Why We Don’t Do Sacrifices

alreadyI’ve finally reached the point in my Bible Education curriculum (part of my ministry is teaching Bible Ed. at a Christian school) where I get to draw all the threads of the Old Testament up and tie them to Jesus. One of the most powerful threads is obviously that of the sacrificial system. The sacrificial system not only explains the necessity of Jesus’ death but makes sense of it. Interestingly the sacrificial system is one of those opaque areas of the Old Testament that lots of Christians get confused by.

A while ago I posted on the point of the sacrificial system saying that it had three functions: to remind, to teach and to promise. It reminded God’s people that death came as a result of sin, it taught them that payment for sin was costly and it promised them Jesus. The annoying thing about being a teacher is that half the time kids come up with questions you never imagined. The question that was posed to me as I tied Old Testament sacrifices to Jesus’ death was “why don’t we still do sacrifices?”

Fortunately I could quickly explain that those three points change with the death of Christ. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, death has come as a result of sin. After Jesus’ death, we know how costly it is to pay for sin. After Jesus’ death, we no longer await the fulfillment of the promise. It turned out that this was an adequate answer for the class but one question hung on my mind (which was actually raised in class but fell away for the child as I explained the above).

Surely the reminder is still relevant? Surely the instruction is still important? Even if those aspects of the sacrificial system have been fulfilled, isn’t it still important to remember and teach those things?

Lords-Supper2Enter Mark’s gospel. I was reading it again this morning tracing an entirely different thread when all of a sudden the Mark 14:22-25 leaped out at my face, narrowly hitting actual cognitive function. The Lord’s supper!

This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.

Now it seems almost too obvious to be posting but it’s still exciting enough to me. Jesus’ death completes the sacrificial system and communion commemorates Jesus’ death. Communion reminds and teaches what happened on history’s first day of Easter! We don’t do sacrifices any more because the system is fulfilled. The instructional element of sacrifices continues though in the form of the Lord’s supper.

What’s the deal with Sacrifices?

offeringI had the opportunity to present an assembly at Grace College. Given the lead up to Easter, I was asked to talk about sacrifices. I decided to tackle the distance we feel from a world in which God demands sacrifices by asking what’s changed between then and now that makes them make no sense. The way I answered the question was to distill Israel’s sacrificial system to three purposes: To remind them something, to teach them something and to promise them something. What follows is roughly what I said.

To Remind Them Something

reminder  Sacrifices functioned a bit like scars. Imagine one of your friends always wears long sleeves. Rain, sunshine, hot, cold: long sleeves… It’s a bit peculiar right? But who’s to judge. But it gets hot and you see she’s feeling the heat but rather than pulling her sleeves up, she pulls them down and grips them in her hands. You don’t really know her that well and as you think about it you realise you’ve never actually seen her arms? But you probably never will either nor will you find out why because she’s not going to tell you that down her arms are the scars of a suicide attempt. And every time she or anyone sees them, she remembers with shame what happened and those scars are indelible reminders of that. They’re vivid, unchanging reminders that communicate clearly to everyone who sees them, what she’s done.

In Israel, sacrifices were reminders of what they had done. Actually not just them but everyone. In the account of the Garden of Eden we read how death came as a direct consequence to sin. When Israel did a sin offering, they sacrificed an animal because death came as a result of sin. That’s why blood was sprinkled over the altar: this is what sin produces, it produces death and not only produces death but demands it. Sacrifices reminded Israel that death was the consequence of sin and where there was sin, blood would be spilled.

To Teach Them Something

teachNelson Mandela once said, “Real leaders are people who are willing to sacrifice everything for the freedom of their people”. In other words, real leaders are people who are willing to give up everything they value in order to achieve what they value most. If you went to Nelson Mandela today and asked him, “Would you do it all over again, would you sit in prison for years and give up the prime of your life?” He wouldn’t hesitate to respond “Absolutely, I would sacrifice the prime of my life because I treasure freedom and equality, even if it’s not fully achieved today, I would have freedom and equality achieved however costly.”

Now picture it, you grow up on a farm, you’re the shepherd, you look after the sheep and the goats. You make sure they get food, you make sure they get water, you take care of them. When lions and wolves and dragons see your flock as a tasty snack, you fight them – you put your life on the line to defend your animals. Look you basically don’t have a life other than with your animals which become like pets, you know how to tell when they’re grumpy or upset or about to puke in your face – you love them.

Then, one day, your dad comes to you and he says “I need a sheep”.
“what for,” you ask.
“I need to make a sacrifice.”
“heh?” – “for a sin offering,”
“okay,” you say – you’re a switched on sort of lad, “this one keeps getting into fights so he has a few bite marks and his back leg is not great now so you’re welcome to sacrifice him…”
“bite marks? Back leg not great? Mmmm – no that’s not going to do. It has to be unblemished.”

What do you learn about what it takes to be right with God when your dad takes the best of the flock which, apart from being your favourite, if nothing else now means it can’t breed, it can’t provide wool (or milk if it’s a goat) or even meat (it gets burnt up). You realise that sacrifice is costly, that becoming right with God, having a relationship with God is not something you can make the second priority. It is costly to be right with him and you need to be willing to give up everything you value.

To Promise Them Something

engagementringA few of days ago  I received an email from a friend at college with the subject line “… and I said YES!!!”. Now imagine if I read that and looked at the email, if I inferred her excitement from undue use of smiley faces, enormous photos of rings and more exclamation marks than is ever grammatically appropriate and then I said, “I don’t know what she’s so excited about, she’s not married yet.” You would say, “You gigantic clot. She’s engaged. It’s happening. It’s on the horizon, he’s promised her that he is going to marry her and as she now wears that ring, she wears the promise of marriage.”

In the same way, when the Israelites carried out these costly sacrifices they were enacting a promise that they didn’t even fully grasp. A promise that affirmed everything else about sacrifices. A promise that looked back to creation, to Adam and Eve sinning and to death; a promise that said, all that will come to an end. Yes, where there is sin, blood will be spilled. Yes, it will cost everything to be right with God. But, it will cost far more than you ever imagined. The blood spilled as a result of sin will not be that of an animal: Hebrews 10:4, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” What then does the promise mean?

The Deal

crossHebrews 9:26 “But now, Jesus Christ has appeared once and for all … to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” That’s why sacrifices don’t make sense any more, that’s what’s changed between then and now that makes sacrifices no longer make any sense. Christ has already been sacrificed. Sacrifices reminded God’s people that death came as a result of sin but now for God’s people death has had its day and sin’s consequences were unleashed in full so, for God’s people, they are over. Sacrifices reminded God’s people that being right with God was costly but now, God’s people look back and know it cost Jesus everything and that the price has now been paid: the promise that sacrifices made to God’s people have come true. So Easter becomes the centre-point of history because, as a result of Easter it’s now possible for you to know God as though sin had never separated you from him to begin with.

At Easter the sacrificial system was fulfilled. Sacrifices reminded God’s people that death was the result of sin, at Easter death was quenched. Sacrifices taught God’s people that a relationship with God was costly, at Easter we see what it cost God to have a relationship with us. Sacrifices promised God’s people that one day the system would change and at Easter it did. So again, Easter becomes the centre-point of history because as a result of Easter, it’s now possible for you to know God as though sin had never separated you from him to begin with.