Rejection and Consequences

33 Symbolism of Sacrifice

by Hubert F. Sturges,, 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 things.)

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.

Yet, 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 committed 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

At first, 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 symbolized another 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.

The Passover

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  The Passover stood as a major reminder of the power and purpose of God to save human beings.

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 illustration 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

Famous 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 the cross.

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 ça 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 that rabbinic 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 The 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.

The 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.11 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 the sin 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

The term “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 covenant action.

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.

Before long, 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 covenant.”

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 their sins.

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 sins.

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 They expected 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.


1. 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, accessed 3/7/13.

3. 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. Prophets, priests, 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 Aussprüchen der Rabbinen in den Talmuden, Midraschim und andern alten rabbinischen Schriften, p. 7, available at, accessed 3/18/13, by Alfred Edersheim, The Temple (1874), p. 92, available at, 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.

8. Hebrew translated from Wunsche, p. 12, by Alfred Edersheim, The Temple (1874), p. 93.

9. See

“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., accessed 3/1/13).

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).
He keeps 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.