Light for our path: Sacrifices

As a modern American I have trouble understanding how the Old Testament animal sacrifices were pleasing to God. Because of that, I do not understand why God would want or accept the sacrifice of his Son. Can you explain this?

James F. Pope

I can appreciate your question because you and I are so far removed from the time and culture of the Old Testament sacrificial system. If we bridge those cultural gaps, we can come to appreciate the twofold message of the animal sacrifices.

A VIVID MESSAGE OF GOD’S LAW

Euphemisms for sin abound today. People speak of “mistakes,” “indiscretions,” “poor choices” and “errors in judgment.” Those alternate terms for sin are designed to lower the guilt level in a person’s conscience and boost self-esteem. Unfortunately, those terms mask the seriousness of sin and the need for a Savior from sin.

By contrast, the Old Testament sacrificial system indicted people as rebels who violated God’s will by their “sins,” “transgressions,” and “iniquities.” The killing of an animal broadcasted a powerful message to the people, and the message was that sin is serious. “The one who sins is the one who will die” (Ezekiel 18:20). Worshipers who witnessed the slaughter of a sacrificial animal had every reason to think, “My sins are serious. I rightly deserve punishment from God. I need forgiveness for my sins.”

A BEAUTIFUL PICTURE OF GOD’S GOSPEL

And yet, in that same sacrificial system there was good news for the worshipers. While the sacrificing of an animal provided a graphic image of the seriousness of sin, it also painted a beautiful picture of the forgiving love of God. The sacrificing of an animal taught the worshiper to think, “I deserve to die and be punished for my sins, but God accepts a substitute and spares me.” Those animal substitutes pointed ahead to the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ. The animals were to be perfect and without spot. The Messiah was like them; he was without sin—a substitute for the sinners for whom he died.

Against the backdrop of countless animal sacrifices pointing to a hill outside Jerusalem, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement” (Romans 3:25). The sacrifice of the Son of God did what the animal sacrifices could only portray: it removed sin and guilt (Hebrews 10:1-18). And consider now what that sacrifice says about God.

A WINDOW INTO GOD’S HEART

“Why would God want or accept the sacrifice of his Son?” you wonder. Because he desires the salvation of all people. God does not want “anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). The plan of salvation that God set up and implemented involved the sacrifice of his own Son.

That Son once said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Imagine the love of someone who lays down his life, not for friends, but for sinners, a world of sinners (Romans 5:8)! God’s love for sinners moved him to institute the sacrificial system and then sacrifice his own Son.

Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 103, Number 2
Issue: February 2016

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