Why We Sing About the Blood

Cities Church | Minneapolis

Have you ever wondered why we Christians so often sing about Jesus’s blood? It’s a very strange thing to emphasize, is it not? Not simply the cross and his death, but his blood. Just last Sunday, our church sang twice about the blood of Jesus. First in an old hymn: “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?” Then in a newer song: “By his blood and in his name, in his freedom I am free.”

Growing up in the South, I often sang, “There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-workin’ pow’r in the blood of the Lamb.” That was my dad’s favorite. Or one that many of us know: “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”

We Bible-believing Christians do not simply recognize the reality of Jesus’s blood and refer on occasion to Jesus’s blood, but we sing about it. We glory in it. That is, in a spirit of worship, in declaring Jesus’s worth to each other, and in praising him for his greatness, we often sing about the otherwise morbid topic of blood.

Have you ever stopped to ask why? What is it about Jesus’s blood that makes us sing? How does his blood work? What does it do? If someone asks you, “Hey, so how does the blood work?” how would you respond? Would you be at a loss to explain it?

As well as any passage in the Bible, Hebrews 9:15–22 explains it. In one of the densest and most complex and richest chapters in the Bible, we learn why it was necessary for Jesus to die — and not just die but shed his blood. You could say that this sermon is an attempt to explain why we sing about Jesus’s blood. Not just talk, but sing! We worship him in light of his “precious blood” (as 1 Peter 1:19 calls it), and we should know why.

At the Heart of Hebrews

Hebrews 9:1–10 rehearses the setup of the old covenant tabernacle, related to the Day of Atonement, and first mentions the essential place of blood to cover sins in verse 7.

Then Hebrews 9:11–14, which is the high point of chapters 8–10, summarizes the achievement of Christ at the cross in contrast with the old system. In the first covenant, the high priests entered the earthly tent with animal blood offered according to law, which temporarily purified the flesh. But Jesus is a superior priest who has entered heaven itself by means of his own blood offered willingly, which eternally purifies the conscience.

Which brings us to verse 15, where Hebrews says, “Therefore . . .” In light of these marked contrasts with the first covenant (and the superiorities of Christ), the terms of arrangement for sinners to relate to God must be different. Jesus mediates a new covenant. Not renewed. Not added on. Not extending the previous administration with some nice upgrades. New.

Now, in verses 15–22, Hebrews will show us, in covenantal terms, why Jesus had to die — that is, why it was necessary for him to shed sacrificial blood.

Oh, the Blood

Blood was introduced in verse 7. Then blood appears four more times in verses 12–14. Then six more times in verses 18–22. Then again in verse 25. And four times verses 15–17 refer to death, which is essentially synonymous with blood in this context.

That’s what blood symbolizes here: sacrificial death, or life sacrificially taken. The death in view here is not a natural, bloodless death. Rather, blood represents life that has been violently taken, life ended early, for sacrificial purposes. One party bleeds (to the point of death) in order to stand in for the sins of another who deserved death, but now, through the sacrifice and by God’s provision, continues to live.

The reason this matters in the context of a covenant with God is because of human sin. We all have disobeyed and dishonored the infinitely valuable God, and our offenses, however small they seem, are infinitely great because of the value of the one we’ve sinned against. Verse 14 mentions “dead works” — that is, acts that deserve and lead to death because they have been perpetrated against the infinitely valuable God.

So, God’s people deserve death. And in order for God to draw near to his people and for them to draw near to him in a covenant relationship of ongoing life, their sin must be addressed. Under the terms of the old covenant, God made provision for the sin of his people through animal blood (that is, life violently and sacrificially taken) to stand in temporarily to hold back his righteous judgment — while anticipating some final reckoning with sin to come.

What Does the Blood Do?

And so, everywhere you turn in Leviticus, blood is being shed (mentioned almost one hundred times in chapters 1–20). Now, here in Hebrews 9, there is blood and sacrificial death all through verses 12–22. Which leads us to ask, What does Jesus’s blood do? Or, How does the cross work? What is the blood of the new covenant for?

There are at least three answers in Hebrews 9:15–22.

1. Jesus’s blood redeems from former sins.

Remember the original audience, Greek-speaking Jews. They grew up in the Jewish faith and came to embrace Jesus as Messiah, but now they are becoming sluggish in their faith. The passing years and ever-present pull of the world have made them spiritually dull. They are tempted to give in to their world’s pressures and just reacclimate to Jewish life apart from Jesus.

So, Hebrews appeals to them, again and again, that Jesus and his priesthood and his sacrifice and his new covenant are better. And in fact, once Jesus has come, the old covenant has come to its planned fulfillment and is no longer valid (“no longer any offering for sin,” Hebrews 10:18). You cannot go back.

In verse 15, we see Hebrews’s focus on Jews, his audience, those who once lived under the old covenant: “[Jesus] is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.”

Hebrews’s audience needs to know how Jesus’s new covenant relates to the old and to the status of their obligations in their former covenant. And so verse 15 tells them how Jesus’s death, his sacrificial blood, redeems them from any debt of obligation they once had under the old covenant. The old arrangement is dead; you owe it nothing further.

What About Gentiles?

But what about us Gentiles? Here we are, on the other side of the world, two thousand years later, most (if not all) of us totally Gentile. If Jesus’s death “redeems . . . from the transgressions committed under the first covenant,” how does his blood relate to those of us who never lived under the old covenant?

The rest of the sermon is about that, but in verse 15, notice that phrase “those who are called.” This is where we Gentiles come in. The death of Christ not only redeems Jews but also Gentiles. As Paul says in Romans 1:16, “The gospel . . . is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

And twice Paul writes about “those who are called, both Jews and Greeks” (1 Corinthians 1:24), and “even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles” (Romans 9:24). The “called” are not Jews alone, but also Gentiles. Hebrews has his particular Jewish audience in view, but when he mentions “those who are called,” we see our window.

Romans, we might say, explains the gospel to Romans, to Gentiles, to the Greeks, with special reference to Roman legal categories of justice and righteousness; meanwhile, Hebrews explains the gospel to Hebrews, to Jews, with special reference to Hebrew cultic categories of holiness and purification.

Which is the reason many of us Gentiles find Romans easier to understand. We don’t understand Leviticus very well, and the sacrificial system, and priests and sacrifices and blood. But that’s why Hebrews can be so valuable to us Gentiles: we get to know our gospel in multiple dimensions — not only in Roman-Gentile terms, but also in Jewish-Levitical terms.

All Are Accountable

Also, for us Gentiles, Romans 3:19 says something very similar to Hebrews 9:15 about how God’s revelation to the Jews relates to us: “Whatever the law [that is, the old covenant] says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.”

God speaking in and through the law, the old covenant, is relevant to us as Gentiles — not as our covenant but as our Scripture — to stop our mouths and hold us accountable for our sin. “The Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:2) that it might be made clear that “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (Romans 3:9).

So, Romans and Hebrews are well named. Romans explains to Gentiles why Jesus had to die. Hebrews explains to Jews why Jesus had to die. And God’s first covenant with the Jews showed not only them their sinfulness and need of Christ’s final atoning sacrifice, but also us Gentiles. There is a kind of organic relationship between what God specifically requires of his first-covenant people and the accountability of all humans, Jew and Gentile, to the God who made them.

So, what does the blood of the new covenant do? First, for Christ’s new covenant people, Jesus’s blood redeems from former sins.

2. Jesus’s blood enacts a new covenant.

The blood of Christ not only releases Jewish and Gentile sinners from their former sins, but also enacts a new covenant. The ending of the old arrangement takes sacrificial blood, as does inaugurating the new.

Now, verses 16–17 are very difficult. Verse 15 mentions an “inheritance,” and verses 16–17 mention “death,” and many commentators and translations think that Hebrews here jumps from talking to his Hebrew readers about Hebrew covenants to a Greco-Roman last will and testament. You’ll see the ESV has the word will in verses 16–17. I think that’s a mistake, and a growing number of Hebrews scholars do as well. Before I read verses 16–17, let me give you five quick reasons why “will” doesn’t work here, and why it should say “covenant”:

  1. Verse 15 mentions the new and first covenants; verse 18 mentions the first covenant; chapters 7–9 have clearly been talking about a Hebrew covenant, the old covenant, not a Roman will. Hebrews uses the word for “covenant” 17 times in chapters 7–13, and every other time, it clearly means “covenant.”
  2. It is not true that a will takes effect only at death; a will takes effect as soon as it is made. It is executed at death (well, after death), but only because it took effect previously. However, a Hebraic covenant, as we see in Exodus 24 with the inauguration of the first covenant, does take effect precisely at death — namely, the death of the sacrificial victims in the covenant-ratifying ceremony.
  3. The word behind “death” in verse 17 is plural; verse 16 mentions “the one [singular] who made it,” but verse 17 references plural deaths, which refer not to the death of a person who made a will but to the sacrificial victims that were “cut” and bled and died in the cutting of the covenant.
  4. The syntax and logical flow of verses 15–18 do not work if the meaning of the same Greek word (diatheke) switches from Hebraic covenant to Greco-Roman will and back. The passage is very tightly knit together with “for” at the beginning of verses 16 and 17 and “therefore” in verse 18.
  5. Finally, the word for “established” in verse 16 (phero) would be better rendered as “carried forward” or “brought forward.” This is sacrificial language. The death owed by sinful people who are making a covenant with God is “brought forward” in the sacrificial victims’ blood to make purification for sins, so that sinners might enter into covenant with the holy God.

We could say more, but I’ll leave it at that for now. Now let me read verses 16–20, accounting for Hebraic covenant rather than Roman will, and then explain how it relates to the blood of Jesus. Here’s my version of verses 16–20:

For where a [covenant with God] is involved, the death of the one who made it must be [brought forward]. For a [covenant] takes effect only [with the death of sacrificial victims], since it is not in force as long as the one who made it [and deserves death because of his sin still lives]. Therefore [because of human sin] not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood [in Exodus 24]. For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.”

I know that’s complicated and a lot to take in all at once. Here’s the payoff: Jesus’s blood not only redeems us from the death penalty of our former sins, but his blood provides purification from sin to enact a new covenant relationship with God. Former sins must be dealt with, but also the ongoing sinful condition of our hearts if we are to enter into a covenant relationship with God. Jesus’s blood makes possible life with God in a new covenant arrangement. It is the covenant-ratifying blood.

“God’s arrangement is that sacrificial blood purifies sinners, so that they can enter into communion with him.”

When Moses said in Exodus 24:8, at the inauguration of the first covenant, “Behold the blood of the covenant,” the meaning of “the blood” — in however many meanings it may have had — is at least this (according to Hebrews 9): forgiveness of sins. That’s what verse 22 says, as we’ll see. God’s arrangement is that sacrificial blood purifies sinners, so that they can enter into communion with him. This is what “the blood of the covenant” does.

So, Jesus’s blood redeems from former sins, and it enacts a new covenant.

3. Jesus’s blood upholds the new covenant.

Just as sacrificial blood not only inaugurated the old covenant, but it endured and operated on sacrificial blood at every turn, so Jesus’s blood not only enacts the new covenant but sustains it, upholds it, maintains it, keeps it going.

Hebrews hints at this in chapter 9 by expanding his focus from the inauguration of the old covenant in Exodus 24 to the annual Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16, and beyond to other sacrifices as well. He already begins that expansion in Hebrews 9:19 when he mentions “and . . . goats” and “water and scarlet wool and hyssop” (none of which are mentioned in Exodus 24 but brought in from elsewhere in the old covenant).

Then the expansion is more pronounced in verses 21–22: “And in the same way [Moses] sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Not just the people, but also the tent and all the vessels.

And then comes the sweeping claim of verse 22 that in the old covenant “almost everything is purified with blood.” Which leads into verses 23–28, where the focus is on Jesus entering into the holy place that is heaven itself, and doing so not annually (like the Day of Atonement) but once for all.

Jesus not only inaugurates a new covenant, but (as verse 15 says) he mediates it. His blood is “for all time,” as Hebrews 10:14 will tell us: “By a single offering [Jesus] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”

And to be clear, Hebrews 9:22 states the underlying point in this otherwise complicated passage: both the inaugurating and maintaining of a new covenant with the holy God deal with the sins of the people.

So, according to Hebrews 9, “the blood of the covenant” does at least three things: (1) it redeems from former sins (and for Jews cancels any obligation to the first covenant), (2) it enacts a new covenant relationship of life with God, and (3) it upholds that new covenant “for all time.” And all that because the sacrificial blood of Christ decisively “deals with” or “puts away” or forgives our sins.

Great in the Blood of the Covenant

Now, there is at least one more detail in this chapter, and in Hebrews, that I can’t help but mention as we close. Look at verse 12: “[Jesus] entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” What does it mean that Jesus entered into heaven “by means of his own blood”?

What it does not mean is that this High Priest needed blood to cleanse him from sin. That’s an important contrast with the old. The old high priest entered the Holy of Holies once a year, says verse 7, “not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people.” But not Jesus. He has no sin. So then, what is the function of his blood when he enters heaven “by means of his own blood”?

The answer is clarified by the great doxology of Hebrews in 13:20–21, where “the blood of the covenant” appears again. The question is, What does the blood of the covenant do here?

Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

It’s hard to show in an English translation, but the phrase “in the blood of the eternal covenant” modifies the word great. A literal translation would read, “. . . the shepherd of the sheep, the great one in the blood of the eternal covenant, our Lord Jesus . . .”

Which means, the blood Jesus shed, the blood of the eternal (new) covenant, is a mark of Jesus’s greatness. It is an achievement, the greatest achievement in the history of the world, that merits reward. Like Hebrews 9:12, “He entered once for all into the holy places . . . by means of his own blood.”

Jesus’s blood not only accomplishes our salvation; it shows us his greatness and worth. His sacrificial blood not only deals with our sin but shows us the greatness of the one for whom our hearts long. We not only receive forgiveness; we worship. We not only thank him for his blood. We praise the one whose very greatness we see in the shedding of his blood for us. And so we sing about his blood.

New Covenant in His Blood

As we come to the Table, we find sweet confirmation for what Jesus means by “the new covenant in my blood” when he instituted the Supper on the night before he died.

Luke 22:20 says Jesus called it a “new covenant”: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” And Matthew 26:28 clarifies what the blood of the covenant does: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Former sins forgiven, and a new covenant inaugurated and sustained — by his blood. And in the blood of his eternal covenant, we see his greatness, and come in worship, and drink together the cup of blessing.