Here’s a quick Bible study that has shown me something important about the invitation Christ gives us. It begins with things that may seem less than exciting. Stay with me. I think they end up helping us see something important in Jesus’ words.
Don’t eat the blood!
Beginning in Genesis 9, just after Noah and his family have gotten off the ark, God gives humans permission to eat meat. “Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything” (Gen 9:3, NIV). And the meat-eaters rejoiced!
Then God gives this stipulation: “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it” (Gen 9:4, NIV).
Don’t eat the blood! You may eat meat, but not the blood.
The passage that gives most explanation to this comes in Leviticus 17. Let’s look at a few verses:
I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats blood, and I will cut them off from the people. For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. Therefore I say to the Israelites, “None of you may eat blood, nor may any foreigner residing among you eat blood” (Lev 17:10–12, NIV).
Why can’t the Israelites eat the blood?
1 - The life of a creature is in the blood.
2 - God has given it (the blood) to the Israelites to make atonement for themselves on the altar.
3 - It is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.
A brief commentary on these…
1 - Though the Israelites may sacrifice these animals, they don’t have a right to ingest their blood — their very life. We might equate the Israelites’ right to sacrifice the animals with the right to the animals’ lives, but God locates the life of the creatures in the blood. To be clear, verse 14 reiterates: “You must not eat the blood of any creature, because the life of every creature is its blood; anyone who eats it must be cut off.”
By the way, that word for cut off is the same word used to denote all the people who were cut off by the water of the flood (Gen 9:11). Not something to trifle with.
You don’t eat the blood because the blood is the life. And you don’t have a right to the life!
2 & 3 - The Israelites don’t eat the blood because it wasn’t given to them to eat. It was given to them to make atonement. And the blood is what makes atonement.
To whom does the blood belong? To God! The atoning sacrifice is to God, and of all the sacrifice, it’s the blood that makes atonement. That part, then, belongs to God.
To connect the dots, wouldn’t we say that the life of the creature belongs to God, even in its death? This is no surprise.
Jesus and blood
Now look at what Jesus says to a crowd of observant Jews — a crowd that surely knew and observed those passages from Leviticus:
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:51–52, NIV)
[When Jesus sees the people confused and appalled, he rushes to make things better, as every good pastor knows to do. Or not quite…]
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:53–57).
Do you see that? It’s one thing to be told to eat his flesh. But then Jesus goes a step further and tells them they must drink his blood. Without it they have no life in them!
Why did God tell his people not to eat the blood of the animals? Because the blood is the life. And now Jesus says that without drinking his blood, they have no life in them.
To whom does this blood belong? To God! And especially so. This is the blood of Christ himself. God in the flesh. By no means do we have any right to his life.
And yet the miracle of all miracles is that this is what he offers us: his very life.
The gift of Christ is not just his blood given to God as atonement for our lives, though it certainly includes that. The gift of Christ runs far deeper — to something that was never on offer before. Christ offers himself to us. He offers us participation in the life of God.
Participation in the life of God
You may have heard these phrases before — “participation in the life of God,” or “participation in God” — and been confused. What does it even mean? I think this is what Christ offers here: participation in the divine life.
In comprehending this, perhaps the most helpful image for me is Rublev’s Trinity icon, shown at the top of the page. In it, you see the three angels who visited Abraham (but often interpreted as the three members of the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit) all seated at a table, looking out. The table is complete with the three of them, but there appears to be room. It’s as if you could go up and take a seat with them. No one knows exactly what Rublev intended to symbolize in the work, but whether he intended this or not, I find the image helpful.
Christ’s invitation is the very participation in his life — in the life of God. In fact, short of that participation, we have no life in us. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit figuratively sit at table — complete on their own, and claiming full right to all of life on their own. And yet they bid us come and join. What an awesome invitation! What amazing grace!
To eat his flesh and drink his blood
Many disciples turned back and stopped following Jesus that day. (And pastors take note: he didn’t run after them, watering the message down to try to get them back!) They enjoyed the miracles, the free bread, the fellowship. But at these words, they said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (John 6:60, NIV)
We may follow Jesus today because there’s some excitement to it, as there surely was then. We may follow simply because we want the rewards that come with it — be they assurance of eternal life, or social status, or good fellowship, or free bread.
But that teaching to eat his flesh and drink his blood — to participate in the very life of Christ — may still be paradoxically the hardest and the greatest of all of Jesus’ teachings for us. Do we want to participate in the life of God? It will surely mean leaving many things behind. But it also means life. Real life. Eternal life.
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