Posted on August 2, 2005 by Bob Buehler
1 John 1:7 But if we live in the light in the same way that God is in the light, we have a relationship with each other. And the blood of his Son Jesus cleanses us from every sin.
What is this about the blood of Jesus cleansing? I wanted to take a second look at this, because it seems to me that many people are in the category of not quite getting the significance of those passages that deal with this subject. Many sing songs such as The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power, Power In the Blood, Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb?, Nothing But the Blood of Jesus, etc. Even more go through the service of the Lord’s Supper, in which the words of institution, This cup is the New Testament in my blood are repeated; but how many have any idea what this is about? There is some discussion of the matter, chiefly in the epistle to the Hebrews, which sets this whole business of the blood in the context of the ancient practice of animal sacrifice; mostly as a way of showing that that whole system has been superseded, was ineffective anyway, and is now replaced by something better. For many, this does not really solve the issue, and it seems significant that no similarly detailed explanation seems to have been addressed to the emerging Gentile church.
So let’s back into the Hebrew scriptures, with a few other questions in mind.
In the Old Testament, there are basically three common substances that are used in religious ritual, as a way of symbolizing and/or representing the spiritual relationship between humans and God. A fourth, holy anointing oil, is in a category by itself and should be treated separately. Suffice here to say that the anointing oil was specially formulated, prepared and kept, and used for very specific purposes. Otherwise, however, I find three things that are used for ritual cleansing:
Let’s take a look at each of these. What I want to show is that in each of the first two cases, there is a very natural image of the function of the particular substance, which is easily carried over by analogy into the spiritual realm; so that the application of each helps any observer to understand the spiritual transaction taking place. That being the case, I will then ask if we can find a way to understand the third substance similarly.
Water is easy. It is used for washing, for getting dirt off, and is certainly used in ritual to indicate the removal of uncleanness from a person, or sacrifice, as a matter of simply hygiene. This ritual washing carries forward quite easily to baptism, where the washing away of one’s sins is symbolized by the application of water. When John came baptizing in the Jordan river, the running water symbolically carried the penitent’s sins away. With the uncleanness of sin removed, the person had an opportunity to live unburdened by a sinful past. Submitting to this process indicated repentance, a willingness to take a new view of one’s role in life.
John predicted, of course, that the one coming after him would baptize, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Fire is used throughout scripture to show purity, or purification. Isaiah, in his encounter in the Temple with a holy God and his angels, is not washed with water; instead, his lips are touched with a burning coal: Behold, this has touched your lips; your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged. This after Isaiah bemoaned the uncleanness of his lips, and the lips of his people. But as water symbolically removes the outer stains of sin from a person’s life, fire purifies the substance: so there is talk of people being refined as gold or silver is refined.
Water cleanses. Fire purifies. What does blood do? It does both of these, and also heals.
As the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews so eloquently points out, the external application of blood really has no good effect: for it was impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. But if we think for a moment or two about how blood functions in the natural world, we find it has a beneficial effect really only under certain very specific conditions.
Blood cleanses, when it flows through or out through a wound sustained by a living organism. When you cut your finger, the best way to prevent an infection, before washing the wound with water or cauterizing it with heat (fire) is to let the blood flow through it. Blood nourishes and feeds the body, providing life-giving nutrients and oxygen, removing dangerous toxins from tissues. In the natural realm, it gives and sustains life.
So how does the blood of Christ wash away our sins? When it gets at us from the inside. When Christ’s life becomes our life. This happens when we exchange our own life for his, thus gaining the benefit of his having exchanged his life four ours, in a divine transaction that is the central mystery of the Christian faith. Leviticus 17:11 says, The life [soul] of the flesh is in the blood; therefore I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your lives [souls]. If we understand that Christ poured out his life for us so that he could pour out his life into us, then we can see both the power of the blood and the power of the resurrection, that they are one and the same; but neither power is of any effect from a distance, but only as we take upon ourselves an intimate fellowship with the living Christ; therefore the text we began with makes some sense:
1 John 1:7 But if we live in the light in the same way that God is in the light, we have a relationship with each other. And the blood [=soul, life] of his Son Jesus cleanses us from every sin.
Since each of us shares intimately in the life of God which gives Jesus the power to overcome death, we cannot avoid having a relationship (fellowship) with one another; and that life, which is here also called light, enters into us so fully that the healing, restoring power that characterized the earthly ministry of Jesus is at work in us continually, removing from us the spiritual toxins that would make for death, bringing us into a powerful relationship with God and all his works.
The blood cleanses us from within.