Recently, I have been thinking about the subject of Christians understanding the purpose of Old Testament sacrifices. It is an important concept, and integral to rightly understanding the doctrine of salvation, and the biblical narrative as a whole.
We need to start at the beginning. Genesis chapter 3: The Fall. The serpent enticed Eve to question God’s love, goodness and Word by getting her to covet the one thing that was forbidden in the garden. She disobeyed God, Adam followed suit, and the rest is history. Their eyes were opened, and they knew they were naked. They attempted to cover themselves with fig leaves and then they hid. From God. In the bushes. After questioning them, He declares the consequences of their sin. Then He makes this declaration: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) This verse is known as the protoevangelium. The first time the gospel is declared. And then something interesting happens: “And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” (Genesis 3:21) Let’s put it all together. Adam and Eve sin, their eyes are opened and they recognize their shame and try to conceal it. God declares the gospel to them and then He sacrifices an animal and covers their nakedness with its skin. Is this starting to sound familiar?
In Genesis 4 is the account of Cain and Abel. Cain’s sacrifice offering was unacceptable because he brought the work of his hands, where as Abel’s was acceptable because it was the “firstborn of his flock”. Bring anything to mind?
Let’s jump ahead a bit to Genesis chapter 22. God has already selected Abraham and promised to make a great nation from his decedents. This nation will be known as Israel and will be a visible teaching tool to the rest of the world about God and His law. In chapter 22, God tests Abraham by telling him to take his only son Isaac, who he loved and offer him as a burnt offering on a mountain. Abraham obeys, but at the last moment God intervenes and provides a ram for the sacrifice. This is where substitutionary atonement is introduced. It means just what it sounds like. One thing is substituted for another, and is sacrificed in its place. Again, familiar?
Fast forward to the book of Leviticus, and the sacrificial system is instituted for the nation of Israel. Remember, they were a nation of individuals, set apart by God and had a special covenant relationship with Him. Their purpose was to be a testament to the surrounding nations about who God is. A living picture. An instrument of spiritual education for the nations. Leviticus 17:11 explains the purpose of sacrifices: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the alter to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.” Sin requires the shedding of blood. “For the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23)
All Four examples from the Old Testament shared above, as well as many more that I did not mention, were pointing toward the ultimate sacrifice of the Son of God on the cross at Calvary. Animal sacrifices did not expunge sin, but rather provided a temporary covering for them as well as gave us a picture of the final and perfect sacrifice that would be the ONLY acceptable payment for sin. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Immanuel.
“…without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Hebrews 9:22)
“The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
“and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.” (1 Peter 2:24)
“He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.” (Romans 4:25)
“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
“…For He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness…” (Isaiah 61:10)
Soli Deo Gloria!