In my last post, I briefly described Anselm’s theory of substitutionary atonement and I said that it seems to be the church’s most popular way of describing Christ’s redemptive work today. It would seem then, when the doxology in Revelation says that Christ “freed us from our sins by his blood,” it is referring to the cross, where Jesus was mangled horrifically and left to bleed and suffocate on the cross. Likewise, we popularly think that whenever we take the bread and wine, remembering the words of Christ that describes them as “my body” and “my blood,” we think the reference again is to that horrific blood-letting on the cross. That’s the insistent theology behind songs that I grew up with, like “Nothing but the Blood of Jesus,” and “There’s Power in the Blood.”
However, there are other ways of understanding “blood” references in the Scriptures- and they’re not all just products of unbelieving modernists who reject the truth and try to make Christianity more palatable to an unbelieving generation (which seems to be the assumption behind another fairly popular song, “I Still Believe There’s Power in the Blood.”) In fact, long before modernism became a problem, a very orthodox voice in the Christian Church spoke of the “blood of Christ” quite differently than the popular way of speaking about it today. I’m thinking of Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons in the 2nd century.
Irenaeus is a key figure in church history for several reasons. He is one of the first to identify nearly all of the books of what we now call the New Testament; he names the first 12 Bishops of Rome as successors to the Apostles and the standard of true Apostolic teaching; and he gives a rationale for the number of Gospels in the New Testament, as well as some explanation of their unity among their differences. These arguments and recollections are found in his books called “Refutation and Overthrow of the Knowledge Falsely So Called,” but- thankfully- the books are typically called by the Latin title, “Adversus Haereses” (against heresies). In these books, Irenaeus is strongly arguing against a number of innovative “heresies” that were present in the still young church.
For our purposes, Irenaeus describes the “blood” of Christ (a term that he uses often) as a way of talking about the humanity of Christ, his incarnation, rather than his crucifixion. One of the heresies that he was taking on was the Gnostic thought that Jesus was never truly human, because material things are evil and the true Word of God could not be truly found within a material human body. Some even argued that Christ practically came down and stole a body so as to ‘appear’ to be human and suffering and dying and so forth. When Irenaeus argues that the “blood” of Christ is redemptive, he is arguing that the incarnation of Christ, when “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14), is God’s redemptive act in history. Therefore, Jesus is the “second Adam” that redeems the sin of the first Adam. (Irenaeus goes on to describe Mary as the faithful virgin whose act of obedience in bearing Jesus is what saves us from the disobedience of the virgin Eve.)
The point is that whenever Irenaeus refers to being redeemed by the “blood” of Christ, he is referring to the true humanity of Jesus as God’s way of salvation. Therefore, when we eat and drink the bread and wine/body and blood of Jesus, we are participating in the new humanity that Jesus brings. (I think it was Karl Rahner, the excellent Roman Catholic theologian of the late 20th century, who said that Jesus could have died of old age and still would have been God’s atoning sacrifice for us, because the incarnation is that act by which God redeems human life. He was self-consciously echoing Irenaeus’ Christology when he said that.)
So, when Revelation says that Jesus “freed us by his own blood,” we ought not automatically to think that it is a reference to the bloody cross. It might be at the other end of the Jesus spectrum- a reference to his blood-filled veins at birth.