The Benefits of Old Testament Sacrifice
By Phil Roberts
WE KNOW THAT the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament did not really take away sin. But what did they do?
The Law of Moses provided the Israelites with a temporary solution to the problem of sin. God had a solution to the problem of sin which He announced to Abraham, saying, “In your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” But the fulfillment of this promise would take time, and a lot of preparation was needed. So God gave the children of Israel the Law of Moses as a temporary solution. As such, animal sacrifices provided the following blessings for the children of Israel:
1. Provisional forgiveness of sin. The writer of Hebrews teaches us that the blood of bulls and goats can never take away sin (Hebrews 10:4). But Moses told the Israelites that their sins were forgiven when they offered their animal sacrifices (Leviticus 4:20, 26, 31). So which is true? Did they receive forgiveness of sins when they offered their animal sacrifices or not?
I find it helpful to answer this question by a comparison to the modern custom of writing checks. If I sell a used car to my neighbor and he writes me out a check, have I been paid? Most of us would surely say yes to this question. But we all know that we won’t really be paid until a few days later when that check goes through the bank. Yet we still say that we have been paid when we get the check; we feel like we are paid, and we are happy about it.
Our neighbor might even tell us as he writes out the check,” Now don’t try to cash this until after Friday when I deposit my paycheck.” And yet, if we trust our neighbor, we still say that we have been paid and we feel like we have been paid, even though we know that technically we haven’t. We can say that subjectively we have been paid, even though we know objectively that we have not. And, interestingly enough, it all depends on how much faith we have in the person who wrote the check.
This illustrates, in a crude sort of way I admit, what happened when God “forgave” the sins of the Israelites. Objectively, legally, no real forgiveness could take place until the price for sin was actually paid by the death of Jesus on the cross—until the payment price was actually deposited “in the bank.” But subjectively, their sins were “as good as forgiven.” A promise of forgiveness from God, who cannot lie, is just as good as forgiveness itself, but only if you fully trust in God.
2. Awareness of the horror of sin. The Old Testament sacrifices provided, however, far more than just a sense of forgiveness. Those sacrifices also provided instruction that God’s people vitally needed if they were ever going to appreciate and understand the real solution when its time came.
Specifically, they needed an understanding of the horror of sin. An Israelite would take his goat of sin offering to a priest and, while he was holding his hand on the head of the animal, the priest would slay it (Leviticus 4:15, 24, 29). The offerer could literally feel the death of the animal—perhaps one his children had played with as it grew up (1 Samuel 12:3)—as it collapsed from beneath the touch of his hand. He could see the blood and feel its warmth as it spilled out on the ground. It was not a pretty picture. It was the picture of the horror of his sin—a picture that could not easily be forgotten. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). The ancient Israelite worshipper might not have understood how God would eventually provide His own Son as the sacrifice for sin, but he certainly knew the awful, death-dealing power of sin—and that was a blessing. It was a much needed “remembrance of sins year by year” (Hebrews 10:4).
Indeed, we would be blessed to have a greater appreciation of the horror of our own sins. Try this during the Lord’s Supper this week: Close your eyes and imagine your hand on the head of Jesus as He dies for your sin (Isaiah 53:5–7).
3. Awareness of the need for a greater sacrifice. Finally, one of the most powerful paradoxes of the Old Testament, displaying the manifold wisdom of God, is the fact that animal sacrifices could provide the Israelites with an assurance of God’s forgiveness and, at the same time, could be teaching them of the need for a still greater sacrifice.
Micah asks directly, “Wherewith shall I come before Jehovah, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old?” (Micah 6:6). Micah, David (Psalm 51:16–17), and many other Israelites, I am sure, came to see that a greater sacrifice was needed—a sacrifice of obedience to the will of God—to do justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8; see also Psalm 51:17). They came to see a need for greater obedience on their part and, in the light of their continuing failures, the need for the sacrifice of the perfect obedience of Jesus (Hebrews 10:5–10; Philippians 2:8).
Via Christianity Magazine, December 1991, Vol 8, No. 12.