How, then, should we interpret Paul's allusions to the "blood" of Christ and the "shedding" of Christ’s blood?
CAS: As allusions to the act of giving life and death. Why die and by whose hands? For the sins of mankind, certainly. But this can mean a lot less than what Paul’s traditional sacrificial interpretation assumes. Here’s one example: When Paul says that Christ was "delivered over because of our transgressions" (Romans 4:25), what are we to make of this expression? This certainly means what it says, namely, that Christ was "delivered over because of our transgressions," i.e., for the forgiveness of sins. In fact, no one disputes this! But what needs to be clarified is how this actually takes place. Is it by a vicarious sacrifice, as the traditional interpretation defends, or simply by delaying the judgment of men giving them more time for repentance, as some of us defend? It’s clear that, for Paul, Jesus gave his life instead of exercising his messianic role of judge (note for example in the vocabulary used in 1 Corinthians 15:24-25, where Christ is presented with the attributes of a royal Messiah only in the future, or in 2 Corinthians 10:1, where Paul alludes to the "meekness" [πραΰτητος] and the "gentleness" [ἐπιεικείας] of Christ with two terms commonly used in Greek to designate the clemency of a king or a victorious general, one who could place under his subjection those he had defeated, but chooses not to do so).
Just ask yourselves about why Jesus was apprehended and executed. Here’s the answer: For purely political reasons. (See the Gospel of John!) Who exectued him? Rome; that’s why he died on the cross. Paul does not refer to any of this. All he says is that Jesus gave his life for others, an act which has been praised time and again, and that Jesus will return with new powers. It is not necessary, in my opinion, to deduce anything more what Paul actually says.
AP: As for the sacrificial interpretation of the death of Christ in Paul, look, for example, at how he interprets this in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22. The Last Supper was not a Passover meal, but a solemn Jewish farewell food (a "qiddush"). Jesus knew that as things stood he would probably be caught and executed by the Romans. He, nevertheless, remained hopeful that in the immediate coming of the kingdom of God he would drink again of the fruit of the vine (i.e., participate in the general resurrection of the dead (at least the resurrection of the righteous Israelites) to physically enter the kingdom of God here on earth.
What is the interpretation Paul? It is a rite of continuity, a memorial that people were to observe until the Lord comes; it is a rite that Paul’s earliest follower, Mark, had already made a vicarious sacrifice (wine = blood that was shed "for many" and founded a "new relationship"; and so it was for the earliest follower of Mark, namely Matthew. Naturally, these two followers of Paul completely misunderstood their teacher and screwed everything up, back then all the way to today! Moreover, in Ephesians 5:2 such language is clearly used to describe Christ's death, two words that describe it as a sacrifice in such a way that no one cane deny: προσφορά and θυσία. Naturally, the author of Ephesians, who was an idiot and did not even have a single Greek idea or thought that belonged to Paul, was also wrong! But also the "blood" that Paul mentions in 1 Cor 10:14-22 is comparable to that of the pagan sacrifices: if they handled it incorrectly and drank it in an incorrect manner, it would make the Corinthians guilty of idolatry and could even have deadly physical consequences, basically rendering to it a special divine power. Paul does not explicitly say that this "sacrifice" is for forgiveness of sins: it is a cultic, mystical, and symbolic action, whose content is communion with Jesus through the mystical consumption of his body and blood.
But, in any case, Paul beaks with the Jewish taboo of ingesting blood. The ritual involves the symbolic ingestion of the body and blood of the Messiah, who is supposed to be at the right hand of the Father, from whence he will come in the clouds. If the messiah is not a divine entity, he’s almost there! And to ingest mystically the Messiah, whether he’s divine or not, is an outrage within Judaism. As if that were not enough, we have others who, through communion with Christ, the Messiah and his faithful form one body: the mystical body. And that’s a "Jewish" idea, isn’t it? Yeah, right. Evidently Paul does not speak for the Jewish Christian Church of Jerusalem. Therefore, no one who has half a brain would say that Paul intended to replace the Temple worship. But clearly to their Gentile converts to Christ, according to Paul, the Temple is worthless! And regarding the "metaphors" (I would say they more so descriptions, not metaphors!), we must consider the περὶ ἁμαρτίας of Romans 8:3, which is virtually always used in the LXX with regard to a "sacrifice for sins!"
By the way, what was Paul’s Bible? –the LXX. Remember, they’re in the eastern Mediterranean and living during the first century. These people aren’t horrified by the idea of a sacrificial death; these people think it’s normal and necessary in order to solve human "problems." People being horrified by the sacrificial death of Christ is simply a modern phenomenon.
TWH: So very much could be written right here. For the Christian, there really is no question more important than the one that asks the significance of Jesus' death on the cross. And it's really impossible to respond to many of the different nuances of Carlos' and Antonio's answers that I just simply disagree with (e.g., the priority of Mark, the non-Pauline authorship of Ephesians, etc.). I'm going to try my hardest to stay on target and deal with just the question at hand. If I may, let me just point out a few observations concerning Jesus' death pertinent to the discussion at hand.
First, the language of substitution is critical to our understanding of Christ's death. I pointed out in the previous post for this series on Christ's death that sacrificial language is not unique to the apostle Paul:
"It's important to note, first of all, that such imagery does not originate with Paul. Let's back up some years to Isaiah's day. What exactly did Isaiah say of the Suffering Servant in the fourth Servant Song (Isa. 52:13-53:12)? The whole pericope is replete with sacrificial language. We have words like 'sprinkle' (נזה) in 52:15 and 'guilt offering' (אשׁם) in 53:10. Isaiah 53:6 ('But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on him') is without a doubt Day of Atonement language. And we can hardly say that parallels to passages like these are entirely or exclusively Pauline."Romans 5:8 is another reference to the substitutionary sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. There it says, "God is demonstrating his own love toward us in the following way: While we were yet sinners, Christ died in our place." That's at least how I understand the prepositional phrase ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν there in Romans 5:8. The simple gloss "for us" just doesn't capture what Paul is saying.
Second, Paul does not shy away from substitutionary language, whether he is addressing Jewish or Gentile audiences (Rom. 3:25). And he does not diminish the infinite value of the blood of God's Son incarnate (Eph. 2:13), whose life was lived in perfect obedience to the Father and was, thus, blameless before God on its own merit. One of my own favorite verses in the New Testament is Col. 2:13-14. Paul never developed a "religion" for the Gentiles, that is, one devoid of any references to the Jewish faith and history. That would've been impossible, not to mention he would never have wanted to do something like that. We find in Colossians 2 the Gentile world placed right up beside the Jewish world. The reference to uncircumcision was clearly a reference to Jewish history. But then Paul uses an illustration commonplace in the first century (and every century throughout every culture before and since), specifically the cancellation of debts. Paul says everyone who has been made alive together with Jesus has had all of their transgressions forgiven (Col. 2:13). Yep, all of those things that rendered a person spiritually dead before God were now being forgiven by God. But how? Well, wait one moment. He uses a very interesting illustration at the beginning of v. 14, saying, God's accomplished that forgiveness by canceling out the "certificate of debt" (χειρόγραφον) that every transgressor has. Everyone in the first century–Jew and Gentile alike–knew what a certificate of debt was! And the idea of it being cancelled out was extraordinary. Now the question. But how? Paul answers that by saying God the Father "has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross." And even in passages where the word "blood" is not found, it's there underneath the surface. What happens when Jesus was nailed to the cross? With him God the Father cancelled out our certificates of debt. The hostility that Jesus incurred on the cross was incurred so that he could eradicate that which was hostile towards us!
There is no greater substitution passage in Paul, in my opinion, than 2 Cor. 5:21. Here is my own paraphrase: "God the Father treated his Son Jesus Christ as if he had committed every single sin in the history of the world, even though he never committed a single sin; and God the Father did that so that he could treat those of us who believe in his Son as if we had never committed a single sin, even though we had committed them all." It's not amazing that Paul thought God did that. It's amazing because that's exactly what God did for us!
Third, we need to make one comment about the literalness of everything that took place on the cross. Jesus actually suffered God's wrath. He was actually treated as if he had committed every single sin in the history of the world, even though he had never committed a single sin (2 Cor. 5:21). And who treated Jesus that way? It wasn't Rome. It was the Father who poured out his wrath on his Son (Isaiah 53). The worst thing for Jesus wasn't really the cross. Two other men died by way of crucifixion on the same day as Jesus. But Jesus experienced something far greater than any of them. The worst thing that day was not what the Roman authorities did to Jesus. The horror at Golgatha takes places when the Father pours out his wrath on his Son, who, by the way, voluntarily provided his life as the substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of the world. Jesus ratifies the New Covenant by offering his own life. Who would have ever imagined that the ratification sacrifice would actually be the substitutionary sacrifice that extended forgiveness by grace through faith to the whole world? That's absolutely amazing!