Unless You Drink of My Blood...
No other belief of the Jehovah's Witnesses gives rise to as much discussion (and heightening of emotions) as their refusal to participate in blood transfusions. For an "orthodox" Jehovah Witness, if it came to the situation where the only way they could save the life of their spouse, child, or friend was to give them blood, they would have to refuse doing so because of this religious belief. This is not done out of malice, or superstition, but out of a belief that Holy Scripture prohibits such a practice. Those familiar with the Bible know that this belief is rooted in the Old Testament's prohibition of the consumption of blood. They will often argue against those Witnesses who don't believe in blood transfusions by saying that Christ fulfilled the Law, and thus blood is no longer considered as "prohibited." But many do not realize that, for the Witnesses, this belief is not founded so much in the writings of the Old Testament, but on those of the New Testament, mainly the Acts of the Apostles. The central text is found where the Council of Jerusalem prohibits, among other things, the consumption of blood for certain Gentile converts to Christianity (see Acts 15:1-35). The Witnesses interpret this as being restrictive for all Christians.
To get a better understanding of this belief, let us look at what scripture tell us about the Council of Jerusalem and its decision regarding the consumption of blood. We know this council was called because of disputes that had risen regarding the necessity of Gentile converts to follow the Law of Moses. Many thought it was not necessary, but "some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, 'It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses'" (Acts 15:5). So the apostles and elders gathered together in Jerusalem and talked it out, and came to the decision that, "instead of making it more difficult for the Gentiles who turn to God, we should send them a letter telling them merely to . . . abstain from anything polluted by idols, from unchastity, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood" (Acts 15:20). So this was put down in a letter and sent (by Paul) "to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia" (Acts 15:23).
Notice, neither the letter nor the restrictions were meant for the Church as a whole, but only to the Gentile converts in a certain section of the world. Nor was it making any "dogmatic" statement, but only a practical one. Thus most do not interpret this passage as being meant for all generations of Christians. It was meant to keep peace between the Jewish and Gentile converts in a specific community at a specific time. In addition, it, like the rest of scripture, was prohibiting the consumption of blood , not its use in medical operations . But, let us not dismiss the Witnesses' argument, but instead look at each of the restrictions set down by the council individually.
The four things the Council prohibited for the Gentile converts in Antioch and the surrounding areas in order to keep peace within the community were: 1) food polluted by idols, 2) unchastity, 3) strangled animals, and 4) blood. The question that should come immediately to mind is, out of all the precepts of the Law, why were these four selected to be kept by these converts? What, if anything, do they have in common? Hopefully, knowing this would give us an idea of why they were chosen. But to know this, we have to go back to the Old Testament and take a look at the Jewish Law.
The Prohibition of the Consumption of Blood in the Old Testament
For the Hebrew, blood (dam) was intimately linked with the life (nephesh) of the creature. Scripture tell us, "Only be sure that you do not eat the blood; for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the flesh" (Deut 12:23, see also Genesis 9:4, and Levicticus 7:11,14). Indeed, the Jews believed that the very life of the creature was contained in its blood.
In the Garden of Eden, before the Fall, God speaks to Adam saying, "I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food" (Genesis 1:29). It is difficult to exegete this passage; why before the Fall, man could not eat meat at all, but after the flood, they could eat meat, but without the blood present in it. It seems to have do with the loss of the state of Original Justice that existed before the Fall where man was in harmony with God, and himself and all of creation. But when sin entered into the world, these "right relations" were disordered, and a violence and death entered into creation, resulting in man's need (permission) to kill for his food. It is the "seed of strife" between man and creation, and even more between man and man that will wax as time goes on as he gets further away from God and His will for him. This leads us then to the Flood and God's subsequent covenant with Noah where we see the first official prohibition against the consumption of blood. Yahweh tells Noah, "Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood" (Gen 9:3-4). It is only at a much later date that this restriction is incorporated into the law as a whole.
"If any man of the house of Israel or of the strangers that sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood. Any man also of the people of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, who takes in hunting any beast or bird that may be eaten shall pour out its blood and cover it with dust. For the life of every creature is the blood of it; therefore I have said to the people of Israel, You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off. And every person that eats what dies of itself or what is torn by beasts, whether he is a native or a sojourner, shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening; then he shall be clean. But if he does not wash them or bathe his flesh, he shall bear his iniquity" (Levicticus 17:10-16).
This was a very important restriction in the Jewish mind and it is repeated in a number of places throughout the Old Testament (see Deut 12:16,23,27; 15:23; Lev 3:17, 7:26; 19:26;1 Samuel 14:31-35). Even foreigners were not exempt (see Levicticus 12:10-12). The scriptures tell us, if one was to consume blood, the penalty, as mentioned above, was for that individual "to be cut off (karath) from his people" (Leviticus 7:27); that is he would no longer be part of God's chosen people, no longer in covenant with Him. This is a fate that equaled spiritual death for the Jew.
The prophet Ezekiel speaks quite dramatically about the consumption of blood. He prophesizes, "Thus says the Lord GOD: You eat flesh with the blood, and lift up your eyes to your idols, and shed blood; shall you then possess the land?" (Ezekiel 33:25). The important consideration here is that Ezekiel connects the consumption of blood with the worship of idols, or foreign gods. This quote alludes to the fact that is the most crucial for the analysis of the prohibition of the eating of blood; it gets to the root of the question of why blood is prohibited in the first place in the Old Testament. And this brings us to the principle or command that acts as the whole thrust of the Law.
In the Law, Israel had over 600 separate prescripts to follow — dealing with everything from work to worship, from food to hygiene. But what was the reason for the law? Why did God prohibit so many things? What was the impetus behind his commands? It is in the book of Leviticus that we find the answer. After listing the Law of Holiness in Chapters 17-19 (including the prohibitions against the consumption of blood), the Lord says in summation,
"You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my ordinances, and do them; that the land where I am bringing you to dwell may not vomit you out. And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation which I am casting out before you; for they did all these things, and therefore I abhorred them. But I have said to you, 'You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.' I am the LORD your God, who have separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore make a distinction between the clean beast and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; you shall not make yourselves abominable by beast or by bird or by anything with which the ground teems, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean. You shall be holy to me; for I the LORD am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine" (Leviticus 20:22-26).
The whole purpose of the law was to set Israel apart from the pagan, gentile nations. Indeed, "as the law was applied increasingly to every aspect of Jewish life, it increasingly singled out Jew from Gentile."  The entire law serves the first commandment, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:2-3). Yahweh had set them apart as a nation of priests, a holy nation (cf. Ex 19:6), to be holy as He is holy (cf. Lev 11:44). The book of Deuteronomy expresses this idea quite well:
"When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take heed that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, 'How did these nations serve their gods? — that I also may do likewise.' You shall not do so to the LORD your God; for every abominable thing which the LORD hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods" (Deuteronomy 12:29-31).
Yahweh is so different from the pagan Gods (cf. Psalm 50:12-14) that he wants them to worship him in a totally unique way to show his holiness and majesty as compared to the other Gods. So the Law became pressed under distinctions of clean and unclean that symbolized the difference between Israel and the gentiles. At whatever cost the Jew must remain clean, and if he were to become unclean for whatever reason, he must immediately engage in the prescribed ritual to be restored to normalcy. Anything from touching a dead body, to having certain diseases, or even associating with certain people could render you unclean. But most importantly, Israel must avoid any sort of contamination from pagan rituals that would "cut them off" from Yahweh. The Law had to be extremely harsh since they were living surrounded by the gentiles and were being constantly tempted to fall into their idolatrous ways. Look to the beginning of the Deuteronomic Code found in the 12th, 13th and 14th chapters of the book of Deuteronomy. The introduction constantly repeats (as does the rest of scripture) the warning against worshipping other Gods (specifically Canaanite gods), and as it does so, sets up as it's fundamental precepts laws regulating places of worship, sacrificial regulations, and preliminary dietary regulations.
Under these dietary regulations we must note here that for the Jews food expressed relationship, and sectarianism soon became to be defined through dietary laws. Even more so during the post-exilic period, food began to represent the entire law. Animals were declared "clean and unclean" because of a certain symbolism that they contained of "regularity" and "irregularity" in regards to status with the gentiles. In refusing to eat an unclean animal, the Jew was saying symbolically that he would not associate with the unclean pagan. And it is under these dietary laws that the non-consumption of blood falls.
It is known that certain practices of the gentiles in the days of Israel (and during the apostolic age also) involved a ritual sacrifice of an animal which represented one of their deities. This sacrifice then culminated in the drinking of the blood of the animal in order to gain the supernatural power, the very life of the deity, they believed to be contained in the blood. For Israel though, no animal could symbolize Yahweh, since he was pure spirit, thus the forming of graven images was condemned. The above reason though, is why the Jews were prohibited from eating blood. Not just because "the life was in it," but more importantly God did not want them being tempted by such pagan practices, he wanted to set them totally apart, away from the near occasions of sin. This is also the reason strangled animals were prohibited, for since strangling had killed them, their blood has not been drained from them. The Jews could not even eat "gentile food" (Tobit 1:10-12) So, instead of being eaten, the blood from the sacrifices was to be poured out around the altar (see Lev 4:7,25,34; 8:15; Deut 12:16,27). This is how they were to be practically set apart in their worship. The Hebrews believed that God dwelt with his chosen people in the Ark of the Covenant, not in the blood of an animal. To be set apart from the gentiles then is the whole purpose of the law prohibiting the eating of blood, the whole purpose of the law.
As time went on though, the Jews began to get a deeper understanding of God's desire to set them apart from the Gentiles. They came to realize that they were being set apart to become holy, but their holiness was to shine forth and they were to become as it were a "light to the nations" (Isaiah 42:6). All nations would see their light, and come to them (cf. Isaiah 60:3) and thus Yahweh's salvation would reach to the end of the earth (cf. Isaiah 49:6). God too raised up great prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah to prophesy to the gentiles (Jer 1:5) in order they might be prepared to receive the true light who was to come into the World, the Light who is Christ (cf. John 1:9).
Now in looking at the four prohibitions from the law maintained of the Council we see that at least the first, third, and the fourth ones are rooted in the Law's intent to separate the Jews from the idolatrous practices of the Gentiles. But the same goes the law against unchastity. For the Jews, sex, like food, was highly intertwined with the their concept of sectarianism and pagan idolatry. Any sort of sexual perversion (sodomy, onanism, incest) was considered sinful in part because they were the practices of most pagan societies. A perfect example of this is the city of Sodom which was destroyed for its sin (Genesis 13:13, 19:1ff; Isaiah 3:9; Jude 1:7). Cultic prostitution was also strictly prohibited (Deut 23:17) since it was a practice of the pagan cults. And finally, and more specifically for our topic here "illicit marriages" were condemned also. The Jews in the Old Testament were prohibited from marrying pagan women, with the belief that this would lead to the preservation and purity of the Yahweh cult. "You shall not make marriages with them (the gentiles), giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons. For they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods; then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly" (Deut 7:3-4, see also Ezekiel 23:31-33). Look at the disastrous results of Solomon when he allowed pagan women into his harem, "For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father" (1 Kings 11:4). The prophet Ezra also "required the Jews who returned from exile to abandon their foreign wives. His point was clear: your mixed marriages invite a spirit of indifference, compromise and disobedience, God the Father is unwavering in his commitment to the marriage covenant."
The New Law in Christ
But God's plan of salvation did not end in the Old Law. We know that his plan was to find its culmination in Christ. The entire tradition found in the Old Testament pointed to Christ, and in His life found its fulfillment there. For Christ himself said, "everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled" (Luke 24:44). The entire New Testament (esp. the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles) emphasizes the point that in Jesus Christ, through his life death and resurrection, the entire writings of scripture were fulfilled. He fulfilled the Old Law, and now has given us a New Law through the outpouring of His Spirit into our hearts (cf. Jer 31:33). We receive this New Law in faith (cf. Gal 3:5), and in it "we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit" (Romans 7:6). So, "if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law" (Galatians 5:18). And this New Law is the Holy Spirit himself, the Lord the Giver of life dwelling within us. He is the Spirit who leads us in the way of charity — the love of god and neighbor (cf. Gal 5:14; James 2:8; Romans 13:10).
Although the Old Law put a division between Jew and Gentile, God still willed that all men might be saved (see 1 Tim 2:4, Titus 2:11), that all might come to know him. Through his passion, death and resurrection Christ fulfilled the law in Himself, and in doing so he has drawn all men to himself (cf. John 12:32). And thus the distinction between Jew and Gentile, symbolized in the clean/unclean distinction of the law was abolished, and now "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). The Good News of Christ has become "the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Romans 1:16). The differentiation that once separated men no longer exist since "Christ is all, and in all" (Colossians 3:11). In Christ, God no longer shows heed to the distinctions between Jew and Greek, nor among the outcasts of Jewish society. For "between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him" (Romans 10:12). The God of Jesus Christ is the God of the Gentiles also (cf. Romans 3:29, Psalm 72:17, 117:1). The peoples are made clean by the Word which Christ has spoken to them (cf. John 15:3). And deriving from this general principle, Christ abolished all dietary restrictions. He plainly proclaimed, "Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?" (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, "What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man" (Mark 7:18-23). Even the evangelist takes the time to explain Christ's words here in a side note. The point being made could not be any clearer. The gospel was a message of universal salvation, and the precepts of the Old Law that hindered this have been fulfilled. So now, salvation is offered to all through Christ.
And it was this universality in Christ that was Our Lord's last command when he told his apostles before he ascended in to heaven, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). And it is because of this recapitulating all in Christ, and allowing Gentiles into the saved flock that the symbolic distinctions between clean and unclean were abolished. But it was more than abolished, it was lifted to an entirely different level. The Baptism of Jesus is more than a ritual cleansing or even more than the Baptist's baptism of repentance of sin. This Baptism actually removed sin, the true "uncleanliness" of soul, and rendered him clean, free from sin, and able to where a garment of white (cf. Rev 7:14). And this Baptism derived its efficacy from the blood of Christ shed during his Passion and death. For without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins (cf. Hebrews 9:22) and it is the blood of Jesus that cleanses us from all sin (cf. 1 John 1:7). So when we are baptized we are baptized into the death of Christ (cf. Romans 6:3) where his saving blood is applied to our souls, and when we come out of the water, we rise to new life in Him — new life in the Spirit.
The teaching on the "universality" of the gospel message was not easily accepted by all at first, not even by Peter. It wasn't until years after the resurrection that the hardheaded fisherman understood the full import of the message of salvation. And through Peter's revelation on this subject, we see better why exactly the distinction between clean and unclean, and the dietary restrictions that flowed from it were lifted.
"The next day, as they were on their journey and coming near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. And he became hungry and desired something to eat; but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heaven opened, and something descending, like a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him, "Rise, Peter; kill and eat." But Peter said, "No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean." And the voice came to him again a second time, "What God has cleansed, you must not call common." This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven... Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision which he had seen might mean" (Acts 10:9-17).
The key to understanding this passage here is to see how Peter interpreted this dream. Did he subsequently go about telling converts that it was fine now to eat pork and unclean animals? Was the whole purpose of the dream a practical lifting of the dietary restrictions? No — he saw the deeper symbolism of "clean and unclean" already present in the Old Testament and interpreted and explained the dream in such a manner. He had to do this first in a very practical context, when he was led to the household of Cornelius — an upright pagan (Acts 10:2). Peter is led to the house of this gentile, and both he and Cornelius wonder why he is being called there. And it is the dream that gives him the needed insight when he tells Cornelius and his household, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me" (Acts 10:28-29).
Through this dream Peter sees that the clean/unclean distinction in animals was symbolic of the clean/unclean distinction set primarily between Jew and Gentile. Now, in Christ, the symbolic distinction is gone — and the Christian can eat of all animals, and thus accept Jew and Gentile alike. "To eat all kinds of animals, clean and unclean discriminately, is to fulfill the terms of the new Law, to love all kinds of human beings equally." Through this vision, Peter came to understand that, "God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him" (Acts 10:34-35). And thus, he was able to understand the events that followed upon his preaching of the good news to this pagan household:
"While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, "Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days" (Acts 10:44-48)
But within the Christian community, the acceptance of this gentile family was not accepted by all. For "when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party (those desiring to hold onto the law) criticized him, saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" (Acts 11:3). But Peter responded saying, "the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction" (Acts 11:12) and, "'If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?' When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, 'Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life'" (Acts 11:17-18).
So, now the dismissal of the symbolism tied with food (and the distinction that existed there) has come to be understood by Peter, and thus the rest of the Church. But truly Paul, the "apostle to the Gentiles" understood this mystery first, and quite clearly, for he was able to confront Peter on it (see Galatians 2). But if this fact is so universally understood, why do the apostles tell these certain Gentiles to follow a few precepts of the Law, allowing the symbolism destroyed in Christ to persist? As stated above the answer was not for dogmatic reasons, but for simple pastoral reasons. It was a temporary compromise trying to appease the Judaizers (those Jewish coverts who wanted all converts to be circumcised and follow the Law) in the community and the Gentile converts to Christ. To see the evidence for this, one simply has to look to the rest of the writings of Paul to see how he deals with the four parts of the law the Gentile converts were asked to keep.
Paul's Understanding of the Four Prohibitions
First, we must look at food sacrificed to idols. The offering of food to idols is condemned in the New Testament (see Rev 2:14.20) but because of the intention in the heart of the one offering, not because the idols have any real objective existence. Paul writes, "Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that 'an idol has no real existence,' and that 'there is no God but one'" (1 Corinthians 8:4). The problem then comes with the conscience of those eating food polluted by idols who "through being hitherto accustomed to idols, eat food as really offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled" (1 Cor 8:7). For the Christian, the idol is nothing, so to eat food offered to it matters not as long as he believes not in such a false God. Paul says though that the Christian should practice prudence if he chooses to eat this food since it might cause scandal to those with weal consciences. He exhorts,
"Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if any one sees you, a man of knowledge, at table in an idol's temple, might he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of my brother's falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall" (1 Corinthians 8:9-13).
This teaching of refusing to be a stumbling block for others, in so far as he will refuse to do a morally neutral act if it will cause scandal to another is central to Paul's pastoral theology. It also helps to shed light on the situation at Antioch. The gentile converts are told not to eat the meat offered to idols as not to offended the weak consciences of the Jewish coverts who still follow the Law. Paul still does not want believers to worship idols, for this is the sin of the heart, not the simple eating of meat. Paul's teaching though is founded in Christ's teaching on what truly defiles man. Christ taught, that "not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man" (Matthew 15:11). In teaching that what is present in the heart that matters, Christ turned the tables on the Jewish laws of cleanliness and uncleanliness.
This can be seen too in the second prohibition. All Christians were still prohibited from unchastity of all sorts, but one aspect had changed if we look to the other writings of Paul. This change is the new ability for a Christian to marry unbelievers or pagans. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:14 "The unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy." This comes as a result of Christ raising marriage to a sacrament and having it reflect the love he has for his bride, the Church (cf. Eph 5:25-26). And here again, although the Council of Jerusalem spoke against it as a form of unchastity, Paul says that these marriages are not only acceptable, but a means for bringing about the conversion of an unbeliever. The Council condemned it so that it would not be a stumbling block to the consciousness of the Judaizers in the community.
For the case of strangled animals, Paul reiterates the argument he brought up in regards to the consumption of food offered to idols:
Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For "the earth is the Lord's, and everything in it." If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. (But if some one says to you, "This has been offered in sacrifice," then out of consideration for the man who informed you, and for conscience' sake — I mean his conscience, not yours — do not eat it.) For why should my liberty be determined by another man's scruples? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please all men in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved" (1 Cor 10:24-33).
As long as the food, regardless of where it has came from, is eaten in thanksgiving (eucharisto) there is no problem. This attitude of thankfulness is what is so crucial (we will see its true import later). And from here, we are brought to the central issue, that of the consumption of blood. But before we address this point, it is necessary to comment on Paul's pastoral approach.
It might appear that Paul's pastoral motto of "To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some" (1 Corinthians 9:22) borders on deceit. It seems he will do whatever it takes, even apparently lying about certain things to win over converts. But for Paul, and the early Church Fathers, this type of deceit was not actually considered lying since there was no ill intention. On this subject John Chrysostom writes:
Do you see the advantage of deceit? And if any one were to reckon up all the tricks of physicians the list would run on to an indefinite length. And not only those who heal the body but those also who attend to the diseases of the soul may be found continually making use of this remedy. Thus the blessed Paul attracted those multitudes of Jews (Acts 21:20): with this purpose he circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3), although he warned the Galatians in his letter that Christ would not profit those who were circumcised (Gal 5:2). For this cause he submitted to the law (1 Cor 9:20), although he reckoned the righteousness which came from the law but loss after receiving the faith in Christ (Phil 3:7). For great is the value of deceit, provided it be not introduced with a mischievous intention. In fact action of this kind ought not to be called deceit, but rather a kind of good management, cleverness and skill, capable of finding out ways where resources fail, and making up for the defects of the mind.
It is important for our discussion though to note here how Paul's use of "deceit" without an ill intention gets him in to trouble, exactly on the topic of the prohibitions mandated by the Council of Jerusalem. Paul returns to Jerusalem towards the end of his ministry to the gentiles to tell the community there, led by the apostle James his success in preaching the gospel.
"And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, 'You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed; they are all zealous for the law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you but that you yourself live in observance of the law. But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity'" (Acts 21:20-25).
What more evidence besides what has been presented earlier that Paul did not teach the precepts of the Council of Jerusalem to anyone besides the community it was intended for? Here, the letter is specifically mentioned, and it is said that the Jews, with their weak consciences, in the region have heard that Paul is teaching against it, and now want his head. Of course all that is said of Paul is true, but nonetheless he agrees to take the vow and goes to shave his head. But it does not matter, the Jews get a hold of him anyhow yelling, "Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching men everywhere against the people and the law and this place; moreover he also brought Greeks into the temple, and he has defiled this holy place" (Acts 21:28). And it is this imprisonment that eventually leads to Paul's demise — and it is all for his "being all things to all people" in regards to the law and the prohibitions of the council of Jerusalem, including the non-consumption of blood.
Returning now to our discussion, unlike the other prohibitions, Paul never specifically mentions the non-consumption of blood in any other of his letters. The only reference he makes is to the cup of demons — "You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons" (1 Corinthians 10:21). What exactly the cup of demons is here is unclear. It could be referring to certain pagan wine or drink offerings (e.g. Isaiah 65:11; Jer 7:18), but most probably, in light of the verses that precede this one, it is the blood of animals sacrificed at pagan rituals. "Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice  they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons" (1 Corinthians 18-20). Here Paul is talking about a ritual where an animal is sacrificed, and then its blood is placed in a cup and drunk. Paul appears to be referring to the same ritual to acquire "divine life" condemned in the Old Testament, which lead to the law against the consumption of blood.
This passage is intriguing because Paul seems to change his idea on offerings to idols. But this is not so necessarily, especially if this passage is taken in context. He still says the food and idols are nothing, but that they are really worshipping demons now. What does he mean by demons though? Paul seems to be referring to Deuteronomy 32:17 "They sacrificed to demons which were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come in of late, whom your fathers had never dreaded. It is quite possible that demons equals "no gods" here as also in De 32:21. This is also Paul's reply to the pagan who claimed that they worshipped the gods represented by the images and not the mere wood or stone or metal idols in Acts 17:18. Throughout most of the New Testament his word does refer to evil spirits, but that cannot be conclusively said for this passage. In addition, we might also see here another instance of Paul being "all things to all people" with the community in Corinth. Regardless of the confusion though, what is important is context he mentions it in — that in of a discussion on the Eucharist, the partaking of the body and blood of Christ.
Paul juxtaposes the eating of drinking of pagan sacrifices to the eating and drinking of the Eucharist. "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?" (1 Corinthians 10:16). If Paul is being literal in describing the partaking of pagan sacrifices, how much more so is he speaking literally in reference to the Eucharist. Read under the lens of the understanding of the prohibition of pagan practices for the Jews phrases such as the one above, what Paul is trying to say becomes clearer, "You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons" (1 Corinthians 10:21). It is unfortunate that so many Christians believe that the Eucharist is only symbolic, because the full import of what Paul is saying here will be inevitably missed. The pagans did not believe their ritual was symbolic, and neither does Paul for the Christian ritual. Listen to his warning,
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died" (1 Corinthians 11:27-30).
Here in the book of Corinthians Paul is making the vital connection that is the root of Christ's fulfillment of the prohibition of the consumption of blood. If one sees the Eucharist as only symbolic then Jesus' discourse and Paul's argument will not make sense. The prohibition of the consumption of blood finds its specific fulfillment in the Eucharist, in Christ's giving of his very body and blood for us to eat and drink.
John 6 — The Call to Share in the Life of God
Today, as it did in His time, Christ's call to "eat of his flesh and drink of his blood" has been a stumbling block for many believers. When Christ repeated these words in his famous speech at the synagogue in Capernaum he was not speaking symbolically, and most importantly no one there interpreted him as such. If they did how could they have asked, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (John 6:52). And even more so why would they leave him on account that this is a "hard saying" (John 6:60), leave him and not have him call them back explaining to them that he was speaking symbolically? But what upset them in his command that they eat his flesh and drink his blood? Was it a pure repulsion at this thought? Was there a fear of cannibalism? This could be part of it, but especially for the Jewish mind listening to him and trying to understand his words, it was much deeper than that. They were upset at him, and left him because he was commanding them to break the law and drink blood. Not only this, but he claimed, if they didn't do as he said they would not have eternal life, which meant being abandoned to the pit! Christ was indeed lifting the ban on the consumption of blood!
Jesus repeats this command several times, continuously clarifying his position. First he says, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" (John 6:53). But what sort of life is this? He goes on to explain, "he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day" (v. 54). It is eternal life, life ordered to the resurrection and to paradise. He continues, getting more specific, "For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him" (vv. 55-56). Now it is more than just eternal life, Jesus himself will actually somehow abide in the one who drinks his blood and eats his flesh. And finally, "As the living Father sent me, and I draw life of the Father, so he who eats me will draw life me" (v. 57). Christ draws His life from God the Father, and now we will draw Life from Christ. Thus, we will be drawing life from the God also. Christ is calling us here to share in the life of God by drinking his blood, by doing the same thing that was prohibited in the Old Testament. We must drink of the blood of Christ to receive his power and life, the power he shares with God, in order to become like him, to become like God.
It is subtle, what Jesus is doing here is claiming his divinity. But you can't understand this unless you understand the Old Testament reason for prohibiting blood. Jesus is telling his followers to do exactly what the Law prohibited them from doing — drinking the blood of the deity so that they might share in His very life, his very essence — his divinity! The divinity he shares with the Father. Could those offended by Jesus' words here have perceived this message and thus later use it to bring up blasphemy charges against him? It was all part of God's plan though. He chose to prohibit it during the time of Israel, knowing all the while he would give to Israel, to all the nations, the same thing the pagans were claiming to have. He did not want them getting off track, as it were. For if they were drinking the blood of their sacrifices, thinking they would receive divine power from it, then Christ's command to drink his blood would have been seen as nothing special.
But the fact remains though, that if you drank blood (whether it belonged to Christ or an animal), you would be "cut off" from Israel. But in one way, being "cut off" from old Israel is precisely what every prospective Jewish believer needed, much like we gentiles need baptism in order to be severed from the first Adam and united to second (see Rom. 5:12-21, 6:1-12). In consuming his blood, we become divinized, we share in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) and we are grafted onto he who is the vine (John 15:5), the bread of life. And as Paul says, "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Corinthians 10:17). It is through the blood of Christ in the Eucharist that we gain eternal life, and that we all find union as Christians. The blood of the first lamb kept the Israelites distinct from the Egyptians; but the blood of the second Lamb makes us the same. The blood of the first lamb though was spread on the door post, while the blood of the New Lamb must be drunk in order to fulfill the terms of the New Covenant sealed in this blood (Matt 26:28, 1 Cor 11:25. Hebrews 13:20). The covenant open to all men, of from all nations, sealed in the blood of the Lamb.
"Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end" (Eph 2:12-16).
To conclude let us look to the Book of Revelation, as John hears the number of those sealed by God. "And I heard the number of the sealed, a hundred and forty-four thousand sealed, out of every tribe of the sons of Israel" (Rev 7:4). There were twelve-thousand out of each of the tribes of Israel. This passage is used to support the Witness belief that heaven is limited to 144,000 spirit-begotten ones redeemed from the time of the Apostles. It is unfortunate, but just as in the prohibition against the consumption of blood, the Witnesses fail to see the importance of the distinction between Jew and Gentile that was made before and during the time of Christ. Looking to the following lines in Revelation we see what John was really trying to say. "After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands" (Rev 7:9). John is saying that not only Jews have entered heaven, but also the gentiles, members of every nation — multitudes much greater than the 144,000 of the Jews. And who are these people, and how did they get there John asks. And the angel responds, "These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (Revelation 7:14). The blood of the Lamb, the blood of Christ in the Eucharist that purifies us and gives us all, Jews and Gentiles alike, access to eternal life. This is the blood that all Christians must drink in order to become one with Christ and with the Father, in order to have eternal life. And what is eternal life described as in Scripture? "The Wedding Supper of the Lamb" (Rev 19:9) where all become one, united as the "Bride of the Lamb" through the consumption of His purifying blood.
1 It is interesting to note that the Law prohibited not only the consumption of blood, but also of fat. "It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, in all your dwelling places, that you eat neither fat nor blood" (Leviticus 3:17).
2 One could argue that this would fall under the Pharisee's strict adherence to the letter of the law to the extent that they persecuted Jesus for healing on the Sabbath.
3 The significance of being "cut off" will surface later in our discussion.
4 The idea of being "set apart" by and for God is carried over into the New Testament. Paul was "set apart" (cf. Rom 1:1, Gal 1:15) to serve the Good News.
5 Feeley-Harnick, Gillian. The Lord's Table. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1981. p. 39.
6 For the Jews these sorts of people — sinners, the deformed, the sick — even if they were Jews, represented the Gentiles because of their irregularity.
7 This is the one of the fundamental arguments of Feeley-Harnick's The Lord's Table.
8 Feeley-Harnick, Gillian. The Lord's Table. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1981. p. 107.
9 Ibid., p. 9.
10 This is not to say it was not already present and thus condemned in natural law.
11 That is marriages to foreign wives.
12 Hahn, Scott. A Father Who Keeps His Promises. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 1998. p. 83.
13 Jesus no longer shows any respects for the laws of clean and unclean. He touches lepers (Matt 8:3), allowing the woman with the hemorrhage to touch his garment (Matt 9:20), talks with gentiles (John 4:1ff, Mark 7:24ff), and even touches the dead (Mar 5:21).
14 See also Acts 14:16; Rom 1:5, 16:26; Gal 3:8; Rev 15:4.
15 Feeley-Harnick, Gillian. The Lord's Table. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1981. p. 162.
16 Notice that we see he also ate with them. Eating was a highly symbolic action for the Jew, Feeley-Harnick's The Lord's Table.
17 John Chrysostom. On the Priesthood 1.9
18 The word in Greek is thouosin which literally means "to slaughter or to kill".
19 The phrase "to demons, and not to God" in v. 19 in Greek is (daimonios kai ou theo). Notice the parallel in the LXX text of Deut 32:17, (daimonios kai ou theo).
20 The connection alluded to between the Passover meal and the Eucharist is to broad of a subject to go into here. Feeley-Harnick's book again is a good reference on this subject, and so is Dr. Scott Hahn's book mentioned above. His work will especially highlight the interrelation between Christ's blood shed on Calvary and the cup of blood consumed in the Eucharist.
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