I was raised Roman Catholic, so when I first attended an Assembly of God after being gloriously and astonishingly saved by the name of Jesus Christ, all the Protestant hymns were new to me.
There were several I loved, but one in particular was "Victory in Jesus."
A couple days ago, I was thinking about one of the major lines in that hymn’s chorus:
He plunged me to victory beneath the cleansing flood
Um … what’s the cleansing flood?
The picture I’ve always had is a river of the blood of Jesus cleansing us from sin.
Isn’t that gruesome?
I’ve never questioned it until this week. When I did question it, however, I thought, one, is that accurate?, and two, is that just plain gross?
I’m not the only one. I googled "blood of Jesus river" just now, and I got:
Apparently a man named Roland Buck is not just picturing a river of Jesus’ blood, but a mighty river. And his site is the #1 result for "blood of Jesus river" at Google.
So I’m not the only one with this picture. But is it accurate?
Washed in the Blood
I checked real quick to make sure that our terminology, "washed in the blood," is accurate. It is. In Rev. 7:14 the 144,000 are said to have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. In addition, Rev. 1:5 says that Jesus loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood.
That’s a legitimate picture. There’s a fascinating prophecy in Genesis 49:11 that the early Christians quoted all the time. It was obvious to them, but we’re oblivious to Old Testament prophecy for the most part, so we only ever quote Gen. 49:10. (Obvious; oblivious; there’s got to be a good word play there.)
Anyway, Gen. 49:10-11 says:
The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come. The people will gather under his rule. He will tie his foal to the vine, and the donkey’s colt to the choice vine. He will wash his robe in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes.
Who washes their clothes in wine? No one I know. They might dye their clothes in wine, but they sure don’t wash their clothes in wine. And if they did, they wouldn’t refer to it as "the blood of grapes"!!
When things don’t make any sense in Scripture, you have to look deeper. I am confident that Moses didn’t wash his clothes in wine any more than you do, and he knew that was a bizarre statement. But, hey, he was reporting the prophecy Jacob gave to Judah, not commenting on the laundry.
This is one of the best prophecies in the Old Testament (the best has to be either Isaiah 53 or Wisdom 2:10-22). It’s a clear prophecy that someone from Judah, a lawgiver no less, will redeem us with blood—his own blood because it’s his clothes that are being washed.
So Scripture does say that we’re washed in the blood. But is it a river?
The Blood of Sprinkling
The idea of washing with blood is in the Scriptures, but it is really not the primary picture. In the Bible, blood is primarily sprinkled, and Jesus’ blood is specifically called "the blood of sprinkling" (Heb. 12:24).
If you have any familiarity with the Law, you know there was a lot of sprinkling and dabbing of blood done. It was rubbed on the horns of the altar, it was sprinkled in the tabernacle, and it was sprinkled on the book of the Law when it was commissioned.
When the writer of the book of Hebrews said that "almost all things in the Law are purged by blood," that purging was accomplished by sprinkling. ("He sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle and all the vessels of ministry" [Heb. 9:21].)
The Cleansing Flood
There is a cleansing flood, and there is a river. But the flood, and the river are water. He sanctifies and cleanses by the washing of water, says the apostle (Eph. 5:26). Water and washing are tied together much more often than blood and washing are.
And rivers are always a reference to water in Scripture. There are no rivers of blood except as the result of gruesome wars, and those are not cleansing floods.
Really, it’s kind of unfortunate that we’ve lost the tradition of the apostles concerning baptism. Baptism was the apostles’ version of a sinner’s prayer. Peter even called it that, saying that it is "the plea to God for [or from] a good conscience" (1 Pet. 3:21, NASB, which is the only accurate one on that verse).
Read through Acts sometime. The only regeneration to God that the apostles ever witnessed—except for Cornelius, whom they would have refused to baptize unless he had been born again—was by baptism.
So the early church didn’t miss the fact that baptism is "the washing of regeneration" in Titus 3:5 was baptism. They could picture the washing waters of baptism when they read Eph. 5:26, and they knew it was done "by the Word," or by the authority of Christ, so that they didn’t have to wonder, like we do, how baptism could be both in Jesus’ name (Acts, repeatedly) and in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19).
Anyway, the only cleansing flood that God gave us is the waters of baptism. The cleansing blood, which we need repeatedly (e.g., 1 Jn. 1:7), is the blood of sprinkling.
It’s time to drop that picture of a river of blood. Jesus had just one human body to offer, and it cleansed us once for all so that it would not have to be offered repeatedly and produce a flood of blood.