What was the Old Testament sacrificial system for?

August 9, 2018

I’ve told friends and acquaintances that if I had to do seminary over again, I would have asked many more questions. For instance, one question, which embarrasses me to write “out loud” because the answer seems obvious to me now, is this: If God gave Israel the sacrificial system of the tabernacle/temple as a means of forgiving sins, why did Jesus need to offer himself as a sacrifice for sins? What did Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice accomplish that ancient Israel’s sacrifices couldn’t—even assuming that Israelites carried them out perfectly?

Here’s one wrong answer we can rule out immediately: that Israel “tried” temple sacrifices, they didn’t “work,” therefore God sent his Son Jesus. This makes no sense of a God who transcends time and has foreknowledge, much less of the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8 KJV). No: before God created a people, Israel, he intended to save them through a descendant of Abraham (Genesis 3:15; 12:1-3), not through temple sacrifices.

Also, please notice—and I never noticed this until Old Testament scholar John Goldingay pointed it out in one of his commentaries—God made no sacrificial provision for the most serious offenses: sins committed with “a high hand” (ESV), “defiant” sins (NIV, NASB, NET), “presumptuous” sins (KJV), or “deliberate” sins (GNT). About these sins, the Bible says the following:

But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him (Numbers 15:30-31).

Whatever these “high-handed” sins are, they are in contrast to “unintentional” sins only (Numbers 15:22-29), for which temple sacrifices could atone.

I sometimes sin “intentionally” and “deliberately.” Don’t you? This fact alone ought to give us pause. Sin is deadly serious, and we are in trouble apart from God’s grace.

Moreover, the sacrifices in and of themselves accomplish nothing. The prophet Micah, using the voice of God’s people Judah, makes this point in Micah 6:6-7:

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

With what shall I come before the Lord? As the commentator in the ESV Study Bible says, this is the right question “for all people in every age.” None of us sinners is fit, apart from God’s grace and mercy, to appear before a holy God. Also, these verses rule out the idea that Israel somehow failed to sacrifice enough, or to do so correctly. Even if they had sacrificed an exorbitant amount—”thousands of rams,” “ten thousands of rivers of oil,” “my firstborn”—it would not have sufficed. As the commentator writes:

Shall I give…? The values of the sacrifices escalate in an attempt to discern the price for entering God’s presence. The way in which the proposals increase in absurdity, ending with an outrage (ten thousands of rivers of oil… my firstborn), shows that Micah is exposing an attitude that wrongly sees sacrifice as an entry fee, rather than as an avenue for God to administer grace and forgiveness to the penitent (who will express thanks as v. 8 describes).[1]

This is insightful: Temple sacrifices were not an “entry free”; they did not pay a debt that God’s people owed for their sin. They were an avenue of God’s grace, not the foundation of that grace. If God’s people were counting on sacrifices themselves to save them, rather than God’s grace, as Micah implies here, their guilt remained.

By contrast, if one understands that forgiveness comes only through grace, then one will “express thanks as v. 8 describes”:

He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

God “requires” these three things for forgiveness in the same way that saving faith requires good works, as a response to prior grace. But I like the way Harold Bosley puts it in the 1956 Interpreter’s Bible:

Yet it is difficult to see why people then or now seem to breathe easier when the prophetic conception of true sacrifice is announced: To do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God. Or as Moffatt has translated it, “To be just and kind and live in quiet fellowship with your God.” This may sound comforting and comfortable to the man who has never tried it, but the unanimous verdict of prophetic spirits through the ages underscores its costliness. Every student of law knows how necessary yet how difficult the quest for justice has been and continues to be. Mercy and humility are surely two of the highest and holiest of virtues—and no others are more difficult of the kind of achievement God requires, i.e., incarnation. Yet Micah joins the prophetic succession of Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah in demanding just this.[2]

Interpreters often speak as if Micah is pitting a religion of ritual against a religion of the heart—and of course God desires a religion of the heart. I’m sure that’s true.

But as Bosley implies, the heart of humanity’s problem is the heart! Why should that make us “breathe easier”? It should instead bring us to our knees—not to mention the foot of the cross, where Jesus, Israel’s (and humanity’s) representative, lived the life of perfect justice, kindness, and humility that we were unable to live and suffered the punishment we deserved to suffer. Nothing less than the blood of Jesus, therefore, is the price for entering God’s presence. And through Jesus we have new birth through the Spirit—by whom our heart is transformed.

Ultimately, the Old Testament sacrificial system, then, is intended to point us to Christ’s sacrifice for our sin, the costliest sacrifice imaginable—because his life is of infinite worth.

1. W. Brian Aucker and Dennis Magary, “Micah” in The ESV Study Bible, ESV (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 1705.

2. Harold Bosley, “The Book of Micah,” in The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon, 1956), 940-1.

One Response to “What was the Old Testament sacrificial system for?”

  1. Paul W. Says:

    Great post! I first learned that the Law provided no covering for purposeful sins from a random sermon by J. Vernon McGee back in the late 80’s. I was blown away since it went against everything I had been taught about the purpose of the Law while I was growing up in the SBC. I would venture to guess that not 1 in 10 laymen or pastors know much less understand the significance of this truth. Even if you had asked this question when you were back in seminary, do you think your professors would have had the theological grounding to give you the correct answer?

    As you point out, willful sin is a very serious matter. Sadly, I’ve found that in many (most?) churches that a subtle form of anti-nomianism is taught, i.e.: We are sinners and will continue to be sinners while we remain on this side of heaven; we simply need to confess our sins and God will forgive us no matter what we do. All we need is faith in Christ. In this view, the importance of holiness and righteousness is not emphasized; sanctification becomes primarily a passive blessing bestowed to whatever degree God individually determines. Striving against sin is therefore seen as a form of “works righteousness”.

    I personally see this as the primary “heresy” within theologically conservative churches and denominations. Have you seen this as well and, if so, is there an effective way to change hearts on this matter?


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