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In considering any subject it is important at the outset to define the terminology used. The Concise Oxford Dictionary definition of 'sacrifice' implies two distinct shades of meaning:

  • Slaughter of animal or person; surrender of possession as an offering to a deity
  • Giving up a thing of value for the sake of something else

The first definition of sacrifice is totally alien in today's western society. However, in Bible times animal sacrifice was an integral part of the worship of God. In New Testament times, after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, animal sacrifice had no place in the Christian's approach to God. This was not because sacrifice was no longer important but that the sacrificial work of Jesus in laying down his life was a totally effective, once-and-for-all sacrifice. This made the offering of animals an unnecessary ritual. The second definition of sacrifice is a concept much more familiar to people today. It is a familiar cry of parents who have gone without certain pleasures in order to provide better things for their children. In this usage of the word, the sense is of giving up something that we value or enjoy in order to give to someone else. We shall see as we progress, these two aspects of the subject come together in the Law of Moses. The offerings that were made to God had to be of the very best, something valued and treasured by the giver, as a token of the love and respect the person showed to God. In a similar way, the Christian concept is one of self-sacrifice, a giving of ourselves to God's work, when again, only the very best of our efforts will be acceptable. This article will now trace the Scriptural teaching concerning sacrifice as it is presented to us in both Old and New Testaments.

Such an exercise is not an academic study of the religious ritual of an ancient civilization. It is a practical illustration of the way in which the Christian should learn to approach God and to serve Him.

The need for sacrifice

Animal sacrifice is not a practice that mankind devised, but was ordained by God Himself as an essential requirement for men and women to approach Him acceptably. The reason for this is described in the early chapters of Genesis. God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden to tend it and care for it. They enjoyed idyllic surroundings with only one restriction placed on them. This restriction was a test of their obedience to God's clear commandment not to eat the fruit of a particular tree (see Genesis 2.16-17). The punishment for disobeying this instruction was equally plain − it was death. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and, in so doing, they sinned. God was true to His Word and man was punished for his disobedience. However God, as well as being a God of justice, is also a God of mercy. Although condemning man to die, God also opened up a way for the human race to escape the consequences of sin and live for ever. This process of reconciling men and women to God is the essential message of the Bible and sacrifice is a vital ingredient of that message. After eating of the fruit of the tree, the record tells us that Adam and Eve became ashamed of their nakedness and tried to cover themselves with aprons made of fig leaves. This was inadequate and it was God Himself who provided an appropriate covering which was made from the skins of animals. This obviously required that the animals must first be killed and so death, as the consequence of sin, first came within Adam and Eve's experience.

  • The fig leaves which Adam and Eve chose to cover themselves were quite useless as a covering for sin

Photo by Delia Giandeini on Unsplash

This simple account of what happened to our first parents reveals some fundamental principles about the way that God deals with men and women. God required them to demonstrate obedience to His laws of their own freewill:

  • The covering they devised for themselves was totally inadequate.
  • God provided a covering for their sinful nature.
  • This covering involved slaying an animal and the shedding of blood.

The killing of the animal would impress upon Adam and Eve the punishment that would now come upon them. They too were destined to die as a result of their disobedience. Because of their guilt the animal had to be killed. This would act as a powerful reminder of their true position before God and their need for His mercy and compassion, if they were to become acceptable to Him. The general principles that are outlined above were later formally incorporated into a very strict code of laws. These were to govern the daily life of the Jewish people. This code as become known as the Law of Moses.

Sacrifice under the Law of Moses

Although generally known as the Law of Moses, the various regulations and commandments were not the work of Moses but the revealed will of God (see Exodus 19.3-7). The terms of the Law were the conditional clauses in a covenant or agreement that God entered into with the nation of Israel. After delivering them from slavery in Egypt, God gathered all the people to Mount Sinai and there spoke to them through Moses:

"Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to me above all people ... And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation"

  • Exodus 19.5-6

This promise of God is a very important part of His purpose with the human race. He declared His intention to separate out from all the people in the world a group of men and women who would obey His commands. In Old Testament times these were set out in the Law of Moses, that revealed a code of conduct and morality which if followed, would result in Divine favour and blessing.

  • A reconstruction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness with its altar of sacrifice

The Law of Moses covered every aspect of life and it was impossible for men and women to keep it perfectly. It made provision for man to recognise his failings and then to approach God to seek forgiveness. Just as in the case of Adam and Eve, this required the shedding of blood in recognition of the divine punishment – that death is the consequence of sin. The weakness of the Law of Moses was that man was continually breaking that Law and therefore repeatedly coming under the curse that the Law contained. So there was a continual need for sacrifices to be offered, sin to be recognised and repented of, and divine mercy to be asked for. As well as the sin offerings the Law provided for a number of other offerings to be made. Many of these related to services of thanksgiving to God, for example, following the ingathering of the harvest, the birth of children etc. In everything the Israelites were reminded of their dependence upon God for the blessings of this life and of the need for mercy, that they might inherit a better life in the future.

The quality of the sacrifices

The Old Testament books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy show that the Law very carefully prescribed the types of offerings that were to be made, according to the occasion and the circumstances of the offeror. One aspect of this specification is repeated time after time in the Law. The animal that was to be sacrificed had to be "without blemish" and the offerer was required to put his hand on the head of the animal. In this way he became associated with the sacrifice of the animal in recognition of his need for the forgiveness of sin (see Exodus 12.5 and Leviticus 1.3-4). This establishes a very important principle in relation to the things we offer to God. The offering must be of the very highest quality. There was no tolerance of the attitude "that animal is superfluous to my needs – it will do for God!" On many occasions during their history God condemned Israel for this attitude: "And when you offer the blind as a sacrifice, is it not evil? And when you offer the lame and sick, is it not evil? Offer it then to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you favourably?" says the LORD of hosts.

  • Malachi 1.8

More than sacrifice is required

The quality of the offering presented to God was important, but so much more important was the quality of the heart that gave it. A simple story from the life of King Saul will illustrate the principle. Saul had been given a clear commandment from God to fight the Amalekites and to utterly destroy them. Saul obeyed God in part but decided not to kill all the livestock that had been taken as booty. Instead of destroying them, he offered the best of the captured flocks as a sacrifice to God. Again, this attitude was roundly condemned by God through His prophet Samuel who said to him: "Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams."

  • 1 Samuel 15.22

It was a similar failing that caused Jesus to condemn the Pharisees. They were punctilious about keeping the ritual of the Law but were often oblivious to the spirit enshrined in the Law. Jesus approved the comment of one of the scribes: "You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but he. And to love him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbour as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices"

  • Mark 12.32-33

This level of appreciation caused Jesus to say that the scribe was ‘not far from the kingdom of God’. This attitude is the platform from which all sacrifice must be offered. If we love God with all our heart and mind, then we will give Him of our very best. If we love our neighbour as ourselves, then we will share all that we have with him. This brings the consideration of sacrifice and offering firmly into the Christian way of life. We can do no better than to consider Jesus' own giving of himself in sacrifice.

Jesus Christ - the lasting sacrifice for sin

We have already noted how that in the beginning our first parents sinned by disobeying God's command and as a consequence were condemned to die. This fact clearly suggests that the only possible way to eternal life is through perfect obedience to God's will. It was just such a life that Jesus led, for he had a perfect understanding of the divine requirements that led him to great trial and personal tragedy. But he remained perfectly obedient to the very end.

It was this perfect life which ensured that Jesus could be raised from the grave to enjoy eternal life. But Jesus' life of obedience was much more than a personal triumph, it was a triumph in which all of us can share. The sacrifices of the Law of Moses were not effective in permanently covering sin - the animal had no conscious awareness of good or bad. The death of the animal merely reminded the offeror of his own subjection to sin and death and his reliance upon God's mercy. In contrast, the willing offering by Jesus of his life was a perfect sacrifice, a sinless life being freely given for the benefit of others. The perfect sacrifice of Jesus fulfilled the requirements of the Law of Moses and took away the need for daily sacrifices as Paul wrote to the Colossians: "he has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross."

  • Colossians 2.14
  • Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac was a parable of God's offering of His own son Jesus as the perfect sacrifice (see Genesis 22).

The Letter to the Hebrews tells us about the imperfections of the Law of Moses and contrasts this with the perfection of Christ's offering: "Every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down at the right hand of God...For by one offering he has perfected for ever those who are being sanctified."

  • Hebrews 10.11-14

Firstly, there was the need for an unblemished animal to be offered. This essential characteristic of the animal pointed forward to the only sacrifice that could ever be effective. Jesus was called by John the Baptist, "The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world."

  • John 1.29

Secondly, the person making the sacrifice had first to recognise his or her fault and then be associated with the death of the animal. The message in New Testament times was exactly the same and is equally valid today: "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins"

  • Acts 2.38

This was the Christian message proclaimed by Peter on the day of Pentecost. Paul, in writing to the believers at Rome, powerfully shows how true Christian baptism by total immersion in water, is a symbolic association of the believer with the death and resurrection of Jesus (see Romans 6.3-5). By such a close association with the sacrifice of Jesus, his offering can be fully effective in covering our sins and opening up the way to everlasting life. However, the New Testament makes it very clear that the hope of eternal life is not achievable by a once-off association with Christ through baptism. Baptism is essential but not sufficient of itself. It marks the beginning of a new life like that of Jesus, given as an offering to God.

Sacrifice in the Christian era

In an appeal to the believers in Rome, Paul wrote: "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service"

  • Romans 12.1

Paul is not instructing them to make a literal sacrifice as Jesus did, but to develop in their lives the essential characteristics of an offering acceptable to God. In the same chapter of Romans, Paul itemises the characteristics that God finds pleasing – to be charitable, kind, zealous, patient, prayerful, humble, forgiving - indeed the very characteristics that marked Jesus out as the perfect man. Very often, exhibiting these virtues involves us in real sacrifice, a giving of ourselves to benefit others.

All men and women are basically selfish, with a primary concern for their own well-being. The Christian way of life should be the reverse: God and Christ must come first, our fellow men and women second and ourselves last. This way of life is contrary to every natural instinct and to develop the right attitude demands a determined disciplining of mind and action. Our brief study of the requirements of the Law of Moses shows that our approach to such discipline must not be half-hearted. A token gesture of following Christ is comparable to offering a crippled or lame animal from the flock, an unacceptable response to someone who has given us everything.

At the beginning of this article we mentioned parents who make a sacrifice for the benefit of their children. Such a consideration is more than a simple analogy; it is a literal expression of what God has done. We are all disobedient, ungrateful and undisciplined children, worthy only of punishment. Yet our Heavenly Father has provided a means of becoming reconciled to Him.

This involved the provision of Jesus, who willingly laid down his life as an effective sacrifice for sin. God allowed His only son to be crucified by wicked men in order that we might benefit. That benefit is not just a passing fancy or a temporary advantage, it is the supreme blessing of everlasting life to be enjoyed on a beautified earth. This is what the calling of God is - He has shown us His purpose through His Word; He has provided for the forgiveness of our sins through Jesus Christ but He also demands a response from us.

Author: Stephen Irving, Norfolk, UK
Source Light on a New World - Volume 28/3

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