great way to avoid oddball teachings:

While evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Verse 16 says that Scripture is inspired and is useful to correct not only ourselves, but when we occupy a position of authority, we can correct others. We must be trained in righteousness by the Scripture. So many founders of cults gave themselves special permission to have as many women as they wanted (e.g. Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and Muhammad). That is not righteousness. So many founders of cults gave themselves special permission to collect as much money as they wanted. That is not righteousness. When we are trained and corrected and rebuked and encouraged by Scripture, then we’re ready to good works out of the right motive. We don’t do them to add to our salvation, as if Christ’s sacrifice was not enough. We do them to help others.

As Martin Luther said, “God doesn’t need my good works. My neighbor does.”

To sum up this section, don’t go off on your own and make your own unconsecrated personal sacrifices to your own version of God and what you think he wants.

Now let’s shift gears and talk about why the blood was so important and how the New Covenant authors carried the theology behind it forward.

Next, the Israelite or foreigner must not eat blood.

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. 12 Therefore I say to the Israelites, “None of you may eat blood, nor may any foreigner residing among you eat blood.” … 13 “‘Any Israelite or any foreigner residing among you who hunts any animal or bird that may be eaten must drain out the blood and cover it with earth, 14 because the life of every creature is its blood. That is why I have said to the Israelites, “You must not eat the blood of any creature, because the life of every creature is its blood; anyone who eats it must be cut off.” (Lev. 17:13-14)

There are two important points in that long passage. First, the life of the creature is in the blood (vv. 11, 14), and second, it makes atonement for one’s life (v. 11). Thus, the blood of animals was a substitute for the life of the human. This Old Covenant biblical truth explains why Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, where he shed his blood is important. It is a doctrine that must be abandoned, just because of modern sensibilities.

Blood must be splashed on the altar. There is an altar in heaven, where the martyrs live, near the throne of God (Rev. 6:9). If they shed their blood by the sword, then it may not have been splashed on the heavenly altar, but the parallel imagery still exists. The altar speaks of the ultimate sacrifice.

For more information about the atonement, please click on this post:

What Does ‘Atonement’ Mean?

To forestall objections which falsely accuse God of being primitive or petty or a child abuser, please see this post: Christ’s Death on Cross = Cosmic Child Abuse?

Then Lev. 17:6 speaks of the fellowship offering, which arose as a pleasing aroma to the Lord. Let’s focus on the aroma. More deeply still than the mere animal fat, recall this verse: “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). Jesus is the pleasing aroma when God inspects our sacrifice. Jesus stands in for us, and God is pleased with our offering, because of his Son..

Let’s follow the blood theme in the New Covenant Scriptures.

First, Jesus himself established the blood covenant:

27 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matt. 26:27-29)

His death on the cross and his shed blood ratified the New Covenant that he had just announced at the Last Supper.

Second, Paul, inspired by the Spirit and receiving revelations from the risen Jesus, picks up on the same idea of Christ’s sacrifice.

25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:25)

Next we receive justification or a putting right in God’s eyes, not by our effort or self-sacrifice, but by his blood.

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! (Rom. 5:9)

The theology of Christ’s blood matches the substitutionary atonement. He stood in for us–he was our substitute on the cross where we should have been hanging–and died in our place. The blessing or result is to be declared righteous (“justified”) as soon as we repent and come in union with him.

Third, the Jerusalem Council wrote to the churches that Gentiles who were turning to God must not to eat blood, but the issue is more about table fellowship that theology:

19 “It is my [James’s] judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:19-21)

Why did James and the Council urge–even command–Gentiles not to eat blood? For the reason seen in v. 19: Jews were everywhere, and they too were turning to God in the name of the true Messiah, Christ Jesus. Gentiles had more liberty than the Jewish converts about matters of food, so the Gentiles must be sensitive. Therefore the issue of eating blood was a matter of table fellowship, not a boundary marker one had to cross over to prove that he made it into a special of being God’s pet. Fellowship, not covenant; Eating together, not eternal salvation–that’s the import of this passage.

Fourth, Peter saw the bloody sacrifice of Jesus, not gold or silver, as the source and means of our salvation and redemption:

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. (1 Pet. 1:18-19)

Fifth, the author of Hebrews writes that Christ’s blood offers us eternal redemption:

12 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. (Heb. 9:14)

And the author of Hebrews confirms why the blood must be shed to have atonement: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22)

Sixth and finally, John the apostle wrote that the blood purifies us:

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. (1 John 1:7)

How does his sacrifice two thousand years ago purify us? The blood has to be received by faith. It is invisible to us, but visible to God. It means you have surrendered to his Lordship. He has offered us salvation by it. You have not gone off by yourself and offered your own sacrifice to a demonic goat idol. You accept God’s way of salvation through the cross, not your good works or your own self-sacrifice.

See my posts:

Why the Cross?

Why the Blood of Jesus?

Finally, let’s turn to the issue of ceremonial cleanliness. God who inspired Leviticus was concerned about cleanliness of his people:

15 “‘Anyone, whether native-born or foreigner, who eats anything found dead or torn by wild animals must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be ceremonially unclean till evening; then they will be clean. 16 But if they do not wash their clothes and bathe themselves, they will be held responsible.’” (Lev. 17:15-16)

The ancient Israelites did not know about germs, so God spoke to them in the language they could understand. Just bathe in water when someone eats “roadkill.” This reduced the chance of spreading disease.

In the post about food and cleanliness we already looked at how the New Covenant authors separated of the ceremonial cleanness and uncleanness from food and extracted from these rules the moral dimension and holiness. Please see this post:

Clean and Unclean Food in Leviticus 11 from a NT Perspective

How does this post help me grow in Christ?

I learned two important truths in this edifying study (it edified me, at least).

First. starting one’s own religion is a bad idea. Always surrender to Jesus and the Scriptures which he inspired the apostolic community to write. Let’s interpret them wisely, by keeping the plain things the main things.

The next verse says we offer a sacrifice of praise, but only through Jesus, not any other name by another god or another sectarian:

15 Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. 16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (Heb. 13:15-16)

Second, I will never give up on the blood of Jesus as the way of salvation. Jesus, Peter, Paul, the author of Hebrews and John all agreed on the importance of the blood of Jesus. Why would I disagree with them? We must not discard or condescend towards what the apostolic community believed, while the Spirit inspired them to infallibly write Scripture. What Jesus did on the cross is the lifeline to God. It opened the path to salvation and redemption.

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