The Sinai Covenant

18 Sacrifices in the Ceremonial Law

by Hubert F. Sturges, , December 2013

For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. Hebrews 10:1.

The sacrifices, sanctuary services, priesthood, and other aspects of the “ceremonial law” are intricately associated with the covenant of God. In working out this relationship, one must recognize the different parts of the “ceremonial law.” Some parts of this law were fulfilled and had no more meaning after Calvary. Other parts continued as the priestly ministration of Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary. Still others are practical matters of continued value for us today.

Some people have looked on the ceremonial law as the old covenant. Hebrews 9 and 10 may appear to support this view. However, there is no correlation between the true sacrifice and priesthood of Jesus Christ and the human priesthood of the Old Testament and the corrupted Jewish perceptions of the ritual sacrifices, which were thought to appease God.

The Functions of Mosaic Law

The types and functions of law in Old Testament Israel requires careful evaluation. Is it one law, three laws, or more? God gave the moral law, the Ten Commandments, to define sin. These commandments were brief and comprehensive. They provided the boundaries necessary for true liberty to exist and were a description of how to show love to God and to our neighbors. The moral law is by nature eternal.

The civil law was an extension of the Ten Commandments with applications for the nation of Israel. They did not add anything that was new to the Ten Commandments. After Israel’s defeat in AD 70, the civil law had no more function.

The ceremonial law was a system of rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifices to illustrate the covenant and the people’s relationship with God. The ceremonial law is more detailed than either the moral or civil law, and, to a large degree, interacted with them.

What Is the Ceremonial Law?

The sacrifices and sanctuary services are the heart of that which we call the ceremonial law. Animal sacrifice came into practice shortly after sin. An animal took the place of the sinner and, in dying, represented the prophesied Redeemer who would die for the sins of humanity. It was an example of the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ paying the penalty for our sins.

During the patriarchal age, all sacrifices were burnt offerings. The patriarch or firstborn son carried out the priestly function. These offered sacrifices on an altar near their home. However, there was no scheduled time for the sacrifices. Most sacrifices were to atone for sin. Other sacrifices were for offerings of thanksgiving or offerings for other purposes (Gen. 8:20, 21).

At Sinai, Israel had become a nation, and God gave them laws, statutes, ordinances, and judgments in a codified and written form (2 Kings 17:37). The ceremonial law was the most detailed part of the law. The ceremonial law consisted of:

1. The system of sacrifices to provide forgiveness for sin, devotion to God, and thanksgiving for God’s providence. A sinner would take the appropriate animal to the door of the tabernacle, lay his hand on its head to transfer his sin and then slay the animal. If the sinner was the congregation or a priest, the priest took the blood, sprinkled it before the vail; otherwise, he put some of the animal’s blood on the horns of the altar and poured out the rest at the bottom of the altar (Lev. 4:27-30). Transgression of the law separated the sinner from God, and required death of the sinner (Gen. 2:16, 17; Rom. 6:23).The animal’s death was symbolic of the death of the Redeemer, who took the place of the sinner. At Calvary, sacrifice and oblation ceased as the “shadow” had now given birth in the true and real sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
2. The human priesthood of the sanctuary and the Temple symbolized the priesthood of Jesus Christ. The perfection and beauty of the priestly robes symbolized Jesus’ sinless life, and the “robe of righteousness” He provides to His people. Human priests also had a healing ministry as did Jesus. They taught the people, and received messages from God as did Jesus in the divine insights of His teaching. The Urim and Thummim on the ephod of the priests pointed forward to Jesus’ prophetic ministry. In this Jesus continued the ceremonial law as the true High Priest for the human family. Through His blood, mediated in the heavenly sanctuary, God gave humankind pardon and atonement.1
3. The sanctuary that Moses constructed, provided a place for God to dwell among His people. God’s continued presence among His people was the most important issue in the covenant. From the mercy seat God communed with His people.
4. Circumcision is a token of the covenant and of a man’s belonging to the covenant people. It showed dedication to pure living in preparation for the coming Messiah. After Jesus had come, the rite was no longer needed for either Jews or Gentiles.
5. God established rituals for holiness, clean meats, and healing. Repeatedly He commanded the people to make a difference between what is holy and what is common, what is clean and what is unclean. Some of these rituals make common sense and are still useful today. God’s purpose has always been that Christians be holy as He is holy.2 These ceremonies shaped Israel’s form of worship. With constant repetition, the ceremonies became the focus of worship in the minds of many, and they forgot the Redeemer to whom the ceremonies pointed.3

The sacrificial system was closely related to the covenant, for it illustrated Jesus’ taking our punishment for the broken law of God. There is never any assertion that it was the covenant or even a part of the covenant. In the extensive literature describing the ceremonies and the sacrifices, neither God nor Moses ever employed covenant language.

Yet, along with His resurrection and His ministry in heaven, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the heart of the everlasting (or new) covenant. As a form of worship, animal sacrifice was temporary, coming to an end when the true sacrificial lamb, Jesus Christ, died on the cross (Dan. 9:27; Col. 2:17; Heb. 8:5; 10:1). At Calvary, Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial law. He also became our true High Priest and mediated His blood in the heavenly sanctuary to give pardon and atonement to the human family.

1. Animal sacrifices were no longer needed after Jesus made the true and effective sacrifice on the cross.
2. Circumcision came to an end, having fulfilled its purpose.
3. Jesus took over the priestly mediation in the heavenly sanctuary as our heavenly High Priest, carrying on the “continual” (or “daily”) services at first, and later officiating in the true Day of Atonement service, which has to do with judgment.
4. The spring festivals of Passover, firstfruits, and Pentecost were fulfilled during Christ’s first advent (1 Cor. 5:7; 15:23; Acts 2:1). The fall festival of the Day of Atonement is an ongoing service for the latter time, carried out in the most holy place of the heavenly sanctuary.
5. Festivals of thanksgiving and memorials are still relevant, though the names and timing may be different.

The Ceremonial Law and the Covenant

Hebrews 8-10 speaks extensively of what is first, faulty, old, decayed, and ready to vanish away. These chapters describe the animal sacrifices and the human priesthood as being ineffective, temporary, and now fulfilled with the true and effective sacrifice of Jesus and His mediation in the heavenly sanctuary.

The Old Testament never speaks of an old covenant. We understand the concept of an old covenant by understanding the new covenant (Jer. 31:31), which, by implication, contrasts with an old one (see Heb. 8:13). In the New Testament, Hebrews 8 to 10 provides a study of what is old, faulty, and ineffective.

The issue in Israel at that time was their corrupted view of the covenant and the ceremonial law. As the months and years passed, the people increasingly looked upon the sacrifices and sanctuary services as their means of salvation. In doing these things, they forgot the Redeemer to whom they pointed, the one who would die that their sins might be pardoned. Through the sacrifices and meticulous observance of the law of Moses and their being from Abraham’s line, the people looked for salvation and eternal life.

Were these sacrifices a part of the covenant of God? It is true that they were related to the covenant, for they were a provision for the forgiveness of sin. Yet, they were temporary. They came to an end at Calvary. They functioned solely as an illustration of the covenant and could not forgive or cleanse our sins (Hebrews 8-10) except in anticipation of Jesus’ true sacrifice (Heb. 9:15). In addition, the Bible tells us that God was not pleased with sacrifices unless they were accompanied by lives that were changed by grace.4

What God Intended for Israel

God gave the ceremonial law as an illustration of the covenant. Through the ceremonial law, grace was mediated, and sins were forgiven-by faith in the Redeemer to come. In the historical old covenant, the people took upon themselves the work of obedience of the law. They promised, “All that the Lord hath said, we will do.” What they failed to realize was that human obedience can only be superficial and mechanical. Only by grace can a person obey God from the changed heart. In forty-six days, this covenant was broken, abrogated, and never officially renewed. Though there is evidence that the people looked on the covenant ratified at Sinai (Ex. 24:3-8) as still being in force (Jer. 31:32).

There was no way that the ceremonial law could be any part of the old covenant, historical or experiential. The descriptions in Hebrews 8-10 are of the corrupted view of the ceremonial law, which had become, for the people, an experiential old covenant.

The new covenant describes what God will do by putting the law into human hearts. Adam and Eve’s being created in the image of God included the law of God as an integral part of their being. After sin, God said, “I will put enmity between thee [Satan] and the woman [mankind]” (Gen. 3:15). This was the new covenant of redemption, and it pardoned people’s sin through Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary.

Through His close friendship with Abraham, God put what is described as the new covenant into Abraham’s heart (Genesis 26:5). Abraham was the “friend of God” (James 2:23; 2 Chron. 20:7; Isa. 41:8); and, through this close association, Abraham partook “of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). When God gave Abraham the covenant in detail, He told him that he was to be the “father of many nations” and that the covenant was to reach “to thy seed after thee.5 It was the covenant for God’s people throughout history.

God used the term “My covenant” eight times in the covenant given to Abraham, pointing to a covenant uniquely belonging to God.6 It was the covenant given by God at Sinai (Exod. 19:4-6). It was renewed after Moses’ intercessions (Exod. 34:9-11, 27, 28) and was to be the covenant for God’s people. As God said, it was given “to thy seed after thee” (Gen. 17:7).

The promise of the gospel was given to Abraham (Gal. 3:14-16, 29). It was the new covenant, which provided pardon for sins and was illustrated by the sacrifices of the ceremonial law. After Jesus died on the cross, the sacrificial system was fulfilled and no longer needed.


1. Jesus is the mediator of the new covenant (Matt. 26:26-28; Mark 14:28; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:24-26; Heb. 9:15; 12:24; the word for “covenant,” diathÄ“ke, is also translated “testament.”) The new covenant was first named and described in Jer. 31:31-34. This is the covenant of grace in which sinners depend upon God to change their life and to provide pardon and salvation. Careful reading will show that God gave this covenant to Adam and Eve and to Abraham. God’s people are Sacrifices in the Ceremonial Law 101 saved throughout history under the Abrahamic covenant. The new covenant was confirmed at Calvary but was first given to Adam and Eve. The old covenant could not forgive sins through the promises of the people. Sacrifices for sin illustrated the pardon given through Christ in the new covenant!

2. There were laws regarding diet, cleanliness, health, and sanitation. In Eden, Adam and Eve were given a diet consisting of fruit, grains, and nuts. The health of humans diminished after the fall, but they retained much of their early strength and vigor. Is there anyone today who can make a wooden ship 450 or 320 feet long, using simple tools (Gen. 6:14-16)? (The length depends on whether Moses used the 18-inch or 20.6-inch Egyptian standard.) Human beings lived over 900 years and enjoyed health, strength, and mental powers that we can only envy today. After the flood, there was a radical change when men were allowed to eat flesh food. From that time on the health of men deteriorated and the length of life decreased until it was soon reduced to the “three score and ten” (Ps. 90:10) that we see today. At Sinai, God gave laws governing cleanliness, health, and sanitation. These were laws to make a “holy nation” of Israel and a beautiful land of Canaan. God loves order and beauty. While these laws were given with the ceremonial laws, they were common sense laws that would benefit humankind for all time and eternity. They were not a part of the covenant but were a “help” to make the people healthy and “an holy nation” (Lev. 11:43-47). The distinction predates Sinai; the concept of what constituted a “clean” animal was known at the time of the flood (Gen. 7:2).

3. Because God gave the ceremonial law, the people reverently followed its rituals at first. As time went on, Jewish religious leaders added hundreds of human ordinances to the law. The services became corrupted with heathen practices. Sometimes the services were neglected entirely as the people went into idolatry. At other times, sacrifices were offered carelessly with blemished animals. Eventually, the very meaning and purpose of the sacrifices were lost as the people looked on these activities as the means of salvation. Because of the corruption of the services many people did not recognize or accept the Messiah and eventually called for Him to be crucified.

4. Sacrifices, without a change in the life and obedience, are not pleasing to God. God calls them an abomination (1 Sam. 15:22; Isa. 1:18; Amos 5:21).

5. The covenant given to Abraham was to extend to all his “seed”-the Jews-and to all who are in Christ-the Christian church (Gen. 17:1-10; Gal. 3:29).

6. God gave Abraham His “My Covenant,” a covenant belonging uniquely to Him (Gen. 17:2, 4, 7, 9, 10, 13, 14, 19, 21).