IN A WORLD which is full of violence and bloodshed, it is hardly surprising when people balk at claims such as that made in Hebrews 9:22 that “with­out the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (NIV).

In its immediate context, the verse is, of course, referring to the Old Tes­tament sacrificial system described in particular in the early chapters of Levit­icus, a religious system which to mod­ern ears smacks of barbarism and su­perstition. But the wider context of the chapter as a whole, together with the writer’s use of the present tense ‘…is no forgiveness’, makes it clear that the writer is in fact referring to the death of Jesus Christ who “has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself ” (Hebrews 9:26). Such a claim, even for the Jews who countenanced animal sacrifice as an appropriate part of wor­ship, seems to go much too far. Surely God cannot permit, let alone demand, human sacrifice as the means by which forgiveness is to be obtained?!

Meaning of blood in the Bible

Two things need to be born in mind when one ponders the words of He­brews and seeks to understand the link between bloodshed, forgiveness and Christianity.

First, we must bear in mind the true nature of God and the true condition of humanity. Second, we must come to understand the meaning of blood in the Bible. Let’s look briefly at each of these two points.

The popular understanding of God may be summed up by the idiom: To err is human, to forgive is divine. Whatever the original intention of the saying, its popular application expresses the pre­vailing notion that it is God’s duty to forgive… and to do so easily, and auto­matically. The reason we think like this about God and forgiveness, is because we tend to associate God only with goodness and love and not with holi­ness and justice.

Evil offends

Such a view is of course quite unten­able if we think about it more deeply. If we as sinful human beings are offended by evil and injustice – especially if we fall victim to it – how can we expect God who is holy, not to be? And yet we talk as if God has no moral standards, no sense of right and wrong. The truth of the matter is that if God is neither holy nor just, then we have no basis for holiness, righteousness and justice in our world.

The Bible as a whole, and Hebrews 9 in particular, makes it clear, however, that God is indeed Holy and separated from sin. God’s eyes are ‘too pure to look on evil’ (Hab 1:13) and He ‘cannot tolerate wrong’ (Is 59:1). Four times in Hebrews 9 we read of the ‘Most Holy Place’ (9:3,8,12,25). This is a reference to a part of the Tabernacle which was the symbol of God’s dwelling among the ancient Israelites.

The ‘Most Holy Place’ was separated from the rest of the Tabernacle by a screen, indicating God’s own holiness of person and of character and his sep­aration from all that is evil or imperfect.

Holy reaction to evil

In his book The Cross of Christ, John Stott writes: “Closely related to God’s holiness is his wrath, which is in fact his holy reaction to evil. God’s anger is ab­solutely pure and uncontaminated by those elements which render human anger sinful. Our anger tends to be a spasmodic outburst, aroused by pique and seeking revenge; God’s is a contin­uous, settled antagonism, aroused only by evil, and expressed in its condemna­tion.”

Failure to recognise the reality of God’s holiness will inevitably mean fail­ure to see the necessity that something drastic needs to happen if we as sinful human beings are to be acceptable to God, and enabled to be in a relation­ship with Him.

We minimize our sin

The second mistake which we humans make, is aptly summed up in the first part of the idiom. If we err at all, it is in viewing our misdemeanors with re­spect to each other and with respect to God merely as error, rather than as sin. In addition to having a low view of God’s holiness, we have a low view of our own sinfulness as human beings. We are, of course, quick to condemn serious acts such as murder or rape or child abuse, but we fail to take seriously Jesus’ own references to the evil which resides in all our hearts (Mark 7:14-23). And we fail to recognise that even good deeds done for the wrong motives are themselves unacceptable to the Holy God who searches our hearts.

Radical act of salvation

And thus we fail once more to see why God can’t just accept us as we are or with a gentle slap on the wrist or even a stern warning. Hebrews 9, however, shows us that sin is a real problem for every human being and that our sins, even those committed in ignorance (9:7) separate us from the God who is holy. Both our sins and our sinfulness make us liable to death and judgment (9:27) and thus we are faced with the necessity for a radical act of salvation if we are to be saved.

It is precisely this radical act of salva­tion that Hebrews 9 has in mind when it says that “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people” (9:28) or that “…he has died as a ran­som to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant” (9:15). What is being spoken about here in language reminiscent of Isaiah 53, is the death of Jesus in the place of sinful human beings.

Rev Dr Mervyn Eloff is rector of St James Church, Kenilworth