Sometimes I’m inspired by a song when thinking and praying about a sermon topic. Recently there was a scripture text about people reaching a conclusion about Jesus. He was out of his mind. He had lost his marbles. The song “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince kept going through my head. Even among those familiar with it, many don’t realize that song is actually about overcoming the temptations of the devil.
Last month there was the Creative Christianity Summit. Artists and worship leaders from around the globe participated. There was a sermon / teaching series on the tabernacle of the Israelites. It was done by Rev. Paul Blackham, who lives in London. I’ll go into detail on what he said in a few minutes.
The song that really captured me—that captivated me—was the hymn, “Are You Washed in the Blood?” I must confess, it’s never been one of my favorite hymns. I’m not terribly fond of its tune. I apologize to those who do like it. As for the lyrics, to my mind, they lack a certain theological depth.
However, Blackham’s presentation gave me a new appreciation for the musical question, “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?” I discovered a solid Old Testament foundation for it. Blackham spoke of the tabernacle (and we’ll take a quick look at it) as a model of the universe. But again, it was that image of being washed in the blood which was my main takeaway.
Now, I’m warming up to the song!
As I just said, Blackham’s presentation dealt with the tabernacle. It served as a portable temple when the Israelites traveled through the wilderness after fleeing the slavery of Egypt. Every time they struck camp, the sacred tent and its accoutrements were packed up and taken along for the ride. The tabernacle is described in Exodus, beginning with chapter 25. I have included a chart of it which I will reference.
The entrance to the outer courtyard was always facing east. The first stop was the altar of burnt offerings; that’s where the animals were sacrificed. I want to circle around to the bronze basin or bronze laver (a container of water for washing), so I’ll mention the rest of the tabernacle beforehand.
We next enter what was called the Holy Place, the first part of the inner court. The priests conducted rituals, using the golden lampstand, the table of showbread, and the altar of incense. We then continue into the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies, which deserves some explanation.
This was the most sacred place; it was considered to be the dwelling place of God. The Holy of Holies was a room separated from the rest of the inner court by a veil. Only the high priest could enter, and that was only one time per year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The Holy of Holies contained the ark of the covenant, which according to the scriptures, held a golden jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that budded (Nu 17), and the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. The high priest would go into the tiny room, sprinkle blood from the sacrifice, and burn incense, thereby receiving atonement from God for his sin and for the sin of the nation.
According to Harrison Ford in the movie, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, one dare not gaze into it. Those foolhardy enough to do so might suffer the fate of the impertinent Nazis and have one’s face completely melt off.
Now, back to that bronze basin.
Slaughtering all those animals was a messy business. I have never slaughtered an animal myself, but anyone who has can no doubt attest to what I’m saying. With blood and guts spilling all over the place, a provision had to be made for cleanup. We might need a large container filled with water.
Exodus 30:19 says, “with the water Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet.” To be sure, this is about more than personal hygiene. It’s about more than “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Or is it? There is the reality that drawing near to God meant purification on the part of the priests. There is a profound ceremonial aspect to the washing. And as they say, this is not a negotiation.
If you don’t believe me, notice the repeated warning: “so that they may not die” (vv. 20-21). So clean up your act, or else.
As our friend Paul Blackham noted, the water became red with blood. The priests were literally washed in the blood.
(That song, “Are You Washed in the Blood?” has been running through my mind for the past few weeks. People call that an earworm—a piece of music or song, like an actual earworm, that burrows into your ear and infects you. The Germans came up with the term. Maybe someone couldn’t get Beethoven out of their head!)
“Lay aside the garments that are stained with sin, / And be washed in the blood of the Lamb; / There’s a fountain flowing for the soul unclean, / O be washed in the blood of the Lamb!”
We see that image brought into the New Testament, where we’re no longer talking about the blood of an animal. Rather, the picture is now the blood of the crucified Jesus. It probably isn’t more clearly illustrated than in chapter 7 of the book of Revelation.
That book is filled with visions given to John. (This is likely John the apostle, but we’re not totally sure.) We start with verse 9, which says, “After this, I looked.” What has just happened is John’s vision of twelve thousand people from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. They have been sealed as protection from damage about to be unleashed on the earth. As we see in verse 9, his vision has been expanded.
He sees people from every nation, speaking every language. John sees a gathering too vast to be numbered, all dressed in white, waving palm branches, singing praises before the throne of God.
Can you recall how large a crowd you’ve been part of, with everyone singing hymns? Banu and I have gone to one General Assembly; it was in 2004 in Columbus, Ohio. Being in a worship service with hundreds of people—and worshipping together in spirit—is an experience like none other. Lifting up one’s voice in a multitude like that drowns everything in praise. It doesn’t matter if you can’t carry a tune. The Lord is the best audience!
Notice who’s right next to the throne. It is the Lamb, slain for us. What an image this is: the crucified and now triumphant Christ pictured as an innocent, helpless critter. But there’s more to it than that. The Greek word here (αρνιον, arnion) is translated as “lamb.” However, it is literally “lambkin,” a little lamb. A little itty-bitty lamb.
I do have a point in mentioning the nursery rhyme. The book of Revelation was probably written in the 90s. The Roman emperor then was Domitian, the self-proclaimed “Lord and God” Domitian. This was a fellow with some serious self-esteem issues. Early in his reign, he hadn’t yet begun his plunge into paranoia. He enjoyed a certain level of popularity. Descending into a reign of terror definitely took care of that!
We’re not sure to what extent he persecuted the church, but those Christians calling their Lord and Savior “lambkin” made a powerful statement about what was seemingly powerless being the mightiest of all.
We see angels, elders, and the four living creatures worshipping at the throne, and then the question is put to John, “Who are these folks in white, and where did they come from?” John replies, “I don’t know.”
The secret is revealed. “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v. 14). Eugene Peterson put it this way: “they’ve washed their robes, scrubbed them clean in the blood of the Lamb” (The Message). They’ve scrubbed them clean. I don’t imagine we’ll ever see a laundry detergent company advertising that particular ingredient. How indeed can blood remove stains?
It’s one thing, as those priests did, to wash your hands in crimson-colored water; it quite another thing to try it with clothing.
Lay aside the garments that are stained with sin.
John is told that they “have come out of the great ordeal.” The word for “ordeal” (θλιψις, thlipsis) also means “tribulation,” “affliction.” It has the idea of “pressing together,” of being under “intense pressure.” Some people think this refers to a certain event or experience. Others (and I think I would put myself in this category) believe this “ordeal” speaks to life in general. We all are afflicted by sin. We all feel the pressures of the world.
The law of Moses says, “The blood is the life” (Dt 12:23). Washing those robes is washing them with life. It is washing death away. When we put on those garments, we put on Christ. We clothe ourselves with Christ (Ro 13:14, Ga 3:27). We wrap ourselves with Christ.
We see their destiny, and it is a glorious one. “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more.” “The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (vv. 16-17). The Lamb will shepherd the sheep.
There are a number of images that speak of the power of Jesus the Messiah: the miracles he performed, his wisdom, his love, and oh yes, a little thing called the resurrection. Still, there is power in the blood. The blood is the life.