It is hard for us, living in the 21st century, to fully understand what it was like to live as an Israelite in Old Testament times. Regarding their religious ceremonies and customs, we know that sacrifices were required by God and that they were carried out by the Levite priests, but I think it is hard for us to realize just how much a part sacrifices played in the everyday lives of the Israelites.
One of the main themes of the Old Testament (and the whole story of the Bible for that matter) is the presence of God dwelling amongst his people, which consisted of the Israelites as well as any foreigner who wanted to participate and be a part of God’s people. This is why the tabernacle was such an important deal – it was to be the place where God dwelt amongst his people. Thus, being in community with God’s people meant experiencing the benefits of living amongst God’s presence. Yet God, being holy and distinct from mankind, could not and would not dwell amongst people who were “dirtied” with sin and disobedience. Indeed, the punishment for a person who committed a sin was for them to be outcasted from the community – not only separated from fellowship with other Israelites, but worse – isolated from the very presence of God. That was a tough pill to swallow.
Enter sacrifices. A person could offer up a sacrifice – the killing of an animal – in order to show that they were guilty before God and that they trusted him to accept the sacrifice. Thus, God would allow them back into full fellowship within the community. Raymond Dillard and Tremper Longman explain the situation well: “God is holy and cannot tolerate the presence of sin and uncleanness. Sacrifice is a way of making the unholy pure again and restoring fellowship in the presence of God. It allows the unclean who have been forced from the presence of God to return once again to the camp that is the realm of the holy.” (from An Introduction of the Old Testament). We see that the altar where the sacrifices were made was a place of constant movement and activity as people came to present their sacrifices to God.
The sacrifices of animals were not perfect because they were required again and again; they could not fully do away with the sins of humans. In reality, they were a foreshadowing of a greater and perfect sacrifice: that of Jesus Christ himself. Consider the following verses regarding the sacrifice of Jesus:
Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Ephesians 5:2 (NIV)
But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Hebrews 9:26 (NIV)
For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. Hebrews 10:14 (NIV)
And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary. Hebrews 10.18 (NIV)
How great a sacrifice we have in Jesus! It was perfect and thus we can be fully pardoned for all of our guilt! We, like the Israelites of the days of old, can fully enjoy God’s presence dwelling among us when we acknowledge our wrongs and accept the fact that he sacrificed himself in our place!
Questions to consider:
Why was it necessary for Jesus to come as a sacrifice?
Have I admitted that I need Jesus in order to be in fellowship with God?
For further reading: Hebrews, chapters 8-11