Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"Blood" in the Bloodiest of Books

In my last post, I noted the doxology (a song of praise) that John offers in the opening sentences of Revelation:

To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood,
and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father,
to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

I noted that biblical writers often turn to the doxological voice when the narratival or didactic voice seems unable to adequately grasp or express the subject at hand.

Today, I want to look a little at the content of this doxology. In particular, I want to ask the question, What does it mean when the writer says that Jesus "freed us from our sins by his blood"?

- Some translations read "washed us from our sins" instead of "freed us from our sins." That translation is based on a faulty reading of two very similar words, one of which means "to loose" and the other of which means "to brighten." The oldest manuscripts here are pretty well agreed that the verb is "to loose" or to set free. It's the same verb that is in Rev. 5:2, which refers to breaking a seal, but not the verb that is in Rev. 7:14 or 22:14, referring to washing robes.

- We tend to read every reference to the "blood of Jesus" through the eyes of a 12th century archbishop of Canterbury named Anselm, who articulated a thorough argument for what is often called "the substitutionary atonement theory" of salvation. Roughly and simplistically , Anselm's argument goes like this:

When humanity sinned, God's justice and honor demanded that there be a price paid. Namely, the violation of God's honor demands death. And, because God is just, God cannot simply say, "Oh, never mind. Let's just hug it out." God is just, therefore, God must be against sin and must punish sin, even with the awful price of death.
However, God is also a loving God. And, in an extreme act of love, God sent Jesus, his only son, to be our redemptive substitute. Therefore, when Jesus- who alone is sinless in all of humanity- was put to death on the cross, he was dying in our place, for our sins.

When we read this doxology from Revelation through Anselm's argument- which, in my experience, is the most popular way of understanding the redeeming work of Christ in the church- then it seems that the song is about being washed in the blood of Christ and being cleansed by it. But ... there are other voices in the Christian tradition which have given us other ways of understanding references to the "blood" of Christ and, consequently, the work of redemption in Christ. But, since my 'blackberry friends' have been complaining about the length of my posts, I'll explore a couple of those other possibilities next time.


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