Leviticus 17 gave several instructions to the Israelites regarding their sacrifices. Most notably in the first 9 verses, the Israelites were to bring the animals which they intended to sacrifice to the tabernacle (later it would be the temple in Jerusalem). The people were not to make their animal sacrifices any old place they wanted. They were told to bring them to the specific place of God’s choosing. But this is a topic for another day. What I want to consider right now is Leviticus 17:10-16 which continues the instructions for making sacrifices.
The animal sacrifice to cover the sin of man is prominent in the Scriptures from the very beginning. After their sin, Adam and Eve were covered literally with the skins of sacrificed animals (Gen 3). And throughout the book of Genesis there are several examples of sacrifices (Gen 4, 8, 22, etc.). Then in the book of Exodus we see blood beginning to take a more prominent role in the sacrifices. When the Israelites were in bondage (slavery) in Egypt, it was the blood of the Passover lamb that was used to save the firstborn sons of the Israelites from God’s judgment (Exo 12). Blood then continues to be prominent in the chapters leading up to and throughout the tabernacle’s construction and the teaching on the tabernacle practices (Exo 24-40).
In Leviticus, where the various sacrifices are described in great detail, the mention of blood is just everywhere. And that brings us to Leviticus chapter 17 where the reason for this prominence of blood is explained. The first 9 verses were mentioned earlier. Here we focus on verses 10-16.
And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, that eateth any manner of blood; I will even set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul. Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood.
And whatsoever man there be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, which hunteth and catcheth any beast or fowl that may be eaten; he shall even pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust. For it is the life of all flesh; the blood of it is for the life thereof: therefore I said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh: for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof: whosoever eateth it shall be cut off.
And every soul that eateth that which died of itself, or that which was torn with beasts, whether it be one of your own country, or a stranger, he shall both wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even: then shall he be clean. But if he wash them not, nor bathe his flesh; then he shall bear his iniquity.
Blood, you see, “is the life of the flesh” and that life-blood was given for the purpose of making an atonement for the soul. For this reason an Israelite was never to eat blood. And if he did, he would face serious consequences. Blood was a very sacred thing with a very sacred purpose. And this prohibition about eating blood actually goes all the way back to the days of Noah when right after the flood God told him, “But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat” (Gen 9:4). So this wasn’t a new prohibition to Israel. What appears to be new information is the explicit reason for the prohibition which was that the blood was for making an “atonement for the soul.”
God then gives instructions about disposing the blood from a hunted animal (verses 13-14). And in the process the key phrase (or one very similar) is repeated three more times all in verse 14, “The life of the flesh is in the blood.” Then at the end of the chapter in verses 15 and 16 there’s this stuff that at first glance seems very much unrelated. In those verses the Israelite is told he would be unclean if he ate an animal that died “of itself,” (i.e., died of natural causes), or was “torn with beasts.”
Well, upon first glance these last verses in the chapter may seem unrelated, but in fact, they’re very closely related when considering the whole context of Leviticus 17. You see, what we’re really discussing here is why the blood of a sacrifice is valuable in God’s eyes. It’s not so much the flesh of the sacrifice, though that’s important in a different way. With all but one of the offerings described in the beginning chapters of Leviticus, men actually ate parts of the flesh of the sacrifices. But never the blood. The blood as we learn from this passage is for the atonement of our souls, not the sustenance of our bodies. And this is something of immense importance to God. Eating the blood was completely forbidden.
Now, it’s important to realize why exactly anyone would want to make an atonement for their soul. The answer is, of course, because of sin which is ultimately the reason death even exists (1 Cor 15:56, Rom 5:12). Men realize they are deserving of death because of their sin and seek atonement. God’s provision is blood, the “life of the flesh.”
So with this long introduction out of the way, let’s imagine a little scene. You’re a self-respecting, God-fearing Israelite living way back in those days and you just realized you’ve sinned in some manner. Disappointed in yourself, you carefully pick out a lamb from your herd and carry it to the tabernacle to make an atonement for your soul. The priest is there and he kills the animal (in your place) and you watch the life-giving blood spill from the animal. Satisfied now that God has accepted this offering for your life, you make your way home feeling a little at ease. … Suddenly to the side of the pathway you notice something and hear a rustle. You look off into the trees and catch sight of a very old sheep lying on its side and breathing its last breath. It dies “of itself” right there in front of you. Wow, you think to yourself. The life of the flesh is in the blood. Wasn’t there any blood in that animal to keep it alive? Well, you reason, of course there was. The problem wasn’t that the animal didn’t have blood. The problem was with the blood the animal had. It just couldn’t keep the animal alive forever. Realizing this, your mind then drifts back to the blood spilled from that lamb you offered for your soul just a little while earlier. “Wait a minute,” you say to yourself and think, if that animal had not been sacrificed, it would have ended up just like this dead sheep. If the blood in my sacrifice didn’t have the power to keep it alive forever, how can it, then, have the power to keep me atoned forever? For the first time you realize the deficiency of the religious system in which you live (Heb 8:7). Hebrews 10:4 puts it this way, “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.” It can cover sins temporarily (“atone” means cover). But it can never take sins away.
Back to our little scene. You pull yourself together and continue on your way home. Just as you approach your field you see a fox chasing down and catching one of your lambs. You’re upset and run at the fox, hoping to rescue your lamb. The fox sees you and flees into the woods, dropping the lamb as it goes. You run to the lamb but it’s too late. The lamb is dead. Your first emotions are anger over the loss, but then you imagine those delicious, roasted, juicy lamb-chops your mother makes for you when you visit her – with all that delicious stuffing and … and then, disappointed, you remember it’s not proper to eat an animal that is “torn with beasts.” You recall the atonement and the life-blood of the lamb you sacrificed earlier in the day – and suddenly you lose your appetite entirely. That lamb was no different from this one. They were both unwitting participants, unknowing victims of a greater power and both their blood was spilled. That one was carried and handed over to a priest, never knowing what would happen to it until it was dead. This one ran in terror from its pursuer in a desperate and failed attempt to live. Both had their lives taken against their wills. Not only does the life-blood fail in old age. It fails against violence. You watch for another minute as the small pool of blood seeps uselessly into the ground. You go into the house, your conscience of sin now fully awakened.
Indeed. “… the life of the flesh is in the blood: … it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.” And from the seemingly unrelated details tacked onto the end of this chapter we learn that the blood of a sacrifice better have the power to keep itself alive forever or we can’t expect it to keep us alive for forever. Thanks be to God we have such a sacrifice already offered on our behalf, the Lord Jesus Christ!
First off, let’s look at what John the Baptizer said on the day he pointed out Jesus of Nazereth. He said, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). John didn’t say, “.. which covers the sin of the world” or ” … which atones for the sin of the world.” He said, “… which takes away the sin of the world.” Immediately this is better than anything Israel had known before. ” … we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all“ (Heb 10:10). Never another sacrifice to be made. His sacrifice takes away our sin. “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).
But what of His blood? The life of the flesh is in the blood, right? If we’re to believe that His offering is enough to keep us alive and forgiven for ever, then there must be something about His blood being able to keep Him alive forever. The answer can be found in three verses (as well as many others).
2 Cor 5:21 (speaking of the Lord Jesus), “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”
1 Pet 2:22 (speaking of the Lord Jesus), “Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:…”
1 John 3:5 (speaking of the Lord Jesus), “And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin.”
As discussed earlier, men die because of sin (Rom 5:12). But this man, Jesus the Christ was separate from sin. He “knew” no sin, He “did” no sin, and indeed, there was “no sin” in Him at all. The one and only man who ever set foot on earth to have no part in the curse of death. Because He was without sin, His blood did, in fact, have the power to keep Him alive forever. … But, you say, He did die like those lambs of the Old Testament. Did His blood fail Him? Did the violence of man overtake Him? How can we rely on it, then? … Well, He did, indeed, die. But there’s nothing to worry about. He was not like the unwilling, unwitting victims those lambs were. The Lord Jesus said, “… I lay down my life that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again…” (John 10:17-18). Unlike the countless sacrificed animals of the Old Testament who would have fought to live had they known what was coming, the Lord Jesus did no such thing. No one could have taken His life no matter what violence they spewed. He laid His life down. Willingly and with full knowledge the Lord Jesus Christ gave His life and shed His perfect, sinless life-blood for our eternal redemption. “Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.” (Heb 9:12).
1 Peter 1:18-19
Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot:
In sharing the Gospel, many are quick to say that salvation is free. But, in fact, it isn’t. It was paid for. The life of the Flesh is in the Blood. And the blood used to pay that price for us has the power to keep us alive forever.