Updated: Apr 25, 2020
Try to talk about Biblical sacrifices to someone, and I'm sure you will soon see the crease between their eyebrows or their eyes glaze over. The concept of sacrificing on an altar as part of worship is so completely foreign to us!
We no longer required to offer gifts to God by fire, so why does it matter if we understand what it's all about?
I put to you that sacrifice is part of who we are today. Jesus' blood is heart and center in our belief that his death bought us freedom from sin. It was his willing death that secured forgiveness from sins not just for the Jews, but for the whole world. How can we have a clear picture of why he died that way or how that came about if we don't understand the sacrificial system?
It's easy for some to fall into the trap of thinking of God as wrathful and angry. Some picture God as a bloodthirsty, removed deity, roaring for blood as justice for our wrongdoings while His innocent Son was thrown in the way to save us. (I have fallen into that pit a time or two, and didn't enjoy my stay.) Was that what was happening on the altar with the lambs in the days leading up to Jesus? Is that what happened on the cross?
If not, what did happen on the cross that resulted in forgiveness for you and me?
These are BIG questions. Hard questions!
If you don't fully comprehend it all, you are in good company! Hundreds of books have been written on this subject. Within the New Testament itself they come at it from many different angles, trying to capture the truth and power of Jesus on the cross.
NT Wright has this encouragement for those of us who believe, yet struggle to understand:
"Before we go any further into this inquiry, let's make one thing clear. You do not need to be able to answer the question "why?" before the cross can have this effect. Think about it. You don't have to understand music theory or acoustics to be moved by a wonderful violin solo. You don't have to understand cooking before you can enjoy a good meal. In the same way, you don't have to have a theory about why the cross is so powerful before you can be moved and changed, before you can know yourself loved and forgiven, because of Jesus' death." - NT Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, page 12.
I am NOT at the end of this journey of understanding the wondrous thing that is forgiveness. I'm not offering the answers but inviting you to journey with me.
The Who, What, When, and Where of Biblical Sacrifices
I figure the best place to start is at the beginning. If I don't understand the how, or the why, I can at least look at the who, what, when, and where. If you're in the same boat as me, how about we try to comprehend Jesus' sacrifice by understanding the sacrificial practices of the Old Testament? These were what Jesus fulfilled. (Hebrews 9 and 10) I will try my best to summarize from some of the most feared (overwhelming and full of strange rules) books of the Bible.
The Books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers give a LOT of details about offerings for the Lord.
They tell who may sacrifice an offering: the priest can sacrifice for himself, for someone else, or for the entire nation. Though priests are not the only ones who sacrificed. Some prophets sacrificed, but they were obeying God's will. (Leviticus 1:5)
Also, where the sacrifices are to be offered: at the doorway of the tent of meeting. (Leviticus 1:3) When the temple was completed, the sacrifices were given on the altar before the doorway of the temple. It seems, however, that at some points in history, there were a few altars throughout the land as well.
It tells what is acceptable for an offering: livestock or bird without defect (usually male, but sometimes female), also grain, bread, wine, incense, and often added was olive oil and salt.