“Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” says the epistle to the Hebrews (9:22). Most of that epistle is taken up with showing how Christ fulfilled the hopes and aspirations of the Old Testament, especially in regard to the sacrificial system of ancient Israel. But for modern readers who have never seen a sacrifice and do not think in Old Testament categories, this is all double dutch: What has the killing of animals to do with the forgiveness of sins?
It is explained at length in the book of Leviticus, which begins with a long section setting out just how to offer the different kinds of sacrifice and what each achieves (chap. 1–7). However, we need to start further back than this to understand Leviticus and the basic notion of sacrifice.
Genesis 18 tells how Abraham was visited one day by three men. He had no idea who they were, but being a very hospitable man, Abraham laid on a splendid feast for them. His wife Sarah made a pile of fresh bread, while he offered a tender young calf, which his servants killed and cooked for the visitors. We are not told that he gave them wine, but, doubtless where that was available, it too would be served to important guests. Subsequently Abraham discovered who his visitors were — the Lord and two angels!
Though this episode is not seen as a sacrifice, it does give us an insight into the basic dynamics of sacrifice. At a sacrifice, God is the most important guest: His presence is honored by offering Him those items — meat, bread, and wine — that were served only on very special occasions. Meat eating was a rare luxury in Old Testament times, and doubtless wine was reserved for big occasions too.
Israel’s ancient neighbors saw sacrifices as meals for the gods, but the Old Testament indignantly rejects this idea. It is God who provides food for man (Gen. 1:29), not the other way around. Psalm 50:10, 12 puts it well:
Every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills. . . .
If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.
So what was the point of these massive feasts in front of the tabernacle and later in the temple precincts? The first sacrifices in the Bible are those offered by Cain and Abel. These are mentioned straight after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden of Eden, where they had enjoyed walking with God in the cool of the day. Excluded from the garden, they were deprived of this privilege of intimacy with God. So one motive for sacrifice suggested by this story is that sacrifice allows man to renew fellowship with God.
But it must be offered in the right spirit. Cain offered only some of the fruit of the ground, whereas Abel “brought of the firstlings of his flock and their fat portions” (Gen. 4:4), that is, the very best bits of his most valued animals. God accepted the latter but not the former. Here we realize one of the most important features of sacrifice: the animals must be young and healthy, not decrepit and elderly. The Passover lamb had to be without blemish and one year old. Repeatedly, the sacrificial laws in Leviticus insist that the animals involved must be “without blemish.” The Cain and Abel story shows what will happen if this is ignored: “they will not be accepted” (Lev. 22:25; see also 19:7; 22:20).
After the fall, the world was engulfed by an avalanche of sin, especially murder and violence. God complains that sin is built into man: “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). “The earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (6:11). So God sent the flood to wipe out sinful humanity and start afresh with Noah, the one man “who was righteous, blameless in his generation” (6:9).
When Noah eventually emerged from the ark, his first act was to build an altar and offer sacrifice. One might suppose that this was just an act of thanksgiving for being saved from destruction himself, but the text indicates it achieved much more. “When the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth’” (8:21). In other words, though man’s evil character has not been changed (see 6:9), God’s attitude to human sin has: He will never again punish the world with a flood. Why? Because of the pleasing aroma of the sacrifices offered by Noah (8:21). Sacrifice according to Genesis 8 thus cools God’s anger at human sin. That animal sacrifices produce a pleasing aroma for God is a frequent refrain in Leviticus 1–7.
But why is animal sacrifice so effective in appeasing God’s wrath? The account of Abraham’s offering of Isaac gives some insight into this. Genesis 22 tells how God tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his most precious possession, namely, his only son Isaac. Abraham did not know that this was a test — for him it was deadly earnest. So at the last minute, just as Abraham was about to cut Isaac’s throat, the angel of the Lord told him to stop: “for now I know that you fear God” (22:12). Then Abraham looked up, saw a ram, and offered it up instead of Isaac.
This story shows that if someone is ready to obey God totally, God will accept an animal instead of the worshiper. Isaac was Abraham’s future, and Abraham was willing to give him to God, yet God was satisfied with a ram. Here the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is illustrated for us. It is even clearer in the laws in Leviticus, where an essential feature of every sacrifice is the placing of the worshiper’s hand on the animal’s head. This action declares that the animal is taking the place of the worshiper. The worshiper is giving himself entirely to God by identifying himself with the animal; the animal is dying instead of the worshiper.
In Leviticus 1–7, four different types of animal sacrifice are discussed. The emphasis in these chapters is on how to carry out the different types of sacrifice. We must now focus on the features that distinguish one type of sacrifice from another. The burnt offering (Lev. 1) was unique in that it was the only sacrifice in which the entire animal was burnt on the altar. In this, the total consecration of the worshiper to the service of God was represented. At the same time, it made atonement (Lev. 1:4) for the worshiper. “Make atonement” is more exactly “pay a ransom,” a phrase used elsewhere in the Law, where an offender who might otherwise face the death penalty was let off by the payment of damages (for example, Ex. 21:30).
The peace offering (Lev. 3) was probably the most popular of Old Testament sacrifices, as it was the only one in which the worshiper who donated the animal had a share of the meat (usually, only the priests ate the sacrificial meat). The peace offering could be offered spontaneously as an act of thanksgiving to God, but it might be offered when you made a vow asking for God to do something for you, or when that prayer was answered.
The sin offering (Lev. 4) was peculiar in that some of the animal’s blood was smeared on the altar or sprinkled inside the tabernacle or temple. This blood cleansed the tabernacle from the pollution of sin. Sin does not just make one guilty before God or make Him angry, it also makes places and people unclean and thus unfit for God to dwell in. By smearing blood on the altar or sprinkling the interior of the temple with blood, these objects were cleansed of pollution. At the same time, the sinner who had caused the pollution by his misdeeds was forgiven his sins and cleansed from its pollution. This cleansing made it possible for God to re-enter the temple and indwell the believer.
Finally, there was the guilt offering (Lev. 5:14; 6:7), which expressed the idea that certain deeds put us in God’s debt. These sins can only be atoned for by the sacrifice of an expensive ram. Though discussed relatively briefly in Leviticus, the sacrifice is of great importance in Isaiah 53, where the suffering servant is called the guilt offering (v. 10; see the ESV, “offering for sin”), who suffers for our transgressions (vv. 5–6). As this chapter describes most fully the atoning role of Christ, it is central to the New Testament’s understanding of Christ’s death.
The imagery of sacrifice in general pervades the New Testament’s interpretation of the cross. When John the Baptist said “Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), he was most likely seeing Christ as the perfect Passover lamb, an image that Paul also uses when he speaks of “Christ, our Passover lamb” (1 Cor. 5:7). He is also seen as the supreme burnt offering, a sacrifice superior to Isaac, an idea alluded to in such well-known passages as John 3:16 and Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all.” Mark 10:45 describes the Son of Man as the ultimate servant, who gave “his life as a ransom for many.” 1 John 1:7 takes up the imagery of the sin offering when he says that “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” For the epistle to the Hebrews Jesus is the supreme High Priest, who through His death achieves all the goals to which the Old Testament sacrificial system pointed (see Heb. 9:1–14).
Finally, we should note that the death of Christ does not exhaust the significance of the sacrificial system for the Christian. We too are expected to walk in Christ’s footsteps and share His suffering (1 Peter 2:21–24). So we too are encouraged “to present our bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1). Paul, anticipating his own death, compared it to being “poured out as a drink offering,” that is, like the wine that was poured over the altar with every animal sacrifice (see also Phil. 2:17; 2 Tim. 4:6). In this way the old modes of worship should still inspire our consecration today.