“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.”
It seems an unassuming verse at first, tucked into the middle of a chapter of the Law concerning sacrifices and food laws. The previous chapter (16) concerned Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – when the high priest would enter the sanctuary to make atonement for himself and all Israel on one day of the year. Then here in chapter 17 the Lord speaks of laws concerning the shedding of blood. And in Leviticus 17:11, we have a statement that seems so simple and yet it says so much about how God cares for us.
“For the life of the flesh is in the blood,”: In Genesis 2:7 we read:
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.
Man became a living being because of the breath of God, and that word translated as “living being” (or “soul” in some translations) comes from “nephesh,” a Hebrew root word meaning “breath” or “breathing thing.” That same word is used in today’s verse to designate the “life” that is in the blood. It is the breath of God that is in the blood of every creature, the very spark of life. In men, blood carries the touch of the divine, because God gave His breath directly to men. The breath of God is His Spirit, and it doesn’t stay just in our lungs or heart, His life-giving Spirit suffuses every part of our bodies.
“and I have given it to you upon the altar”: Here the Israelites thought they were giving God something that was their own, the firstfruits of their flocks and herds. And then God turns it around on them to remind them that He is the “Yahweh Yireh” – “The LORD Will Provide” – just as He was when Abraham was sent to sacrifice Isaac. (Genesis 22:9-14) God provides what we need to serve Him – and He also provides what we need to atone for our souls.
“to make atonement for your souls;”: The blood that is shed atones for the lives we live. When we sin, we pollute the life God has given us, and it is necessary that we purify ourselves, to cover what we have done. We do that through the shedding of the blood that God provides for us.
“for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.”: We are not saved from God’s wrath by any action we perform other than placing our trust in the One who provides the blood that is shed on the altar. Our worship does not atone for us. Our alms do not atone for us. Our prayers and fasts do not atone for us. Only the blood can atone for us.
In the Gospel of John is that favorite passage of all Christians:
16 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
17 “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”
God gave us Christ for our salvation, for it is the Blood of Christ that makes eternal atonement for our souls. All that God asks of us now is the same sacrifice David knew he needed to make:
16 For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
A broken and a contrite heart –
These, O God, You will not despise.
All God asks is that we come to Him broken, humble, and repentant, and allow the Blood of Jesus to wash us clean.
13 For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh,
14 how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
Let Christ be the blood upon the altar for you today. Repent, accept His sacrifice, and live a new life, a purified life. Let God provide your atonement, and then join in the heavenly chorus that proclaims:
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain
To receive power and riches and wisdom,
And strength and honor and glory and blessing!”
Lord God, thank You for providing what You alone could provide: atonement for the sins of the world. Through the blood of Jesus, I can see why Peter said You are not willing that any should perish but that all men should come to repentance. Accept my heart, my life, today, as I accept Your Son once again as my Savior. Be Lord of my life, Father, and help me to be holy, as You are holy. Amen.