Nothing but the blood.
Your Christian faith is a bloody faith and that ought not make you fearful or scared or embarrassed.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
I have long considered the Book of Hebrews to be among the most important books in the canon of Scripture. The thirteen-chapter epistle essentially serves as one extended sermon, in that its manifold themes and topics all revolve around one central idea. The simple premise that Jesus is better drives the entire discourse, with the author demonstrating the superiority of the Lord Jesus Christ primarily through a series of comparisons and contrasts between Sinai and Zion, Moses and Jesus, and law and grace, among others. The author explicitly says that Jesus’s ministry is “better,” writing, “But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises” (Heb. 8:6). A better covenant with better promises is, here, declared and championed by a better Mediator. This, I think, is brought to bear even further in the following chapter, where the author describes Christ as the “better High Priest,” who stands in the tabernacle and sheds his own blood to cover the sins of the assembled saints “once for all” (Heb. 9:11–28). And it is on this point that we arrive at chapter twelve and the author’s assertion that Jesus’s blood “speaketh better things than that of Abel” (Heb. 12:24).
The notion that blood has a voice seems unfamiliar and almost otherworldly to us, at first. The intentional symbolism of this expression is meant to bring to mind the fundamental fact of our salvation, which, as it is written, is captured in the elemental logic that without the shedding of blood there is no remission from sin (Heb. 9:22). Your Christian faith is a bloody faith, and that ought not make you fearful or scared or embarrassed. “Christian religion is covered in blood,” writes Brad East in The Hedgehog Review. “Wherever you look, you’re bound to see red.” For some, this might cause no small amount of trepidation. The notion that the scaffolding of your faith is a structure of violent belief can seem untenable within our current cultural context and social climate. But, to be sure, Christianity’s unpopularity isn’t a modern novelty, as much as some would have you believe. This detestation was alive and well as early as the first century, when congregants of the early church were accused of cannibalism because they found so much hope in blood that had been shed for them.1 Have you ever considered how peculiar it is that we revel in singing such hymns as “Nothing But the Blood,” which rejoices in the violent spilling of blood? Perhaps you’ve never given such things that much thought before. But, I’d say, that integral to your faith is a consideration of the violence of the cross and the blood that was spilled there — specifically, the blood that speaks “better things than that of Abel” (Heb. 12:24).
If we are to understand these “things” of which Jesus’s blood speaks, we are obliged to first understand the things of which Abel’s blood speaks. Such is what brings us to Genesis 4, which is, of course, the account of Cain’s betrayal of his brother, Abel. The familiarity of this story ought not deter us from gleaning from its significance. Indeed, Genesis 3 and 4, like all of Hebrews, are among the most important texts in the entire Bible. As chapter four opens, the world which the Godhead had spoken into existence and called “very good” had fallen into corruption. Sin had intruded and marred the goodness of God’s creation. Adam and Eve had been banned from Eden and forced to live under the curse and condemnation of sin and death. The intimate fellowship and harmony they once enjoyed was now all but a memory of a bygone era, as blazing cherubim stand as heavenly sentinels over the “way of the tree of life” (Gen. 3:24). The personal presence our first parents used to enjoy is now barricaded by swords and angels.
But hope isn’t wholly gone. The promise of the “woman’s seed” fills Adam and Eve with an optimistic expectation that what was fractured will one day be repaired (Gen. 3:15). In fact, this promise was so foundational to Adam and Eve’s existence that we see them rejoicing over its perceived fulfillment with the birth of Cain (Gen. 4:1). Eve’s exclamation that she has “gotten a man from the Lord” as she looks in the eyes of her first-born son suggests that she believes that God’s promise has been fulfilled. “I’ve given birth to a son of Jehovah,” we might render her words. In her mind, the promised “seed of the woman” was accomplished at the birth of Cain,2 which all but heightens how far her expectations surely fell as the rest of the events of Genesis 4 unfold. After Cain, Eve gives birth to another son, Abel (Gen. 4:2). These two brothers, then, serve as the first post-Eden generation. And it’s important to note both their differences and their similarities. For instance, their occupations are on different terms, with Abel being a “keeper of sheep” and Cain a “tiller of the ground.” We ought not drive too big of a wedge between these brothers, though, as they’re seen coming to worship the same God at the same time (Gen. 4:3). But, as you very well know, the way in which Cain and Abel approach the Lord is very different:
And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: but unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. (Gen. 4:3–5)
You might be thrown off by this scene if you don’t keep in mind a few particulars. The phrase “in process of time” is indicative of a divinely appointed time, as in the Sabbath (Gen. 2:2–3), in which these two sons of Adam would assemble to pay homage to their Lord. Apparently, even though it’s not explicitly stated in the text, Adam and Eve set about instructing their offspring on the proper time, place, and method by which they could commune with their Creator since being exiled from the garden. Some believe that the place of worship was that very spot previously alluded to, which was being guarded by the cherubim (Gen. 3:24). Nonetheless, a critical point to make when seeking to understand this moment is that both Cain and Abel were aware of the same requirements. Cain’s offering of the “fruit of the ground” was not done out of ignorance. He wasn’t clueless of what was expected of him. He didn’t lack the knowledge of what God required; he merely rejected it. And what was expected of him? An offering of blood.
When we are told that God had “respect unto Abel and to his offering,” but not to Cain, we might be given to think that God is being petty. After all, aren’t both Cain and Abel making offerings, seeking to ascribe to their Lord the honor and worth he’s due? Remember, though, that Adam and Eve had already been given the most graphic lesson in how worship and fellowship was to be conducted “East of Eden” when the Lord clothed them with the skins of innocent animals (Gen. 3:21). We know, from this verse, that from the very beginning, communion with the Lord was carried out by coverings of blood. The “coats of skins” informed our first parents of the proper means by which to approach the Lord, which we infer their sons to have known, as well (Rom. 10:17). Therefore, it’s not a frivolous thing when Cain and Abel come into the presence of the Lord with very divergent offerings. Indeed, they are demonstrating what lies at the crux of our faith.
Abel’s offering of the “firstlings of his flock and the fat thereof” was entirely in keeping with what God required. He brought a lamb to that altar, the shed blood of which would serve as a visible memorial of his absolution and acceptance before the Lord of all things. Such is why God regarded and accepted what Abel offered. By contrast, however, God’s disregard and disapproval of Cain’s offering can be understood in two ways. (1) It was an offering from “the fruit of the ground,” which meant that there was no blood involved. There was no crimson flow running down Cain’s altar before the Lord, only the pulp of a harvest he tilled. Which, as it happens, is the Lord’s other point of contention with Cain’s offering: (2) It was an offering he cultivated and collected. Cain, the “tiller of the ground,” comes before the Lord with an offering of the “fruit of the ground.” He is thereby endeavoring to offer the fruits of his own labor, his own toil, his own striving as the basis for his acceptance. Whereas Abel’s offering was an offering of a vicarious sacrifice, the blood of which covered his guilt, Cain’s offering is an offering of his own work to pay for his absolution.
And so it is that the Heavenly Father turns his back on the worship of Cain — not because he’s a carnivorous deity who has something against fruits and vegetables, but because Cain’s method of worship was entirely rooted in the cobbling together of his own means of acceptance and approval. Cain insisted on coming before the Lord on his own terms, with hands still gripping his perceived personal worth and goodness. Abel, by all accounts, understood the moment. He knew, to some degree, what it meant to worship the Lord and Creator of all things according to his Word (Heb. 11:4). By bringing the “firstlings of his flock,” he was acknowledging that what he deserved was death, and that, in his stead, the lamb that was offered up took that penalty of death for him. Such is where all his hope and peace and pardon and acceptance was found. No other offering could give him that, which is precisely what vexed his older brother.
Cain’s fury and fallen countenance stems from the Lord’s rejection of his offering, which he sees as entirely unjust. Why did God have no regard for what he wanted to offer? This was the best “fruit of the ground,” the cream of the crop, the most excellent yield of all his agricultural labors. “How is this not good enough for you?” we might hear him protest. But, again, as the Lord reminds him, Cain knew the way in which his acceptance was wrought (Gen. 4:6–7). This divinely prescribed method of worship wasn’t foreign to him. He just couldn’t get over the notion that his own blood, sweat, and tears couldn’t accomplish the same thing. So committed was Cain to the notion that he didn’t need blood to cover him, and so jealous was he of his brother’s approval, that he rose up against his brother and killed him (Gen. 4:8). Such was the “fruit” of Cain’s unbelief and rebellion of God’s standard. Indeed, wherever sin has its full effect, the result is always death (Rom. 6:23; James 1:15).
But notice that Abel’s blood speaks. “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground,” the Lord says to him (Gen. 4:9–10). Cain couldn’t blame-shift his way out of this predicament. He drew blood and that blood served to indict him for murder in the first degree. Abel’s blood falls to the ground and calls out for justice. Such is what the Lord enforces as he details Cain’s cursed existence (Gen. 4:11–16). His life would be one of intense futility and frustration. The very ground in which he had placed all his hope is now turned against him (Gen. 4:12). All his endeavors for peace would forever prove unfruitful. He would live out his days as a “fugitive and a vagabond,” doomed to a lifetime of wandering and running and looking over his shoulder. Cain was marked man (Gen. 4:15), and such was his judgment. Everyone who was acquainted with Cain would know that they had interacted with a man under the curse of Yahweh. Till the day he died, Cain lived with an inescapable reminder of the life he took.
It is in this way that Cain and Abel stand as representatives of every man and woman alive today. They each portray in vivid detail the divergent ways in which we strive for peace, acceptance, and approval in the eyes of God.3 The “way of Cain” (Jude 1:11) is nothing but the way of folly. Those who ascribe to this way insist that they themselves can span the gulf that exists between God and them. The wall which separates them is penetrable by one’s work and toil and effort. This way is the way of man-made salvation, the way establishing one’s own righteousness (Rom. 10:3). In stark contrast is Abel’s way, which we might call the “way of blood.” Believers in this way accept the terms of God’s Word, which declares that “without shedding of blood is no remission” (Heb. 9:22). Such is what the Lord Jesus Christ, the true and better “seed of the woman,” came to reveal — namely, that “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) is both synonymous with the “way of blood” and is the only way that leads to glory.
Christ’s shed blood is the only way in which man is allowed to approach the Father. His blood strewn on the path is the only way in which the acceptance and approval, peace and pardon we so crave are ever received and enjoyed. All other ways are false ways, dead ends, which lead only to death. The heart of worship, I believe, is found as we let blood speak for us — specifically, the blood of “Jesus the mediator of the new covenant” (Heb. 12:24). His blood is everything. That bloody font at the foot of the cross stands forever as the principal tenet of our faith. Indeed, we have nothing without that blood. “Nothing can for sin atone: / Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”4 You see, our faith is undaunted by the sight of a bleeding God. In fact, that’s precisely where our faith is found. God bleeding is our creed. So writes Scottish churchman Horatius Bonar:
It is the blood that justifies (Rom. 5:9). It is the blood that pacifies the conscience, purging it from dead works to serve the living God (Heb. 9:14). It is the blood that emboldens us to enter through the veil into the holiest, and go up to the sprinkled mercy-seat. It is the blood that we are to drink for the quenching of our thirst (John 6:55). It is the blood by which we have peace with God (Col. 1:20). It is the blood through which we have redemption (Eph. 1:7), and by which we are brought nigh (Eph. 2:13), by which we are sanctified (Heb. 13:12). It is the blood which is the seal of the everlasting covenant (Heb. 13:20). It is the blood which cleanses (1 John 1:7), which gives us victory (Rev. 12:11), and with which we have communion in the Supper of the Lord (1 Cor. 10:16). It is the blood which is the purchase-money or ransom of the church of God (Acts 20:28).5
Ours, you could say, is a hematogenous faith. “The story of redemption is written in blood,” writes 19th century Scottish divine and philanthropist Thomas Guthrie.6 The crimson stream that flows from Jesus’s veins isn’t merely royal, it’s divine. Sin-stained scoundrels the likes of you and me are washed whiter than winter’s snow because we are covered by the blood of God. And within that divine-yet-human plasma that co-mingles with Jewish soil lies the remission for every single one of my sins and the sins of all who believe. Such are the “better things” of which his blood speaks.
The blood of God’s only begotten Son reverberates with the resounding news that we are pardoned, “once for all.” We are cleansed. We are washed. We are made new. “The blood of Christ ‘speaketh’ to God as a powerful Advocate,” comments Arthur Pink, “urging the fulfillment of the Mediator’s part of the everlasting covenant, His perfect satisfaction to Divine justice, the full discharge from condemnation purchased for His people.”7 And, what’s more, there is no sin within the realm of imagination that’s more powerful than this blood. “If we rest upon Him as our advocate and hope,” notes Alexander Maclaren, “then the loud voice of our sins will not be heard, accusing-tongued though they be, above the voice of His pleading blood.”8 The noise of our condemnation is drowned out by the “better things” which Jesus’s blood proclaims.9
And so it is that this blood which “speaketh better things than that of Abel” serves as the bedrock of our thanksgiving. When the blood of our better Mediator falls to the ground, it doesn’t cry out for more blood. Its voice doesn’t ache for vengeance. Rather, this blood utters words which secure our pardon, peace, and absolution. In contrast to the blood of Abel, which cries out for retribution, Christ’s blood cries out for our redemption. Our only hope, both now and forever, comes as we look to the blood and call upon the name of the Lord (Gen. 4:26), in whom alone our salvation is found.
Grace and peace to you, brothers and sisters.
See this discussed at length in an older yet nonetheless insightful essay by Andrew McGowan, entitled, “Eating People: Accusations of Cannibalism Against Christians in the Second Century,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 2:3 (1994): 413–42.
Martin Luther makes this argument quite eloquently in his commentary on Genesis, noting how Eve erred not in the promise of the Seed, but in the person of the Seed. Where she thought Cain to be the one her Lord spoke of who would crush the serpent’s head, God had a different, a better plan, one that wouldn’t “come to completion” for millennia. See Martin Luther, Luther on the Creation: A Critical and Devotional Commentary on Genesis, Vol. 1 (Minneapolis, MN: Luther In All Lands Co., 1904), 366–68.
Not for nothing, Jesus himself uses the Cain and Abel paradigm to contrast his ministry with that of the Pharisees during his diatribe against their sanctimony (Matt. 23:29–35). We might also say that this scene in Genesis 4 is nothing but the origin story for a parable which the Lord Jesus would later proclaim in Luke 18, with the figures being replaced by a Pharisee and a Publican. The reader is recommended to read my commentary on Luke 18 for more insight into that parable.
Robert Lowry, 1876.
Horatius Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness: or, How Shall Man Be Just With God? (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1993), 119–20.
Thomas Guthrie, The Parables: Read in the Light of Present Day (London: Alexander Strahan, 1867), 70.
Arthur W. Pink, An Exposition of Hebrews, Vols. 1–2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1963), 2:1055.
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944), 15:2.267.
“When Christ’s blood takes the microphone,” writes 1517 scholar in residence Chad Bird, “every square inch of the vast universe, every subterranean haunt of darkness, every hot and blackened corner of hell, and every angel in the celestial choir, shuts up to listen. When Christ’s blood takes the microphone, it is the only sound in creation, the booming declaration that echoes down the corridors of time, saying, ‘Father, forgive them.’”