“Then he shall kill the bull before the Lord.” (Leviticus 1:5)
Man’s sin required a lifestyle of bloodshed among God’s people. We too quickly forget that, for those who get squeamish when the need arises to kill a spider in the sanctuary, ancient Israel would have been a nauseating, shocking place.
The smell of blood, the sound of dying animals, the sight of slain lambs and pigeons and bulls was a normal part of their religious experience. Charles Spurgeon, a pastor in London during the nineteenth century, helps us recall:
In the tabernacle in the wilderness, almost everything was sanctified by blood. The blood was to be seen everywhere. As soon as you entered the outer court, you saw the great bronze altar; and at the base of it, bowls of blood were constantly being poured out. When you passed the first veil and entered the holy place, if you saw a priest, he was spattered from head to foot with blood, his snow-white robes bringing the crimson spots most vividly before your eyes.
If you looked around, you saw the horns of the golden altar of incense smeared with blood, and the gorgeous veil that hid the innermost sanctuary was splattered with the same. The holy tent was by no means a place for sentimentalists. . . . It was not a place for dainty gentlemen but for brokenhearted sinners.
Blood On Your Hands
And while the priests usually slew the sacrifice, at times the worshiper would kill and butcher the animal himself. “Then he [the worshiper] shall kill the bull before the Lord. . . . Then he [the worshiper] shall flay the burnt offering and cut it into pieces” (Leviticus 1:5–6).
The experience of cutting an animal’s throat and then into pieces is foreign to most today. And even fewer know this killing in a context of atonement, where, unlike on a farm, you do not slaughter to eat the meat, but to kill the animal for the worshiper’s own safety. As a part of worship, they trusted God’s revealed means for compensating wrongdoings and trespasses. Sin required death, theirs or the animal’s.
Why So Gruesome?
This adds a foreign dimension to worship that many modern people would spurn as barbaric. How many would go to church this Sunday if such a practice existed? Not many. So why blood back then? Why such an uncomfortable, gruesome practice?
Spurgeon, upon hearing that some felt horrified by all the talk of blood in their services, reminded them that the blood was not the disgusting thing.
We should be horrified, for indeed sin is a thing to shudder at, and the death of Jesus is not a matter to be treated lightly. It was God’s intent to awaken in people a great disgust of sin by making them see that it could only be put away by suffering and death.
God used blood as such a prominent part of redemptive history because sin is such a prominent feature of redemptive history. Indeed, it occasions the need for redemption. And the punishment of spilled blood hinted at the incivility and vulgarity, the squalor and stench, the shock and outrage of human sin toward a holy God.
Thank You, Jesus
This brings us to the point. We do not bring our best lamb and a knife to worship with us on Sunday and leave with blood-stained clothes — but not because God has become more “cultured” and “civil,” but because Jesus has already been slain.
What all the thousands of bulls and sheep could not enact, Jesus — the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world — did with one single offering (Hebrews 10:4, 14). Our covenant is just as bloody as the last — we just have far better blood, blood that ends all the dress rehearsals before it. Jesus reminds us of this when he, taking the cup of the Lord’s Supper, says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24).
Our salvation is bloody — not the blood of lambs or bulls or pigeons, but the precious blood of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:19). Only his crimson stream could wash away the wretchedness of our sin. So in Christ, it is our grateful and constant proclamation: Thank you, Jesus, for the blood!