What does it mean that the life of the flesh is in the blood?
Leviticus 17:14 includes the importance of blood for life, stating, "For the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off." The Lord forbade the Israelites to consume blood (Leviticus 17:12; Deuteronomy 12:23). This prohibition was also given by the Jerusalem Council as one that Gentile believers should observe (Acts 15:29).
The statement that the life of the animal is in its blood means that blood is necessary for the animal to remain alive. Although animals can die with all their blood still in their bodies, if all the blood is drained out, it can no longer survive. This is also true for humans since blood is a necessary part of what keeps organs and bodies working. It is no wonder, then, why severe blood loss that occurs with certain illnesses and injuries is life-threatening for animals and people. Blood is not what gives us life, but it is a necessary part of it.
In Leviticus 17, God emphasized the Israelites' need to sacrifice the animals at the tent of meeting inside the camp of the Israelites so the practice of sacrificing animals to demons outside the camp would cease (Leviticus 17:1–7). The blood of the sacrifice was used for atonement and pointed to the blood that Christ would shed for the sins of the world (Leviticus 17:11; Romans 3:25; Hebrews 10:1–18).
Not only was the act of eating blood associated with pagan rituals, but it displayed a disrespect for the sanctity of life. Honoring the life that God gave mankind and animals is intrinsically linked to refraining from eating its blood. When God gave animals to people as food, He said, "Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. 'Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image'" (Genesis 9:3–6). Any person or animal who murdered a human was to be killed. Because humans bear the image of God, to unjustly take a human life is unconscionable. Though animals are not made in God's image and can be consumed, eating an animal's blood disrespects the principle of the sanctity of life as well as the sacrificial nature of blood. It should be noted that eating animal blood can also pose a health risk.
Blood is an essential element in living, both physically and spiritually. Just as a person without blood cannot live, so also can a person's sins not be forgiven without the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22). Romans 6:23 tell us that "the wages of sin is death." In the Mosaic law, God foreshadowed the payment He would make for sin. An animal's death was used as a substitute to atone for sin. Sacrifices occurred throughout the year. Annually, on the Day of Atonement, the blood of a bull would be sprinkled on the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant (Leviticus 16:14), and the blood of a goat would be sprinkled over the mercy seat and in front of it (Leviticus 16:15). This was to "make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins" (Leviticus 16:16). The blood of the bull and goat would also be put on the horns of the altar and sprinkled on it to "cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel" (Leviticus 16:18–19). When the priests were first consecrated to serve, they, too, were sprinkled with blood (Exodus 29:21).
Hebrews 10 explains the temporary nature of this sacrificial system. "For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. … For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" (Hebrews 10:1, 4). The sacrifices foreshadowed Jesus: "we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (Hebrews 10:10).
The night before His death on the cross, "Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, 'Take, eat; this is my body.' And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, 'Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:26–28). His death on the cross—His "shedding of blood"—made atonement for our sins. His resurrection affirmed His sacrifice and the reality of new life in Him. Jesus' blood ransomed us from spiritual death and ushered us into spiritual life by God's grace through faith (Ephesians 2:1–10; 1 John 2:2).
There is no possibility of having true life in Christ without the shedding of His lifeblood and His rising again to life. Only those who partake in His death through faith will have eternal life (John 3:16–18). Speaking symbolically, Jesus told His followers, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever" (John 6:53–58). Although physical blood sustains physical life, Jesus' lifeblood is the only blood that provides eternal life, through His crucifixion and resurrection.
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