ST ANDREW’S OCCASIONAL PAPERS
- Early Sacrifices.
The idea of sacrifice, of giving an animal or produce to God, often by burning upon an altar, goes back to the very early chapters of the Bible. In fact it was the difference in the sacrifices, or rather on the attitudes of the givers, which led to the dispute between Cain and Abel and so led to the first murder (Genesis 4).
When Noah, his family and the animals left the ark after the great flood had receded, he built an altar and sacrificed burnt offerings to the Lord (Genesis 8:18 – 20).
In the strange story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac, we find this great forerunner of the Jewish nation also building an altar and preparing a sacrifice. However he was stopped from harming his son and a ram was offered in his place. (Genesis 22).
In these early stories we get hints about the significance of sacrifice. Some see it as providing food for God (although this idea is rejected in Psalm 50:12 – 13), an idea found in some non-Christian religions to this day. There is also the important idea of sacrifice as a way of saying “thank you” to God, but most significantly we see the idea of an animal sacrificed in place of a human being.
- The Mosaic Laws of Sacrifice.
Sacrifice became an essential part of Israelite religious practice and in the books of Moses the pattern is gradually revealed. However it is in the first seven chapters of Leviticus that the detailed regulations for sacrifice are set down. There we find that different modes of sacrifice are required for different occasions and purposes and that different animals or produce can be sacrificed according to those purposes and to the rank and wealth of the folk bringing the sacrifice.
Remember Joseph and Mary could only afford two doves or pigeons and not a lamb (Luke 2:24, Leviticus 12:8) after Jesus was born.
Whenever an animal was brought for sacrifice it had to be perfect, without any defect (Leviticus 1:3). To bring a crippled or diseased animal was not acceptable (Malachi 1:8). Then, as now, only the best should be given to God.
The practice of sacrifice was according to definite God-given rules.
- Sacrifice in the Temple.
The leading figures in the early chapters of the Bible built altars as and when they needed them (Genesis 8:20) and sacrificed on them. When the people entered Canaan, God made it clear to them (Deuteronomy 12) that they were not to follow the practices of the heathen nations which they were driving out and worship “on the high mountains and on the hills and under every spreading tree” (v2) but at “the place the Lord your God will choose” (v5). It was to that place that they must bring their sacrifices and offerings. So, once the Temple was built by King Solomon, this became the chosen place and sacrifices were made there.
This practice continued until the Temple was destroyed and the people were taken into captivity but restored with the rebuilding of the Temple by the returning exiles. Later Herod built a third Temple but when this was destroyed by the Romans in AD70, sacrificial worship died out.
The practice of sacrifice in the Temples of Jerusalem continued for hundreds of years.
- The Purpose of Sacrifice.
There was a wide variety of sacrificial practice under Mosaic Law, but, perhaps, the procedures on the Day of Atonement, one of the most sacred days in the Jewish Calendar, will illustrate the purpose most vividly. The ritual is described at length in Leviticus 16.
The High Priest bathed and then put on special, sacred clothes. He then sacrificed a bull as a sin offering for himself and his fellow priests. At this point He went into the inner sanctuary, the “Holy of Holies”, the only time in the year that anyone was allowed to enter this most holy place. He then came out to choose two goats and to cast lots to see which goat was to be sacrificed. He took some of its blood back into the Holy of Holies. However the fate of the second goat is at the heart of all that happened. The High Priest laid his hands on its head and confessed “over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites – all their sin – and put them on the goat’s head” (Leviticus 16:21). The goat was then driven out into the desert, symbolically taking the sins of the people away with it. Hence it was known as the scapegoat, a word sometimes used today for someone who takes the blame on behalf of others. This ritual, which clearly pictured the removal of sin by transfer to something else, had to be repeated every year.
The practice of sacrifice was designed to deal with the sins of priest and people.
- The Abuses of Sacrifice.
The prophets had some surprising messages about the sacrifices of the people. Isaiah proclaimed the words of the Lord, “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats” (Isaiah 1:11), and went on to explain that the people had to turn to God rather than hide behind the ritual of sacrifice and to “learn to do right” (Isaiah 1:17).
Hosea said much the same thing, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).
Surely the warning to the people, just as it is to us, is that worship and its rituals can become “mechanical”, a substitute for the real approach to God in penitence and faith. One can take part in sacrifice or any other form of worship, going through all the correct procedures, without the heart being involved. This was, and is, unacceptable to God.
When Jesus “cleansed” the temple by driving out those who sold sacrificial animals and who changed “foreign” money into coins that could be used to pay the temple taxes, He was protesting that these activities were in the wrong place, occupying space that should be open for prayer (Mark 11:17). The system of supplying animals was not wrong in itself, it served a need for those travelling from a distance (Deuteronomy 14:25,26) but it was being abused both by being in the temple area and by being run for excess profit – (Jesus called it a “den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13)).
The practice of sacrifice was abused both by the people and by the authorities.
- Christ’s Sacrifice.
The death of Jesus Christ on the cross at Calvary was the ultimate sacrifice for sin. It was the act that the whole Old Testament sacrificial system foreshadowed.
style=”text-align: justify;”> From the start of His ministry Jesus had been called the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29) and time and time again He taught His disciples that He had come to die on the cross (Matthew 17:22,23). They found this hard to understand although, in one sense, they should have been prepared for it because of all the Old Testament prophecies they must have known. For example, Isaiah speaks of the Servant who “was led like a lamb to the slaughter” and on whom “the Lord has laid…the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:7,6).
So we see what is at the heart of Jesus’ coming to this earth. He came to take our sins upon Himself and to die to pay the penalty of those sins (Romans 6:23). Sin cannot just be overlooked or ignored by a righteous God but God can bear the punishment Himself (for Jesus was God), so that human beings can go free if they accept the work Jesus did on their behalf.
Jesus was an acceptable sacrifice because He was Himself without sin (John 8:46, Hebrews 4:15), just like the perfect animals demanded for sacrifice (see 2 above). He did not deserve to die for anything He had done, He died because He took upon Himself the penalty of our sins.
The practice of sacrifice culminated in the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, our Saviour, in our place.
- The Uniqueness of Christ’s sacrifice.
Jesus was unique in that He was both God and man in perfect union. So the sacrifice that He offered, of Himself, was also unique.
It was different to the Old Testament sacrifices in that it was only offered once. the Old Testament sacrifices had to be offered day after day, Sabbath after Sabbath, festival after festival, but the sacrifice that Jesus made of Himself was “once for all” (Hebrews 7:27).
Then Jesus’ sacrifice was powerful enough to deal with “the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). This does not mean that everyone will be saved whatever their beliefs and actions but that the sacrifice is so wonderful that if anyone turns to Christ, whatever their past history, they will be welcomed into the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ sacrifice was sufficient to cover the sins of the thief cum bandit who died on the cross next to Him and who turned to Jesus in faith, but the other thief, as far as we know, died in his sin (Luke 23:39 – 43).
The practice of sacrifice was replaced by the once for all sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, the most powerful and complete sacrifice there ever could be.
- Christian Sacrifice.
John issues a challenge (1 John 3:16) “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” Indeed, he echoes what Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Certainly, starting with Stephen, the first martyr (Acts 7), down the ages and still today, Christians are being killed as a result of their belief in Jesus.
However this form of sacrifice may well not come to us, especially as we live in a nominal Christian country. Yet John seems to foresee this and in his letter he continues, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 John 3:17).
This fits with the idea that Christian love is wanting the best for the one loved at whatever cost to oneself. This is the love that Christ showed on the Cross.
So we are called to a life of love and sacrifice, which is not an easy concept in this materialistic world where the emphasis is on the selfish amassing of all that one can. Is not selfishness – the very opposite of sacrifice – at the root of nearly all the trouble in this world?
The practice of sacrifice in caring for others is the challenge facing every Christian, because he/she has been saved by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version. © 1973,1978,1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder and Stoughton, a member of the Hodder Headline Group. All rights reserved.