- An exploration of biblical sacrifice and what it means to worship today.
A father says to his family, “It’s time to go and worship the LORD.” A young son goes to the field to bring up the baby calf he and his father had marked the day before. A young girl clings to her mother’s skirts with sad eyes. She mourns, “The calf had just come into the world. Why must she be killed so soon?” The girl’s father had told her she could name the next calf and care for it. But this one, this first calf, belonged to the LORD. The son walks with his father to the priest, leading the calf behind them. The calf is slaughtered. The sounds of grunts and wails and the blows of the blade swirl around the boy and his father and the priest. Someone is humming or singing or chanting a psalm. Then the calf is placed on an altar. The fire soars to engulf the carcass. The aroma is sweet and boy gets hungry. Looking down at his hands where the blood has splattered, a different, raw, aroma rises. Soon the priest is cutting away the fat from the calf. Gently, his father takes his hand. It’s time to go now. As they arrive at the house, the girl is the first to see them. There is sweat and dirt on her father’s and brother’s faces. And there are dark red stains. Slowly, she begins to cry.
Our impression of Old Testament sacrifice is that it is a primitive, ritualistic attempt to appease a distant and angry God. And our overall feeling about it is a sigh of relief that we don’t have to bother with that silly business of killing animals. How horribly burdensome to have to do that all the time! And how bloody and inhumane. The whole sacrificial system in the Old Testament seems legalistic and offensive, and we’re just glad it doesn’t apply to us today.
But there are several things wrong with this view of Old Testament sacrifice. Let’s explore them one piece at a time.
1. Are sacrifices in the Old Testament an attempt to appease an angry and distant God?
The short answer is no. First, Israel did not invent the practice of offering sacrifices to a god. Sacrifices are assumed; they are part of the cultural backdrop of the ancient world, like giving flowers in our context would be a way of expressing care for another. But while YHWH does not “invent” the practice of offering sacrifices, he certainly gives shape to Israel’s sacrificial system.
Underlying all these instructions regarding sacrifices is YHWH’s covenant with his people. God made a covenant with Abraham long before he gave them the law. Abraham is chosen, as Paul argues, by grace through faith. The sequence in the Old Testament is “covenant,” then salvation” (the rescue from Egypt), then “instruction” (the giving of the Torah). God makes a covenant with Abraham by grace; God delivers Israel from Egypt through Moses because they are already his people; God gives Israel instruction—including instruction on sacrifices—because they already are his people whom he saved.
Sacrifice doesn’t secure relationship, it reflects it
If you think of it in family language, it becomes clear. Your children are yours because they are, not because of anything they’ve done. If they were to fall and you came to their rescue, you would be doing so because they are your children not in order to make them your children. And when you give your children instructions about how to play nicely with each other or sit properly at the dinner table, you are doing so because they are your children. You could not give rules to the neighbor kids—though you may wish you could! When your children bring you gifts, the gift is not what makes them your children; it simply affirms the relationship.
John Goldingay, the Old Testament chair at Fuller Theological Seminary, puts it this way: “Sacrifice…is not a means of establishing the relationship between people and God but a means of expressing, developing, and healing it.” For Israel, sacrifices were not a way to become God’s people; they were a way of living as God’s people.
Furthermore, God’s anger is never mentioned in Leviticus (the Old Testament book that tells us the most about the sacrificial system). Sacrifices, then, are not primarily (or perhaps not even peripherally) about appeasing YHWH’s wrath.
I hear a follow-up question arise…
2. But aren’t sacrifices all about sin?
Once again, the short answer is no. Leviticus 1-7 reveals several types of sacrifices and many occasions for offering them, often in various combinations. The “whole offering” and “grain offering” (Lev 1-2) are about expressing devotion to YHWH; the “fellowship” or “well-being offering” (Lev 3) is about giving thanks and providing a celebration meal with others. Even the “purification offering” (Lev 4-5)—sometimes translated “sin offering”—is less about being the solution to sin as much as it is dealing with the stain that results from sin. Think of spilling your coffee on yourself and on the person seated next to you on the plane. First, you need to apologize, even if it was unintentional. (If it was intentional, you really need to apologize!) But then, you have to deal with the reality of the stain—on your clothes and his! Most immediately, you could get a napkin to absorb the spill. In the same way, Leviticus outlines many instances where we are made “unclean,” stained by our actions, sometimes unintentionally. Finally, there is the “reparation offering” (Lev 6-7)—often translated “guilt offering”—which is about setting right a relationship that has suffered a wrong. Back to our coffee spill on the airplane. There is more than the stain on your clothes to deal with; there is the issue of his stained clothes. “Reparations” may look like offering to pay for the dry-cleaning. This is the sacrifice most directly related to sin. There is also a whole day of the year set aside for dealing specifically with sin—The Day of Atonement (see Lev 16)—which is about setting right the relationship between YHWH and his people.
Shades of Meaning
So, sacrifices can take on different meanings depending on the occasion. Goldingay compares the capacity of sacrifices to express and accomplish different things to our cultural act of giving flowers:
As gifts to God, Old Testament sacrifices can have a parallel range of significances to those of the giving of flowers. A thank-offering expresses gratitude for some act on God’s part. A whole offering suggests the commitment of the person to God; the offerer surrenders every part of the animal. Sin offerings and guilt offerings provide ways of finding cleansing when one is stained, and of making up for the consequences of failure. (Goldinday, “Atonement Today,”www.fuller.edu/sot/faculty/goldingay)
3. What does all this tell us about the God of the Old Testament?
One of the first stories of YHWH and sacrifice involves the practice of human sacrifice. Those who grew up in church were probably introduced to the Abraham and Isaac story as a child. But somewhere in the midst of the flannel-graph telling, we may have missed the horror of the story: Did God really ask a father to kill his only son?
But if we’ve missed the horror of it, we’ve also missed the point of the story. Yes, it is God testing Abraham. But it is also YHWH revealing what he is like to Abraham. Abraham, as the legend goes, was a child of a pagan idol-maker. A god asking for a human sacrifice, even a child sacrifice, may not have been all that unusual in the ancient world. Canaanites, for example, were known to offer human sacrifices. One would guess that it would be the highest expression of devotion. YHWH was, in a sense, speaking to Abraham in a language Abraham understood; he was asking Abraham to display devotion in the only way Abraham knew how. But the climactic point of the story is not that God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac; it’s that he did not let him do it! “Let the worshiper of YHWH take note,” the storyteller seems to be saying, “YHWH is not like Molech. He does not want human blood! He provides a ram for the sacrifice.”
God’s character eternally the same
It gets better. YHWH “carried” Israel’s sins even without sacrifices. Sacrifices could make reparations and cleanse a stain; but they couldn’t make YHWH forgive. Only if YHWH is in his very nature “full of mercy, abounding in love” would he forgive. It may be helpful to think of YHWH’s response to sin in the Old Testament as “cleansing,” “covering,” and “carrying” (Goldingay’s terms). Think of the coffee you spilled on yourself and the passenger next to you. You may “cleanse” the stain on yourself. You may “cover” the wrong by getting napkins to absorb the spill and offering to pay for his dry cleaning. But in the end, he will have to choose to “carry” the wrong—or the cost of the wrong (he doesn’t have another pair of pants for this trip!)—by choosing not to get angry with you. In a similar way, while a sacrifice may cleanse the stain and cover the wrong, only a gracious God can “carry” the “weight” of the wrong. The Old Testament reveals a God who has always carried the sin of his people, even when they were in exile and could not offer sacrifices (Goldingay,OT Theology, Vol. 2, p 125-126).
When you see YHWH in the Old Testament this way, you see his sending of Jesus not as a break with an old way of doing things, but rather as exactly the kind of thing you would expect YHWH to do! YHWH has always carried our sins. He has always provided the sacrifice! And now he has done it “once for all” in Jesus.
Now for the part where we come in…
4. So, what do sacrifices mean for our worship today?
We think immediately of something we can do—how our singing or our dancing or our excellent musicianship or even our life of obedience can be a pleasing offering to the Lord. There is certainly truth to that. If Old Testament sacrifices are like gift-giving, then worship not atonement is at the heart of understanding sacrifices. But if YHWH has always provided the sacrifice—the animals and the grain were viewed as a direct result of YHWH’s blessing—for worship, then what do we offer as our worship today? Everything, our whole lives.
In Christ Alone
But the New Testament and the great theologians of the Church are careful to remind us that this is done only in Christ!The primary elements of the Old Testament sacrificial system are temple, priest, and sacrifice. In the Gospels—and most explicitly in Hebrews!—Christ is shown to be all three. Before we can speak of our priesthood, we must talk about hisPriesthood; before we can talk about our being the Temple, God’s dwelling place, we must talk about Christ being the Temple, the one in whom the fullness of the Godhead bodily dwells.
In the same way, before we can talk about our offering, our sacrifice of worship, we must see Jesus as the sacrifice. We are used to thinking about Jesus as our sin offering, but he is not only our atoning sacrifice but the one in whom ourworship is offered as well. Jesus is like the “whole offering” who offers his whole life into the Father’s hands; Jesus is like the “fellowship offering” whose body is the bread and his blood the cup that becomes our communal meal; Jesus is like the “purification offering” that cleanses the stain of our sin with his own blood; Jesus is like the “reparations offering” that sets right our relationship with YHWH.
Rethinking our theology of worship
Our offering of worship to God is offered in Jesus! This is where the flaw is in the popular thought that “worship is our response to who God is.” Our response would not be a pleasing offering. Only in Christ do our songs and prayers and broken lives become his perfect offering, blessed and whole and pleasing to the Father. We cannot speak of offering our lives as “living sacrifices” to God until we understand the crucified and risen Christ as the one in whom we stand as priest and temple, the one in whom we offer our lives as sacrifice.
And, now the final question…
5. How do we appropriately, symbolically, and concretely express this in our worship?
(Sigh.) If only there were a symbol, an act, a tangible—even edible—way of reminding us that Christ is our priest and our sacrifice of worship, the object and the offering of our praise…
Oh, wait … there is! It has been the centerpiece of Christian worship since the birth of the Church, but, sadly, it has widely become an optional piece. It used to be the climactic moment of the service—it still is in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and in many Protestant denominations. But too often, it’s a quick, two-minute “element” in the produced worship service where people swallow a cracker and few ounces of grape juice from a plastic cup. We know communion is important, so we try to do it, at least four times a year. But we don’t know why it’s important. Isn’t it just a nice reminder?
Ultimate sacrifice and worship meet
Or is the Eucharist the moment where we proclaim that the world is broken and stained, but the God who carries our sins and provides the sacrifice has done this once and for all in the brokenness of his Son whose blood cleanses and covers our sin? It is at the Table of the Lord where we realize that all our worship and offering are meaningless unless they are offered in Christ. This is why the Eucharist deserves the central and climactic point of our worship service. A song can celebrate; but a song can never become the sacrament. Only in the sacrament of the Eucharist do we proclaim andparticipate in Christ as both our atoning sacrifice and the one in whom we bring our offering of worship.
Glenn Packiam is a the lead pastor of new life DOWNTOWN, an extension of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he also serves as an Executive Pastor over Spiritual Formation. He is the author of numerous books, most recently: Lucky: How the Kingdom Comes to Unlikely People (David C. Cook, 2011). A co-founder of and songwriter for the Desperation Band, he is also a solo artist, and his songs have been featured on three volumes of Song DISCovery.