Blood Sacrifice



Hebrews 10:19-22

19 Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus,

20 By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh;

21 And having an high priest over the house of God;

22 Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.


A few weeks ago, my wife and I were on vacation in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, and we visited the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. This is the most visited site in the Yucatan. The ruins there have been well excavated and frequently studied. Nevertheless, the history of Chichen Itza is still clouded in mystery. It seems clear, however, that a large Mayan community thrived there between around A.D. 700 and A.D 900.

As you walk down a path and come to the ruins, the main structure that seizes your attention is what the Spanish called El Castillo (the castle), but it was never a castle. It was a step pyramid that functioned as a temple, the temple of Kukulcan, the feathered serpent.

The Pyramid of Kukulkan is 79 feet high and towers above the other buildings. Two of its sides have been completely restored, the other two were left to show the condition before work commenced. Each side had originally 91 steps. 4 x 91 = 364. Add the step of the platform at the top and that is 365—one step for every day of the year. Further, during the spring and autumn equinoxes, the shadow of the sun playing on the stairs causes the illusion of a giant snake wriggling down the pyramid in the direction of the cenote, which is a limestone sinkhole filled with fresh water.

Across a wide plaza from the pyramid is the Ball Court. Like most Americans, ancient and modern, the Mayans liked sports. The Ball Court at Chichen Itza is the largest Mayan ball court ever discovered. This is where they played the Mayan Superbowl.

Apparently, the game they played was a combination of soccer and basketball. There are carvings along the lower walls of the court, and you see immediately that this game was played for very high stakes. The carvings depict one team member with blood spurting from his headless neck, while the captain of the other team holds the head aloft. Some scholars think the captain of the losing side was executed by the winner; others say that the winners were sacrificed. No-one knows for sure.

One thing is obvious though: Mayan civilization was soaked in blood. They raided neighboring tribes and cities to get sacrifices for their gods. They hauled their captives up to the top of the Pyramid of Kukulcan There four priests seized the victim and laid him flat on his back on an altar, holding his arms and legs. Then another priest took an obsidian knife, slashed open the chest cavity, and reached in with his hand and pulled out the heart. The priest held up the heart for the cheering throngs to see. Then he fed the heart to the god who lived in the depths of the temple. Following that, they chopped off the head of the poor guy and threw the head down the temple steps, then they also rolled his bloody corpse down the temple steps. And they did this not once, but over and over and over—because the god had to be fed a steady diet of blood, or he would cause disaster to come upon the city. The main purpose of war was to get captives to feed to the god to ensure the continued prosperity of the city. If things started going badly, you did not offer fewer sacrifices, you offered more sacrifices, because you had to regain the god’s good will.

The Mayans felt that in order to have the favor of God, you had to offer to God the best that you had, and the best that they had was another human being, and so they offered human sacrifices by the thousands. Not only the Mayans did this, all the tribes of central America did it. The Aztecs were even worse than the Mayans. The Spanish recorded that when you approached an Aztec city, there was a huge mound of heads outside the city, the thousands of heads of human sacrifices, the payment the Aztecs had made to ensure that God would favor the city.

As 21st Century Americans, we are repulsed by this slaughter of people. Can you imagine what the Pyramid of Kukulcan smelled like after a day of rolling bloody corpses down the 91 steps? I suspect we do not want to know.

Blood sacrifice is found is most ancient cultures. Back in the first century, in the Roman Empire, all the pagan temples did animal sacrifices, and the temple in Jerusalem was no different. The main function of a temple was sacrifice. That was what the priest did. People brought their offering—a cow, a sheep, a goat, and the priest slit its throat and bled it out, and they burnt part of it on the altar and ate the rest. Imagine a holiday festival like Passover, in the time of Jesus. People came from all over the Mediterranean world to Jerusalem. By some estimates, well over a hundred thousand pilgrims came flooding into the city for Passover, and most of these folks took sacrifices to the temple. They must have had hundreds of priests working overtime killing animals. Can you imagine the smell of all that blood and burning flesh? And at the next festival they would do it all over again.

Hebrews 10 has some thoughtful comments on this process. The reason anyone offers a sacrifice to God is to gain God’s favor. Whether it be an animal sacrifice or a human sacrifice, the principle is the same. We want God to like us, so we give God something we like, a cow or a child. We are aware of our sinful nature, so we sacrifice something to God, hoping that God will forgive our sins, and smile upon us.

But Hebrews says that obviously this way of thinking does not work, because we have to keep doing it over and over. We read in chapter 10:1-2: “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. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins?”

What Hebrews is saying is that the sacrifices of the Old Testament law were only “a shadow of the good things to come.” Those sacrifices were not the real thing. They did not bring real forgiveness for sins, and that is why they had to keep offering the same sacrifices year after year.

So all the animal sacrifices did was to remind us that we are sinners. You come; you offer your sacrifice; you are not forgiven; the sacrifice just makes you feel more guilty. Thus, v4 says, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”

That is the bad news. All the work of the Old Testament priest, all the blood of the sacrifices, all the burnt flesh on altars, was for nought. V11 says, “every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” No sacrifice we offer to God works. Nothing we do works to reconcile us to God.

There has to be another way, and there is another way, the way of Christ. We read in v14, “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Christ made one sacrifice. He died on the cross one time. And by that sacrifice he saved all those who believe in him.

Thus v19 tells us that we can have “boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus.” The “holiest” referred to here is the holy of holies in the temple in Jerusalem. Only the High Priest could go into the holy of holies and that only once a year to offer sacrifice for the people. The holy of holies was the most sacred place on earth. It was believed that the very presence of God resided there. But we now have a new high priest, Jesus Christ, and his blood so cleanses us of sin that we can confidently function as a high priest and go directly into the presence of God.

The Greek word for blood is haima () from which we get all our medical terms relating to blood like “hemoglobin” “hemophilia,” “hematoma,” and so on. The blood of Jesus, the “,” was so effective that it prepared for us a “new and living way.” The way of animal sacrifice was a dead way that brought no hope. Christ is the way of life. Christ is the way of hope.

V20 requires a little thinking through. It reads, “He hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh.” The “veil” was the curtain between the holy of holies and the rest of the temple. Christ who was God incarnate has reached through the curtain to consecrate us, to make us acceptable to God. Moreover, the writer of Hebrews says that the curtain was actually his body. Christ dying on the cross offered his body for us and that body bridged the gap that separated us from God.

V22 then moves us to a conclusion. “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.”

Come to God, that is what the scripture says. The blood of Christ has opened the way, we would be foolish indeed to hang back. In Christ, God offers us a New Covenant. But we come to this covenant in a certain way--“With a true heart.” Without any pretence, without any hypocrisy, we just accept what God is offering.

We come with “full assurance of faith.” We come knowing and believing that God will accept us through Christ. We put our faith in the gospel. We are assured that in this way we can have a relationship with God.

The verse mentions that we have “our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience.” Again, this is a reference to the temple sacrificial system. When the priest sacrificed an animal, he sprinkled the blood on the altar and on the worshippers. That never helped anybody, but the blood of Christ is spiritually sprinkled on our hearts to cleanse us from guilt and sin and an evil conscience. And we are washed clean with the water of baptism and become members of the body of Christ.

All the blood sacrifices of the Mayans were useless. All the blood sacrifices of the Old Testament were useless. Only the blood sacrifice of Christ was effective. Only the sacrifice of Christ was able to bring us to God.

The old gospel song says:

What can wash away my sin?

Nothing but the blood of Jesus;

What can make me whole again?

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Oh! precious is the flow

That makes me white as snow;

No other fount I know,

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

For my pardon, this I see,

Nothing but the blood of Jesus;

For my cleansing this my plea,

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Nothing can for sin atone,

Nothing but the blood of Jesus;

Naught of good that I have done,

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

This is all my hope and peace,

Nothing but the blood of Jesus;

This is all my righteousness,

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Now by this I’ll overcome —

Nothing but the blood of Jesus,

Now by this I’ll reach my home —

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Glory! Glory! This I sing —

Nothing but the blood of Jesus,

All my praise for this I bring —

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

[Words & Music: Robert Lowry, in Gospel Music, by William Doane and Robert Lowry (New York: Biglow & Main, 1876).


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