The Bible teaches more about hell than it teaches about heaven. An understanding of hell can give us an appreciation of God’s mercy and God’s love. It can also help us to understand how dangerous it is to be without faith in Christ. Not to be covered by the grace of God, heading towards a destiny the Bible calls hell. This blogpost is a summary of a presentation on this topic by Dr. Xavier Lakshmanan.
Johnathan Edwards preached a sermon titled “Sinners in the hand of the angry God”. He spoke about hell and human beings outside the covering of God’s grace in Christ Jesus, heading towards hell, which is a dangerous thing. Recently I saw a similar title, “God in the hand of angry sinners”. Postmodernity is witnessing the fact that God is thrown into the hands of angry sinners who are tearing apart everything that is noble, everything that is eternal, and everything that is miraculous. We are living in a world in which people do not want to talk about death or life after death or cemeteries or graveyards or corruptibility or decay or disintegration. These are things which aren’t favorable, positive or good. But we must talk about hell because the Bible talks about hell.
What do we mean by “hell”? It’s not life without the presence of God because He is there as the God of justice, righteousness, holiness and judgment. But there is no fellowship with God in hell. It’s a place of fire. It’s circumstances that aren’t normal or acceptable, or favorable or comforting, but are disturbing, or challenging or distracting. It’s eternal. A place of pain, thirst, and solitude. A place for Satan and his followers (demons and unbelievers).
There are some false ideas about life after death, such as the Roman Catholic teaching of purgatory where people are purified after death so they can go to heaven. And the theory of annihilationism, which is the destruction of the wicked after death. These are all extrabiblical.
The Old Testament word for hell is “sheol”. It is used for the unseen state of life; or a grave or pit; or torment. It’s meaning in a particular passage is determined by the context. In the New Testament the word “Gehenna” means a place of torment or a place of perpetual burning with fire. It implies agony, infliction and suffering. This conveys the eternal nature of hell and the experience within hell. The Biblical passages we will look at about Gehenna are horrifying. Much of this language uses figures of speech like parables, similes, metaphors, and symbols to describe things that are indescribable (like something spiritual or divine). Most of the passages about hell were spoken by Jesus. They are true because they were spoken by the Son of God and included in the Word of God (the Bible).
The Bible says the following about hell.
Words represent what they describe. They symbolize what they describe. They are symbols that represent what is real. Hell is a word that represents a real spiritual place. The concept is real.
A passage about the eternal state says, “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death” (Rev. 21:8NIV). The fire and burning is a symbol of something in eternity. This “fire” can hurt the spiritual bodies of unbelievers.
The Bible mentions three kinds of death:
– physical death is the separation of the soul and spirit from the human body.
– spiritual death is the temporary separation of the soul, spirit and body from God. They are still able to be reconciled with God and obtain eternal life.
– the second death is the eternal separation of the soul, spirit and body from God in hell. Jesus said, “be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28).
The Bible describes the judgement of unbelievers, “Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life [an unbeliever] was thrown into the lake of fire [the second death]” (Rev. 20:15). Going to church doesn’t make us a believer. Being baptized doesn’t make us a believer. Having Christian parents doesn’t make us a believer. The Bible doesn’t teach that. Instead, the Bible teaches that those who believe that the Lord Jesus Christ suffered for their sins are saved from this punishment. It’s a personal commitment to Christ that makes the difference.
So, hell is real whether we believe it or not. And whether we like it or not. Our beliefs are not going to change the truth. Hell is real. But those who want to comfort others don’t believe that hell is real.
When Jesus returns to establish His kingdom, He will separate those living at that time into believers and unbelievers. This is what Jesus will say to the unbelievers, “Then He [Jesus Christ] will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal [endless or everlasting] fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41). This says that hell was not originally intended for people. It was meant for Satan and demons. Unfortunately, it’s also the destiny of unbelievers.
Hell is eternal and the punishment there is everlasting. It’s not going to end. There is no mitigation. The Bible says, “then they will go away to eternal punishment” (Mt. 25:46). Not temporary purification (like purgatory). Not temporary sanctification. Not temporary considerations of suffering. Not annihilation. It’s continual. Forever and ever.
A place of fire
Jesus used a hyperbole to emphasize the need for drastic action to deal with our sinfulness, “It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out” (Mk. 9:43). Can you imagine a place full of fire? An “eternal fire” (Mt. 18:8). This is figurative language from Isaiah 66:24. We can’t image how horrible it will be. But that is what the Bible says.
In August 2018 a national disaster was declared in Northern California due to massive wildfires burning there. And in September 2018, a wildfire forced more than 700 people from their homes in Croatia and Italy. It’s horrifying to be trapped in a wildfire.
A place of worms
Jesus used another hyperbole to emphasize the need for drastic action to deal with our sinfulness, “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where “‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched’” (Mk. 9:47-48). This is more figurative language from Isaiah 66:24. It relates to the garbage dump in the valley of Hinnom (Gehenna in Greek) near Jerusalem where fires and maggots were prevalent. The second (eternal) death is likened to being devoured by worms that never die. It could be a figurative way to refer to a guilty conscience and the memory of shameful things done in this life. It shows that the misery of unbelievers will never end. Hell is characterized by unending suffering.
A place of torment
The Bible says that those who oppose God will be “tormented with burning sulfur” (Rev. 14:9-10). And Satan “will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” in the lake of burning sulfur (Rev. 20:10). Torment means mental agony. No celebration. No peace of mind. What a terrible situation to be in forever.
A place for Satan
We have already looked at, “the eternal [endless or everlasting] fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41). Hell wasn’t originally meant for human beings. It was prepared for the angel who rebelled against God. God doesn’t like human beings to be confined in hell. God is gracious. He died for all the people of the world. And He loves each one of us. And He wanted everyone to be with Him in heaven. But unfortunately, if someone rejects the gift of salvation, this is their final destiny.
The Bible says that the great political and religious leaders who rebel against God in a coming day will be “thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur” (Rev. 19:20). So, Hell is a place where Satan and his followers, whether they be demons or human beings, end up being tormented forever. There’s no escape. It’s permanent confinement.
Lessons for us
If you are a believer, confirm your personal commitment to Christ by displaying godliness and the fruit of the Spirit (2 Pt. 1:10). Strengthen yourself. We are not heading to hell. Hell is not a fearsome thing for a believer. But we are heading to heaven where the joys of heaven will carry us through eternity. And “Preach the word [the good news about Jesus]; be prepared in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). Remember many people are heading towards hell. Make use of every opportunity to witness for Christ. We don’t want anyone to perish in hell.
If you an unbeliever, or if you are unsure, Paul says, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). Trusting Jesus as the One who took our punishment when He died and is now the Lord of our lives is the only way to escape the horrors of hell.
Acknowledgement: This blogpost was sourced from a presentation by Dr. Xavier Lakshmanan on this topic. Dr. Lakshmanan is Head of Theology in the Australian College of Christian Studies.
Written, October 2018
The World Cup is being played in Russia under the FIFA Regulations and the International Football Association’s laws of the game. Disobeying the laws can result in a yellow card or a red card. So far there have been three red cards in the 2018 World Cup. The Bible contains God’s laws for humanity. It tells us about our world and shows us the best way to live. And it tells us what God has done for us.
Paul summarized the good news in the Bible about Jesus as:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for (because of) our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4NIV). He says that Christ’s death, burial and resurrection occurred in the way they were foretold in the Old Testament. Likewise, we will see that believers are to follow the New Testament.
In Isaiah 52:12 – 53:12 the prophet Isaiah describes a righteous suffering servant who will bear people’s sins so they can be spiritually healed. It’s clear that the servant will die:
“By oppression and judgment he was taken away (an unjust death).
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living (a death before reaching old age);
for the transgression of my people he was punished …
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth” (Isa. 53:8, 9b).
It will be an unjust death administered as punishment for an alleged crime.
The reason for his death is given as:
“But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed (spiritually).
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:5-6).
The servant dies so that people can receive spiritual healing and peace because he takes the punishment for their sins, iniquities and transgressions.
These predictions were fulfilled when Jesus was crucified. His alleged crimes were blaspheme (Mt. 26:65), subversion and opposing Caesar (Lk. 23:2). Clearly, Jesus died for (because of) our sins. And His death was confirmed by His burial.
The servant’s burial is described as:
“He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death” (Isa. 53:9a).
These predictions were fulfilled when Jesus was crucified together with two criminals. And He was buried in a new tomb by Joseph, “a rich man from Arimathea” (Mt. 27:57). The Jewish religious leaders planned to have Him buried as a criminal, but God over-ruled and He was buried in a tomb prepared by “a prominent member of the Council (the Jewish Sanhedrin)” (Mk. 15:43).
In our experience death is terminal and permanent. But the Bible says that Christ’s death was temporary. It was interrupted by His resurrection, which is the reversal of death.
In a song expressing his trust in God for safety when he faced death, David said:
“Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest secure,
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
nor will you let your faithful one see decay” (Ps. 16:9-10).
Peter explained that David was referring to the resurrection of Jesus:
“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven …” (Acts 2:29-34).
Jesus also said that Jonah’s three days in the belly of a huge fish was sign that He would be in the grave for three days (Mt. 12:40). So Jonah’s near-death experience symbolized Christ’s death and resurrection, including the time frame involved.
These predictions were fulfilled when Jesus was raised back to life. Paul says that people could verify this with eyewitnesses because Jesus appeared to the apostles and to more than 500 people at the same time (1 Cor. 15:5-6).
According to Jesus
Jesus also said that His life was a fulfilment of the Old Testament. He told the Jewish leaders, “These are the very Scriptures (the Old Testament) that testify about me” (Jn. 5:39). Before His death He told the disciples, “It is written (in the Old Testament): ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me (in the Old Testament) is reaching its fulfillment” (Lk. 22:37). This is a quotation from Isaiah 53:12.
And after His resurrection He told the two on the way to Emmaus, ‘”How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter His glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures (the Old Testament) concerning Himself’ (Lk. 24:25-27).
And He told the disciples, ‘”This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written (in the Old Testament): The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Lk. 24:44-48). In this passage, “the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” means all the old Testament as Psalms was the first book in the writings category of the Jewish Scriptures.
There are three aspects to the good news about Jesus: the death of Christ for our sins, His burial that confirms His death, and His resurrection that shows His victory over death and that God accepted Christ’s sacrifice for sin. We have seen that each of these happened as the Old Testament predicted. The phrase “according to the Scriptures” occurs twice in this short passage, indicating the importance of these Old Testament prophecies (1 Cor. 15:3-4). They are mentioned before the eyewitnesses (v.5-7). So what the Bible says is more important than what someone else says.
The Old Testament prophecies are also important because they show that Christ’s work for us was planned long ago. Likewise, God’s plan for us was recorded in the New Testament many years ago. Because we are under the new covenant instead of the law of Moses, the Scriptures that we are to follow are those written to the church (Acts to Revelation).
The other instance of “according to the Scriptures” in the Bible is, ‘If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well’ (Jas. 2:8ESV). This is the fourth reason that James gives for condemning favoritism. If we really loved our neighbors as ourselves, we would treat them as we want to be treated. We learn from the parable of the Good Samaritan that our neighbor is anyone who has a need which we can help to meet (Lk. 10:29-37). And this is “according to the Scripture” because it’s a quotation from Leviticus 19:18.
Lessons for us
What the Bible says is more important than the laws of football. Jesus lived, died, was buried and rose again “according to the Scriptures” or as the Bible predicted. What about us? Do we live as the Bible (God) says we should? Do we believe Jesus Christ is who the Bible says He is? Do we trust and rely on Him for our salvation? Do we recognize our sinfulness and separation from God? Have we confessed our sinfulness to God? Are we living for God or just for ourselves?
Written, June 2018
At Easter we celebrate what Jesus did for us. Jesus came to die, He defeated death and rose again to set us free from sin. He conquered death for anyone who puts their faith and hope in Him. The Bible says, “and only by dying could He (Jesus) break the power of the devil, who had the power of death” (Heb. 2:14NLT). God broke the power of death in Christ’s resurrection. It’s like death was arrested.
Although He has saved us from the eternal consequences of our sin, we still die. But like Jesus, in a coming day at the rapture those who die in Christ will be resurrected back to new life. The Bible describes this victorious resurrection as, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:54-55). God defeats death when believers receive their glorified bodies.
In the meantime, it’s like death is arrested like in the words of this song by North Point InsideOut (© 2015 Seems Like Music).
Alone in my sorrow and dead in my sin
Lost without hope with no place to begin
Your love made a way to let mercy come in
When death was arrested and my life began
Released from my chains I’m a prisoner no more
My shame was a ransom He faithfully bore
He cancelled my debt and He called me His friend
When death was arrested and my life began
Our Savior displayed on a criminal’s cross
Darkness rejoiced as though heaven had lost
But then Jesus arose with our freedom in hand
That’s when death was arrested and my life began
Can you say, “Thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57)? We can have victory over death through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Rom. 4:25). Christians need not fear death because it is the doorway that leads to their eternal inheritance and being present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8; 1 Pt. 1:3-5).
Written, March 2018
Christ’s resurrection and the feeding of the 5,000 are the only miracles recorded in each of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John of the Bible. According to the Bible, Jesus was the first person to be raised from death to eternal life, never to die again (Rom. 6:9; 1 Cor. 15:23). But who raised Jesus back to life from death? The Bible gives various answers to this question.
God did it
The most frequent explanation is that God raised Jesus from death (Acts 2:24, 32; 3:15, 26; 4:10; 5:30; 10:40; 13:30, 33, 34, 37; 17:31; Rom. 4:24; 10:9; 1 Cor. 6:14; 15:15; Col. 2:12; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pt. 1:21). “God raised Him (Jesus) from the dead so that He (Jesus) will never be subject to decay” (Acts 13:34NIV). As Jesus was both a physical human being and the spiritual Son of God, the death and “decay” refer to His physical body, and not to His divine nature. Only people die, not spirits. His earthly body wasn’t eternal but was subject to death just as ours is.
Righteousness is promised “for us who believe in Him (God) who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He (Jesus) was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom. 4:24-25). So Christ’s death dealt with the problem of our sins and the fact that He rose confirms that the price has been paid to make us right with God. As Paul says, ‘‘If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him (Jesus) from the dead, you will be saved’ (Rom. 10:9).
Also, “by His power God raised the Lord (Jesus) from the dead, and He (God) will raise us also” (1 Cor. 6:14). So because God raised Jesus from death, in the future He will also raise the bodies of believers from death. Resurrection is the opposite of death. Death separates the body from the soul and spirit, while resurrection reunites them. But as noted above, it didn’t affect the divine part of Jesus.
God the Father did it
The Bible also says that God the Father raised Jesus from death (Rom. 6:4; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:19-21; 1 Pt. 1:3). Paul said that through His “incomparably great power” and “mighty strength”, God the Father, “raised Christ from the dead and seated Him (Jesus) at His (God the Father’s) right hand in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 1:19-20). So Jesus was raised and given the place of highest honor and authority (the right hand) in God’s dwelling place (the heavenly realms).
It should be noted that some of the instances of the word “God” used in the context of Christ’s resurrection actually refer to God the Father (1 Th. 1:9-10).
Jesus did it
The Bible also says that Jesus raised Himself from death (Jn. 2:19; 10:17-18). Jesus told the Jews, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (Jn. 2:19-21). In this instance, the temple was a metaphor for His body. So to “destroy this temple” was a figurative way to predict His death and to “raise it again” was a figurative way to predict His resurrection. When Jesus said that He had the power to raise Himself back to life, it shows that He had divine power, because this is impossible for a human being to do.
When Jesus predicted that faithful Jews and faithful Gentiles would be united in the Christian church, He described how this would be made possible: “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father (Jn. 10:17-18)”. To “lay down” one’s life is to die willingly and to “take it up again” is to resurrect back to life. So He willingly died and rose again for those who trust in the saving power of His death and resurrection. This passage says that Jesus used His divine power to rise from death in obedience to the command (instruction or plan) of God the Father. This was possible because His divine power wasn’t affected by His death – it wasn’t destroyed.
Did the Holy Spirit do it?
Some think that the Bible also says that the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from death (Rom. 8:11; 1 Pt. 3:18). Romans 3:18 says:
NIV: “And if (since) the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of His Spirit who lives in you”.
ESV: “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you”.
HCSB: “And if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, then He who raised Christ from the dead will also bring your mortal bodies to life through His Spirit who lives in you”.
NET: “Moreover if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will also make your mortal bodies alive through His Spirit who lives in you”. And according to the NET Bible “the one who raised Jesus from the dead” and “the one who raised Christ from the death” refer to God. So this verse belongs to the first category. “God did it”.
Another possibility is that the term “Spirit of Him” could be a title of the Holy Spirit like “Spirit of God” (Rom. 8:9). According to this interpretation, the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from death. But according to its context, this verse is saying that the Spirit of God within us is stronger than the sin that is in our bodies. Which is similar to “The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4). So this verse doesn’t definitely say that the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from death – it is only a debatable inference.
1 Peter 3:18 says that Christ was:
NIV: “made alive in the Spirit”.
ESV: “made alive in the spirit”.
HCSB: “made alive in the spiritual realm”.
NET: “made alive in the spirit”. And according to the NET Bible “The reference may not be to the Holy Spirit directly, but indirectly, since the Spirit permeates and characterizes the spiritual mode of existence”.
As most of these contemporary translations don’t capitalize “spiritual”, there is no conclusive evidence in 1 Peter 3:18 that the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from death.
The Bible definitely teaches that Jesus was raised from the dead by God, God the Father and by Himself. Is this a contradiction? No, because God the Father and Jesus Christ are referred to as “God” in the Bible and they can do what God alone can do (Heb. 1:8).
None of the verses say that God the Father alone raised Jesus from the dead, or that Jesus by Himself without the aid of the Father raised Himself, or that Jesus didn’t have the power to raise Himself. Paul called Jesus “the author of life” (Acts 3:15) and Jesus certainly had the power to resurrect Lazarus back to life (Jn. 11:11-44). Furthermore, Jesus told Martha “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn. 11:25).
Also, it doesn’t follow that the Father and the Son must be one and the same person in order for all these statements to be correct, since all that is required is for them to have the same ability and power to raise the dead. After all, Jesus said that He could do everything that the Father does (Jn. 5:19-24).
Whether the Holy Spirit, who is also referred to as “God” (Acts 5:3-4), was involved in the Resurrection of Christ is a debatable matter as the Bible doesn’t seem to provide conclusive evidence of this.
Written, October 2016
12 images of Christ’s death
Earlier this year consumer advocate Choice found that dried oregano is being padded with substitute olive and sumac leaves. One product contained less than 10% of the real thing, while other brands had just 11-50%. Dried olive and sumac leaves were a cheaper substitute that looked similar to oregano. Some of the suspect samples came from Turkey.
Other food scandals include imitation honey, horsemeat marketed as beef, mislabelled seafood, and peanuts being mixed into ground cumin. These are examples of bad substitution. Today we are looking at a good substitution by God.
Every good drama, movie or story has at least one climax. The climax is the turning point of the story when the main problem is addressed. Today we are looking at the climax of the bible.
In the introduction of the Bible it describes how our earliest ancestors Adam and Eve rebelled against the God who made them and this resulted in all the problems we experience today like evil, pain, suffering, disease and death.
The climax is when God solves the problem of people’s sinfulness. He does this by coming to the earth and taking the punishment that we all deserve – that’s the substitution. The Bible’s climax has two twists. Firstly, Jesus’ followers believe He is the Messiah, but their hopes are dashed when instead of setting up His kingdom on earth, He is executed as a criminal. So their great expectations are replaced by grief and loss. Secondly, a few days after His burial Jesus miraculously resurrects back to life and the grief and loss is replaced with joy! What a dramatic fluctuation in emotions!
There is a movie called “God’s not dead!”. Well today we are looking at when God died. That’s amazing! How could the God with the power to create and sustain the universe die like a human being? We will see that multiple images and symbols are required to convey the message of Christ’s death and its impact.
The symbols of Christ’s death are categorized below as: people, animals, inanimate things, and religious ceremonies.
Abraham sacrificing Isaac
Hebrews 11 says, “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son” (Heb. 11:17NIV). When God tested Abraham’s faith about 4,000 years ago, he told him to sacrifice Isaac his only son. At the last minute, God provided a ram to take Isaac’s place. That’s another substitution. This climax in Abraham’s life happened on Mount Moriah, which was also near the place where Christ later died, in Jerusalem (Gen 22:1-14; 2 Chron. 3:1).
Isaac is like Jesus: they were only sons loved by their fathers, and willing to do their father’s will (Gen. 22:2; Mt. 4:17). But there is a difference: Isaac didn’t die as a sacrifice but Jesus did; and Abraham was spared the grief but God wasn’t.
If the death of Jesus is like Isaac bound on the altar, it reminds us of the role of God the Father and God the Son. This symbol also reminds us of how the death of Jesus was God’s plan which depended on Christ’s obedience. It’s all about God.
Jonah swallowed by the big fish
Jesus said, “as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man (Jesus) will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt. 12:40). When Jonah was thrown overboard in a Mediterranean storm in about 760 BC, he was swallowed by a huge fish and he was in the belly of the fish for three days (Jon. 1:17). After this he was vomited onto dry land (Jon. 2:10). Then Jonah preached in Nineveh and when they turned to follow God, the Israelites were relieved of the Assyrian threat.
The Bible says that Jonah is like Jesus: being swallowed by the fish was like Christ’s death, being in the fish for three days was like Christ buried in the tomb and being vomited out was like Christ’s resurrection back to life. It says that “God provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah” (Jon. 1:17). It was God provision. Likewise, God provided Christ’s death for us.
The Bible also says that Jesus rose on “the third day” after His death and burial (Mt. 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Mk. 9:31; 10:34; Lk. 9:22; 18:33; 24:7, 21, 46; Jn. 2:19; Acts 10:40; 1 Cor. 15:4). The third day means the day after tomorrow (Lk. 13-31-33). Apparently the Jews counted parts of days as whole days.
If the death of Jesus is like Jonah being swallowed by the fish, it reminds us that the death of Jesus was God’s plan. He provided it. This symbol also reminds us that Christ was only dead for three days and then He rose back to new life.
Animal sacrifices in Old Testament times were also symbols of Christ’s death. For example, the ram that replaced Isaac on Mount Moriah was like Jesus. An innocent animal died as a substitute instead of Isaac. Likewise, although He was sinless, Jesus took our punishment. He died in our place. Paul said, “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us”. He died for us. And “Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a … sacrifice to God” (Rom. 5:8; Eph. 5:2).
And during the Passover, a lamb was killed and its blood put on the door frames of their houses. The lamb had to be “without defect” (Ex. 12:5). This is like Jesus because Peter said, He was “a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Pt. 1:19). That’s a metaphor saying He’s like a lamb without blemish or defect. God said, “when I see the blood (on the door frames), I will pass over you” (Ex. 12:13). In this way the Israelites were saved from the death of their firstborn. None of the Israelites died because a lamb had died instead of them. They benefited from the animal’s death. They received mercy instead of judgment. They were protected from God’s judgment. On the next day, in the exodus they were delivered and rescued from slavery in Egypt. After this, the Passover was celebrated annually in remembrance of this great deliverance from slavery.
It’s interesting that Jesus celebrated the Passover on the evening before He died, and He was crucified on the day of the Passover (14 Aviv) – a Jewish day is comprised of a night followed by the daylight hours. Also Paul said, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). Another metaphor. So the Passover lamb is like Jesus. It died to save the household from God’s judgment.
John the Baptist called Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). The lamb was a sacrificial animal among the Jews. It was killed as a substitute and its blood was sprinkled around. Here all humanity benefits from Christ’s death (it’s for “the world”), not just the Jews.
Jewish animal sacrifices (like the burnt, fellowship and guilt offerings, and the day of atonement) that were required under the law of Moses are symbols of the death of Jesus. In all these cases, innocent animal life was given up to protect human life. The judgment and penalty for their sins were carried out through a transfer of the sin of the people to the animal sacrifice. Forgiveness is possible because the penalty of sin (death) is transferred to a sacrificial animal. The animal was a substitute for the people. The Bible says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). The shedding of blood means death.
A major difference between the animal sacrifices and Christ’s death is that the sacrifices continued daily, weekly, and annually, whereas Christ only needed to die once (Heb. 9:26; 10:1, 11-12). His single death fulfilled the animal sacrifices of the old covenant (Heb. 9:7-28; 13:11-12). So there is no need for animal sacrifices anymore (Heb. 10:18). His death was “once for all”. For all time and for all people.
If the death of Jesus is like an animal sacrifice, it reminds us that Jesus died for us. God died for us! The Creator died for His creation! His creatures! This symbol also reminds us that through the death of Jesus we can receive mercy instead of judgment. This symbol will endure because in heaven we will proclaim, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain” (Rev. 5:12).
On the day of atonement, the Jewish High Priest put both his hands on the head of a goat and confessed all the sins of the Israelites and “put them on the goat’s head” (Lev. 16:7-10, 20-22). Their sins were symbolically placed on the goat. And the goat was taken away and released in the wilderness to carry all their sins to a remote place. Symbolically it carried away the sins of the people.
This is similar to what happened at Christ’s death. The sins of the whole world were placed on Jesus Christ. Peter said, ‘“He himself bore our sins” in His body on the cross’ (1 Pt. 2:24). And when He died He took the penalty for them – the wages of sin is death. So they were taken away for ever. Aaron laying his hands on the goat symbolizes the placing of our sins on Christ, to be taken away forever. As the goat substituted for the Israelites, Jesus substituted for us.
If the death of Jesus is like the scapegoat, it reminds us that Jesus died for us. This symbol also reminds us that through the death of Jesus our sins are taken away forever.
The heartbroken wife of Alice Springs man Kevin Reid, shot dead in Georgia US recently, has told of how he died protecting her during a robbery attempt. He moved her out of the way and probably saved her life. She said her husband died a hero. That’s an example of sacrifice.
The bronze snake
When Jesus taught Nicodemus about the source of spiritual life, He said “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man (Jesus) must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him” (Jn. 3:14-15). So He referred to an incident when the Israelites were travelling through the wilderness towards Canaan in about 1400 BC (Num. 21:5-9). When they complained about God and Moses causing their poor living conditions, God sent venomous snakes and many died. After Moses prayed for the people, God told him to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole and “anyone who is bitten can look at it and live”. If they looked, they were delivered and healed of the snakebite. God provided a way to save them from death.
Jesus was saying that He must be lifted up on a pole (the cross) like the bronze snake, so that sinners looking to Him by faith might have everlasting life. The next verse says “For God so loved the world that he gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). That’s the context of this famous verse. It’s all about how God used the crucifixion to provide a way to save people from spiritual death. The death of Christ was how God loved the world and how He gave His only Son. Like the bronze snake, God has done His part. But we need to do something as well. Just as the Israelites needed to look at the snake on the pole to live, belief, acceptance and trust in God’s act of love is the only way to change our destiny from eternal death to eternal life.
If the death of Jesus is like the bronze snake, it reminds us that His death is the only way to eternal spiritual life. This symbol also reminds us that if we don’t accept that the death of Christ paid the penalty for our sins, we are doomed to eternal spiritual death.
As Christ was crucified on a Roman cross, the word “cross” can be used as a figure of speech for Christ’s death. For example, Hebrews says, “For the joy set before Him He (Jesus) endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).
As Christ’s crucifixion resulted in the good news of salvation, the word “cross” is also used as an extended figure of speech for the Christian gospel. For example, Paul said, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 12:18). The “message of the cross” is the good news (gospel) about the death of Christ. It’s belief in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection to forgive sins. This is nonsense to unbelievers. But for believers it’s the power of God because God is at work in proclaiming the message and convicting sinners to come to faith in Christ. So both the word “cross” (Gal. 1; Eph. 2:16; Col. 2:13-14), and the phrase the “cross of Christ” (1 Cor. 1:17; Gal. 6:12, 14; Phil. 3:18;) are used to mean the gospel of Christ and all its benefits.
If the death of Jesus is symbolized by the cross, I’m reminded that there were three crosses. This symbol also reminds us of the impact of Christ’s death. The man on one cross believed that the death of Christ paid the penalty for his sins, while the other man rejected this opportunity.
The word “blood” is often used as a symbol of death in the Old Testament. And “shedding blood” means murder. Also, blood had a special role in animal sacrifices. The animal’s blood was evidence that the penalty (of death) had been paid. This is summarized in the New Testament, “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed (ceremonially purified) with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). And covenants were confirmed by blood from animal sacrifices (Ex. 24:6-8).
In the New Testament, blood is often a symbol of Christ’s death. For example, Pilate told the Jews, “I am innocent of this man’s blood” (Mt 27:24-25). And the people replied “His blood is on us and on our children!”. Paul said, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Eph. 1:7). And John said, “the blood of Jesus … purifies us from all sin” (1 Jn. 1:7). Here the word “blood” means Christ’s death. By the way, Christ’s physical blood had no miraculous power or properties, but was just like that of any other person.
Jesus didn’t bleed to death, but the terms used in the Bible for Christ’s death include: the blood of Jesus, the blood of Christ, the blood of the Lamb, His own blood, His blood, my blood, and your blood. This symbol occurs so often, that it can be called a motif, which is a recurring element in a story that has symbolic significance. In their repetition, motifs emphasize what’s most important about a story. For example, in his most famous speech, Martin Luther King Jr. used “I have a dream” as a motif to tie together different ideas such as a quote from the US Declaration of Independence and people who once were at odds sitting down together.
The noun “blood”, is also used as an extended figure of speech for the Christian gospel and all the benefits of Christ’s death. These benefits associated with the figurative “blood of Christ” include:
- Redemption (Eph. 1:7; 1 Pt. 1:18-19), like being released from slavery.
- Salvation, like being delivered from danger.
- Forgiveness ( 1:7), like cancelling debts.
- Reconciliation, like restoring a broken relationship, and having peace with God (Rom. 1:20).
- Justification (Rom. 5:9), like acquittal from condemnation and guilt.
- Adoption, like an orphan finding a new family.
- Sanctification (Heb. 10:10; ( 13:12; 1 Jn. 1:7), like gaining Christ’s righteousness, being holy and set apart for God. And cleansing from sin, like “takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29); “the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin (1 Jn. 1:7); “has freed us from our sins by His blood” (Rev. 1:5); and “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14).
All of these benefits are associated with the term, the “blood of Christ”.
If the death of Jesus is symbolized by blood, it reminds us of all the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament. This symbol also reminds us all the benefits of Christ’s death.
The torn curtain
When Jesus died, the heavy curtain that separated the Jewish temple in Jerusalem into two rooms (Ex. 26:31-33) was torn in half from the top to the bottom (Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45). As the ark of the covenant symbolized God’s throne and presence in the Most Holy Place, the curtain separated sinful humanity from a holy God. The only person who was allowed into the inner room (the Most Holy Place), was the High Priest who could only enter once per year on the Day of Atonement after the necessary animal sacrifices had been offered.
As the curtain symbolized Christ’s body, its tearing symbolized His death (Heb. 6:19-20; 10:19-20). The tearing of the curtain signified that through Christ’s death believers have direct access to God (Heb. 9:11-14; 10:19-22). It symbolized a new era of access to God for all nationalities, not just the Jews.
If the death of Jesus is symbolized by the torn curtain, it reminds us of the beginning of a new relationship with God. This symbol also reminds us that Christ’s death is the only way for people to approach God the Father.
Jesus came to “give His life as a ransom for many” and He “gave Himself as a ransom for all people” (Mt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45; 1 Ti. 2:6). A ransom was the price paid to free a slave. Similarly, Christ paid the ransom price of His own life to free us from spiritual death and the slavery of sin. He died on behalf of us all, but not all will accept this offer of freedom.
If the death of Jesus is like a ransom, it reminds us that a cost was involved and God the Father and Jesus made that payment. This image also reminds us of the benefits of Christ’s death for believers – it’s like being freed from slavery.
John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son (as a gift), that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life”. And God “did not spare His own Son, but gave Him (as a gift) up for us all” (Rom. 8:32). And Paul says that Jesus “gave Himself (as a gift) for our sins” as “a sacrifice to God” (Gal. 1:4; 2:20; Eph. 5:2).
A gift involves a giver and a receiver. Here the gift is salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection. The givers are God the Father and His only Son, Jesus. And the receivers are those who accept God’s supreme gift.
If the death of Jesus is like a gift, it reminds us of the love and generosity of the divine givers. This image also reminds us that we need to accept the gift in order to receive its benefits.
In March this year, Ryan Martin drowned just minutes after saving the life of a young girl near Coolangatta. He was one of a number of people who went to the girl’s aid. He didn’t know the girl, he just saw her in trouble and went to help. She was carried safely to shore but moments later Mr Martin began to struggle against the rough current. Surf lifesavers pulled him from the water but were unable to revive him. A friend said “He sacrificed himself to save the life of a young girl. The act of a true hero”. He gave her the gift of life, when she faced death.
Christian baptism is a public identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6:3-11). People are baptised by being immersed in water. It’s like a short version of Jonah being swallowed by the big fish. But they are under the water for a few seconds rather than three days! Going into the water is like death by drowning. Staying under the water is like burial, and coming up out of the water is like resurrection. It’s a drama that shows we are united with Christ’s death and should no longer be slaves to sin. And instead of being raised like Christ, we have a new spiritual life. Paul said “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (1 Cor. 5:17).
Paul summarized the gospel message as: “what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Christ’s death was the payment for sin. His burial was the proof of His death. And His resurrection was the proof of God the Father’s acceptance of the sacrifice of Christ, and that death is conquered.
If the death of Jesus is symbolized by baptism, it reminds us of its power over sin and Satan. This symbol also reminds us of how the death of Jesus can bring a new spiritual life.
The Lord’s supper
At His last Passover, Jesus told His disciples to remember Him regularly like the Jews had remembered the Passover associated with the exodus from Egypt. They were to do it by communally eating bread and drinking wine. The bread and wine were metaphors of Christ’s death. When Jesus said “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me” (Mt. 26:26; Lk. 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24), He meant that the broken bread represented His broken body. When Jesus said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt. 26:28; Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). He meant that the wine represented blood, which was a symbol of His death.
As the old Mosaic covenant between God and the Israelites was confirmed by blood from animal sacrifices (Ex. 24:6-8), the new covenant was confirmed by Christ’s death.
If the death of Jesus is symbolized by the Lord’s Supper (the bread and wine), it reminds us that His death is the source of our spiritual life. This symbol also reminds us that the new covenant is superior to the old one and to all other religions.
We have looked at several symbols of Christ’s death from the Bible. They show that: It depends on God the Father and God the Son like Abraham sacrificing Isaac. It’s followed by resurrection like when Jonah was swallowed and vomited out by the big fish. In it Jesus was our substitute like an animal sacrifice – He took our punishment so we could receive God’s forgiveness and mercy. Through it, a believer’s sins are taken away forever like the scapegoat. It’s the only way from spiritual death to spiritual life like the bronze snake. It offers a choice to accept or reject like the choices made by those on the other two crosses. It has many benefits associated with the motif of blood. It began a new relationship with God like the torn curtain. It results in freedom like a ransom. It needs to be accepted like a gift. It gives power over sin and Satan like baptism. And it’s superior to the old Jewish covenant and all other religions like the Lord’s supper.
So multiple images and symbols are required to convey the message of Christ’s death and its impact.
In response, have you accepted God’s gift of forgiveness and salvation? Have you entered into the new relationship with God? Have you transformed from spiritual death to spiritual life? It’s the most important thing we can do. If not, confess your sinfulness like that criminal on the cross, who turned (repented) to trust that through Christ’s sacrificial death he could be reconciled with God.
If we are believers: When we realize what they have done for us, how often do we thank God the Father and Jesus for this great sacrifice? Do we keep meeting collectively to obey the Lord’s command to “do this in remembrance of me” (Lk. 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24-25). Do we appreciate the exchange: Jesus took our punishment so we could receive God’s forgiveness and mercy? Are we assured that our sins are taken away forever? Are we free of the slavery of sin? Do we realize the implications of Christ’s resurrection and our new spiritual life? Is our spiritual life evident? And do we appreciate all the benefits associated with salvation?
Written, September 2016
First Aid (Emergency First Response) courses teach us how to sustain life when there can be a danger of death. We follow the acrostic DRSABC: Danger, Response, Send for help, Airway, Breathing and CPR. We need oxygen and blood circulation to keep living. This is threatened in drownings and heart attacks. That’s why the treatment is cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Death results if severe blood loss from arteries and veins isn’t stopped as can occur in car accidents and stabbings.
The Bible often uses figurative language to describe death. The main word used in this sense is “blood”. In order to understand this symbolism we will look at the usage of the word “blood” in the Old Testament, where “blood” is often a symbol of death. Likewise, the mention of Christ’s blood in the New Testament is a figurative way of referring to His death.
“Blood” in the Old Testament
The word “blood” (dam Strong’s #1818) is used in several senses in the Old Testament. The literal meanings include: the fluid flowing in arteries and veins of animals and people, which is essential for life (Gen. 9:4; Lev. 17:11, 14); and the blood of an animal sacrifice that could take the place of a sinner’s death in dealing with their sin (Lev. 17:11). The figurative meanings include: death (Num. 35:33; Josh. 2:19, Ezek. 5:17); killing a person (bloodshed), as in murder or capital punishment (Gen. 9:6; Dt. 17:8); killing an animal (Lev. 17:3-4); guilt (Lev. 20:9); a red color (2 Ki. 3:22); and wine, which is the juice of the grape (Gen. 49:11).
So the word “blood” is often used in the Bible as a figure of speech. And it has a range of meanings.
The meaning of atonement
The Hebrew word translated “atone” (kapar, Strong’s #3722) means to cover over or make amends. For example, the timbers of Noah’s ark were covered inside and outside with pitch (Gen. 6:14). In the other 103 occurrences of the word it means being made right with God by the forgiveness of sins. For example, animal sacrifices are said to “make atonement for them for the sin they have committed, and they will be forgiven” (Lev. 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:6, 10, 13, 16, 18; 6:7NIV). In this case the animal took the penalty as a substitute. An innocent animal took the punishment that was due to a guilty person.
Recently a Saudi blogger was sentenced to 1000 lashes for criticizing Islamic clerics, and seven religious freedom advocates offered to take the floggings in his place. That’s like atonement; when someone else takes your punishment.
Let’s look at some examples of the usage of the word “blood” in the Old Testament.
Abel – Murder
The first mention of the word “blood” in the Bible is associated with Abel. After Cain killed Abel, God told him, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). This is a figure of speech called personification because blood doesn’t literally cry out. It means that there is a need for justice to be done. And justice was done when Cain was punished by losing his livelihood of cropping the land and he became a nomad. Here the word “blood” symbolizes death or murder. When Jesus summarized martyrdom in the Old Testament, He mentioned, “from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah” (Lk. 11:51), which means from the death of Abel to the death of Zechariah.
Noah – Lifeblood and murder
After the flood, God commanded Noah, “you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind” (Gen. 9:4-6). Here the term “shedding blood” means murder. In this way, the word “blood” is associated with death. People are valuable because they are made in the image of God. That’s why the Israelites were told that execution was to be the punishment for murder (Ex. 21:12-14; Num. 35:16-32).
In this passage “blood” is associated with life and death. We know that if too much blood is lost from the body, life is replaced with death. In this sense blood is the life of the body. That’s why it’s translated “lifeblood”. But blood has no life on its own. Blood inside the body is a sign of life, while blood outside the body can be a sign of death. So blood can be associated with both life and death. But we will see that in the Bible it’s usually associated with death.
After the flood they were allowed to eat meat but prohibited from eating blood. This command was also given to the Israelites (Lev. 3:17; 7:26-27; 17:10-14; 19:26; Dt.12:15-16, 20-28; 15:23; 1 Sam. 14:32-35). And this is still one of the regulations today for Jewish kosher food. Both physical and spiritual reasons were probably behind this prohibition. Blood present in meat means it is not fully cooked, and eating uncooked meat can lead to disease or sickness. Another two reasons are given in this passage: “I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats blood, and I will cut them off from the people. 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” (Lev. 17:10-11). First, it was essential for life – “the life of a creature is in the blood” (Lev. 17:11, 14; Dt. 12:23). Second, because blood had a special role in animal sacrifices, it was not to be eaten as part of their food.
Joseph – Apparent violent death
When Joseph’s brothers sold him as a slave, they deceived their father by dipping his multicolored robe in goat’s blood and taking it to him. Then Jacob said, “It is my son’s robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces” (Gen. 37:33). So blood on the clothing was taken to be evidence of a violent death.
Moses – Animal sacrifices and forgiveness
In the first Passover each Israelite household in Egypt killed a lamb and put the blood around their front door. At midnight all the firstborn Egyptians and their animals were struck dead. But God told the Israelites “when I see the blood (around your doorways), I will pass over you” (Ex. 12:13). None of the Israelites died because a lamb had died instead of them. They benefited from the animal’s death.
The word “blood” is mentioned 88 times in the book of Leviticus. That’s the greatest number of any book in the Bible. On these occasions blood is associated with burnt, fellowship, sin and guilt offerings; offerings for ceremonial uncleanness; the dedication of Israelite priests; not eating blood; or it’s a symbol of murder (bloodshed), atonement (17:11), or death (20:9).
The blood of slaughtered animals was a part of the Israelites’ offerings. In the burnt, fellowship and guilt offerings, the priests splashed blood on the altar (Lev. Ch 1, 3, 7). And in the sin offering, the priest sprinkled blood in front of the curtain to the Most Holy Place as well (Lev. 4). But these offerings for sin couldn’t address unknown sins. Because of such sins, the tabernacle, the land and the nation were ceremonially unclean. So God instituted the Day of Atonement for the compete atonement of all sin (Lev. 16:33).
Blood was a significant part of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) (Lev. 16). This was the only day of the year when the High Priest could enter the most Holy Place of the tabernacle/temple. A bull was killed and he sprinkled the blood on the ark of the covenant and in front of it to atone for the sins of his household. Then he did the same with the blood of a goat to atone for the Israelites’ sins. Then he put some of this blood on the horns of the altar. God wanted His people to know what happened in secret in the tabernacle. So the High Priest put his hands on another goat and confessed their sins and the scapegoat was taken away and released in the wilderness. Symbolically it carried away the sins of the people.
In all these cases, innocent animal life was given up to protect human life. The animals die so that the people can live. The Bible says that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). The judgment and penalty for their sins were carried out through a transfer of the sin of the people to the animal sacrifice. Forgiveness is possible because the penalty of sin (death) is transferred to a sacrificial animal. The animal’s blood was evidence that the penalty had been paid. The transfer was also depicted by the scapegoat.
This is summarized in the New Testament, “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed (ceremonially purified) with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). So in the animal sacrifices, blood stood for death and judgment. But it also enabled God’s people to continue living godly lives.
Moses – Covenant making
After God gave the Israelites the ten commandments and other instructions, Moses wrote them down (Ex. 24:3-8). He then read them to the people, and they promised to obey them. Then Moses built an altar and animals were slaughtered as offerings to God on the altar and the blood was splashed on the altar and splashed on the people. The blood on the altar symbolized God’s part in the covenant (His forgiveness) and the blood on the people symbolized their obligation to obey the covenant. The blood probably symbolized that they would die (like the sacrificial animal) if they broke the covenant (Gen. 15:10-18; Jer. 34:18-19). So the Mosaic covenant was confirmed by blood from animal sacrifices (Ex. 24:6-8).
Other examples of “blood” in the Old Testament
Murderers are sometimes identified by blood on their clothes or shoes. So they were referred to as having on them the blood of the person they killed. Since murder demanded punishment, the person who carried this out was said to be avenging the murdered person’s blood (Num. 35:19, 26-27; Ps. 79:10). This was said to take the blood away from those responsible to take vengeance, and to return it to the head of the murderer (1 Ki. 2:29-34). Murder is said to pollute the land (Num. 35:33; Ps. 106:38). It needs atonement: “Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it” (Num. 35:33). Here murder is called “bloodshed” and “blood” stands for the death of the murderer.
To kill someone for no reason is to “sin against innocent blood” (1 Sam. 19:5ESV). Jeremiah said if they killed him, they would bring “the guilt of innocent blood” upon themselves (Jer. 26:15). If a person deserved to be put to death, or if they caused their own death, their blood was said to be on their own head and not on someone else’s (Josh. 2:19; 2 Sam. 1:16; 1 Ki. 2:37).
The symbolism of blood in the Old Testament
God chose blood as a symbol of life and death because of what it is. Blood is associated with both life and death. It’s a mixture of cells (red, white and platelets) and plasma that’s pumped through the arteries and capillaries to provide oxygen and nutrients to every cell of the body. The veins also carry away waste products. The loss of too much blood, without a transfusion, can lead to death, which is loss of life. The Bible says that “The body without the spirit is dead” (Jas. 2:26). Likewise, the body without sufficient oxygenated blood is dead. When our circulatory system stops, we die. That’s why CPR is important.
For us today, blood is mainly a symbol of life. Blood tests monitor our health and blood transfusions help to sustain life. If you Google “blood” and “death”, you mainly get web pages on computer games! Today blood is mainly associated with death when there is terrorism and war. But in ancient times, blood was mostly a symbol of death.
In animal sacrifices an innocent animal was a substitute for a guilty person. It took the penalty for their sin and rebellion against God. There was no other way to escape this death penalty. Likewise, Jesus Christ died for people like us who sin and rebel against God. He is our substitute. There was no other way of salvation to escape this death penalty. The Bible says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). And “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Have you accepted God’s gift that replaces our destiny of eternal death with eternal life?
An animal sacrifice also included a cost to the person giving the sacrifice. Animals were valuable to them. The price of the animal involved represented a price that had to be paid by the one providing the offering. Each time an animal sacrifice was made, the person giving it was reminded of the cost of sin. What about us? When are we reminded of the seriousness and the cost of sin? Does the Lord’s Supper help us remember this?
Day of atonement
Each year the High Priest entered the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle by means of the blood of animal sacrifices so the sins of the people could be forgiven. This was a physical picture of what Jesus did for us. He entered God’s presence by His death (“His own blood”) for our eternal redemption (Heb. 9:11-14. His was a superior sacrifice – it only needed to be done once, not annually. It superseded all the sacrifices associated with the day of atonement.
Isaiah described it as “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are (spiritually) healed” (Isa. 53:5; 1 Pt. 2:24-25). Jesus died for our sins like a sacrificial animal. The innocent for the guilty. As our substitute; to make us right with God.
Pope Francis has just visited the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz where Maximillian Kolbe died. In 1941 when a prisoner escaped from the camp, the Nazis selected 10 others to be killed by starvation in reprisal for the escape. One of the 10 men selected to die began to cry: “My wife! My children! I will never see them again!” At this Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and asked to die in his place. And his request was granted. The innocent substituted for the condemned and took the punishment.
Blood of the covenant
As Moses was the mediator of the old covenant that was ratified by “the blood of the covenant” (Ex. 24:8; Heb. 9:20) when blood was sprinkled on the people, Jesus was the mediator of the new covenant when He died. His death brought in the new covenant. As the death of animals, symbolized by their blood, atoned for the sins of the Israelites, Christ’s death atones for the sins of all who accept His sacrifice.
This relates to the Lord’s supper. After He drank from the cup of wine, Jesus said, “This is my blood of the (new) covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Mt. 26:28; Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). So Jesus is quoting from Exodus. Only this time He’s using a figure of speech in using the word “blood” to stand for His death. Did you know that the cup of wine in the Lord’s Supper represents the death of Jesus? How does this work? We have seen that in the Old Testament, the word “blood” can be used figuratively for the word “death”. Also wine is called “the blood of grapes” (Gen. 49:11; Dt. 32:14; Isa. 63:2). I suppose this came from the fact that if you crush grapes you get wine, while if you stab an animal you get blood. So death is linked to wine because they are both linked to blood in the Old Testament.
This was a superior covenant because it fulfilled the old one. Christ’s sacrificial death (which is called “blood” in the New Testament) fulfilled the animal sacrifices of the old covenant (Heb. 9:7-28; 13:11-12).
Although today we see blood as a life-giving substance, the Old Testament often uses the word “blood” as a symbol of death. Likewise, the mention of Christ’s blood in the New Testament is a figurative way of referring to His death. For example, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:25). His death is described as “the shedding of His blood” and elsewhere as “His blood” or “the blood of Christ”, and it was like “a sacrifice of atonement”. Let’s remember it’s not referring to the fluid flowing through His body, which was just like yours and mine. Like the rest of His body, it was common to humanity.
Real blood from animals was evidence of their death as a sacrifice. They paid the death penalty as a substitute for people’s sins. That’s the background to the New Testament which shows Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice who paid the death penalty for us.
We have seen that the Israelites’ spiritual life was sustained by animal sacrifice, evidenced by their blood. This was a foretaste of the situation today where spiritual life begins with our acceptance of the death of Christ and is sustained by our ongoing appreciation of this by reading and meditating on Scripture.
Written, August 2016
Also see: Symbols of Christ’s death