The grace of Israel’s sacrificial system

September 22, 2016

rutledgeFor the sake of his contrarianism, my Old Testament professor in seminary, the late John Hayes, enjoyed telling his class of incredulous mainline Protestants—many of whom rarely used the word “sin,” or did so only in non-traditional ways—that Leviticus was his favorite book of the Bible. Why? Because it takes sin deadly seriously. It demonstrates the costliness of sin.

He had a point—and one with which Fleming Rutledge, author of Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, would sympathize. In one chapter, she examines the cross of Jesus Christ through the lens of blood sacrifice in the Old Testament. Of the sacrificial system described in Leviticus, she writes:

Basic to the ritual is the idea that atonement for sin costs something. Something valuable has to be offered in restitution. The life of the sacrificed animal, together with the sense of awe associated with the shedding of blood, represents this payment. “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). The blood represents the ultimate cost to the giver. There is something powerful here that grips us in spite of ourselves. The use of the phrase “blood of Christ” in the New Testament carries with it this sacrificial, atoning significance in primordial sense; we cannot root out these connections even if we wanted to.

Leviticus 5:14 maintains that one who sins must bring a guilt offering to the Lord “valued… in shekels of silver.” Note the emphasis on assigning value to the offering. The suggestion is that there should be some correlation of the value of the offering with the gravity of the offense. If the supposed sacrifice is just something we are getting rid of, like those old clothes in the back of our closet that we haven’t worn for years, then restitution is not made. Anselm’s word “satisfaction” seems right here, wth its suggestion of comparable cost. We are familiar with this notion; we are infuriated when people who have committed great crimes get off with light sentences. The trouble is that there is no adequate punishment for a truly great crime. How could there be any offering valuable enough to compensate for the victims of just one bombing let alone genocides of millions? Anselm’s point is one again apposite: “You have not yet considered the weight of sin.” The obvious conclusion, explicitly drawn in Hebrews, is that the sacrificing of animals just isn’t enough. One of the simplest ways of understanding the death of Jesus is to say that when we look at the cross, we see what it cost God to secure our release from sin.[1]

The trouble is that there is no adequate punishment for a truly great crime. Indeed, as Rutledge points out in a footnote, blood sacrifices in the Bible cover only “unwitting sin.” There was no sacrificial provision for “high-handed” or deliberate sin. See Numbers 15:30-31: Israelites are to be “cut off.” Indeed, see Hebrews 10:26-31, where the author alludes to this scripture in a stern warning to potential backsliders. (By the way, isn’t this one of the most frightening passages of scripture in the New Testament? It should give pause to any of us who so easily presume upon God’s grace.)

Rutledge’s point is, as a matter of justice, anything less than the blood sacrifice of God’s Son Jesus would be inadequate to remedy the problem of sin’s guilt. We intuitively understand this, as she says, whenever we see “people who have committed great crimes get off with light sentences.”

And yet, as she points out, blood sacrifices and guilt offerings, no matter how costly, are also “light sentences.” They were never meant to be otherwise. They were meant to symbolize both the costliness of sin and the sheer graciousness of God—which itself prepares us for God’s sacrifice on the cross. Contrary to the widespread stereotype, God always related to God’s covenant people on the basis of grace.

None of this will be persuasive to anyone who does not already know himself to be within the sphere of God’s grace. In view of the widespread notion that the Old Testament is all about sin and judgment, there is an urgent need in the church for more intentional teaching of the enveloping grace in the First Testament. God’s redemptive purpose in electing a people (Gen. 12:1-3; 17:1-27) was put into effect long before the giving of commandments and ordinances. God has already told them, You are my people. God has ordained the means whereby we may draw near to him. The ordinances of the Torah are not a catalogue of tribal customs. They are gifts from the living God.[2]

If we miss this point, then we won’t understand, for example, Paul’s argument in Romans. We might wonder instead what was wrong with God’s original covenant with Israel, such that they, too, are under God’s judgment. Why couldn’t Israel have its means of atonement through the Law and we Gentiles ours through Christ, and both groups be fine?

Of course, many Christians already believe that, unfortunately. If so, they need to read Rutledge’s new book.

1. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 245-6.

2. Ibid., 246.

5 Responses to “The grace of Israel’s sacrificial system”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I have long been puzzled with the idea of no “sufficient” sacrifice (or “available” sacrifice) for “willful” sin. How can you steal “un-willfully”? Or murder. Or commit adultery? Yet David committed all three in connection with Bathsheba, but “God has forgiven your sin–you will not die.” I certainly admit the two passages you cite–I just don’t know how to reconcile them with this observation as to David. David aside, I know that I have committed some sins “knowingly”; i.e., knowing the action I was about to take was sinful but doing it anyway. Am I “cut off”? I don’t seem to be.

    If I remember the Hebrews passage correctly without looking it up, I believe it says: “If we sin willfully after we have knowledge of the truth, there remains no more sacrifice for sin.” Does this refer to some “type” of sin in particular? Such as “apostasy”? Peter “denied Jesus” three times, including with oaths, yet was forgiven. Undoubtedly he was repentant, but does that not mean even that sin can then be forgiven, based on Christ’s sacrifice? You see my quandary?

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    I think that’s why we have the discourse on “the unforgivable sin”; to grieve the Holy Spirit. All else can be forgiven. Even the workers that don’t show up until the very end of the day will get the same reward.

    Grace is divine. That’s why we humans have such trouble in understanding and trusting it.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Thanks, Grant. But what is the “unforgivable sin”? Is it just to reject the offer of salvation? Is that all the author of Hebrews was getting at? Or Leviticus?

      • Grant Essex Says:

        My understanding is that it is to reject Jesus Christ as your savior. It’s the overt act of denying Christ.

  3. veritasvincit Says:

    Lloyd Bailey’s Commentary on Leviticus/Numbers (an EXCELLENT work) makes this point. A very earthy tangible system of piety allowing us to daily practice the presence of God. Thanks


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