Recently, I was teaching a New Testament History course for a local college. The course begins by emphasizing some of the major influences of the New Testament including four major Old Testament covenants. This background always brings a lot of interesting comments.
In the course of the conversation, one young lady was growing increasingly bothered. Finally, she blurted out, “But why sacrifices? What kind of God would prescribe something so horrific? What’s the point?”
This student’s question was sincere and hits on something that is generally just accepted and not often thought about carefully by those of us who have been Christians in the church for a long time.
I paused and considered her question. As I looked in her eyes, the hurt was evident. I’m not sure what all she had been told about God. I’m unsure of her spiritual background. I’m unsure of her personal experiences, but I do know that her question is critical to us understanding the nature of God and ourselves.
So, I told her that many reasons exist. I assume God, being the Almighty Sovereign One, could have certainly chosen a number of methods for dealing with sin in the Old Testament. I cannot speculate on why he didn’t choose another method, but I will comment on some of the ideas the Old Testament sacrificial system highlights for us. Here they are:
- The holiness of God.
God is constantly portrayed as a holy God. We sometimes emphasize the love of God (and rightly so, the Psalmists do) without ever bringing it into balance with the holiness of God. After all, the mantra of heaven is not, “Love, love, love,” but “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty” (Rev 4:8). God, in his holiness, cannot and will not tolerate or associate peaceably with sin. In other words, God treats sin as an enemy of his holiness, and since he is holy, he commands anyone who desires to have a relationship with him to be holy and perfect. This point is proven time and time again in the Bible (Ex 3:5; Lev 11:44a, 45; Is 5:16; 43:3; 54:5; 2 Cor 7:1; 1 Thes 4:7; Heb 12:14; 1 Pet 1:15, 16; 1 Jn 3:3).
- The egregiousness of sin.
Sin is so horrific that it requires death.
Could you imagine stepping out of your tent every morning and breathing in, not fresh air, but the smell of burning flesh? Could you imagine working in the field and seeing smoke continually rising from the tabernacle as a sign of something dying for sin? Could you imagine seeing a priest coming off duty and having blood splattered stains on his face where he had been slaughtering animals as you pass by in the market square?
All these elements served as a continual reminder that the smallest of sins is an affront to the holiness of God and they each deserve to be punished by death.
- The sinful nature of people and the insufficiency of animal sacrifice.
The fact that these sacrifices had to be repeated reminded the people of two things. First, they were perpetually sinners. They were constantly sinning against God, which is why they had to constantly be offering sacrifices. Secondly, the animal sacrifices may have been a sufficient symbol of someone’s repentance from past sins, but it could not suffice in anticipation of future sins. The continual sacrifices reminded people of their constant need to be reconciled to God. The fact that the sacrifices had to be repeated demonstrated that they were not sufficient to remove all unrighteousness.
- The mercy of God.
God provided a provision for sin. That’s amazing and merciful. God gave us a system whereby he could extend his grace and mercy to us while maintaining his justice and holiness. The fact that God did not leave us in our sins is astounding.
We should also see other aspects of mercy here. God did not demand our children as a sacrifice as so many of the other cultures did, but in contrast, God gave his son as the perfect Lamb of God to take away sins permanently. These Old Testament sacrifices ultimately pointed to the perfect sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah. Jesus was the Passover lamb through whom our judgment of death has been fulfilled. That’s why John the Baptist rightly proclaimed when he saw Jesus, “‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’” (1:29b)!
Whether we have been a believer for a half a century or a half a second, we should marvel at the glorious mystery of the sacrificial system and how it points us to these beautiful truths. God in his mercy made a way for us to be reconciled to himself. The question the Bible presses us to answer is not “How can a good God let bad things happen?” rather, the question of the Bible is “How can sinful people be reconciled to a Holy God?” The sacrificial system gives us a glimpse into the answer of this spectacular question.