An ancient account
The annual Jewish celebration of the Passover commemorates one of the most remarkable events in the history of humanity. If you are unfamiliar with the accounts of this event as they are laid out in the biblical narrative of the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, you will be glad you spent the next few minutes discovering the wonder of God in the midst of this people. When the Lord of the Hebrews (the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) was preparing to end their centuries of punishing slavery under Egyptian pharaohs, he called a stuttering shepherd named Moses to lead the people to their freedom. Moses himself had been raised in the palace of the Egyptian ruler, but an enraged murder by his hand sent him running for his life and added a severe lack of confidence to his character. Yet it was Moses whom God chose to return to the palace and—through the more polished words of his brother Aaron—demand of Pharaoh the release of the Hebrews. It’s rather absurd when you think about it. Here was a forgotten child of the court, walking into the palace in clothes of the field, requesting an audience with the king, and then presenting Pharaoh with a bizarre proposal: “Release your entire freelabor workforce to me. And in return, I’ll give you nothing.”
You don’t have to have a degree in mediation techniques to understand that Moses and Aaron were not going to get very far with this “request.” Pharaoh, as you or I would have done, turned them down. In response, Moses, following God’s specific instructions, enacted the first of what would be ten plagues to befall Pharaoh and the Egyptian people. He put his staff in the Nile River and the water turned to blood. To follow would come plagues of frogs, gnats, flies, disease among the livestock, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness. It’s a daunting list, made all the more insulting by the fact that each of these afflicted all the people of the land except the Hebrews living there. It was the final plague, however, that would be remembered throughout time.
When Moses warned Pharaoh of this coming judgment—the ruler was still resistant to letting the Hebrew slaves go, as this would devastate his nation’s economy—he announced that all of the firstborn males among the Egyptian people and their cattle would be put to death. After all that Pharaoh had seen via these pronouncements of Moses, a sense of grave foreboding must have washed over the king. But his heart was hard and he did not budge. At the same time, Moses informed the Hebrew people that they too must prepare for this coming judgment, which would be meted out by the angel of the Lord. His instructions were these: The people were to take an unblemished lamb and slaughter it at dusk in order to share a meal with their family and neighbors. They were also to take the blood of the lamb and put it on the tops and sides of the doorframes of their homes. This blood was a sign to the angel of the Lord, who would come at midnight. These “red doors” announced this home to be a Jewish home, allowing the angel of the Lord to make a distinction between Egypt and Israel. At midnight, after the people had eaten the meal according to the specific instructions to eat with haste and keep alert attention for the hour of escape from Egypt, the angel of the Lord came with the hand of death, and every firstborn male among the Egyptians died that night. But, as God spoke through Moses, “the blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see blood, I will pass over you” (Exodus 12:13). There you have it, the Passover. God’s hand of judgment was stayed by the application of righteous blood. It was a stunning act of preference for his beloved people that the Jewish community commemorates with joy into our own time. But while the blood on the Hebrew doors during that fearful night in Egypt demonstrated God’s mercy for his beloved, this was only the beginning of what he intended for the world, only a shadow of the salvation that was to come.
The importance of blood
Without outlining the full index of biblical references to blood as the instrument of atonement, we would do well to make note of two crucial themes that weave their way through the Old Testament (Tanakh) and make a dramatic reappearance in the New Testament:
People incessantly operate outside of the instructions set forth by God through Moses in the Old Testament (or more specifically, in the Torah, or Law, of the Hebrew writings). These acts of disobedience, because they demonstrate a lack of faith in God’s person and authority, are classified as sin. All people are guilty of sin. God’s normal requirement for the atonement of sin was the blood of an animal sacrificed on an altar before Him.
In the spiritual design of God, then, the blood of the sacrificed animals was intended to act as a sign to God that those offering the sacrifice were repentant and understood that forgiveness comes from God.
This was not an act of appeasement, as we shall soon see. With this in mind, we are compelled to examine the New Testament references to the “once for all” sacrifice made by Jesus of Nazareth, for remarkably he is established in these later writings to the Hebrews as the one whose blood now “purchases” our salvation.
New Testament explanations
The New Testament is made up chiefly of two kinds of writings. There are five historical accounts, four of those being the Gospels that tell of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and the fifth being an account of the work of God’s Spirit through the apostles of Jesus (the book of Acts). Nearly all the rest of the New Testament (not including Revelation) is comprised of letters written from the apostles to both Jewish and non-Jewish people as they considered Jesus’ Messiahship and made a decision to follow him both as individuals and in church fellowships.
One letter, Hebrews, was written specifically to those of Jewish origin. While it is the one letter (or epistle) whose author does not “sign” his work, many scholars agree that it carries the style and reasoning of the many other letters written by the apostle Paul. In the letter to the Hebrews, the writer made many connections between the Old Testament priesthood and sacrifices to the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. These aspects of Jesus, the writer argues, establish him as the Savior (also Messiah or Christ) that the Jewish people had so long desired. And principal among the writer’s argumentation was blood.
To see this, we will briefly consider three passages:
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshippers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10:1-4)
In addition to laying out the reason that “a better sacrifice” had to come for our sake, this passage helps us understand that animal sacrifices could not appease God, as though he is manipulated by our actions. Rather, God chose in his plan of mercy to send his own Son, Jesus, to be that better sacrifice. Such a high priest meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever. (Hebrews 7:26-28)
What a wonder is being presented here! Jesus not only was acting in the line of the ancient priests, but he served as well in the place of the ancient sacrifices. The Son of God was assigned by God to fulfill completely the law of God. And the next passage clarifies the means by which Jesus, the Son of God, did this. 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, having obtained eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ [Jesus], who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Hebrews 9:12-14)
So there it is. The red door of Passover remains. Without the blood of Jesus, there is no passage into salvation.
Jesus himself called this door “narrow.” Indeed, it is narrow in the sense that it may only be passed through when we recognize his blood, believe in its power to save, and live by faith in the one who shed it. Only then will the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the same God who rescued the Hebrews from the Egyptians, “pass over” us in judgment and apply to us the love he has for his Son.