Blood is everywhere in the Letter to the Hebrews in a way that it isn’t elsewhere in any other New Testament book, except the Book of Revelation.
Among the blood-themed verses is the beloved Hebrews 9:11-14, describing in moving terms how Jesus presents his sacrifice on the cross to the Father:
But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come to be, passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands, that is, not belonging to this creation, he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God.
Hebrews 10:19 says that the ‘blood of Jesus’ gives us the confidence to enter into the sanctuary and Hebrews 12:24 says Jesus has ‘the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel.’
The Greek word for blood, haima, occurs 21 times in Hebrews. No other book comes closer to that total except Revelation, where it appears 19 times. This is fitting since there is something deeply apocalyptic about blood. Consider this scene from Revelation:
So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and cut the earth’s vintage. He threw it into the great wine press of God’s fury. The wine press was trodden outside the city and blood poured out of the wine press to the height of a horse’s bridle for two hundred miles (Revelation 14:19-20).
Blood is apocalyptic in both senses of the word: First, the account of the end of the world in Revelation is drenched in blood. Second, blood is apocalyptic in the original Greek meaning of the word—in the sense of unveiling something hidden and mysterious. In the Old Testament, blood is associated with the very life of a person—that hidden, mysterious force that animates our bodies. Indeed, Leviticus 17:11 declares, “the life of the flesh is in the blood.”
Because blood is, in a way, the life of a person, it is sacred, which is why the ancient Israelites were not permitted to eat the blood of slaughtered animals.
In the context of the Fall, the stain of blood becomes indelibly associated with the crime of murder. As God said to Cain in Genesis 4:10-11,
What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground! Now you are banned from the ground that opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.
Today, our language preserves this fundamental connection our minds make between blood and life. We say ‘shedding blood,’ ‘blood lust,’ and ‘bloodthirsty’ to describe murders. We don’t say ‘cutting flesh,’ ‘flesh lust,’ or the like. Lady Macbeth’s anxiety over her role in a murder conspiracy was prompted by a blood stain—the ‘damned spot’—that wouldn’t go away.
In a way, the blood of Abel continues to stain all of humanity. All of us suffer from the same weakness of sin that Cain did, what theologians call ‘original sin,’—the disposition that we inherit from our first parents, Adam and Eve, just as Cain did. The sacrificial system of ancient Israel offered sinners a way of reconciling with God through sacrificial atonement, as the full verse in Leviticus 17:11 explains,
[T]he life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement on the altar for yourselves, because it is the blood as life that makes atonement.
In the Bible, then, blood acquires a new association—it is a symbol of sacrifice. At one point, sacrifices at the temple were taking place at a rate of 1.2 million animals, spilling so much blood that priests were wading in it up to their knees, according to an ancient account in the Talmud. This is the backdrop against which Christianity entered the scene. It’s a reality in which the images like the one presented in Revelation—with a wine press churning out blood for two hundred miles at the height of a horse’s bridle—are comprehensible.
Both connotations of blood come to the fore in Hebrews: Christ gave His life for us as an atoning sacrifice. But His sacrifice is not like the others:
For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God (Hebrews 9:13-14).
There are two fundamental differences with Christ. First, He saves us in His humanity. His sacrifice is of a man, not a beast. And, second, He was—and is—God.
This sacrifice carries a special power. First, it incorporates us into the body of Christ, granting us the same inheritance as Him (Hebrews 2:14). Second, it is necessary that it be done only once, and yet it has eternal ramifications (Hebrews 9:26). Third, it has the power to cry out to God in a way that Abel and other victims could not (Hebrews 12:24). Finally, it allows us, with confidence, to enter into the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 10:19).
The Letter to the Hebrews is soaked in blood. But much of the main action also occurs in heaven—consider the extraordinary account of how Christ entered the heavenly sanctuary in Hebrews 9 and ‘the great cloud of witnesses’ in Hebrews 12:1. In this there is another parallel with Revelation, which likewise has so much blood and yet so much of heaven too.
Why are such polar opposites contained with each book?
The answer is that both books restate the radical truth of the drama of the Incarnation. Blood is a thing of the earth. Genesis, after all, gives us the vivid description of Abel’s blood seeping into the ground. Spilled blood seems like the farthest thing from heaven. Yet both are in Hebrews and Revelation. This is what the Incarnation does—it spans the chasm between the earth and heaven, between the soil and the stars.
Hebrews says that Christ’s blood speaks more eloquently than Abel’s. It is a blood that cries out—from the cross—to God the Father. It also cries out to us, convicting us and calling us to be with Christ in heaven. And, because we now share in His blood, we have confidence that it is a call that we can answer.