The idea of sacrifice is at the core of the Christian faith. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ is one of the central truths of the gospel. However, this important element of the Christians faith finds its origin and explanation in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. It is true that Jesus’ sacrifice has made obsolete the Old Testament sacrificial system (Hebrews 10:1-18). However, the original readers of the letter to the Hebrews knew and understood the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. From that knowledge, they were able to more fully understand Jesus’ work on the cross.
The sacrificial system in the Old Testament is part of the Mosaic Law (in Hebrew, the Troah). God commanded those sacrifices and rituals. On the one hand, performance and practice of rituals and sacrifices was an act of (1) obedience, (2)trust, and (3) repentance. Obedience occurred by following God’s very detailed commands about sacrifices. Trust existed in that God would provide for the animals-animals were expensive, a large portion of people’s livelihood. And the sincere expressions of repentance in places like Psalm 51 show the true repentance that often accompanied sacrifices. On the other hand, sacrifices existed because of God’s grace. Because of sin, sacrifices were God’s merciful provision for Israel so the people could dwell with a holy God.
BLOOD IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
One of the greatest problems for people today with the idea of sacrifice is its inevitable bloodiness. Sacrifice today simply appears primitive and cruel. A brief word about how Old Testament people understood the concept of blood will be helpful for understanding the concept and practice of sacrifice.
The first encounter with blood occurred when Cain struck his brother Abel dead. God voiced the seriousness of Cain’s offense: “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10).
In Genesis 9:3-6, God prohibited eating or drinking the blood of animals. The explanation for this prohibition is in Leviticus 17: “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life” (verse 11). The blood of animals had a purpose; atonement.
The question remains: why sacrifice animals? First, remember the Apostle Paul’s words regarding sin: “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Second, keep in mind that the regulations for sacrifices occur in the context of the Tabernacle in Leviticus. Animals became substitutes for humans: a life, an innocent life, for another’s life, the life of a guilty one. Animal sacrifice, then, was God’s gracious provision for humans. The shedding and use of the animal’s blood for the purifying or atoning rituals was a reminder for the worshiper that a life had been taken: the cost of sin is high indeed. The sacrifice of an animal allowed the Israelites to dwell alongside God himself as his presence dwelt in the Tabernacle.
The invention of the English word atonement has been attributed to William Tyndale, the English Bible translator in the sixteenth century, to express what Jesus accomplished on the cross: the cancellation of sins and reconciliation of God with humanity. The word has two parts: “at” and “onement.” Atonement, then, is God’s way to bring reconciliation and restoration to the problem of human sin and its effects.