SACRIFICE IS NOT a pleasant topic. It might remind you of giving what you are reluctant to give. It has overtones of slaughter, blood and burning. In some heathen cultures it involved humans— children and adults—to placate angry gods who withheld harvests, or brought violent storms if offended, or who were thought to gorge themselves on the victims and drink their fresh blood. A travesty, a horror, repellent to all right-thinking people.
God caused His psalmist to prevent men thinking of sacrifice in heathen terms by these words: ‘If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?’ (Psalm 50:12–13).
God did indeed require sacrifices in Old Testament times. It is clear that they played a very important part in the lives of the faithful from the very earliest days.
When Adam and Eve realised they had sinned by disobeying God they were ashamed of themselves, and attempted to hide, both from each other and from God. ‘Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths’ (Genesis 3:7). The fig leaves were adequate for the purpose, as seen by Adam and Eve, but not for the purpose of God. They had brought upon themselves the sentence of death through eager misuse of their imagination and abilities. They were inextricably in debt to God for seizing and appropriating to themselves what He had not given them. They had trespassed by leaving the way of life and crossing over into territory forbidden to them for that time.
For God it was not a simple matter of smiling benevolently on their foolishness and saying, “Well now, don’t do it again.” They had rebelled against their Creator by not taking His word as truth. It was vitally important they should learn a lesson which would remain with them as a constant reminder of the seriousness of sin.
‘And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them’ (Genesis 3:21). There was nothing they could do for themselves. ‘Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin’ (Romans 5:12); ‘The wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23). Those are two New Testament statements on the situation.
They were given the privilege of witnessing how God proposed sin should be dealt with, and how at-one-ment with Him would be established. An animal died, and they were clothed with its skin (Genesis 3:21). Doubtless it horrified Adam and Eve that the innocent should suffer for the guilty. It is hardly likely that the skins were tailored to fit them. They were not intended to decorate their bodies, but to be a continual reminder of the reason why they were being worn. We can’t say if they wore them all the time, or only when they came before the presence of God at the east of the garden of Eden (v. 24).
In Genesis 4 we are told their son Abel was a shepherd. Why did he keep sheep? For their wool for clothes? For milk? Or to provide the skins for those who sinned? (Only later, in Genesis 9:3, do we read that animals were permitted to be eaten.) So people would—or could—have learned their dependence on the animals for the continuation of their life. Alive or dead, the animal should have been a reminder to them of their fallen state.
This, surely, ought to have regulated our relationship with the animals in our care, but cruel and arrogant people would not wish to be reminded of this. They ruthlessly slaughter animals for sport, and deny them the kindness to which they are entitled as God’s creatures.
Under the Law of Moses which God gave to Israel, a system of animal sacrifices was established. Animals did not die “instead” of people, as substitutes for them so they could escape punishment for their sin. However many sacrifices someone offered, they still died. The animal represented the sinner. The sacrifice could only cover the sin for which it was offered —it could not take away the result of being a sinner.
Some sacrifices were wholly burnt, to illustrate the full price a person would pay when they eventually died and perished as a sinner. Some parts of some animals which could be eaten by the offerer and the priest were first “offered” to God. They were not to be thoughtlessly slaughtered and greedily devoured without thankfulness to God for His provision. Every action involved in sacrifice was to teach a lesson—not to appease an angry god, as the heathens thought.
‘It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins’ (Hebrews 10:4). The animal was not a willing sacrifice, nor did it have any concern for those it represented in dying. Animal sacrifices were but shadows, or parables. They all pointed forward, right from those in Eden, on until the final offering, when the Lamb of God willingly gave his life to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
Jesus Christ was our perfect representative, provided by God. When we accept him as our sacrifice we are covered by his perfect, sinless life. We die with him symbolically in baptism. We are raised with him to a new relationship with God, and we are given hope of the resurrection, from our own “death”, through him. God raised him from the dead to be a Prince and Saviour; through him we have the forgiveness of our sins; and living in him is eternal life. Now he represents his people in the presence of God (1 Timothy 2:5), and one day he will return to earth as their King (2 Timothy 4:1).
God gave His Son for us; the Lord Jesus gave himself for us; that was the sacrifice through which God gives eternal life to all who believe and accept that salvation.