Welcome back! It’s been a couple of weeks this time, I’ve been traveling and such. It’s nice to have a break in routine, but it’s also good to have a routine to get back to. Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there! Hope you are enjoying your day. We’re picking up our study in Part IV: Session 6: Sacrifice and Atonement. Come follow along: Multiply!
Last time we talked about the amazing prospect of God establishing a relationship with a people, the Israelites. We will find, however, that there are problems with this relationship. Not from God’s end, but from the human end. How can a perfect God maintain a relationship with an imperfect people? If God is going to join Himself to sinful Man, there must be something done about the sin aspect of our lives. “God’s solution to the problem of sin is sacrifice” (199).
Most Christians today understand that when Jesus died on the cross, He was a sacrifice that paid for our sins and allowed us to have a relationship with God, but not all of us understand that Jesus fulfills a bigger story of sin and sacrifice that fills the Old Testament. Like much of the New Testament, it is only fully understood by studying the Old Testament. That is why we have it, not so we can bind ourselves once again to law, but so we can have a full understanding of our current covenant and relationship with God. It is only through study of the Old Testament that we can fully appreciate the new covenant.
Discussion Question #1: Explain what you already know about the Old Testament sacrifices. Have you ever thought of Jesus’s sacrifice in light of the Old Testament sacrificial system? How so?
Sacrifice in the Unfolding Old Testament Story
You will find sacrifice throughout the Old Testament. Think back to Adam and Eve. When they sinned and discovered their nakedness, an animal had to die in order make clothing to cover their shame. As soon as sin became a problem, God had to come up with a way to deal with it.
We don’t learn much about the specifics of sacrifice until we get to Leviticus, but the Old Testament has several examples of sacrifice before then. Directly after the Fall, it was a sacrifice (and acceptance thereof) that caused Cain to kill his brother Abel. In Genesis 22, it was also a sacrifice that was used to test the faith of Abraham when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son. Can you imagine Abraham’s dilemma? God had promised to make Abraham into a great nation and here He was asking Abraham to kill his only son. Abraham must have felt tempted to try to “help” God fulfill this promise by keeping Isaac and not obeying what God asked. However, Abraham believed that God would fulfill His promise even if He had to bring Isaac back from the dead (Heb. 11:19). Just as Abraham raised the dagger, God stopped him and provided a sacrifice in place of Isaac, a ram caught in a thicket.
This story can tell us a lot about the nature of sacrifice. First of all, it shows us that God could at one point accept a human life as a sacrifice for sin (though He never allowed this until Jesus). And second, it shows us that God could accept a substitute sacrifice–in this case, a ram for Isaac. When we get to the New Testament, we get to see this sacrifice and substitution that is exampled here become much more real and personal to us all.
Discussion Question #2: Why was sacrifice an important theme in the Old Testament?
Sacrifice in the Law of Moses
When God gave Moses the Law, He made animal sacrifices, which were already a practice, into an integral part of life for Israel. The Law told them when to sacrifice, what to sacrifice and how to do it. There were specific sacrifices for specifics circumstances, but the goal of all sacrifice was to restore a relationship with God, to show Him gratitude and to atone for sin.
Let’s look at the word atonement. “An easy way to remember the meaning of atonement is to break it down like this: at-one-ment. Essentially, atonement is all about reconciling, making amends for what has gone wrong, and reestablishing peace where there was conflict” (203). Sacrifices were are way to show sorrow and repentance of sin and to help restore a broken relationship.
As Christians, it is important for us to understand sacrifice and atonement. Some of us try to put all our hopes into good works to make up for our wrong doings. Just like the Israelites, “we must learn to put all of our hope in a sacrifice” (203).
Discussion Question #3: Summarize the role that sacrifices played in the way Israel related to their God.
A Graphic Reminder of Sin
Blood was an important part of sacrifice. Each time an animal was sacrificed the blood would flow and would be splattered on the altar (and sometimes on the people!). You couldn’t make a sacrifice without seeing blood. This was a very visible example of the seriousness of sin, a reminder of what God requires for sin and you would be grateful that something else died in your place.
Discussion Question #4: How should the Old Testament sacrificial system put our sin into the proper perspective?
The Day of Atonement
While the sacrificial system in general took care of maintaining the relationship between God and Man, there was one event described in Leviticus that really gets to the heart of the issue: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (which Jews still celebrate today). This yearly event would allow the nation of Israel to atone for their sins and allow God to live among them.
Discussion Question #5: Read Leviticus 16. What stands out to you from reading this description of the Day of Atonement?
This event was an important one and God gives detailed instruction on how the celebration (we aren’t the only ones to celebrate freedom from sin) was to take place. See if you can spot any parallels to our own atonement for sin. There were set aside 3 animals for the event: a bull and two goats. First, the bull was sacrificed to make atonement for the high priest, if he were not cleansed of his sins first, he could not offer sacrifice for the people of Israel (just as our High Priest, Jesus, had to be free from sin to offer Himself as a sacrifice for us). Once this was done, the priest would take the first goat and sacrifice it in the presence of the people for the people and it’s blood was smeared over the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant (in which resided the written Law of God). Instead of looking down and seeing the Law that condemned His people, God looked down and saw the blood of atonement, the animal died in place of the whole of God’s people (when God looks at our hearts, God sees the blood of Christ, who died in place of all of us).
The second goat would then be brought before the assembly and the priest would place his hands on the goats head symbolically transferring all the sins of the people to the goat. The goat was then sent out into the wilderness. All the sin of the people, along with the guilt and condemnation, was being removed from the people and sent far from them (“As far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us“[Psalm 103:12]).
Unfortunately, this cleansing was only temporary, the ceremony had to be repeated again and again every year because Israel would not stop sinning. “Sin is not an external problem; it runs through the core of each of us and continually manifests itself in a variety of ways. Dealing with sin was therefore an important and familiar part of the everyday lives of the Israelites” (207).
Discussion Question #6: What does the Day of Atonement teach us about the nature of sin and the reality of forgiveness?
The Problem with Animal Sacrifices
The limitations of animal sacrifices are apparent. First, there was the constant need to repeat the sacrifices. Second, the Israelites stop caring about the importance of repentance and atonement and the sacrifices become only ritual. God has always only cared about our hearts. It isn’t about rules and regulations, it’s about our heart devotion. “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6 ESV). Eventually, God gets tired of animal sacrifices because Israel’s heart was not in them: “Oh that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire on my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand” (Mal. 1:10 ESV). God is offended by half-hearted worship. “Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung on your faces, the dung of your offerings, and you shall be taken away with it” (Mal. 2:3 ESV). Wow, that’s a pretty vivid image of the importance God places on our devotion. He takes His worship and sacrifice very seriously, so should we.
Discussion Question #7: How should God’s emphasis on the heart of the worshipper affect the way we approach God in our worship and in our everyday lives?
The Ultimate Sacrifice
The sacrificial system of the Old Testament ultimately finds its fulfillment in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In Him was found the “full significance of the sacrificial system”(209). We’re going to read Hebrews 9:11-10:25. Study this passage carefully. Think about all that we discussed today in light of this passage.
Discussion Question #8: Read Hebrews 9:11–10:25. In light of what you’ve studied about the Old Testament sacrificial system and what you read in Hebrews, how does the Old Testament system of sacrifice and atonement help us to better understand the significance of Jesus’s death?
Discussion Question #9: Spend some time in prayer. Ask God to affect your heart with the significance of the sacrifice that Jesus offered on your behalf. Ask God to break your heart over the sin in your life. Ask Him to give you the strength and motivation to identify and uproot that sin. Pray that your life would be the “living sacrifice” that Paul described in Romans 12:1. And most of all, thank God for sacrificing Jesus as a substitute for you.
That’s it for this week. I love studying the Old Testament and finding parallels in our beloved New Testament covenant. I hope you learned something today and that you will allow God to help you apply it this week. God bless!