Sacrifices and Blood
As we consider Old Testament procedures relating to offerings and sacrifices, we learn a great deal about God’s method of forgiveness. These offerings and sacrifices can be divided into two categories: Notice immediately that these sacrifices did not represent a substitutionary suffering for the sinner. We draw this conclusion for the following reasons:
- When an animal was offered as a blood sacrifice it was not tortured slowly but was put to death very quickly.
- No sacrifices could be offered for crimes that deserved capital punishment. Anyone guilty of a capital crime was executed.
- In the case of poor families, a bushel of fine flour was accepted for a sin offering in place of a blood sacrifice. It is obviously impossible for flour to suffer.
Neither was the death of the animal a vicarious payment for sin for several reasons:
- Again, no sacrifice could be substituted for the life of one guilty of a sin deserving capital punishment.
- On the Day of Atonement, confession of sin was made while placing the hands on a goat. This goat was later released, while another was slain.
- The atonement is related to the blood of the sacrifice not to the death that produced it, but to the life that is in it.
The Old Testament system of sacrificial offerings accomplished two important functions. First, the blood sacrifices were especially designed to allow God (according to public justice) to pass over the people’s sins and set aside the penalty. In order for pardon to be granted under public justice, the normal execution of the penalty which upholds the law, or gives it “teeth,” must be replaced with something equally as effective in upholding the law. The sinner needs to see how awful his sin is in God’s eyes and he must have a realization of his own guilt. All this could be accomplished on a limited and temporary scale through the Old Testament sacrificial system. When a sinner was ready to offer up a sacrifice for his sins it was necessary, in the case of an animal, that it be without spot or blemish. The killing of anything less than perfect would diminish the impact on the beholder. The sacrificial lamb, for example, was to be a picture of health and innocence prior to slaughter. This was undoubtedly due to the fact, as we mentioned earlier, that our inclination to see sin as a cruel and reprehensible phenomenon is in proportion to the goodness and innocence of the victim. Malcolm Muggeridge recalls his experience at a sheep-shearing in Australia:
As the lambs looked up with their gentle frightened eyes, it quite often happened that the mechanical shears drew blood. The sight agitated me abnormally, the blood so red against wool so soft and white. Why did I feel as though I had seen it before, long ago? Why was the sight somehow familiar to me? That was it—the sacrificial Lamb, Agnus Dei. Malcolm Muggeridge, Jesus Rediscovered, Family Library, pp. 20,21.
The Bible does not associate blood with death but with life.
The life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul … For it is the life of all the flesh; the blood of it is for the life therefore. Leviticus 17:11,14
It is common in the Bible for blood to represent life. For example, when Jonathan declared to his father that David was innocent, he said Wherefore then wilt thou sin against innocent blood, to slay David without a cause? (1 Sam 19:5). See also Psalm 94:21, Ezekiel 3:18, Matthew 27:24, 25, Luke 11:50. In the New Testament the words life and blood are often interchangeable.
The Son of man came … to give his life a ransom for many. Mark 10:45
We have redemption through his blood … Ephesians 1:7
The one means the same as the other. God intended to put a premium on the concept of life through the blood. This was one of the reasons the Israelites were forbidden to eat blood. Life is a prize of ultimate value, and when taken, the sinner is brought to a sobering realization of the significance God places on sin. The combination of the sacrificial lamb’s perfection, innocence and death made a profound impression upon both the individual and the nation. To illustrate the effects of the sacrifice upon the sinner, we will return by way of imagination to ancient Israel. It was typical of many families in those days to keep animals, particularly lambs, as pets. As in our society, the young children grew very attached to their animals.
One evening as you and your brothers and sisters are running around outside your house, your father arrives to put a halt to the horseplay. After hustling you in for dinner, he snatches up your favorite lamb and ties it inside the door. On most days Dad’s arrival is a highlight, but today something must have gone wrong. He’s too serious tonight, not like usual when he throws you up on his shoulders and carries you through the door. Tomorrow, you discover, the family is going to the Temple, but what’s really great is that lamb gets to go, too!
Early the next morning your mother wakes you up, tells you to clean up and put on your best clothes. The fact breakfast was skipped this morning for the Lord wasn’t new, but Dad has never looked so serious … so sober. Anyway, your guess is that he’s tying the lamb’s feet together so he won’t get loose in the Temple.
The family is finally on the way; Dad’s in front, with the lamb on his shoulders with Mom and all the siblings in tow. Nearing the Temple you notice some of your friends arriving, but Dad won’t let you talk to anybody. Once inside the Temple, all you can see are the backs and legs of a forest of grown-ups. Nobody’s talking; they’re all just kind of crying and moaning real loud. Every so often a family or group of people press their way through the crowd heading for the door of the Temple.
It’s hard to figure out what’s happening. You had never really noticed the people’s faces the other times. This was the first time, too, that Dad had ever let the lamb come, though many other people had brought theirs before. After a very long two hours you have crept near the front. Occasionally you can see the priests’ legs and bare feet around the altar through a crack in the crowd. The wailing and moaning near the front is almost deafening.
Finally, your family is standing in front of the altar. There is blood all over the ground and splattered on the priests’ clothes. While your attention is fixed on all the blood, Dad has handed the lamb over to a priest. After saying something to Dad he lifts his head and speaks—again probably praying. His hands are both resting on the lamb—when you notice for the first time the long menacing knife at the side of the altar.
The lamb anticipates its future with a meek struggle but the leather cords hold firm. After the priest finishes praying he picks up the knife and puts his hand under the lamb’s jaw pulling its head back. Horror-struck, you watch the priest plunge the knife into its throat; the blood spills out onto the breast of the lamb, the priest and the altar. After one last spasmodic convulsion the life of your lamb is over.
As the priest spreads the blood around, the reality of the whole gruesome spectacle begins to melt your frozen stupor. Leaving the temple tears flow uncontrollably as you press through other Jewish families awaiting their turn to approach the altar. Nothing was said on the way home.
That evening, Father lifted your little frame off your tear stained pillow and gently explained as he had to your older brothers and sisters in prior years how a lamb could die instead of you.
One suspects that the child in our story began to grasp how revolting sin is to God after he saw the event in the Temple. There may not have been a thorough theological understanding, but it can doubtless be said that, at least for a while, sin would not be taken lightly by this child. Blood signifies a cleansing agent, not a peace offering to an angry God. The blood, when sprinkled on the altar and mercy seat, was a sign to God that men had seen a life taken and that they, like this youngster, had realized the awfulness of sin and were not inclined to hurry out and commit more. The atonement was in the bloody realization of God’s view of sin and His law, and in its ability to humble the sinner who recognizes his guilt and responsibility. When man is in this condition, God can pardon him and reconciliation takes place. The atonement becomes the at-one-ment.
And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. Hebrews 9:22 (NASB)
The word “almost” in this verse is a reminder that on rare occasions poor people could bring fine flour as an atoning sin offering. This reinforces the fact that God is primarily looking for a heart realization. Though best brought about through blood, it could also be produced through a cost recognition of another sort—such as food-stuff which was life sustenance to poor families. There are many interesting scriptures in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament minor prophets, which indicate that if there is no heart realization, no contrition, no impact on the one who offers a sacrifice, that blood or no blood, it is not pleasing to God.
For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. Hosea 6:6 (NASB)
Since Ephraim has multiplied altars for sin, they have become altars of sinning for him. Though I wrote for him ten thousand precepts of My law, they are regarded as a strange thing. As for My sacrificial gifts, they sacrifice the flesh and eat it, but the Lord has taken no delight in them. Now He will remember their iniquity, and punish them for their sins; they will return to Egypt. Hosea 8:11–13 (NASB)
’I hate, I reject your festivals, nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; and I will not even look at the peace offering of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Did you present Me with sacrifices and grain offerings in the wilderness for forty years, O house of Israel? You also carried along Sikkuth your king and Kiyyun, your images, the star of your gods which you made for yourselves. Therefore, I will make you go into exile beyond Damascus,’ says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts. Amos 5:21–27 (NASB)
With what shall I come to the Lord and bow myself before the God on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, in ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my first born for my rebellious acts, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:6–8 (NASB)
Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, ‘Sacrifice and offering Thou hast not desired, but a body Thou hast prepared for Me; in whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin Thou hast taken no pleasure.’ Hebrews 10:5–6 (NASB)
For many the sacrifices had become nothing more than a tiresome ritual. People grew hard and callous and eventually began to engage in deceit and profiteering in the Temple. As long as there was an absence of heart contrition there was no efficacy in the sacrifices. Twice Jesus had to drive out merchandisers from the Temple who were making enormous profits from animals sold as sacrifices. It was against this perversion that Jesus burned with indignation. This practice, however, was nothing new, as we note in the book of Malachi:
‘Oh that there were one among you who would shut the gates, that you might not uselessly kindle fire on My altar! I am not pleased with you,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘nor will I accept an offering from you. For from the rising sun, even to its setting, My name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense is going to be offered to My name, and a grain offering that is pure; for My name will be great among the nations,’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘But you are profaning it, in that you say, “The table of the Lord is defiled, and as for its fruit, its food is to be despised.” You also say, “My, how tiresome it is!” And you disdainfully sniff at it,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘and you bring what was taken by robbery, and what is lame or sick; so you bring the offering! Should I receive that from your hand?’ says the Lord. ‘But cursed be the swindler who has a male in his flock, and vows it, but sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord, for I am a great King says the Lord of hosts, ‘and My name is feared among the nations.’ Malachi 1:10–14 (NASB)
The difficulty of the sacrificial system was that it was only a temporary solution. The lingering effect of the sacrifice of the little child’s lamb lasted for weeks or perhaps months. But eventually the impression wore off and had to be continuously repeated to remind the people of the true nature of sin.
But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year. Hebrews 10:3
A person needed a system whereby one could be totally and permanently changed from within, a system whereby one’s sin wouldn’t be merely covered but removed! Now let us examine the second function of the old covenant sacrificial system. Because man had strayed so far from God and had lost his concept of God, it accordingly became necessary to slowly and progressively bring him back to the place of complete fellowship. In other words, the old covenant was a foreshadowing of an awesome event. The sacrificial system was to build anticipation, looking forward to the full solution of the problems of reconciliation in the Person of Jesus Christ.
Then said he, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God. He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second. Hebrews 10:9
For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God. Hebrews 7:19
The blood of Christ opened, as the song says, “a new and living way.“ No longer would we relate to God on the basis of an external set of laws. Something happened to us when we saw Christ die under the weight of our sin. We were won by the love of Christ back into relationship. He put His laws in our hearts and minds. We keep them without even thinking about them because we’re back in a love relationship! I think this issue was well captured in a story I’ve often heard repeated. A young woman in starry-eyed haste married a man who turned out to be a cruel tyrant. He often stayed out late drinking. One thing he faithfully saw to was a daily list of chores and duties which he expected his wife to complete. At the end of the day, if the duties were not accomplished or executed to his satisfaction, he would beat and abuse his wife. In time, this husband died a broken and bitter man. Shortly thereafter, the woman remarried. This time she married a man whose character was diametrically opposed to that of her first husband. He was a gentle, sensitive and loving man who spent many hours holding his wife’s wounded personality in his embrace. In time, remarkable emotional healing became manifest. One afternoon, as she went through the house singing and cleaning, she found a scrap of paper wedged in the crack of the sofa. Switching off the vacuum cleaner, she sat down to read it. Slowly tears began to well up in her eyes and trickle down her cheeks. It was one of her previous husband’s old lists. As her eyes descended the list, she realized that she was doing everything on it, without being told. No external list was given her each morning. It was written on her heart. Paul sums up the effect of the new love, relationship.
For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also bears witness … ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws upon their heart, and upon their mind I will write them.’ Hebrews 10:14–16 (NASB)
The blood of Jesus is no admission fee which God has accepted to let sinners into Heaven; it is the means He Himself has given to sinners to cleanse them from sin … Jesus’ blood was not shed for the purpose of inducing God to let the unclean stand for the clean; but to make the unclean clean. P. P. Waldenstrom, The Christian Doctrine of the Atonement, Covenant Press, p. 22.
It is important when we are discussing the new covenant that we maintain our theological equilibrium. In recent days many castigate the law as if it were the brainchild of Lucifer. Have we so quickly forgotten David’s words, “Thy law is my delight”? (Psalm 119:77). “More desirable than gold” he tells us, “Sweeter also than honey.” Let us recall Moses’ words, “So the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God for our good always and for our survival ….” (Deut. 6:24). When the Bible talks about an imperfect law and replacement of the old system, it refers to Ceremonial Law, not the Moral Law. Those who fail to make a distinction here will develop serious difficulties in their lives as well as their theology.