Every year at Easter, Christians remember Jesus’ shed blood on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. While we often talk about how Jesus saved us, we may forget what part his shed blood played in that process. Hebrews 9:22 says, “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”
What does this verse tell us about Jesus’ sacrifice? Why does forgiveness require blood being shed at all? To understand this verse, we need to dig into the book of Hebrews’ readers, what the Bible says about blood, and what the book of Hebrews says about blood’s place in God’s economy.
Who Was the Book of Hebrews Written To?
The book of Hebrews was written by an unidentified author for Jews who had accepted Christianity. As Jews who had accepted that Jesus was the Messiah, these readers had some significant spiritual concerns. They were raised to believe in God’s covenants with Israel—including Abraham’s covenant for his descendants to be blessed and Moses’ covenant on Mount Sinai, where God became Israel’s national protector. Their identity as God’s chosen people, following Old Testament laws, seeing Gentiles as second-class citizens who couldn’t be saved without joining Judaism—all these ideas wrapped together to create the Jews’ understanding of what it meant to be a God-follower.
Then, Jesus revealed that he was bringing a new covenant in His blood (Luke 22:20). After Jesus ascended to heaven, God revealed to the apostle Peter that Jesus’ followers did not need to follow every single one of the Old Testament laws (Acts 10-11). Jewish Christians had serious discussions about what the new covenant meant and what Old Testament laws they had to keep following. The book of Hebrews fits into this discussion, helping Jewish believers understand their new faith.
While Paul’s writings to specific churches answered whether Christians had to follow certain Jewish practices (kosher diets, being circumcised, etc.), the book of Hebrews answers bigger philosophical questions. It outlines who Jesus was, including whether he is lower or higher than angels (Hebrews 1:4-14) and higher or lower than Moses (Hebrews 3). It also states Jesus was fully God yet fully human (Hebrews 2:5-18) and the perfect high priest interceding for humanity before God the Father (Hebrews 4:14-5:10).
These details set up a discussion about priesthood and a new covenant, which leads to Hebrews 9:22 talks about the shedding of blood.
What Is the Context for Hebrews 9:22?
Hebrews 6:20 says Jesus is a high priest in the order of Melchizedek. Thus, Jesus is a higher priest than the Levite priests (Hebrews 7:11). He belongs to a permanent priesthood (Hebrews 7:15-20) that is “holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26). Hebrews 8 explains how as high priest, Jesus instituted a new covenant, and “the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one since the new covenant is established on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6). Hebrews 9 explains what set Jesus’ new covenant apart from the old covenant.
Under the old covenant, the high priest made sacrifices for the Israelites’ sins at the tabernacle. The high priest would only enter the tabernacle’s inner room once a year, “and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance” (Hebrews 9:7).
All covenants are contracts like a last will and testament, and “a will is in force only when somebody has died… This is why even the first covenant was not put into effect without blood” (Hebrews 9:17-18). So, Moses set up the old covenant by sacrificing animals and sprinkled their blood on everything connected to the covenant—the scroll it was written on, the Israelites, the tabernacle, all the tabernacle’s tools (Hebrews 9:19-21).
The covenant is why “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). Sacrificing a life binds a covenant and enforces it. By performing a sacrifice, Moses ratified the old covenant that brought forgiveness for sins… if the Israelites follow the conditions laid out in God’s laws.
Since the shedding of blood was necessary for a new covenant and the new covenant had to supersede all the prior covenants, Jesus went further. He was sacrificed for people’s sins once and for all (Hebrews 9:28). Having made his blood sacrifice, Jesus “went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle” (Hebrews 9:11): heaven, where he appeared before God as the high priest interceding for humanity (Hebrews 9:24). He was both the blood sacrifice on the altar and the high priest using the blood to cover humanity’s sins and represent them before God.
The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Hebrews 9:13-14)
Why Is Blood Necessary for Forgiveness?
The idea that forgiveness requires blood being shed is very graphic, especially if we didn’t grow up around farms and regularly saw animals being killed. Fortunately, the Bible explains why shed blood is necessary for setting up covenants and forgiving broken ones in other passages.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia explains that blood “came to be recognized as the life principle long before it was scientifically proved to be.” To shed blood was to take life. Consequently, people would shed blood (either their own or an animal’s blood) to ratify serious agreements in ancient culture. Abraham killed a ram, a calf, a goat, a dove, and a pigeon to ratify his covenant with God (Genesis 15:9-12).
Abraham also had himself circumcised as part of his covenant (Genesis 17:11), which “is an Old Testament form of blood ceremony. Apart from the probable sanitary importance of the act is the deeper meaning in the establishment of a bond of friendship between the one upon whom the act is performed and Yahweh Himself.” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia).
The shed blood also showed the consequences of breaking a covenant—John Gill argues that when Moses sprinkled blood on the scroll of the law, he partly did it “to point out what the law requires in case of disobedience, even the blood and life of men.” To break a covenant is a deadly thing.
Unfortunately, when Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, he broke a covenant with God (Hosea 6:7). God had set up an agreement with Adam in the Garden where God would be with Adam, provided Adam followed one command: don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:15-17). Some people call this the Edenic covenant. While it’s not one of the five covenants that Christians usually talk about (made with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus), it sets up all that follows. When Adam ate the forbidden fruit, he violated his covenant with God, which brought a heavy penalty.
“All men by sin had become guilty before God, had forfeited their inheritance, their liberties, and their very lives, into the hands of divine justice…” (Matthew Henry)
While God didn’t kill Adam immediately, the breaking of the Edenic covenant brought death. Something had to cover humanity’s sin to restore the broken covenant. The Mosaic covenant provided some relief; it was what Matthew Henry calls “a covenant of grace” where the Israelites shed animals’ blood to cover their sins.
However, the old covenant’s solution wasn’t enough. The high priest had return each year to the tabernacle to make another blood sacrifice and intercede for the people. Also, as Hebrews 8 explains, people kept breaking the covenant. Something more permanent, something higher, had to fulfill all the old promises and create a new agreement. Since Jesus was God’s Son, fully God and fully human, his shed blood could cover all of humanity’s sins throughout all time. Through Jesus’ shed blood, God himself paid the deadly price for humanity breaking the covenants.
When Jesus’ blood was shed on the cross, it not only set up a new covenant. It showed what all the old covenant sacrifices had been trying to show: that sin required a perfect sacrifice to cover the sinners’ actions. Nothing from the natural world could be that perfect, so God became the sacrifice himself, fulfilling his promise to save the lost.
“All the blood on Jewish altars for thousands of years pointed to Him. It proclaimed that what God said, He would also do. When Christ died, the Word was clear. God’s own heart was revealed. He lifted up his hand and made an oath for all heaven and earth to witness.” Robert E. Coleman, Written in Blood
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G. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,200 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.
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