Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” Hebrews 9:22

In a world full of violence and bloodshed it is hardly surprising when people balk at claims such as the one made in Hebrews 9:22 above. 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.

However, 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 not relegating his claim to the Old Testament alone, but is in fact referring to the death of Jesus Christ who “ has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Hebrews 9:26). Such a claim, even for Jews who countenanced animal sacrifice as an appropriate part of worship, seems to go too far. Surely God does not permit, let alone demand, human sacrifice as the means by which forgiveness may be obtained?

Three things need to be borne in mind when one ponders the words of Hebrews 9:22 and seeks to understand the link between bloodshed, forgiveness and Christianity. First, we must bear in mind the true nature of God. Second, we must come to understand the reality and severity of our human sinfulness. Third we need to understand the meaning of blood in the Bible. Let us look briefly at each of these 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 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 think of God only in terms of goodness and love and not in terms of holiness and justice. Such a view is however completely untenable. If we as sinful human beings are offended by evil and injustice, how can we expect God not to be offended. Surely we are not better than God?

And yet people continue to talk as if God has no right to moral standards and no sense of right and wrong. In doing so we not only misrepresent God but also undermine the very basis of morality. Furthermore this view of God goes completely against what the Bible teaches. For whereas the Bible clearly teaches about the goodness and love of God it also teaches about His holiness and justice. The prophet Isaiah was just one of many who came to see this in the vision described in Isaiah 6:1-5. Given a vision of the LORD of hosts, he came face to face with the fact that this LORD was and is thrice holy i.e. perfectly holy and that he as a sinner was undone in the presence of such a Holy LORD.

This brings us to the second point and the other side of the idiom. For in saying ‘to err is human’ are we not downplaying the seriousness of our sin, treating it almost as something ordinary? Thus we so easily describe our sins as errors or as mistakes (note the phrase ‘to err is human’) and we convince ourselves that God will view them with the same benevolent tolerance that we do. But the Bible takes a much more serious view of our sins and this is very clear in the letter to the Hebrews as even a cursory reading of Hebrews chapter 3 and 4 makes clear.

In these chapters the writer reminds us of God’s wrath against human unbelief and rebellion and warns against taking one’s own unbelieving heart or ungodly behaviour lightly. Indeed as Hebrews as a whole makes clear and as Hebrews 9 in particular affirms, human sin is very serious indeed, leading to both death and judgement (Hebrews 9:27). And it is in this connection, the link between sin, death and judgement, that the link between bloodshed and forgiveness is ultimately seen.

Thirdly then let us think about what the writer means when he links forgiveness with shedding of blood. The key thing to see here is that our writer is talking not about blood per sé but about bloodshed i.e. death. At no point in the Old or the New Testament are we ever taught that blood has any magical religious power. In the Old Testament sacrificial system which as we have seen underlies Hebrews 9, blood was always poured out as a symbol of death. Death was the consequence of sin in Genesis 3 and remains the consequence of sin to this day (see e.g. Romans 6:23).

Thus the remedy for sin foreshadowed in the Old Testament and fulfilled in Jesus is not the blood of Jesus but the death of Jesus. What Hebrews 9:22 thus assets is that without substitutionary death there can be no forgiveness. And what the rest of the chapter and the book as a whole asserts is that such a death has in fact happened and that such forgiveness is now available to all for whom Jesus died. Rather than balk at the message of Hebrews 9:22, we should turn in humility, faith and gratitude to the One who because of His love, was “offered once to bear the sins of many and who will appear a second time…to save those who are eagerly waiting for Him” (Hebrews 9:28)