The Book of Hebrews presents Jesus as a faithful high priest who offered himself up as a spotless lamb of sacrifice whose blood was shed to atone for us and cleanse us of our sins. In response to this claim, some readers of this post may be asking, “OK, so what?” High priests. Lambs of sacrifice. Blood. It may prove difficult for many people today to see the need for Jesus as a faithful high priest who offers himself up as a spotless lamb of sacrifice. After all, most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about blood sacrifices. Or do we? Consider vampires. They pique people’s interest in movies and television series, and not just at Halloween.
In an article titled “Vampire Stories and the Real Presence” at First Things, James R. Rogers compares vampires and Jesus: “Rather than the resurrected Lord who willingly offers his own sacrificed body and blood to give humans eternal life, Vampires are resurrected lords who sacrifice unwilling humans to take their blood for eternal life for themselves. The pivot around which both stories turn is the affirmation that the life of the flesh is in the blood.” Rogers also notes that in many modern accounts of vampires, one finds good vampires who deny their natural cravings to suck the blood of humans and serve them instead.
Why all the fixation with blood and eternal life? Is it because without blood, there is no life? On a basic biological level, blood and life go together. The Bible appears to build on the biological to make a spiritual point: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement” (Leviticus 17:11; NRSV). In Leviticus 17:10, we find the prohibition for people to eat blood. As Rogers argues, it was not because God found the practice “repulsive,” but because the people found it “too attractive.” Rogers claims that “humanity’s idolatrous impatience would have had us seeking to receive forgiveness in the blood of creatures who could not provide it.” For what it’s worth, the book of Hebrews also makes this point: “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4; NRSV; on the once-for-all, all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus and his blood, see Hebrews 9-10).
Some Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire found blood sacrifice and atonement repulsive. However, not everyone has dismissed the notion, not in ancient times, and not in the present day. Further to what was noted above, it was not simply the ancient Hebrews and the surrounding people groups that were familiar with the practice. One finds evidence of the practice in other ancient cultures. While many moderns might find the practice repulsive, and write off the ancient fascination as the result of primitive ways of thinking, still I wonder why so many people are fascinated with vampires in our society today (Refer here, here, here, here and here for treatments of the subject). Apart from the good ones who still struggle with the yearning, vampires drink the blood of helpless victims to attain eternal life. Could it be that our primitive attraction to blood atonement still resides deep within our psyche and imagination? If we don’t account for the Bible’s depiction of atonement through Jesus’ blood, but write it off as primitive superstition, won’t the idea simply surface in other ways, including vampire tales old and new?
Beyond historical and literary accounts of vampires and blood atonement, we must bring the subject matter closer to home. Horror stories of priests and pastors who have been found guilty of sexual improprieties and preying on minors might appear to be Christian versions of vampires sucking the life out of others. Thus, when we hear mention of Jesus being a faithful high priest, it might be difficult to compute and believe. But Hebrews tells us just that: Jesus is faithful as a high priest forever! Jesus does not drain the life out of others, but pours out his life for all of us. Therefore, we can trust him.
We find consideration of Jesus as a great high priest in such passages as Hebrews 4 through 6. Jesus is the kind of priest who empathizes with us because he has gone through what we go through. And yet, he has gone through the various trials and temptations that we do without sinning: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15; NRSV). Gareth Lee Cockerill argues that the word translated here as “sympathize” is much stronger in the Greek. It is a “sympathy that leads to active assistance.” Jesus does not simply feel our pain as a fellow human, but as the God-Man he has conquered sin and death and has passed through the heavens for our sake to bring us cleansing from sin and salvation (See Hebrews 4:14-15). Because of all this, we should hold fast to our confession of faith (Hebrews 4:14) and “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16; NRSV).
Now for those who think they have no need of God’s grace and mercy, and that while they may make mistakes or tell only white lies, but not commit sins of any real import, they should think again. As the writer of Hebrews says earlier in chapter 4, God’s Word probes, penetrates and exposes the hidden recesses of our hearts (Hebrews 4:12). And so, the writer says, “…before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account” (Hebrews 4:13; NRSV). Cockerill notes that this text is “about the exposure of the human heart and therefore about the accountability, and, indeed, the absolute helplessness, of God’s people before him.”
In view of being exposed by God’s penetrating gaze, the writer of Hebrews exhorts his readers who have fled to God for refuge (Hebrews 6:18) to “hold fast” to their confession and hope in Jesus (Hebrews 4:14, 6:18; ESV) rather than “fall away” from the faith (Hebrews 6:6; see also 4:11) in the face of trials and persecution. It is worth it to “hold fast” with “tenacious endurance” to what they already possess since Jesus is faithful to God and to them/us. Just to be clear, such holding fast with “tenacious endurance” should not be taken to suggest a defensive posture and mindset, whereby one is simply struggling not to lose. Rather, one is proactive, going forward to win, operating with confidence and holy boldness in view of Jesus, the great high priest: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16; NRSV). All who believe in Jesus have every reason to be confident given who Jesus is as the faithful, great high priest. Moreover, God’s Word of promise and oath to save those who look to Jesus will not falter. God does not lie—not even little white ones. God’s oath and promise are certain. They are unchangeable, just like God’s character (See Hebrews 6:13-20).
If God and the great high priest Jesus have gone to such great lengths in providing salvation for us, why would we not hold fast in times of trial and temptation? Why would we look to others who might suck our blood like vampires? Let us look only to the resurrected and ascended Lord Jesus, our faithful high priest who sheds his own life’s blood to bring us life? Hold fast to the faith. Do not fall away. Jesus is faithful.
Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, vol. 1, translated, with an introduction and glossary by Peter Gray (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1962), page 326.
See Mark Pizzato, “Blood Sacrifice in Ancient Greece and Aztec America,” in Theatres of Human Sacrifice: From Ancient Ritual to Screen Violence, SUNY Series in Psychoananlysis and Culture (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2004).
Gareth Lee Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), page 225.
Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, page 217, n. 14.
Cockerill indicates that the idea of holding fast conveys “tenacious endurance in Christian profession.” See Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, page 22.