The Theology of Sacrifice
The biblical idea of sacrifice concerns the way of approach to God, finding acceptance before him by means of an acceptable substitute offered in place of the sinner and bearing the curse of sin.
This essay surveys the idea of sacrifice through the Old Testament in order to determine its intended significance. Next, this essay surveys the significance of the saving death of Christ as it is presented in these sacrificial categories. Special attention is given to Hebrews 9–10.
The idea and practice of sacrifice is prominent throughout the biblical narrative. There is at least a hint of it as far back as Genesis 3:21, where God provides coats of skin for Adam and Eve. In Genesis 4:2-5 we read of the sacrifices offered by Cain and Abel, who presumably learned of the practice from Adam and Eve. We then read of sacrifices offered by Noah (Gen. 8:20), Abraham (Gen. 12:7-8; 13:4, 18; 22:13), Isaac (Gen. 26:25), Jacob (Gen. 31:54; 33:20; 35:1-7; 46:1), and Job (1:5; 42:8). In Exodus and Leviticus, of course, the theme explodes. God delivers Israel from Egypt so that they may go and offer sacrifice to him (Exod. 3:18; 5:3, etc.; cf. 17:15), and it is by sacrifice, in fact, that they are delivered (Exod. 12). And in Exodus 20ff and in Leviticus God gives Moses detailed instructions for establishing and carrying out the sacrificial system that was to mark Israel’s worship under the terms of the old covenant. Various kinds of sacrifices were to be offered (the burnt offering, the guilt offering, the sin offering, the peace offering) at various times and for various specific purposes. Coming to the New Testament the practice of sacrifice is much less prominent, but the language of sacrifice dominates with reference to the death of Christ. Our objective here is to uncover the meaning and significance of sacrifice in the Old Testament in order better to discern the saving value of the death of Christ as explained by the New Testament writers.
Sacrifice in the Old Testament
As already observed, the idea of sacrifice begins in the early chapters of Genesis at the dawn of history. The significance tied to the coats of skin provided for Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:21) is not immediately evident but can be understood more fully only by looking back from later revelation. All we can say at this point is that God covered their shame in a way that involved death.
Likewise the significance of the respective offerings of Cain and Abel (Gen. 4:2-5) is not immediately evident. We are told only that Cain’s offering was “an offering of the fruit of the ground” (v. 3), that Abel’s was “of the firstborn of his flock” (v. 4), and that the Lord “had regard for” (i.e., accepted) Abel’s offering but rejected Cain’s (vv. 4-5). Assuming that Cain and Abel learned the idea and duty of offering to God from their parents (Gen. 3:21) we might further conjecture that Cain’s offering was a departure from the norm, but with no more information than we are given at this point this is just conjecture. The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews repeats that Abel’s sacrifice was accepted and adds that it was offered “by faith” and that by it Abel was “commended as righteous” (Heb. 11:4). So much seems implicit in the Genesis narrative, but we must survey further revelation to see just how it is so.
The precise purpose of Noah’s sacrifice (Gen. 8:20-21) is not explicitly stated, only that “the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma” and promised continued blessing. This notion of “pleasing aroma” surely does not indicate that the smoking meat “smelled good” but that God was pleased with what the sacrifice signified and so on that basis promised blessing. The idea of satisfaction is not far away, but we will need further revelation to confirm this.
In Genesis 22 God commanded Abraham to offer his son Isaac in sacrifice. Before the sacrifice was actually carried out, however, God provided a ram to die in Isaac’s place. Here the idea of divinely-provided substitution is prominent (cf. John 3:16; Rom. 8:32).
Although Job’s sacrifices (1:5) are not precisely defined we are told that they were offered to God because of sin. Likewise it was because of the sins of Job’s friends and God’s consequent anger against them that they were commanded to offer sacrifice (42:7-8). Here it is rather explicit that sacrifice is for the purpose of appeasing divine wrath against sinners.
In the command to sacrifice the Lamb of Passover (Exod. 12) the notion of sin is presumed, and the ideas of substitution (v.3, 13), rescue from divine judgment (v.12, 23), the necessity of blood (v.13, 22) become prominent. By the sacrifice of a qualified lamb whose blood was properly applied each Israelite household escaped the death of God’s judgment.
With God’s instructions concerning sacrifice given in Leviticus the theme begins to receive more explicit definition. The repeated occurrence of “sin” and phrases such as “if anyone sins” (or similar) and “for sin” scores of times throughout the book and the requirement that sacrifices be offered “confessing sin” all specify that it is sin that occasions the sacrifices and gives rise to their need. The descriptive terms “guilt offering” and “sin offering” and the requirements that the sacrifice itself be “without blemish” are reflective of the same. Similarly, the often repeated vocabulary of “atonement” (kaphar/exilaskomai, indicating propitiation, appeasement) and “forgiven” specify their purpose. Leviticus 5:10 serves well to summarize: “the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin that he has committed, and he shall be forgiven.” On the Day of Atonement the priest was required to “lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins” (16:22). This symbolic action was to signify the transference of sin to the animal who, in turn, would “bear all their [Israel’s] iniquities on itself.” Elsewhere in Leviticus this oft-repeated expression “bear sin” consistently connotes responsibility for sin and liability to judgment (5:1, 17; 7:18; 10:17, etc.; cf. Isa. 53:12; 1Pet. 2:24). The killing of the animal thus signifies the divine judgment that sin merits. The symbolism of laying hands on the sacrificial animal, confessing sin, and then the ritual slaughter of the animal therefore conveys the idea of deliverance by substitution. Forgiveness is secured by substitutional sacrifice. Finally, the repeated assurance that the sacrifice was a “pleasing aroma to the Lord” symbolizes God’s satisfaction with the sacrifice and acceptance of the sinner.
Old Testament sacrifice was intended to signify more than mere homage. The significance was that of securing forgiveness, expiation of sin, through the offering of a substitute. The offeror is not portrayed as a mere creature but specifically as a sinner, a sinful creature in need of forgiveness. The offeror comes with a consciousness of sin seeking restoration to God’s favor by means of the acceptable sacrifice. The sacrificial victim itself is an intermediary, a substitute providing expiation. It bears the sin of the worshiper who receives forgiveness by that substitutional sin-bearing.
All this is to say that it belongs to the very nature of sacrifice that it is directed first to God. That is, it is designed to influence God, to appease him and satisfy his demand of judgment, and it is only with this satisfaction secured that the worshiper finds forgiveness.
The prominent ideas in Old Testament sacrifice are sin, guilt, and judgment on the one hand and satisfaction, expiation, forgiveness, and reconciliation on the other.
Sacrifice in Old Covenant Context
In its historical setting these sacrifices were provided in order to answer the question, How can a holy God live in the midst of a sinful people? In redeeming Israel from Egypt and in establishing them as a theocratic nation at Sinai (the old covenant) God had made Israel his own people. He pledged to be their God and to dwell with them accordingly. But how can his holy presence among sinners be established? The sacrificial system was given to answer this problem.
Of course there are questions that necessarily remain. Can an animal actually take the place of a man or woman? Can the blood of an animal actually atone for the sin of a nation? And if the sacrifices do indeed secure God’s favor and forgiveness, why must they be repeated?
The New Testament will take up these kinds of questions, but at the very least we can say that the Old Testament sacrificial system established the structure and frame of reference with regard to God’s redemptive purpose: Sinners may obtain divine favor if an acceptable substitute could be found to offer to God in sacrifice.
The Death of Christ as a Sacrifice
All this provides the background for the New Testament’s frequent description of the death of Christ in sacrificial terms; indeed, it cannot be understood otherwise. When Jesus himself and the New Testament writers employ language such as “give my life a ransom,” “ransom in his blood,” “by his blood,” “the blood of his cross,” “my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins,” “reconciled by his blood,” “justified by his blood,” “propitiation by his blood,” “through the death of his cross,” “made peace through the blood of his cross,” “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed,” “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God,” “him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood,” “the lamb which takes away sin,” “he bore our sin,” “was made sin for us,” “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law having been made a curse for us,” and so on, they direct us to understand our Lord’s death in sacrificial categories. The terminology of propitiation, ransom, redemption, forgiveness, and reconciliation, all find their meaning against the backdrop of Old Testament sacrifice.
All this teaches us just how it is that Jesus’ death effected our salvation. Our Lord’s death was that of a sacrifice. On the cross he offered himself to God in our place, bearing our sin and its deserved judgment; thus satisfying God’s just demands against us he frees us from our sin and reconciles us to God. All that the Old Testament sacrifices symbolized the Lord Jesus actually accomplished in his saving work. The former sacrifices were symbolic and anticipatory of what was actual in Christ’s offering of himself on our behalf. Just as the Old Testament sacrifices were directed first to God (propitiation) in order then to effect expiation, so our Lord’s death was offered to God (Eph. 5:2; Heb.9:14). His sacrifice of himself for his people was in God’s estimation “a fragrant offering” (Eph. 5:2) effecting propitiation (Rom. 3:24; Heb. 2:17; 1Jn. 2:2; 4:10), satisfying his just demands and thus appeasing his wrath and, in turn, expiating sin. Just as through the sacrifice of the Day of Atonement the people of Israel were, in the person of their representative priest, brought behind the curtain into the holy of holies, so also through the death of Christ we are brought into the very presence of God (Heb. 10:19-20; cf. Matt. 27:51; John 2:19-21).
On the one hand, then, we may speak of the Old Testament sacrifices as prospective, anticipating and symbolizing the saving work that Christ would actually accomplish in his death (Heb. 9:9; 10:1; cf. Col. 2:17). To say the same another way, the writer to the Hebrews specifies that the older sacrifices were in fact “copies” of the “true” sacrifice that Christ offered (Heb. 8:2, 5; 9:23-24; cf. 9:11-12). That is, Jesus’ sacrifice is the “original,” the reality – ultimately, his sacrifice was not patterned after the Old Testament sacrifices; rather, they were patterned after his coming sacrifice – the true sacrifice of which they were but a distant shadow.
Hebrews on the Sacrifice of Christ
The writer to the Hebrews highlights in several ways how the sacrifice of Christ excels the sacrifices of the old covenant.
- Christ’s sacrifice was offered only once (9:6-7, 11-12, 25-26, 28; 10:1, 10-12, etc.). The older sacrifices had to be repeated over and again, year after year. This would leave the thinking worshiper with doubts as to their real value (10:2-4), with little reason to assume that even the repeated offering of an animal could satisfy God or remove human guilt? The happy announcement of the gospel is that the sacrifice of Christ was of such value that it needed to be offered only once for all. Christ’s saving work is a finished work (cf. John 19:30), accomplished “once for all.”
- Christ’s sacrifice effected forgiveness (9:9-10, 12; 10:1, 4, 11, 18). Sin was the problem addressed in sacrifice – it demanded removal. The repetition of the older sacrifices testified to their inability to deal with sin with finality. They were inadequate. The sacrifice was not of sufficient value. But our Lord offered himself (9:12, 13, 26), a sacrifice of supreme value (cf. Heb. 1-2), effectual in removing sin. Again, what the older sacrifices only anticipated the sacrifice of Christ actually accomplished, and it is therefore able to “purge the conscience” (9:14) of guilt.
- Christ’s sacrifice was accepted in heaven, the true temple (8:2, 5; 9:1, 9, 11-12, 23, 24; 10:1). That is to say, it was not prospective of anything. It did not symbolize or anticipate the accomplishing of atonement. Accepted by God himself, in the true temple, forgiveness is assured.
- Christ’s sacrifice gained access to God (Heb. 9:7-8; 10:19-22). The old sacrificial system was designed to demonstrate that the way to God is not just open to anyone on any terms (v. 8). There must be a qualified priest and an acceptable sacrifice offered in an acceptable way. Even so, the people at large must stay back – only the high priest had access into the holy of holies and that just once a year and by a prescribed ceremony of sacrifice. We must not presume. It is a fearful thing to approach the holy God. But by the sacrifice of Christ the way now is open. All who come by him, on the ground of his sacrificial work, are accepted (cf. Matt. 27:51; John 2:19-21).
At the climax of this discussion the writer draws several applications, marked by the word “therefore”:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:19-24).
That is, if the sacrifice of Christ, offered once for all, was accepted in heaven itself, effecting forgiveness and gaining access to God, then let us be bold, confident in approaching God assured of our acceptance. Let us be confident, assured of our acceptance there with unwavering faith. Let us persevere through any difficulty with confidence of our final salvation, and let us encourage one another to the same.
The theme of sacrifice, then, takes us to the heart of the gospel and the essence of the Christian faith.
In a very real sense it [the theme of sacrifice] constitutes Christianity. It is this which differentiates Christianity from other religions. Christianity did not come into the world to proclaim a new morality and, sweeping away all the supernatural props by which men were wont to support their trembling, guilt-stricken souls, to throw them back on their own strong right arms to conquer a standing before God for themselves. It came to proclaim the real sacrifice for sin which God had provided in order to supersede all the poor fumbling efforts which men had made and were making to provide a sacrifice for sin for themselves; and, planting men’s feet on this, to bid them go forward.1
- J. H. Kurtz, Offerings, Sacrifices, and Worship in the Old Testament
- Leon Morris, The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance.
- Alec Motyer, Six Ways the Old Testament Speaks Today
- Ronald Youngblood, The Heart of the Old Testament
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