Acts 15:20—Does this passage indicate that it is a sin to receive a blood transfusion?
Problem: The ability of modern medicine to sustain life by blood transfusion is a common practice that has no doubt been used by Christians. However, this verse is used by some religious groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, to claim that blood transfusions are against God’s will.
Solution: This passage is talking about the OT restriction against eating or drinking blood (Gen. 9:3–4; cf. Acts 15:28–29). However, a blood transfusion is not “eating” or “drinking” blood. This is clear from several facts. First, even though a doctor might give food to a patient intravenously and call this “feeding,” it is simply not the case that giving blood intravenously is also “feeding.” This is clear from the fact that blood is not received into the body as “food.”
Second, to refer to the giving of food directly into the blood stream as “eating” is only a figurative expression. Although the food is absorbed into the blood in a way similar to the way it is absorbed through the normal digestive functions, eating is the literal taking in of food in the normal manner through the mouth and into the digestive system. The reason intravenous injections are referred to as “feeding” is because the ultimate result is that, through intravenous injection, the body receives the nutrients that it would normally receive by eating. This is similar to calling food “healthy.” Food is not really healthy, because health is a characteristic of living things, not of food. But, we call food “healthy” because it produces health in the body.
Third, the only possible way to understand the word “eating” in both the OT and NT is the literal process of taking something into the body as food through the mouth and into the digestive system. This is evident since the technology to enable intravenous injections had not been invented at the time these passages were written.
Fourth, it is clear that this OT passage is not primarily concerned with the eating of blood. Rather, it is primarily concerned with the fact that the life is in the blood. Leviticus 17:10–12 makes this plain:
And whatever man of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn among you, who 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 lifeof the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul. Therefore I said to the children of Israel, “No one among you shall eat blood, nor shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood.”
The prohibitions in Genesis 9:3–4 and Leviticus 17:10–12 were primarily directed at eating flesh that was still pulsating with life because the lifeblood was still in it. But, the transfusion of blood is not eating flesh with the lifeblood still in it.
Finally, the prohibition in Acts was not necessarily given as a law by which Christians were to live, for the NT clearly teaches that we are not under law (Rom. 6:14; Gal. 4:8–31). Rather, the Jerusalem counsel may have been advising Gentile Christians to respect their Jewish brethren by observing these practices, thereby not giving offense “either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God” (1 Cor. 10:32). In any event, the restriction can in no way be construed as a prohibition against blood transfusions.
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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.