The Sinai Covenant

17 Atonement Through Sacrifice

by Hubert F. Sturges, , December 2013

And he shall lay his hand upon the head of the sin offering, and slay the sin offering in the place of the burnt offering. And the priest shall take of the blood thereof with his finger, and put it upon the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and shall pour out all the blood thereof at the bottom of the altar.”| and the priest shall make an atonement for him, and it shall be forgiven him. Leviticus 4:29-31

The central focus of the everlasting covenant was the restoration of the creation of God to Edenic perfection. God devised a plan before the creation of the world that Jesus, the second person of the Godhead, would come to this earth and live a sinless life as a human being. He would then take the sins of the world and die as a sacrifice to pay the penalty for sin that people might live.1 God gave the ceremonial law as an illustration of the covenant to teach the people the meaning of His law. The sacrifices were a vital part of the ceremonial law as pointing forward to the coming of the Messiah and what He would do for humankind.

The term “everlasting covenant” also refers to the plan of salvation and the everlasting gospel. The great controversy between Christ and Satan will soon end, and God will destroy sin and Satan and restore the perfection of Eden. Christ’s victory on the cross established His love, mercy, justice, and law as the eternal basis of His government. Free will and creativity remain as gifts to us. Praise and love to God will pour forth from every avenue in creation.

How Did Sacrifices Begin?

After Adam and Eve sinned, they were under the condemnation of death. Jesus, the Creator, Lawgiver, Redeemer, and second person of the Godhead covenanted to take the penalty of sin and die for humankind. In the Garden of Eden, immediately after Adam sinned, God made coats of skins for Adam and Eve. Only by the death of an animal could they be covered (Gen. 3:21). This action was highly symbolic of the sacrificial system that God instituted.

The first formal sacrifice recorded in Scripture is that of Cain and Abel. God accepted Abel’s sacrifice of a lamb. This reinforced the significance of the shedding of blood, for “without shedding of blood is no remission” (Heb. 9:22). The sacrificed lamb was a symbol of the Messiah whose death on the cross made it possible for sins to be forgiven.

“By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh” (Heb. 11:4).

God did not accept Cain’s sacrifice, for Cain’s offering was not of faith. He had rejected God’s instruction and chosen to do things his own way. His sacrifice of choice fruit might have “cost” more than a lamb, but it could not represent the Redeemer-Substitute’s dying for the sinner. All it could represent was an attempt to earn salvation by his own works. By not bringing a lamb, Cain, in effect, rejected the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and showed rebellion, which in a short time ripened into the murder of his brother Abel.

Sacrifices by the Patriarchs

During the patriarchal age, the sacrifices were usually burnt offerings. After the flood, Noah offered sacrifices from among the surviving clean beasts (Gen. 8:20). This pleased God, and He gave Noah the covenant of regular seasons and promised never to send a worldwide flood again. Though the record of sacrifices is sparse and intermittent during the patriarchal age, the patriarchs probably offered sacrifices more frequently than the record shows.

Ten generations later we have the record of Abraham, the “friend of God” (James 2:23), who built a series of altars for the worship of God. God gave Abraham the everlasting covenant in more detail than to any other person. God promised “an everlasting covenant “ to be a God unto thee, and thy seed after thee” (Gen. 17:7).2

When Abraham was ready for the supreme test, God asked him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, on Mount Moriah (Gen. 22:2, 8, 12, 13). Abraham could feel the agony the Father felt when He sacrificed His only begotten Son at Calvary-so can everyone who reads this story. It was a dramatized parable of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. God stopped the sacrifice of Isaac and provided a ram, which was caught in a thicket, for the sacrifice. This showed that God Himself would provide the true sacrifice.

The Last Night in Egypt

The Passover, instituted in Egypt on the eve of the exodus, made clear the meaning of sacrifice. On this last night in Egypt, they were to kill a lamb for a sacrifice and sprinkle the blood on the posts and lintel of the door. God saved the lives of the firstborn only through the blood of the sacrificial lamb, pointing forward to Jesus Christ. In houses that were not marked with the blood of the lamb, the firstborn died.

For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt, I will execute judgment: I am the Lord. And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt. (Exod. 12:12, 13)

When sinners offered a sacrifice, they looked for pardon and salvation through the blood of the lamb, representing the promised Redeemer who would make the true sacrifice on Calvary. This became a “sweet savour” to God when accompanied by a life changed by grace.3

The Ceremonial Law

God gave the ceremonial law in detail at Sinai. He ordained sacrifices for thanksgiving, for dedication and first fruits, for peace offerings, for sins and trespasses, and for the continual daily burnt offerings (Lev. 1-7). Only domesticated clean animals without blemish were acceptable. Sinners chose the type of animal depending on their status and on what they could afford. The law also provided offerings to cleanse the priests of sin, offerings for purification, and offerings for the Day of Atonement.

The ceremonial law was the most detailed part of the law, yet the term “ceremonial law” is not in the Bible. The ceremonial law consisted largely of the sacrifices and sanctuary services. It also included rituals, festivals, laws of sanitation, guidelines for clean meats and for holiness. These parts were often quite different in application and purpose. Some were temporary, ending at Calvary; some continued in the heavenly sanctuary; and some are eternal.4

Atonement through Sacrifice

The sinner brought an animal and killed it in the court at the door of the tabernacle. When the sinner was either the whole congregation or a priest, the officiating priest took the blood into the tabernacle and sprinkled it toward the veil; when the sinner was an individual, the priest placed the blood on the horns of the altar to “make an atonement for him, and it shall be forgiven him” (Lev. 4:31). The blood of an animal cannot really pardon sins (Heb. 8 and 9); the sacrifice pointed forward to the true sacrifice of the Lamb of God. By faith in the promised Redeemer, the blood of the lamb provided pardon and atonement.

When Jesus died on the cross, He made a complete atonement for the sins of humankind. One should view the heavenly priesthood of Christ as an integral part of His sacrifice. His mediation in the heavenly sanctuary is meaningless without His shed blood from Calvary, and His shed blood from Calvary is of no avail without His mediation in the heavenly sanctuary.

Atonement through the mediation of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary is a necessary complement of His death on the cross. These two phases of Christ’s ministry are illustrated in the atonement in Leviticus 4.

1. The sinner brought the animal to the door of the tabernacle, placed his hand on its head, and slew it.

2. The priest took the blood into the tabernacle to make atonement and to pardon the sinner.

Israelite Priesthood

Godly patriarchs and firstborn sons functioned initially as priests in faithful homes. Job offered priestly sacrifices for his family (Job 1:5). Melchizedek represented a priestly remnant from the line of Noah, parallel to the line in which we find Abraham. Abraham built altars and offered sacrifices, influencing his household of more than 1,000 persons and his neighbors and friends.5 The ceremonial law at Sinai established the first organized and well-defined priesthood.

God chose the tribe of Levi, Jacob’s third son, to teach the people His will. Those of the Levitical 94 More Than a Promise family of Aaron were to be priests (Exod. 28:1; 32:26). Other Levites had duties related to the sanctuary and, later, to the Temple. Priests were organized to carry the sins of the people through the blood of the sacrifice into the sanctuary. Hebrews 8 to 10 says the sacrifices were symbolic “shadows” of heavenly things to come and effective only in anticipation of Jesus’ sacrifice at Calvary. There is no language in the Bible to indicate that the sacrifices were the covenant or even a part of the covenant. Only Jesus’ death on the cross could make effectual all the sacrifices offered during Israel’s history (Heb. 9:15).

At His ascension, Jesus “sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3). This points to the position of a king. Yet, Jesus also functioned as High Priest in heaven, first, in the Holy Place, and, after 1844, in the Most Holy Place. This is consistent with Jesus’ position as priest-king after the order of Melchizedek.

The true antitypical Day of Atonement began in 1844 (Dan. 8:14) with Jesus’ ministry in the Most Holy Place of the temple in heaven. This is the ministry in which Jesus blots out the forgiven sins of God’s people from the Book of Life (Lev. 16; 23:24-32; Ps. 51:9; Phil. 4:3; Rev. 20:12, 15; 21:27). The priestly ministry of Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary completes the atonement for God’s people-even God forgets their sins (Jer. 31:34).

At the close of probation, Jesus will have completed His mediation for sin, and all those who are alive at that time will have accepted Christ as Saviour or will have finally rejected Him to their eternal loss.6

The Sacrifices and Sanctuary Services

After sin entered the world, the sacrifices were initiated as an illustration of the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ. The sacrificed animal symbolically took the place of the sinner. Its death represented the prophesied Redeemer who would die for every person’s sins. The sinner in reality receives the atonement through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross (Heb. 9:15).

The blood of the lamb was a symbol of the shed blood of Christ. Sacrifices were effective only as people, by faith, consented to the work of grace in changing their lives. After Jesus’ died, “sacrifice and oblation” on earth ceased to have significance (Dan. 9:27).

At Sinai and during the rest of Old Testament history there was considerable discussion of the covenant. The terms we use today were unknown then. The people depended on the promises and the description of the covenant given to them. Nor were they aware of the council within the Godhead in which God formed the everlasting covenant. These mysteries would be explained in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Corruption of the Ceremonial Law

Later, as Israel fell into apostasy, the people forgot the Messiah to whom the sacrifices pointed. Instead, they began to think that the sacrifices were what saved them. It was a form of idolatry. While Israel did not renew the historical old covenant, an old covenant mindset returned. Sinful humans often seem willing to do required works “to be saved,” as long as those works do not interfere with their sinful way of life.7

The Jewish people also looked for salvation to their descent from Abraham and to their meticulous observance of the law of Moses, including the moral and ceremonial laws. As time went on, the Jews developed an extensive legal system of ordinances, which they added to the law of God. Their beliefs tended to trivialize sin, and they thought little of repentance to absolve guilt. Also, sacrifices took a lesser role, and there was little or no belief in a Messiah who would substitute for them before the judgment seat of God.


1. That Jesus would be our sacrificial lamb was a plan made before the creation of the world (John 1:29, 36; Eph. 1:4; 1 Peter 1:19, 20; Rev. 5:6-13; 7:17; 13:8).

2. Abraham built altars to worship God (Gen. 12:7, 8; 13:4, 18). God gave him His “My Covenant,” showing that it belonged uniquely to God (Gen. 17:2, 4, 7, 9, 10, 13, 14, 19, 21). This covenant was to extend to all his “seed,” which included the Jews and all who are in Christ (Gen. 17:1-10; Gal. 3:29).

3. Sacrifices are useless without a change in the life. In a number of places, the Bible speaks of the pleasure that God and the holy angels experience over the conversion of a sinner to God. In the sacrifices, this is expressed in the phrase, “an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the Lord” (Lev. 1:9, 13, 17; 2:2, 9). Burnt flesh, fat, and hair are not something pleasant to smell. However, as the symbol of a dedicated life, they are sweet to God. The expression “sweet savour(s)” is used forty-four times in the Bible (Gen. 8:21; Exod. 29:18, 25, 41; Lev. 1:9, 13, 17; 2:2, 9, 12; 3:5, 16; 4:31; 6:15, 21; 8:21, 28; 17:6; 23:13; 23:18; Num. 15:3, 7, 10, 13, 24; 18:17; 28:2, 6, 8, 13, 24, 27; 29:2, 6, 8, 13, 36; Ezra 6:10, “sweet savours”; Ezek. 6:13; 16:19; 20:28, “sweet savour” to idols is offensive; 20:41; 2 Cor. 2:15, the offering of our lives is “a sweet savour of Christ”).

4. One part of the ceremonial law that is eternal is Jesus bearing His humanity and carrying the scars of His suffering on earth, for eternity (resurrection is in the flesh, Job 19:26; Jesus carries the wounds in His hands, Zech. 13:6; light comes out of His hand, Hab. 3:4; we conform to His image, Rom. 8:29; we are to bear His heavenly image, 1 Cor. 15:49; we are changed into the glorious image of Christ, 2 Cor. 3:18; our vile body will be made like His glorious one, Phil. 3:21; we will be like Him, 1 John 3:2).

5. “Abraham’s household comprised more than a thousand souls. Those who were led by his teachings to worship the one God, found a home in his encampment; and here, as in a school, they received such instruction as would prepare them to be representatives of the true faith. Thus, a great responsibility rested upon him. He was training heads of families, and his methods of government would be carried out in the households over which they should preside. “In early times, the father was the ruler and priest of his own family, and he exercised authority over his children, even after they had families of their own.”| Abraham sought by every means in his power to guard the inmates of his encampment against mingling with the heathen and witnessing their idolatrous practices, for he knew that familiarity with evil would insensibly corrupt the principles.”|” (Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets [Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2005], p. 141).

6. The redeemed who now have access to God through Christ (Heb. 4:15, 16) will have access to Him in the New Earth (Rev. 21:3, 7, 22; 22:4).

7. The purpose of the ceremonial law was corrupted. The covenant God gave to Abraham (Gen. 17) was the covenant of redemption and grace. This covenant came entirely from God and by His initiative. In this covenant is the promise of descendants, which was a miracle considering Abraham and Sarah’s ages-ninety-nine and eighty-nine. God promised Abraham land at a time when he possessed none. He also gave him the blessing, “in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). This was a promise that signified that the Messiah would come through Abraham’s line (Gal. 3:14, 16, 29). God presented the Abrahamic covenant to Israel at Sinai and renewed it after Moses’ intercession for the nation. He first gave the new covenant to Adam and Eve and to Noah and his family (Gen. 3:15; 6:18; 8:21; 9:1-17). The promises and blessings of these early covenants extend to the entire human family. God saves men through His covenant.

For 215 years, Israel lived in the midst of a heathen, idolatrous society. It was inevitable that they would take on some of their ideas. Even so, there was always a “remnant” who maintained true faith and resisted heathen culture. With this background, it is understandable, yet inexcusable, that people would fall back into old ways of thinking. The thrilling experiences of Sinai and their new, impressive forms of worship began to fade in time as they looked on those forms as the sum and substance of their religion. They attributed power and efficacy to performance of the sacrifices and ceremonies themselves, and they looked less and less to the Redeemer to whom they pointed. It was this mindset that brought on the experiential old covenant’ that grew into dominance at the time of Jesus and which led to His being rejected.