What were Old Testament Israelites thinking when they offered animal sacrifices? That’s the question Mark Olivera asked in response to last week’s posts on the Old Testament sacrifices (here and here).
And this is not some trial academic pursuit. Our answer to that question will influence our view of God (does He change the way of salvation from works to grace and from theism to Christ-ism, at half-time?), our view of sin (can mere animal blood cover it), our view of the Bible (does it present two essentially different religions or just one with different degrees of light?), and our view of Old Testament believers (are they brothers and sisters in Christ or simply theists and ritualists who didn’t know Christ until they got to heaven?). So it’s a big question with huge consequences.
Let me recap a little and respond to some of the questions in last weeks posts, and then attempt to do some biblical mind-reading, or, as Mark put it, try to get inside the heads of these OT worshipers.
1. The Levitical sacrifices reminded and convicted of sin (Heb. 10:3).
As Rick Phillips points out, the sacrifices proclaimed: “This is what will happen to you unless a better atonement be found.”
2. The Levitical sacrifices pictured and pointed to the person and work of the Messiah. (Heb. 10:1)
The sacrifices never saved anyone, never washed away or covered one sin. However, they were one of the major means of grace, one of the main ways God used to create, sustain, and nourish faith in the Messiah.
Therefore, just as neglect of the Lord’s Supper damages us spiritually, so neglect of the sacrifices damaged the souls of OT believers. Jim Hamilton wrote that that offering sacrifices were a work that proved living faith. I agree to a limited extent. However, I believe that the primary way that living faith was evidenced in the OT is the same as in the NT – through obedience to the moral law more than the ceremonial law.
3. As the Levitical sacrifices were commanded by God, disobedience here would bring punishment on the offenders, whether individuals or the nation.
I disagree with Andrew Suttles who thinks the Old Covenant is a law covenant. I believe that the Old Covenant is an administration of the Covenant of Grace. However, I agree with him that faithful observance of the Levitical law did bring God’s temporal blessings upon the nation.
But Mark made the point that there were sacrifices before the Levitical law linked God’s blessing on (and presence among) the nation with faithful observance of the sacrifices. So there must have been a deeper and more fundamental meaning.
4. The Levitical sacrifices gave ceremonial or ritual cleansing but never atoned for moral transgression (Heb. 9:13; 10:1-4).
They did not pacify the conscience (Heb. 9:9) but rather purified the flesh (9:13). They gave a “ceremonial forgiveness” that allowed physical proximity between the offeror and God’s presence in the Tabernacle and Temple. But of themselves the sacrifices had no impact on spiritual proximity to God. As John Calvin said:
For what is more vain or absurd than for men to offer a loathsome stench from the fat of cattle in order to reconcile themselves to God? Or to have recourse to the sprinkling of water and blood to cleanse away their filth? In short, the whole cultus of the law, taken literally and not as shadows and figures corresponding to the truth, will be utterly ridiculous…if the forms of the law be separated from its end, one must condemn it as vanity (Inst. 2.7.1).
But let me return to Mark’s question as it really helps us to get to the heart of the matter. He asked: “What was the worshiper motivated by as he brought his animal to the Tab/Temple to be slain?” Mark lists these options:
- “This is just a symbol cause something better is still to come.”
- “Glad I made it – I’m covered for another year.”
- “I feel so awful about what I did last week – hope this sacrifice is enough to cover my guilt – maybe I’ll bring another one next week just as insurance.”
- “Atonement – that is what our Israelite worship is built on – so I’ll keep doing this to help keep our religion going.”
Although many Israelites probably thought like this, Israelite believers didn’t.
Jim Hamilton suggested that the Israelite was thinking along these lines: “This animal costs a lot of money, and it has to be an unblemished one. This animal could yield a lot to me in terms of increased flock, or wool, or whatever, to say nothing of the feast we could have if we ate it. But Moses gave these instructions. Does my transgression (or uncleanness resulting from contact with the dead) require this? This God must be both morally pure and clean. I know that he spoke through Moses, and I know his word is authoritative (cf. Exod 24:6–7), so because I believe I’ll offer this sacrifice.”
Again, I’m sure some Israelites did think like this. But regenerate Israelites didn’t. Why do I say this? Because none of these answers display any consciousness of faith in a coming Messiah, without which no one was saved.
Here’s what I think was going on in the minds of OT believers: “This sacrifice tells me what I deserve – death. And it also tells me how to escape – blood sacrifice in my place. How I long for the Promised Seed of the woman who will crush the head of the devil and bless all the nations of the earth by offering blood-sacrifice in my place.”
In other words, their faith was consciously Bruised-Seed-of-the-woman-centered, or Suffering-Messiah-centered. I’m going to appeal to Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin to support this view.
From the life of Abel, Edwards establishes that sacrifices were appointed by God to be “a standing type of the sacrifice of Christ, and that when offered through faith in Christ they were pleasing to God. Also, from the fact that Abel seemed to be complying with an established custom, Edwards argues that sacrifice “was instituted immediately after God had revealed the covenant of grace, in Gen 3:15, which covenant and promise was the foundation on which the custom of sacrificing was built…. That promise was the first stone laid towards this glorious building, the work of redemption; and the next stone, the institution of sacrifices, to be a type of the great sacrifice (Edwards, History of Redemption, 135ff).
Calvin also denied any possibility of knowing God apart from the Mediator.
Surely, after the fall of the first man no knowledge of God apart from the Mediator has had power unto salvation (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:24). For Christ not only speaks of his own age but comprehends all ages when he says: “This is eternal life, to know the Father to be the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent” (Inst. 2.6.1).
From this it is now clear enough that, since God cannot without the Mediator be propitious toward the human race, under the law Christ was always set before the holy fathers as the end to which they should direct their faith…Here I am gathering a few passages of many because I merely want to remind my readers that the hope of all the godly has ever reposed in Christ alone (Inst. 2.6.2).
In his sermons on Deuteronomy, Calvin says: “Indeed the ancient fathers were saved by no other means than by that which we have…they had their salvation grounded in Christ Jesus, as we have: but that was after an obscure manner, so as they beheld the thing afar off which was presented unto them.”
A modern voice
And just to bring us right up to date, here’s a terrific Christ-centered passage from Vern Poythress:
The shadow was not itself the reality, but a pointer to Christ who was the reality. Yet the shadow was also like the reality. And the shadow even brought the reality to bear on people in the Old Testament. As they looked ahead through the shadows, longing for something better, they took hold on the promises of God that He would send the Messiah. The promises were given not only verbally but also symbolically, through the very organization of the tabernacle and its sacrifices. In pictorial form God was saying, as it were, “Look at My provisions for you. This is how I redeem you and bring you to My presence. But look again, and you will see that it is all an earthly symbol of something better. Do not rely on it as if it were the end. Trust Me to save you fully when I fully accomplish My plans.” Israelites had genuine communion with God when they responded to what He was saying in the tabernacle. They trusted in the Messiah, without knowing all the details of how fulfillment would finally come. And so they were saved, and they received forgiveness, even before the Messiah came. The animal sacrifices in themselves did not bring forgiveness (Hebrews 10:1-4), but Christ did as He met with them through the symbolism of the sacrifices (Vern Poythress, Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, 11)
Such a view of what was going on in the heads and hearts of Old Testament believers confirms God’s immutability, underlines that sin is so serious that it required nothing less than the blood of God to put it away, unites the Bible, and joins us in sweet Messiah-centered fellowship with Old Testament believers.
Big question. Bigger consequences.
(Thanks to Jim Hamilton, Mark Anderson, Mark Olivera, Bernard, Andrew Suttles and others for their gracious and stimulating interaction).