From earliest times people expressed their devotion to God through presenting to him offerings and sacrifices. Some sacrifices expressed thanks, as people presented to God the best of their crops or animals (Gen 4:4; 8:20). Others emphasized fellowship, both with God and with others, as the offerers ate part of the sacrifice in a meal with relatives and friends (Gen 31:54). Other sacrifices were for forgiveness of sins, a slaughtered animal bearing the penalty that the offerers, because of their sins, should have suffered (Job 42:8). These basic elements of the sacrifices were later developed in the ceremonial law of Israel.

Offerers and their offerings

Whether before or after the institution of Israel’s ceremonial law, the heart attitude of the worshipper was always more important than his gifts. Abel offered his sacrifice in humble faith and God accepted it. Cain offered his sacrifice in a spirit of arrogance and God refused it. Even if Cain’s sacrifice, like Abel’s, had involved the shedding of blood, it would still have been unacceptable to God, because Cain himself was ungodly and unrepentant (Gen 4:2-5,7; Heb 11:4; 1 John 3:12). The Bible’s first specific statement concerning the particular significance of blood did not come till the time of Noah. The first clear revelation of the value of blood for atonement had to wait till the time of Moses (Gen 9:3-6; Lev 17:11). God revealed his purposes progressively as people were able to understand them, but always his acceptance of the offering depended on the spiritual condition of the offerer. The sacrificial system of Israel did not ignore this principle; rather it had this principle as its basis. Therefore, when people carried out the rituals mechanically, without corresponding faith and uprightness, the prophets condemned their sacrifices as worthless (Isa 1:13-20; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8).

God’s gift of the blood of atonement

The Passover in Egypt marked an important stage in God’s revelation of the special significance of blood. Blood was a symbol of life; shed blood was therefore a symbol of death; in particular, death through killing (Gen 9:4-6; Num 35:19,33; see BLOOD). In the original Passover, the blood of the lamb was important, not because of any chemical property in the blood itself, but because it represented the animal’s death. The blood around the door showed that an animal had been killed instead of the person under judgment (Exod 12:13). In Israel’s sacrificial system God provided a way of atonement through the shed blood of animals. Through sin people were separated from God and under the penalty of death, and there was nothing they could do to save themselves. There could be no forgiveness of their sin, no releasing them from its consequences, apart from death. God, however, provided a way of salvation through the blood (that is, the death) of a guiltless substitute. The blood of atonement was not an offering people made in the hope of squeezing pardon from an unwilling God. On the contrary it was the merciful gift of a God who was eager to forgive (Lev 17:11). The escaping of divine punishment was not something that sinners brought about, but was due to God himself (see PROPITIATION). Although an animal substitute had to bear the death penalty so that the sinner could be forgiven (Heb 9:22), the blood of an animal could not itself take away sins (Heb 10:4).

Nevertheless, it enabled the sinner to see that God, in forgiving sins, was not ignoring those sins but dealing with them. The only blood that can bring forgiveness of sins is the blood of Jesus – his death on the cross. God knew of Jesus’ atoning death even though it had not yet occurred (1 Peter 1:18-20), and because of that he was able to ‘pass over’, temporarily, the sins of believers of former generations. He forgave them, one might say, on credit, for their sins could not be actually removed till Christ died (Rom 3:25-26; Heb 9:15). The sacrificial system helped people see what salvation involved, but it was not in itself a means of salvation. Under the old covenant, as under the new, people were saved not through their works, but through the grace of a merciful God. The repentant sinner could do nothing but accept God’s salvation by faith (Rom 4:13,16,22; Gal 3:17-19; Eph 2:8-9). The benefit of the sacrificial system was that it gave people a means of communication with God, by which they could demonstrate their faith and seek God’s forgiveness (1 Sam 1:3; Isa 56:7).

Ritual requirements

God set out the legal requirements for the various sacrifices in great detail, and these details should have helped the Israelites understand the meaning of what they were doing. The sacrificial animal, for instance, had to be without defects, to symbolize that it was free from condemnation and therefore fit to be the guiltless substitute for the guilty sinner (Lev 1:3,10; see LAMB). No matter what people offered, it had to be their own property, so that it had meaning as part of them personally, so to speak. As an offering, it was a personal possession they gave. As a sacrifice, it cost them something. It impressed upon them that they could not treat the removal of sin lightly. Devotion to God was not to be treated cheaply. At the same time God did not want to drive people into poverty. In many cases he therefore allowed grades of offerings, so that people could make offering that were suited to their varying financial capacities (Lev 1:3,10,14; 5:7-13). By laying their hands on the animal’s head, offerers indicated that it bore their guilt and they wanted God to accept it on their behalf (Lev 1:4; 16:21). The unpleasant task of killing the animal (which was carried out beside the altar, not on it) reminded them of the horror of sin (Lev 1:11).

The priest collected the blood in a basin to apply to various places as a visible sign that a life had been taken to bear the curse and penalty of sin. Unused blood was poured out on the ground beside the altar (Lev 1:5; 4:7; 16:14). Some burning occurred with all the sacrifices, though the amount that was burnt varied. The parts to be burnt were usually burnt on the altar of sacrifice, though in some cases they were burnt in an isolated place away from the central camp (Lev 1:9; 2:2; 3:3-5; 4:10-12,35; 7:5). The portions not burnt were eaten, sometimes by the worshippers and the priests (including the priests’ families) and sometimes by the priests alone (Lev 2:3,10; 6:26; 7:15-17,32; 22:11).

Five main offerings

Israel’s sacrificial system had five main categories of sacrifice, though there were variations of these on certain occasions. The major categories were the burnt offering (Lev 1:1-17; 6:8-13), the cereal (or grain) offering (Lev 2:1-16; 6:14-23), the peace (or fellowship) offering (Lev 3:1-17; 7:11-38), the sin offering (Lev 4:1-5,13; 6:24-30) and the guilt (or repayment) offering (Lev 5:14-6:7; 7:1-10). Although the different types of sacrifices were for different purposes, elements of atonement and devotion were associated with them all (Lev 1:5; 2:2; 3:2,5; 4:5-7; 5:18). The burnt offering, so called because the whole animal was burnt upon the altar, indicated the complete consecration, or self-dedication, of the offerer to God (Lev 1:9; cf. Gen 8:20; 22:2; Exod 10:25; Rom 12:1). A burnt offering, offered on behalf of the entire nation, was kept burning on the altar constantly, as a symbol of the nation’s unbroken dedication to God (Exod 29:38-42). The cereal (or grain) offering and its associated wine (or drink) offering demonstrated thanks to God for his daily provision of food. Cereal and wine offerings were not offered alone, but always with burnt offerings or peace offerings. The wine was poured over the animal sacrifice on the altar, and a handful of cereal was burnt with it (Lev 2:4-10; 23:13,18; Num 15:1-10).

The peace offering expressed fellowship, a truth demonstrated in the meal that accompanied it. After initial blood ritual, burning ritual and presentation of a portion to the priest, the worshipper joined with his family, friends, the poor and the needy in eating the remainder of the animal in a joyous feast (Lev 7:11-18; Deut 12:7,12; 1 Sam 9:12-13). The sin offering was compulsory for those who became aware that they had broken one of God’s laws. In cases of sin by priests or the nation as a whole, the priests sprinkled the animal’s blood inside the Holy Place, burnt parts of the animal on the altar of sacrifice, and burnt the remainder outside the camp (Lev 4:7,10,12). In cases of sin by private citizens, the priests sprinkled the blood at the altar of sacrifice, burnt parts of the animal on the altar, and ate what remained (Lev 4:27-30; 6:26,30). The guilt offering was offered in those cases where the person’s wrongdoing could be given a monetary value. Such wrongdoing would include forgetting to pay tithes, causing damage to property, or failing to pay for goods (Lev 5:15; 6:1-5). The person presented an offering (similar to the sin offering for a private citizen) and repaid the loss, along with a fine of one fifth of its value (Lev 5:16; 6:5).

Limitations of the offerings

In general, the sacrifices detailed in the Israelite law were available only for unintentional sins. None of the five categories of sacrifice set out a procedure to deal with deliberate sin, even though that is the sin that most troubles the repentant sinner (Lev 4:2,13,22,27; 5:15,17; Num 15:30). The sacrificial system demonstrated that no system could solve the problem of sin or provide automatic cleansing. Sinners had no right to forgiveness. They could do nothing except turn to God and cast themselves on his mercy (2 Sam 24:14; Ps 51:1-2,16-17). This does not mean that the sacrifices were useless or could be ignored. They still provided a means of communication by which repentant sinners could approach God, express their repentance and ask God’s forgiveness. The sacrifices pointed beyond themselves to something higher, the merciful love of God (Micah 7:18-20).

Cleansing and response

Animal sacrifices could not in themselves remove sin (Heb 10:1-4), but they at least showed that sacrificial death was necessary for the removal of sin (Heb 9:22). The one sacrificial death that has achieved what all the Old Testament sacrifices could not achieve is the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ (Heb 10:11-14,17-18). Unlike the animal sacrifices, Christ’s sacrifice removes sin, cleanses the conscience, brings total forgiveness and secures eternal redemption (Heb 9:9-14,25-26; 10:14-18). The book of Hebrews goes to some length to display the perfection of Christ’s work, presenting him as both priest and sacrifice. In particular, it contrasts his sacrificial work with the sacrificial work of the Israelite high priest on the Day of Atonement (Heb 9:6-7,11-12,25-26; see DAY OF ATONEMENT; PRIEST). Besides being the only way of atonement, the sacrifice of Christ is an example to Christians of the sort of life they should live. Christ’s sacrifice was a willing sacrifice, an act of obedience and love. God wants his people to show their obedience and love by willingly sacrificing themselves for the sake of others (Eph 5:2,25; cf. John 15:12-13; Rom 5:8; Heb 10:7,10). The sacrifices of Christians, then, are spiritual sacrifices, which are offered in response to God’s love and mercy (1 Peter 2:5). They are not atoning sacrifices, for Christ’s one sacrifice has already brought complete release from sin’s penalty (Heb 10:17-18). Christians offer to God the sacrifices of worship, praise and service (Rom 15:16; Phil 4:18; Heb 13:15). But they will be able to present such sacrifices properly only when they have first given themselves to God as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1; 2 Cor 8:5).

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