Sunday, February 28, 2021

Jesus and the Old Testament: Levitical Sacrifices

For several years, I have followed a plan to read through the Bible in a year by reading a few chapters from the Old Testament and a chapter from the New Testament each day. The Old Testament readings start off with a bang, opening with well-known and exciting accounts of the creation, the flood, the journeys of the patriarchs, Joseph’s adventures in Egypt, and the exodus from Egypt. However, about halfway through the book of Exodus, the focus shifts to describing the tabernacle, the priestly garments, and the Levitical sacrificial system. I must confess that when I reach this point in the reading plan, I have to mentally gird myself to focus on the upcoming passages and I am tempted to skip them altogether. However, I am reminded that the Bible was not written for our entertainment, it was written for our edification. I hope that the next few posts, which will focus on elements of the Levitical sacrificial system, will bring new life and insight to portions of the Bible that may be considered boring and irrelevant, because these chapters clearly point to the future work and ministry of Jesus.

Imagine if the Levitical system had not been established and implemented for centuries prior to Christ’s arrival on Earth. When John the Baptist first saw Jesus, he declared, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). What sense would this make if the Levitical sacrificial system had not been a central focus of Jewish culture and thought? Much of the book of Hebrews would lose its rich meaning if it were uprooted from the context of the Jewish understanding of the sacrifices, the tabernacle, the temple, and the priestly duties. We cannot fully understand the message of the New Testament and the gospel without understanding the sacrificial and ceremonial systems that were instituted in the Old Testament.         

With that in mind, in this post we will examine the five sacrifices described in the book of Leviticus to reflect on how they foreshadow the purpose of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. In doing so, we will encounter another principle of seeking Jesus in the Old Testament. The systems that we find in the Old Testament are shadows of the things to come, which also fall short of accomplishing what Jesus would fulfill in his life, death, and resurrection.

The Burnt Offering (Leviticus 1, 6:8-13)

The burnt offering introduces a concept that is important in the Levitical system, that the offering must be without defect or blemish. In the same way, we are redeemed through “the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without spot or blemish.” (1 Peter 1:19). It was engrained in the Jewish mindset that a spotless sacrifice was needed to atone for the transgressions of blemished sinners.

Whether bringing a bull, sheep, or goat, the person who was making the sacrifice and was to receive atonement was the one who was required to kill the offering. In a prayer recorded in the book of Acts, the early church prayed, “In this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” (Acts 4:27-28). What God’s plan had predestined to take place was that the Messiah would be “pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5), an act that was carried out by both Jew and Gentile, a New Testament manner of referring to all of humanity. Since both Jews and Gentiles bore some measure of responsibility in Jesus’ death, both Jew and Gentile also benefit from the atonement that is available through his sacrifice. That is not to preach universalism, but simply to say that forgiveness of sins is available to the whole world through the cross: “But now in Christ you who were once were far off (Gentiles) have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both (Jews and Gentiles) one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…that he might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross.” (Ephesians 2:14-16).

A unique characteristic of the burnt offering is that the entire animal was offered on the bronze altar as a sweet smelling aroma to God, with the fragrant smoke ascending to symbolically represent peace or reconciliation between God and the person who brought the offering. In the same way, “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, [as] a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:2).

The Grain Offering (Leviticus 2, 6:14-23)

The grain offering was a free will offering that was not required as atonement for sin, but often followed the burnt offering and was voluntarily given to worship God and acknowledge his provision. If the grain offering was a loaf of bread, it could not contain yeast or other leavening agents. In the New Testament, leaven is associated with sin, hypocrisy, and pride. The Apostle Paul exhorts the Corinthian church to stop boasting and to not be filled with “the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Corinthians 5:8). The humble nature of unleavened bread is symbolically fulfilled in Christ, who “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8).

An offering of fine flour or crushed grain was to be anointed with oil and frankincense (Leviticus 2:1, 15). Likewise, shortly before his death, a woman pour nard over Jesus’ head, anointing him with aromatic oil. Although some questioned the waste of such an expensive perfume, Jesus defended her actions and said, “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial.” (Mark 14:8). Additionally, Jesus famously received a gift of frankincense from the wise men that visited sometime after his birth (Matthew 2:11).

Some might anticipate a connection to Jesus’ declaration that “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35), however, in context it is clear that the real connection in this passage is to the manna that God sent down from heaven to sustain the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness. Similarly, while Jesus instituted the Last Supper, “he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” (Luke 22:19). While this could connect to the grain offering, the context more clearly links it to the symbolism of Passover. That fact that both these allusions to Jesus’ body as bread more strongly tie back to two other separate events in the Old Testament only strengthens my claim that Jesus can be found all over the Hebrew scriptures. 

The Fellowship Offering (Leviticus 3, 7:11-21)

As part of the fellowship offering, the priests sprinkled blood from the sacrifice on the sides of the altar. This was a visual sign of peace between God and the person making the fellowship offering. The book of Hebrews emphasizes the principle that was mentioned in the opening – the types and foreshadowings of Christ fall short of their future fulfillment. The author of Hebrews explains how the sprinkling of the blood of Christ has purchased a lasting peace and fellowship with God that far surpasses that which was sought through the fellowship offering. “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Hebrews 9:13-14).

The Sin Offering (Leviticus 4 – 5:13, 6:24-30)

We now transition from free-will offerings that were voluntarily given as signs of fellowship and worship of God to obligatory offerings that were required to atone for the transgressions of both individuals and the larger community. God revealed himself to Moses as “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty.” (Exodus 34:6-7). How can God both forgive sin and not clear the guilty? In the sacrificial system, guilt was symbolically transferred from either the individual sinner or the entire Israelite community to the animal sacrifice. In this way, a just and holy God could both forgive sinners and rightfully punish sin.

The gospel follows the same logic. Though “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), Christ was put forth as a sacrifice for sin “to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” and “to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:25-26). In other words, Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the sin offering, allowing God to be who he claims to be – one who is both merciful in forgiving sin and just in not allowing sin to go unpunished.

The sin offering could be made for individuals who committed specific sins or to atone for the entire community, however, it could not be offered for intentional sins. More on that in a moment. Whether an individual was making a sin offering for their own transgressions or whether a priest was making the sin offering on behalf of the community, they must lay their hand on the head of the sacrifice, symbolically transferring the sins onto the animal. In a similar manner, “for our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin (Christ), so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Although the blood of the sin offering was to be brought into the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle or temple to make atonement, the rest of the sacrifice must be taken outside the camp and completely burned (Leviticus 4:12, 6:11, 16:27). The author of Hebrews saw a clear connection to Jesus, who “also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.” (Hebrews 13:12).

In the Mosaic Law, anyone who touched the blood of a person would become unclean. Interestingly, if a person touched the flesh of the sin offering, they would be considered holy (Leviticus 6:27). The good news of the gospel declares that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) How does God cleanse us from sin? A couple sentences earlier, John explains, “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7). When we touch the ultimate sin offering of God, we are also considered holy in his sight.

The Guilt Offering (Leviticus 5:14-19, 7:1-10)

The guilt offering was similar to the sin offering, but could only be offered for individuals and also required not only an offering to atone for the specific transgression, but restitution to fix the situation created by the sinful act (Leviticus 5:16). Jesus came not only to forgive us of our sins, but ultimately to redeem a fallen, sinful world. Humanity’s sin has not only created separation with our creator, but has also subjected the entire creation to the negative consequences that occur when people ultimately live for themselves. Yet, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21). The guilt offering of Christ not only deals with our sin, but also redeems the consequences of our sin.

In a messianic prophecy, Isaiah announces that the LORD will make the life of the anticipated suffering servant to be a “guilt offering.” (Isaiah 53:10). The Hebrew word used in this passage, “asam”, is the same word used for guilt offering in Leviticus. However, a unique aspect of the guilt offering predicted by Isaiah is that it would not just be for an individual, but “the LORD [would] lay on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6) and that the blood of this sacrifice would “sprinkle many nations.” (Isaiah 52:15). Once again, the ultimate fulfillment in Christ would far surpass the shadow revealed in the Old Testament.

What About Intentional Sins?

Let’s close by returning to the idea that the sin and guilt offering could not cover intentional sins. While there is debate about what falls into this category of sins, they likely refer to premeditated sinful actions, such as when King David deliberately sent Uriah to be slaughtered in the front lines of his army to create an opportunity to marry Uriah’s widow, Bathsheba, and create a cover for the child she was expecting as a result of their affair. In a song of lament written in the grief of confronting his grievous sins, David wrote, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” (Psalm 51:16-17). God did not despise David’s contrite heart and the prophet Nathan assured David that “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die.” (2 Samuel 12:13). However, ultimately David’s sin had not yet been atoned for and the Levitical sacrifices did not have provisions to deal with his transgression. God had shown forbearance in forgiving sin, but a better sacrifice would be needed to “show God’s righteousness.” (Romans 3:25).

While the Levitical sacrifices provided a temporary system to have fellowship with a holy God and to atone for certain categories of sin, they also pointed to the need for a better sacrifice. A sacrifice was needed that would not be required year after year but could be offered once for all. A sacrifice was needed that could atone for even the worst of our sins. Such a sacrifice could only be fulfilled by the spotless Lamb of God.

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