Lessons from the Law: The Sacrificial System

old testament pt2

Can you imagine having to kill an animal every time you sinned? Each angry word, impatient attitude, selfish action. Every time you worried. Every time a lustful thought, a jealous thought, a prideful thought entered your mind. Every time you put something else before God in your heart.

One of the most prominent features of the Old Testament law is the sacrificial system, taking up a good portion of the beginning of Leviticus as well as some scattered passages elsewhere. It can be difficult to read through all the specific requirements for offerings, when to sacrifice a goat and when to sacrifice a dove, and which parts of the animal to burn, and on and on.

But this is meant to make us realize how much more difficult it would have been to actually carry out these instructions, and to point forward to the One who released us from this burden once and for all.

The Sacrificial System

In Israel, overseeing offerings was one of the most important duties of the priests. Offerings were given for many occasions, such as festivals and the Sabbath (Numbers 28-29), but especially to atone for sin.

What did this offering look like?

It always required the shedding of blood, unless the guilty person could not afford an animal (Leviticus 5:11-13).

It had to be done in a particular way, with the help of a priest.

It was temporary, a way to atone for one particular sin. Therefore, it had to be repeated over and over, and could never fully remove the reality of sin from the life of the Israelites.

(If you want to read more about it, look at Leviticus 4-6.)

The Depth of Our Need

So why did God give us all of this incredibly detailed information about the Israelites’ sacrifices if he doesn’t expect us to sacrifice in this way ourselves?

To show us how desperately we needed Christ.

Here’s the thing: all of the sacrifices of the Old Testament had to be without blemish, that is, as perfect as possible, the best of what the guilty person had.

“When any one of the house of Israel…presents a burnt offering as his offering…if it is to be accepted for you it shall be a male without blemish, of the bulls or the sheep or the goats. You shall not offer anything that has a blemish, for it will not be acceptable for you.” (Leviticus 22:18-20)

Lame animals? Not acceptable. Sick animals? Not acceptable. Injured animals? Not acceptable. God would only accept the best of the best.

That’s bad news for us. Because the sacrificial system was not meant to be permanent; it was meant to point forward to a time when our debt could be settled for good, when our sin could be paid for permanently. And the only kind of permanent sacrifice God would accept was going to have be the best of the best, perfect.

Who was there in the world who could meet those standards? None of us could. The Bible is very clear that every single human being is sinful. There was no way for us to save ourselves.

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

The Glory of Easter

Once we see the complex demands of the Old Testament sacrificial system, we see our great need, and we see the glory of Christ’s death and resurrection, the only thing that could permanently pay for our sin.

None of us could meet God’s sacrificial standards, so Christ came and met those standards. All of us are sinful, but Christ lived a life without sin. We couldn’t save ourselves, so Christ came and saved us, because he loved us too much to leave us where we were. 

See, that Romans passage goes on. It doesn’t leave it at that horrible truth.

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Romans 3:23-25)

The writer of Hebrews explores the idea of Christ as the final sacrifice:

“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come…he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption…indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins…

“For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come…it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near…for it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins…

“But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…for by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”

(excerpted from Hebrews 9-10; I highly recommend reading both those chapters in their complete form, as they pull this idea together very well)

This is why God gave us all the details of the sacrificial system for sin. He wanted us to see the absolute necessity of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and how glorious those truths are.

Because it is glorious. Christ, in one final sacrifice, did what centuries of animal sacrifices could not do.  He came, died, and rose, and in doing that he paid it all. 

That’s what we celebrate tomorrow, Easter Sunday.

love, grace

What do you think? Have you looked at the sacrificial system this way before? Are there other passages in the Bible you can think of that complement the ones I shared? Tell me in the comments! 

Read more:

Advent Reflections, part 4: Love

A Day of Rest, Joy, and Worship

Why Be Good if Jesus Died?

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