33 Symbolism of Sacrifice
by Hubert F. Sturges, www.everlastingcovenant.com, December 2013
And he made his grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither
was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he
hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for
sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure
of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of
his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous
servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. Isaiah 53:9-11
After Adam and Eve sinned, God gave them the covenant of redemption.
A Redeemer would come and die to take Adam’s sin. As an illustration and
a reminder of this plan, an animal must die in place of the sinner-to
represent the Redeemer who would come. Shortly after God barred Adam and
Eve from Eden and the tree of life, humans began offering sacrifices.
In time, the heathen, who “worshiped and served created things
instead of the Creator,” “in the futility of their thinking” (Rom. 1:25;
Eph. 4:17, NIV), corrupted the concept of sacrifice. To them, sacrifice
became a method to appease an angry god. In some heathen societies,
ritual prostitution became part of cultic services; parents gave their
children to “pass through the fire” to Molech, the god of the Ammonites
(Lev. 18:27-30; 2 Kings 23:10; Jer. 32:35); and other heathen societies
allowed human sacrifice. (In some cases, even people in Israel did these
Among God’s people, many forgot the Redeemer
to whom the
sacrifices pointed. They adopted the heathen view that sacrifices and
temple services had intrinsic value, furnishing pardon for sin and
assurance of salvation. Thankfully, there was always a believing remnant
who looked for the Redeemer in the sacrifices.Slaves to Sin
At creation, Adam and Eve naturally bonded to their Creator, as God
was the first one they saw when they opened their eyes (Gen. 2:7, 22).
God created them in His image, integrating His eternal law into their
personalities (Gen. 1:26, 27). This included free will with freely
chosen obedience, creativity, and love.
When they sinned, they
lost all this, became slaves to sin, and their natures became sinful.1
It became natural for people to do evil (Rom. 7:15-23; Jer. 13:23), and
they loved neither God nor their fellow human beings. Under condemnation
and death, humankind became weak and resisted coming to God.
God was still Owner and Creator of this world. Before the sun set that
day, God announced the everlasting covenant. Exercising His authority as
Owner and Creator of this world, He put within humanity enmity against
evil (Gen. 3:15); He gave them a conscience with the desire to do what
is right. He also took upon Himself the sins of the human family and
Himself to die in their place. This gave the human race a new
probation and freedom to choose again to serve God (Acts 13:39). By
God’s initiative, before humans exercised faith, He bought the human
race “with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20) and opened the way to grace (Heb.
4:16; 10:20).Sacrifices in Ancient Times
God instructed His people through the Masorah, or oral tradition, which
worked well when people had excellent memories and lived long lives. The
symbolic meaning of sacrifice was probably well known in early centuries
through individuals who listened to God, as God has always revealed
important things through His prophets (Amos 3:7). It was during the
exodus that details of the performance and meaning of sacrifices became
part of the written record.
How much did people before the time
of Moses know about the sacrifices? Most of the early sacrifices were
burnt offerings. The first presentation of the covenant (Gen. 3:15)
revealed that the Messiah would destroy sin and Satan, at the cost of
His own suffering. When God commanded Abraham to sacrifice “thine only
son Isaac, whom thou lovest” (Gen. 22:2), this
Father, giving His only begotten Son that people might have eternal life
(John 3:16). God did not allow Isaac to be sacrificed, but completed the
illustration of His gift of His only Son with a representation of
substitution, when He provided the sacrifice-a ram caught in a thicket.
In Egypt, on the night of the exodus, the
people sprinkled the blood of a lamb on the lintel and doorposts to
protect the firstborn from death. This illustrated how all their
sacrifices served to protect the sinner from judgment.2
stood as a major reminder of the power and purpose of God to save human
Even with these demonstrations, what did the people know
about the prophesied Messiah, or the meaning of sacrifice? In the Old
Testament, the people learned from the prophets, the priests, the
princes, and the Levites.3
The sanctuary and its services were also an
of the plan of salvation. This knowledge was available to
Israel of old and it was believed by many. Apparently John the Baptist
understood, for, when he saw Jesus beside the Jordan River, he cried
out, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world”
(John 1:29).Rabbinic Support for Substitution
rabbis from the past support the meaning of the sacrifice as a
substitute for the sinner. Yet, they saw the sacrificed animal itself as
providing pardon and atonement. In Hebrews 9:10, this corrupted view of
sacrifice contrasts with the true and effective sacrifice of Jesus on
Rashi, a.k.a Shlomo Yitzhaki (February 22, 1040-July
13, 1105), was a medieval French rabbi, famed for authoring a
comprehensive commentary on the Talmud and the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). He
commented on Lev. 17:11: “The soul of every creature is given it to
atone for the soul of man-one soul should come and atone for the other.”
God had said, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have
given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for
it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul” (Lev. 17:11).4
Aben Ezra, a.k.a Rabbi Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra (1089-1164), was a
Jewish scholar and writer of the Middle Ages. Ibn Ezra excelled in
philosophy, astronomy/astrology, mathematics, poetry, linguistics, and
exegesis. He wrote, “One soul is a substitute for the other.”5
Moshe ben Nachmann, a.k.a Rabbi Moses ben Nahman Girondi, Bonastruc Ã§a
Porta (Girona, 1194-Land of Israel, 1270), was a leading medieval Jewish
scholar, Catalan rabbi, philosopher, physician, cabbalist, and biblical
commentator. He commented, “I gave the soul for you on the altar, that
the soul of the animal should be an atonement for the soul of the man.”6
R. Bechai summarized the concept: “Properly speaking, the blood of
the sinner should have been shed, and his body burned, as those of the
sacrifices. But the Holy One-blessed be He!-accepted our sacrifice from
us as redemption and atonement. Behold, the full grace, which Jehovah
has shown to man! In His compassion, and in the fullness of His grace,
He accepted the soul of the animal instead of his soul, that, through
it, there might be an atonement.”7
By contrast, Maimonides, the
noted Talmudist, denied the existence of Christ or any purpose for the
sacrifices in Israel!8
The corruption of the priesthood was very deep in
Jesus’ time. From the above quotations one must see
Judaism understood animal sacrifices to directly provide pardon and
atonement with no reference to a prophesied Redeemer. The high priests
were Sadducees, and they did not believe in a resurrection. One must
consider that this corrupted view of sacrifice was quite general.9
A Prophetic “Promissory Note”
To the believing Israelite
the sacrifice was a symbol, pointing to a future reality, which in
prolepsis gave immediate blessing-the forgiveness of sin.10
sacrifice removed sin from the penitent ones; the blood of the
sacrificed lamb brought sin into the sanctuary or put it on the horns of
the altar, giving them pardon and atonement. The true sacrifice of
Christ on the cross made good all the sacrifices for the forgiveness of
sins in the Old Testament. Now, since New Testament times, we look back
by faith to the reality of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
question arises: Was forgiveness of sin in the Old Testament
conditional? From the human standpoint, it might seem so. However, the
purposes of God know no failure, and forgiveness through the sacrifices
was sure. Like a “promissory note,” the sacrifices served as legal
tender for the forgiveness of sin based on future payment in Jesus’
death on the cross.
The sacrificed animal symbolically took the
place of the sinner, and its blood paid for the sin of the sinner. This
illustrated what Jesus did for us on the cross. Substitution is the
central concept of sacrifice in the Old Testament and the basis for
other larger concepts, such as redemption, vicarious punishment,
forgiveness, and atonement. The sacrifice of an animal had no real
effect on sin or guilt (Heb. 9:9; 10:4). However, in anticipation of
Jesus’ true sacrifice on the cross, God pardoned sins at the time of
sacrifice (Heb. 9:15; 10:1).
In redemption, Jesus’ sacrifice on
the cross bought the human race from slavery under sin to freedom in
Jesus Christ, the second person of the Godhead, took the
guilt of our sins and paid the penalty of death on the cross of Calvary.
In taking sin and guilt from the human race, the sins of humans were
forgiven and their atonement was fulfilled.
The human priesthood
of Israel ended at Calvary, though priesthood was continued under the
true and effective priesthood of Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary. In
heaven, Jesus applies His own blood before the judgment seat of God to
complete the atonement for each person, wiping clean the record of sins.
“Blessed is he, whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered,
“| unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity” (Ps. 32:1, 2).12
Another question arises: Are there two atonements-one atonement at
Calvary when Jesus died and another in the heavenly sanctuary when Jesus
pleads His blood for the sins of humankind? A review of
offerings in Leviticus shows that the sacrifice and the priestly
atonement in the sanctuary were a single procedure (Lev. 4:28-31),
albeit with different components. The atonement of Jesus at Calvary must
also include the heavenly component of His pleading His blood on the
sinner’s behalf.Corrupted View of Sacrifice
“old covenant” is used more broadly than Israel’s reaction at Sinai and
is applied to a corrupted view of sacrifice at other times. At Sinai,
God offered the Abrahamic covenant with divine blessings, including His
law and His grace to make obedience possible. However, the people
promised to obey in their own strength, thereby ratifying, in effect,
not God’s covenant, but their own. This was the historical old covenant,
which lasted just forty-six days.
In Genesis, Cain had rejected
Jesus’ offering of redemption, and, by offering his own sacrifice,
expected to gain salvation by his own works. This was an example of old
The unbelieving majority in Israel, influenced
by the heathen sacrifices in Egypt and by their neighbors in Canaan
(Eph. 4:17, 18, NCV), looked increasingly to the performance of
sacrifices as a means of gaining divine favor. They forgot the promised
Redeemer to whom the sacrifices pointed.
During the captivity,
the Jews finally learned their lesson about idol worship and never again
fell into that trap. In captivity they became educated and prosperous
and were exposed to the sophisticated heathen societies of the
Babylonians and Greeks. When the Medo-Persian rulers gave permission to
go back to their land and rebuild Jerusalem (457 BC), only a remnant
chose to return. To maintain their belief in God, they built synagogues
and established schools to study the Torah and made a serious effort to
worship the true God in their villages and towns.
the people again viewed the performance of sacrifices and temple
services as the means of salvation. Again they lost track of what the
sacrifices and rituals meant. In the Jewish leaders’ confrontations with
Jesus, they repeatedly spoke of keeping the laws of Moses as their hope
for salvation. Even today, modern Jews look to ethical living, observing
God’s law, prayers, and fasting, as their hope for the world to come. It
is a corruption of the ceremonial law and a denial of God’s “My
The people forgot their need for grace--grace that is
available only through the sacrifice of the Messiah at Calvary.
Oppressed by the Romans, they expected the Messiah to be a conquering
king who would remove foreign influence and lead the people to the
glories of David and Solomon. They rejected a Messiah like Jesus, who
refused the military option and came instead to change people’s lives
and forgive their sins.
After Jesus’ return to heaven, when
Gentiles began to come into the church, it was hard for many Jewish
converts to Christianity to give up the sacrifices and ceremonies. How
could people worship God if they did not engage in ceremonies? It was
difficult for them to comprehend that Jesus’ objective was to write the
law in their hearts and minds. The sacrifices and ceremonies were not
the covenant. They were merely an illustration or a parable of the
covenant, pointing forward to the Redeemer who would save them from
Hebrews 8 uses the terms “first,” not “faultless,”
“continued not in,” “waxeth old,” and “decayeth” in discussing the
covenant and the people’s relation to it.13
The animal sacrifices,
festivals, rituals, circumcision, human priesthood, and the Temple made
up their concept of the covenant. They added to this their own
meticulous observance of the Ten Commandments, the other 603 mitzvot
(regulations in the law of Moses), and the voluminous Talmudic
expansions, as well as their lineage from Abraham. Law keeping had
become a burden, and they forgot the Messiah-Redeemer who would come,
die for their sins, and bring salvation.
People became satisfied
with doing works as a means of appeasing God
because it allowed them to
continue with their old sinful way of life. To deny self and submit to
the lordship of Jesus Christ is not natural to the sinful human heart.
It is only by faith in the life and death of Jesus that the heart can be
melted and that human beings will consent to the work of grace.
Refreshing the Illustration
Ancient Israel saw little meaning
in sacrifices except to accommodate the general heathen environment of
the day. Even when instructed, the people did not understand sin,
repentance, and their need of a Redeemer or the Redeemer’s taking the
penalty for their sins. However, Jesus was always clear about His
mission. At the Last Supper, He said, “Drink ye all of it; For this is
my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission
of sins” (Matt. 26:27, 28; Mark 14:24). (Here the King James translates
“covenant” (Greek diatheke) as “testament.”) Thus, the grape juice
symbolized the blood of the new covenant, shed for the forgiveness of
The new covenant is the covenant of grace mediated through
the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. God gave this covenant to Adam and
Eve, Abraham, and Israel at Sinai. He ratified or confirmed this
covenant at the cross. The ceremonial law was never said to be a
covenant. It was rather an illustration of the covenant of Abraham. The
Ten Commandments, by which Israel would become “an holy nation,” were
the basis and reality of “the covenant.”14
In time, people forgot
that forgiveness of sin came through the true and effective sacrifice of
the Messiah. They did not understand the need and power of grace, and
there was no change in their life (Isa. 1:11-20; Micah 6:6-8). The New
Testament spoke of sacrifices, offered in outward compliance without
real repentance (Rom. 2:28, 29; Heb. 9; 2 Cor. 3:6), as the
“righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” which “shall in no case
enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).
It was a
regression to the old covenant mindset. Some Jewish converts to
Christianity, even though they did not sacrifice, could not entirely let
go of the ceremonial law.15
Gentile converts to become
Jews in order to be saved (Acts 15:5; Gal. 5:2, 3; Exod. 12:48). This
was why the Jerusalem Council met and discussed the issue. In his
epistles, the apostle Paul emphasized the effectiveness of Jesus’
sacrifice, with no further need of animal sacrifice.Endnotes
References for the slavery of sin are John 8:34; Romans 6:16; and
2 Peter 2:19.2.
Alfred Edersheim, “Sacrifices: Their Order and
Their Meaning” The Temple: Its Ministry and Service (London: Religious
Tract Society, 1874), pp. 79-95, available at
http://books.google.com/books?id=LHT6a0E909QC, accessed 3/7/13.
Animal sacrifices symbolized the Redeemer (Gen. 3:15; 22:1, 8; Exod.
12:12, 13; Lev. 17:11).
Messianic passages about the suffering Messiah
are Psalm 22 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12.
Christ is our substitute (Matt.
20:28; Rom. 5:8-10, 16-18; 1 Cor. 15:3; Eph. 5:2; Heb. 9:12-15; 10:14).
He is “our Passover” (Exod. 12:12-14; 1 Cor. 5:7).
He is our Redeemer
(Job.19:25; Ps. 19:14; 78:35; Prov. 23:11; Isa. 41:14; 43:14; 44:6, 24;
47:4; 48:17; 49:7, 26; 54:5, 8; 59:20).4.
princes, and Levites taught the people (Lev. 10:11; Deut. 33:10; 2
Chron.17:7-9; 35:3; 30:22; Mal. 2:7).5.
Hebrew translated from
August Wunsche, Die Leiden des Messias in ihrer Uebereinstimmung mit
der Lehre des Alten Testaments und den AussprÃ¼chen der Rabbinen in den
Talmuden, Midraschim und andern alten rabbinischen Schriften, p. 7,
available at http://books.google.com/books?id=S6dAAAAAcAAJ, accessed
3/18/13, by Alfred Edersheim, The Temple (1874), p. 92, available at
http://books.google.com/books?id=LHT6a0E909QC, accessed 3/18/13.
6. Hebrew translated from Wunsche, p. 7, by Alfred Edersheim, The
Temple (1874), p. 92.
7. Hebrew translated from Wunsche, pp. 7,
8, by Alfred Edersheim, The Temple (1874), p. 93.
translated from Wunsche, p. 12, by Alfred Edersheim, The Temple (1874),
“Were sacrifices a symbol of the savior to come? Not according to
Judaism. Quite the contrary, some would say that the original
institution of sacrifice had more to do with the Judaism’s past than
with its future. Rambam suggested that entire sacrificial cult in
Judaism was ordained as an accommodation of man’s primitive desires.
“Sacrifice is an ancient and universal human expression of religion.
Greeks and Romans and Canaanites and Egyptians all offered sacrifices to
their gods. Sacrifice existed among the Hebrews long before the giving
of the Torah. Cain and Abel offered sacrifices; Noah and his sons
offered sacrifices, and so forth. When the laws of sacrifice were given
to the Children of Israel in the Torah, the pre-existence of a system of
sacrificial offerings was understood, and sacrificial terminology was
used without any explanation. The Torah, rather than creating the
institution of sacrifice, carefully limited the practice, permitting it
only in certain places, at certain times, in certain manners, by certain
people, and for certain purposes. Rambam suggests that God designed
these limitations to wean a primitive people away from the debased rites
of their idolatrous neighbors” (Tracey R. Rich, “Qorbanot: Sacrifices
and Offerings” available at http://www. jewfaq.org/qorbanot.htm,
Contrary to the popular Jewish view, God
ordained sacrifices at the beginning of human history to illustrate His
covenant. Heathen sacrifices were a corruption of God-ordained sacrifice
and served a different purpose. Modern Judaism replaces the sacrifices
by fellowship meals, prayers, giving to the poor, fasting, and the
reading of Torah.
The following links resulted from a search in
May 2012 on “Jewish views on substitutionary sacrifices.”
10. All blessings flow from the cross of Christ. In the Old
Testament, God gave forgiveness of sins and His other blessings in
prolepsis, which means to act as if a future event (that is, Jesus’
sacrifice for sin) had already taken place.
Yahweh is a God of
mercy (Exod. 20:6; 34:6, 7; Deut. 5:10)
and a covenant keeper (Deut.
7:9; Ps. 89:28, 34).
He accomplishes what He has purposed (Job
23:13; Ps. 135:6; Dan. 4:35; Isa. 14:24; 46:10, 11; Acts 4:28; 5:39;
Eph. 1:9-11; 3:11).
His counsel will stand (Prov. 19:21; Ps. 33:11),
and His word will stand forever (Isa. 40:8, 22, 26).
His promise to bless (Num. 23:19, 20).
His “servant,” the Messiah,
would not fail nor be discouraged (Isa. 42:1-4).
11. We can be
free only as servants of Christ (John 8:36; 1 Cor. 7:22, 23; Rom. 6:16).
12. The lid of the ark of the covenant, translated “mercy seat” as a
result of Luther’s Gnadenstuhl, is in Hebrew kapporet (Exod. 25:17),
which literally means “covering.”
13. See chapter 15, “The
Historical Old Covenant.”
14. The Ten Commandments are the
covenant. They are also known as “the testimony” (Exod. 32:15; 34:28;
Deut. 9:9, 11, 15; Heb. 9:4).
15. Evidence of Christian Jews who
could not let go of the ceremonial law is found in Acts 15; Romans
2:21-29; 2 Corinthians 3; Galatians 3, 4; Ephesians 2; and Hebrews 8-10.