Blood as a Symbol of Justification
Because blood is a symbol of death and life, it was used in Israelite temples for “the altar [of sacrifice] to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul” — thus symbolizing the process of repentance that culminates in justification.
The first explicit mention of “blood” in the Bible is Genesis 4:10–11, when Abel’s blood cried to God from the ground as a plea of redress for Cain’s murder, and the earth in turn from thenceforth refused to yield its strength to the perpetrator of the crime.
The deliberate consumption of blood has been practiced in many cultures because “popular thought had it that one could renew or reinforce one’s vitality through … absorption of blood.” Intriguingly, an alternate reading of Moses 6:29 given in the OT1 manuscript, describes a wicked Cain-like people who, “by their oaths, … have eat[en] unto themselves death.” If this variant is not a scribal error, it may indicate a corrupt practice where participation in ordinances by those who were ritually unclean was condemned, or perhaps even the “eating” of blood itself. Note that this language further echoes and extends the symbolism of the “eating of death” in the act that precipitated the Fall. Later, God said to Noah: “the blood of all flesh which I have given you for meat shall be shed upon the ground which taketh the life thereof and the blood ye shall not eat.”
Blood as a Symbol of Sanctification
As part of the entry on “Sacrifices,” the Latter-day Saint Bible Dictionary makes the following observation about the order of the offerings in Israelite temples:
It is noteworthy that when the three offerings were offered together, the sin always preceded the burnt, and the burnt the peace offerings. Thus the order of the symbolizing sacrifices was the order of atonement [i.e., justification], sanctification, and fellowship with the Lord [i.e., exaltation].
The symbolism of this order of offerings in ancient temples will be meaningful to Latter-day Saints who serve in modern temples. While the initial blessing of justification comes exclusively by means of a substitutionary offering on the altar of sacrifice in the temple courtyard—“relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save”—the culminating step of the process of sanctification is a joint effort, symbolized by a “second sacrifice” made on the altar of incense that stands before the veil. While that second sacrifice is no less dependent on the “merits, and mercy, and grace” of Christ and the ongoing endowment of His strengthening power, it requires in addition that individuals grow in their capacity to meet the stringent measure of self-sacrifice enjoined by the law of consecration as exemplified by Nephi and his companions in their soul-saving labor on behalf of their “children” and “brethren”—“for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do”—which, in our view, means both that we can neither be saved without divine grace, nor without all we can do.
There is a double meaning in the phrase “by the blood ye are sanctified,” as was expressed in the words about Christ cited in the pseudepigraphal Gospel of Philip: “He who was redeemed in turn redeemed (others).” Although redemption itself comes only “in and through the atonement of the Only Begotten Son,” it might also be said regarding those who have been “ordained after the order of [the] Son”: He who was redeemed with “a preparatory redemption” in turn must assist “with all [his] heart, might, mind and strength” to bring about the redemption of others. In brief, those who would follow Christ “to the end,” must continue to move beyond the keeping of the initiatory law of obedience and sacrifice toward the complete dedication required by the law of consecration.
Ultimately, the blood is intended not solely to sanctify the altar but also to sanctify ourselves. When Isaiah was taken up to the presence of God to receive his prophetic commission, “one of the seraphims” flew to him:
having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.
Presumably the coal, “taken … off the altar” of incense that “purged” (literally “atoned for”) Isaiah’s sin previously had been sprinkled with sacrificial blood. Thus, symbolically, his lips had been sanctified by the blood of Jesus Christ (who, arguably, may have been the very “one of the seraphims” mentioned in the verse), preparing him to speak with God.
In light of the considerations above, it is clear that, although the Saints cannot be made clean without God’s own sanctifying power, they must in addition fulfill His requirement to “sanctify themselves.” This they do by “purify[ing their] hearts, and cleans[ing their] hands and [their] feet” in order that “I[, the Lord,] may make [them] clean … from the blood of this wicked generation; that I may fulfill … this great and last promise” to “unveil [my] face unto [them].” Explaining the need for disciples to be made “clean every whit” that they may be ready to stand in the presence of God, John W. Welch described the change in law that was announced by Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount:
The old law of sacrifice was explicitly replaced by that of the “broken heart and contrite spirit,” and whereas previously the sacrificial animal was to be pure and without blemish [haplous], now the disciples themselves are to become “single” [haplous] to the glory of God.
Within modern temple ordinances, as within the sacrament, animal sacrifice is replaced by the offering of oneself. Such offerings are “memorials of … sacrifices by the sons of Levi”—in other words, symbolic rather than literal reenactments of ancient temple practices that required the shedding of blood. Illuminating the difference between the ordinances of the “preparatory” Aaronic priesthood and those of the “holy” Melchizedek priesthood “after the Order of the Son of God,” Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught that “real, personal sacrifice never was placing an animal on the altar. Instead, it is a willingness to put the animal in us upon the altar and letting it be consumed!”
Making the Sacrifice of Abraham
The gospel is more than a catalogue of moral platitudes; these are matters of either eternal life or nothing. Nothing less than the sacrifice of Abraham is demanded of us. But how do we make it? In the way Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah all did. Each was willing and expected to be sacrificed, and each committed his or her all to prove it. In each case the sacrifice was interrupted at the last moment and a substitute provided: to their relief, someone else had been willing to pay the price, but not until after they had shown their good faith and willingness to go all the way—“lay not thy hand on the lad … for now I know.” Abraham had gone far enough; he had proven to himself and the angels who stood witness (we are told) that he was actually willing to perform the act. Therefore the Lord was satisfied with the token then, for he knew the heart of Abraham. This is the same for Isaac and Sarah and for us. And whoever is willing to make the sacrifice of Abraham to receive eternal life will show it by the same signs and tokens as Abraham, but he or she must do it in good faith and with real intent.
This article is adapted and expanded from Bradshaw, Jeffrey M., and Matthew L. Bowen. “‘By the Blood Ye Are Sanctified’: The Symbolic, Salvific, Interrelated, Additive, Retrospective, and Anticipatory Nature of the Ordinances of Spiritual Rebirth in John 3 and Moses 6.” In Sacred Time, Sacred Space, and Sacred Meaning (Proceedings of the Third Interpreter Foundation Matthew B. Brown Memorial Conference, 5 November 2016), edited by Stephen D. Ricks and Jeffrey M. Bradshaw. The Temple on Mount Zion 4, 43–237. Orem and Salt Lake City, UT: The Interpreter Foundation and Eborn Books, 2020, pp. 93–99, 103.
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Note that the Hebrew term for blood, dam, is used in the Bible as “a poetic term for wine ([Genesis 49:11.] cf. Deuteronomy 32:14). ‘Blood’ … is also used in Akkadian (dāmu) for red wine. In Ugaritic yn, ‘wine,’ is paralleled with dm ‘ṣm, ‘blood of trees’” (ibid., p. 337 blood of grapes). In the blessing of Judah in Genesis 49:11, it is said that he had symbolically “washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes” (see ibid., p. 337 He washes). The expression may “relate to the stained garments of those engaged in the manufacture of wine, as mentioned in Isaiah 63:2ff.” (ibid., p. 337 He washes). For Latter-day Saints, this is messianic imagery (see, e.g., V. L. Ludlow, Isaiah, pp. 511–514; J. M. Bradshaw, How Should We Understand the Rich Symbolism; Revelation 19:13; D&C 76:107; 133:46–51).
At the Creation of man in Genesis 2:7, there is wordplay with the Hebrew terms for “man” (’adam) and “earth” (’adamah). The mutual connection of both terms to the root for “red” (’adom) highlights the connection between a red-blooded man and the red earth from which he is created. The loss of blood (bloodshed) deprives one of life and is a metaphor for murder and death. Adam’s name, relating to the mortal body, complements Eve’s name (chavvah/chayyah = “living thing” or perhaps “propagator of life” [See N. M. Sarna, Genesis, 3:20 n. Eve, p. 27]), which relates to the breath of life or spirit that animates the body containing the blood.
Philip J. Long summarizes as follows (P. J. Long, Origin of the Eschatological Feast, p. 270):
Primordial beasts that were present at creation and in the retellings of the Exodus story will be killed and consumed just as death itself is consumed in Isaiah 25:6–8. The chaos monsters will be ultimately subdued and consumed. Eden itself will be restored and all will eat from the tree of life, just as the Israelites ate manna in the Wilderness after the Exodus.
The challenge of offering a perfect sacrifice to the Lord is aptly expressed by Shakespeare: “Laud we the gods, And let our crooked smokes climb to their nostrils From our blest altars” (W. Shakespeare, Cymbeline, 5:4:474–475, p. 85). His brilliant use of “crooked” to describe the altar smoke refers obviously to its upward curling movement, while also reflecting on the stubborn perversity of human nature in every act of sacrifice, where deficient attempts to meet its unbending requirements to turn wholeheartedly and bow in complete submission before God are most evident.
Just as Jesus Christ will put all enemies beneath his feet (1 Corinthians 15:25–26), so Joseph Smith taught that each person who would be saved must also, with His essential help, gain the power needed to “triumph over all [their] enemies and put them under [their] feet” (J. Smith, Jr., Teachings, 14 May 1843, p. 297. See also 17 May 1843, p. 301; 21 May 1843, p. 305), possessing the “glory, authority, majesty, power, and dominion which Jehovah possesses” (L. E. Dahl et al., Lectures, 7:9, p. 98; cf. 7:16—note that it is not certain whether Joseph Smith personally authored these lectures).
As Chauncey Riddle explains (C. C. Riddle, New, p. 228), “the covenant of baptism is [not only ] our pledge to seek after good and to eliminate all choosing and doing of evil in our lives, [but] also our receiving the power to keep that promise,” i.e., through the gift of the Holy Ghost. For Latter-day Saints, Jesus Christ is not only their Redeemer but also their literal prototype, the One who demonstrates the process of probation that all people must pass through as they follow Him (Matthew 4:19; 8:22; 9:9; 16:24; 19:21; Mark 2:14; 8:24; 10:21; Luke 5:27; 9:23, 59, 61; 18:22; John 1:43; 10:27; 12:26; 13:36; 21:19, 22).
As we approach the second barrier of sacrifice, we move symbolically from the moon to the sun. All of the moon’s light is reflected from the sun—it is borrowed light [cf. Book of Abraham, explanation of Facsimile 2, Figure 5].
Heber C. Kimball used to say that when life’s greatest tests come, those who are living on borrowed light—the testimonies of others—will not be able to stand (O. F. Whitney, Kimball, May 1868, pp. 446, 449–450; J. G. Kimball, 8 April 1906, 8 April 1906, pp. 76–77; J. G. Kimball, 4 October 1930, 4 October 1930, pp. 59–60; H. B. Lee, Watch, p. 1152. Cf. B. Young, BY 8 March 1857, 8 March 1857, pp. 265–266; A. M. Lyman, 12 July 1857, 12 July 1857, pp. 36–38; O. Hyde, 8 March 1857, 8 March 1857, pp. 71–72; C. W. Penrose, 20 May 1883, 20 May 1883, p. 41. See also Matthew 25:1–13). We need our own access to the light of the Son.
Baptism represents the first sacrifice. The temple endowment represents the second sacrifice. The first sacrifice was about breaking out of Satan’s orbit. The second one is about breaking fully into Christ’s orbit, pulled by His gravitational power. The first sacrifice was mostly about giving up temporal things. The second one is about consecrating ourselves spiritually, holding back nothing. As Elder Maxwell said, the only thing we can give the Lord that He didn’t already give us is our own will (See N. A. Maxwell, Mentor, p. 17).
Seeking to be meek and lowly, disciples gladly offer God their will. As Latter-day Saint children sing, “I feel my Savior’s love. … / He knows I will follow him, / Give all my life to him” (Children’s Songbook, “I feel my Savior’s love,” pp. 74–75). And then what happens? In President Benson’s words, “When obedience ceases to be an irritant and becomes our quest, in that moment God will endow us with power” (cited in D. L. Staheli, Obedience, p. 82).
I understand the preposition “after” in 2 Nephi 25:23 to be a preposition of separation rather than a preposition of time. It denotes logical separateness rather than temporal sequence. We are saved by grace “apart from all we can do,” or “all we can do notwithstanding,” or even “regardless of all we can do.” Another acceptable paraphrase of the sense of the verse might read, “We are still saved by grace, after all is said and done.”
For additional discussion of this verse in the context of general discussions of divine grace, see B. C. Hafen, Broken, pp. 155–156; B. Wilcox, His Grace; J. M. Spencer, What Can We Do; S. O. Smoot, Saved By Charis. Two excellent studies by Jared Ludlow and Daniel O. McClellan have gone further to place the scripture in its required literary context (J. Ludlow, “After All”; D. O. McClellan, 2 Nephi 25:23 in linguistic and rhetorical context (Presentation at the conference ‘Book of Mormon Studies: Toward a Conversation,’ Utah State University, Logan, Utah, October 12-13, 2018) D. O. McClellan, Despite All We Can Do).
Although Alma 24:10–11 defines “all we could do” [note the past tense, emphasis added] solely in terms of repentance, we are of the opinion that one of the purposes of the process of sanctification is to allow us to grow in holiness, gradually acquiring a capacity for doing “more”—specifically, becoming “good” like our Father (see Matthew 19:17; Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19) and “doing good” (Acts 10:38, emphasis added) like the Son, an evolution of our natures jointly enabled by the Atonement and our exercise of moral agency.
Despite all this, of course, it must never be forgotten that even repentance itself, which is “all we can do” at the time we first accept Christ, would be impossible had not the merciful plan of redemption been laid before the foundation of the world (Alma 12:22–37). And, of course, it is His continuous grace that lends us breath, “preserving [us] from day to day, … and even supporting [us] from one moment to another” (Mosiah 2:21).
does not say that blood sacrifices would be offered to the Lord … The Hebrew word used to designate the “offering” in this passage is minchah, which is commonly used in Old Testament temple texts to designate a “bloodless” sacrifice … (cf. The Testament of Levi, where angel priests offer bloodless sacrifices in the heavenly temple [H. C. Kee, Testaments, Levi 3:4–6, p. 789]). [Moreover, the] Lord helped to clarify the meaning of the Prophet’s teachings when he revealed on 19 January 1841 that within the walls of the Nauvoo Temple he would restore “the fulness of the priesthood” (D&C 124:28), and there the latter-day “sons of Levi” would offer sacrifice in the manner of a memorial, meaning in symbolic fashion (D&C 124:39). On 6 September 1842, shortly after the Nauvoo temple ordinances were first bestowed, Joseph Smith quoted Malachi 3:2–3 and clearly stated that it was the “Latter-day Saints” who were to “offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness” in the “holy temple” (D&C 128:24). He also indicated that the offering he was referring to was of a bloodless nature (D&C 128:24).
Similarly, in Genesis 14:18 Melchizedek does not offer animal sacrifices to God, but “presents only the memorials of sacrifice, bread and wine” (C. I. Scofield, Scofield Reference Bible, Genesis 14:18, p. 23, emphasis in original).
For more on this topic, see J. M. Bradshaw, J. M. Bradshaw, God’s Image 1, Excursus 33: The Restoration of Sacrifice, pp. 609–610.