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. 

Biblical mind-reading
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).

  • Shawn Anderson

    I am actually doing a sermon series, “Redemption in the Details” going through the Tabernacle, Sacrifices and Festivals. Great timing! Thanks for the helpful points.Hope you are doing well, David. We continue to pray for you.

  • Paul Blackham

    Very helpful points. Quite often people speak as if Christ came to save people from the Old Testament! The Old Testament is just as gospel and Christ centred as the New. The fact we even have to say that is a worry. Christ has always been the object of saving faith… from Alpha to Omega, from Genesis to Revelation. As long as the Suffering Messiah is the object of faith, then the details of that are not the big issue. I would imagine that a member of the ancient Israelite church who was offering animal sacrifices throughout the year would have a more substantial appreciation of blood sacrifice than many modern believers who struggle to grasp the reality of this. Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today and forever – He is the author and perfecter of our faith, whether with Abraham, David, Paul or us today. Glory to Jesus.

  • Jim Hamilton

    Thanks for this interaction, David, I have some questions for you, however: Even though Jesus repeatedly told his disciples that he was going to Jerusalem to die, they never seemed to understand that teaching (until after the resurrection). And then when it happened (before the resurrection), they seem devastated. Then when Jesus met the guys on the road to Emmaus, Luke writes that they “were kept from recognizing him” (Lk 24:16). Is this what we would expect if things were as clear to OT saints as you suggest above? I agree that they were saved by faith. I agree that the sacrificial system taught them penal substitution. I also agree that they hoped for the coming seed of the woman who would crush the head of the woman and bring to fulfillment the promises to Abraham (see my essay, “The Seed of the Woman and the Blessing of Abraham”). I’m not sure they had it all put together. I’m not sure they were clear on how all this would come to pass. When Jesus first tells his disciples that he’s going to Jerusalem to die, they don’t have an “aha!” moment and exclaim: so that’s how the serpent is going to bruise your heel and Isaiah 53 and Daniel 9:26 and Zech 12:10; 13:7 are all going to be fulfilled as you become the final sacrifice to which the Levitical cult has pointed! No, when he tells them that, Peter says: this will never happen to you, Lord. I think it took Jesus opening their minds to understand the Scriptures, beginning from Moses (Luke 24), for them to get all this put together. This also leads me to think that while the members of the remnant with circumcised hearts under the old covenant believed that the seed of the woman was coming, and while they believed they needed to offer those sacrifices that were penal and substitionary, they didn’t necessarily have the two things put together. Can you show me some OT texts that would contradict what I’m saying? Do you see how what I’m saying fits with Luke 24? Please hear me: there is a suffering messiah theme in the OT, and there is a conquering messiah theme in the OT. I think the evidence from the gospels indicates that the old covenant remnant was pretty focused on the conquering messiah theme and pretty puzzled by the suffering messiah theme. It’s adumbrated by Simeon telling Mary that a sword is going to pierce her soul, but the disciples don’t seem to expect Jesus to suffer. . . I know Jesus calls them foolish and slow of heart to believe in Luke 24:25, but I see that standing in tension with the divine passive in 24:16 (“they were kept from recognizing him”) and with their need to have Jesus interpret the Scriptures for them (24:17), open their eyes (24:31–32), and open their minds to understand (24:45). I submit that my arithmetic pretty well matches what the OT and NT texts do and do not say. I’d love to be shown where it’s faulty, because if it is I want to fix it. Every blessing to you in Christ Jesus,Jim

  • David Murray

    Good questions, Jim! The disciples are such a conundrum aren’t they (aren’t we all). At times you wonder if they were all converted (am I allowed to wonder that?). On the other hand there are times when sight is clear and confession is bold (Matt. 16:16). I’d like some time to think on your challenging questions and come back to this again. But let me give some initial thoughts for the moment:1. Maybe I haven’t made it clear enough that OT believers faith was still a “shadow-faith.” I don’t want to suggest that OT faith was as clear/bright/steady as a NT believer post-Pentecost. However, I do want to hold on to “same in essence, though not in degree.”2. In some ways I think it was perhaps harder for the disciples to believe than the OT believers. The Messiah in theory may have been more believable than the Messiah in reality. What do I mean by that? Well, in some ways it was a disadvantage to be so familiar with the humanity of Christ. He was just so human, so flesh and blood, so lowly, so Nazareth, so “ordinary.” Many seemed to stumble over this. 3. Added to this is the political background where the Jewish Messianic hope had got so tied up with military deliverance from Roman oppression. This context/culture also militated against faith in a suffering Messiah. It imbalanced their view of the Messiah so much that they lost sight of the suffering theme.4. However, there were OT believers who did get it: Anna, Simeon, Elizabeth, Zachariah, Mary, John the Baptist. It all came together for them. 5. Allowing for the moment that Luke 24:16 is a divine passive, Calvin explains it as follows: Our members do indeed possess their natural properties; but to make us more fully sensible that they are held by us at the will of another, God retains in his own hand the use of them, so that we ought ever to reckon it to be one of his daily favors, that our ears hear and our eyes see; for if he does not every hour quicken our senses, all their power will immediately give way. I readily acknowledge that our senses are not frequently held in the same manner as happened at that time, so as to make so gross a mistake about an object presented to us; but by a single example God shows that it is in his power to direct the faculties which he has. bestowed, so as to assure us that nature is subject to his will…etc.But, I haven’t addressed all your questions, Jim. So please let me think further and see if I can add to the above. Appreciate your patience and grace.David.

  • Jim Hamilton

    Thanks for your note, David, just a quick response on Mary and the Baptist. You say "It all came together for them," but when? I think that Mary was probably with his family in Mark 3:21 (cf. 3:31, "his mother and brothers") who thought Jesus was "out of his mind." And the Baptist sent those messengers to ask if he was the one to come . . . Again, I think they've embraced the conquering Messiah but they're having trouble with Jesus indicating that he's going to be the suffering Messiah and pursuing this decidedly unexpected course of action. In my book God's Indwelling Presence, I argue that the disciples have circumcised hearts and that their dropping of the nets to follow Jesus is evidence of genuine faith. They are not, however, as good at doing Old Testament Theology as Jesus is. They need him to open their minds to understand the Scriptures. Then, I think, it all comes together for them, and they pass on the interpretation of the OT that Jesus taught them in their writings, which now comprise the NT. Blessings!Jim

  • Shawn Anderson

    Thought this quote was pertinent:The great importance of the sacrifices prescribed by the law may be inferred to a great extent, apart from the fact that sacrifice in general was founded upon the dependence of man upon God, and his desire for the restoration of that living fellowship with Him which had been disturbed by sin, from the circumstantiality and care with which both the choice of the sacrifices and the mode of presenting them are most minutely prescribed. But their special meaning and importance in relation to the economy of the Old Covenant are placed beyond all question by the position they assumed in the ritual of the Israelites, forming as they did the centre of all their worship, so that scarcely any sacred action was performed without sacrifice, whilst they were also the medium through which forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with the Lord were obtained, either by each individual Israelite, or by the congregation as a whole. This significance, which was deeply rooted in the spiritual life of Israel, is entirely destroyed by those who lay exclusive stress upon the notion of presentation or gift, and can see nothing more in the sacrifices than a “renunciation of one’s own property,” for the purpose of “expressing reverence and devotion, love and gratitude to God by such a surrender, and at the same time of earning and securing His favour.” (K&D on Lev 1)