Let’s talk about animal sacrifice in the Bible and why we don’t do animal sacrifices today. When we mention animal sacrifice, the first thing people often think about is the Mosaic Law, but the Mosaic economy is not the only one that featured sacrifices. Sacrifices also occurred immediately after the fall (Gen 3:21), in the first generation after the fall in the dispensation of conscience (Gen 4:4), after the flood in the dispensation of human government (Gen 8:20), and in the dispensation of patriarchs (Job 1:5). So, before Christ, were people saved by offering animal sacrifices? The short answer is “No.” The long answer is “Noooooooooooooo!”
Here’s an excerpt from a paper I’m working on that has been modified for your viewing pleasure:
Christ’s unlimited sacrifice
Christ did not only die for those in the Church Age and following. John the Baptist calls Him, “The Lamb of God the One taking away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Christ’s role as Lamb of God (ὁ ἀμνὸς τοῦ Θεοῦ) is unique from any lamb of man, in that Christ took away the sin of the world (ὁ αἴρων τὴν ἁμαρτίαν τοῦ κόσμου) as opposed to covering (Heb כּפר “to cover”) the sins of the one on whose behalf the offering was made. With Christ’s unlimited sacrifice, God removed the sin barrier that would otherwise separate humanity from Himself. Most Protestants will agree that salvation has always been by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (though many who do will redefine terms to mingle man’s work into the work of salvation somehow). The reason that sola fide has been acceptable throughout all of human history is Christ’s sacrifice; however, for much of history, there was a necessity to shed the blood of animals for fellowship with God. Clearly, the blood of animals did nothing to contribute to the work of Christ, so that which the animal sacrifice did must be different from that which the Messiah’s blood did. That God, in Christ’s death, removed the sin of saints who lived before Christ is evident in the life of Abraham, who was justified sola fide even before the Mosaic Covenant came to be. Christ’s blood took away sin, which is something that the blood of animals could not do (Heb 10:4) and since God applied Christ’s blood to those who offered animals, it follows that Christ’s blood did something different from what the animals’ blood did.
The animals’ limited sacrifice
The Book of Hebrews provides conclusive evidence that Christ is the new High Priest who has replaced the old priesthood, but it is vital to remember that Christ is still currently serving in the role of High Priest. That means that the responsibility of the former priesthood is not finished, because Christ Himself is doing that work now. To understand this priestly duty, it is beneficial to study the purpose of the former system of animal sacrifice. God summarizes the purpose of sacrifices to Israel in Numbers 15:
22 ‘If you sin unintentionally [וְכִ֣י תִשְׁגּ֔וּ], and do not observe all these commandments which the Lord has spoken to Moses— 23 all that the Lord has commanded you by the hand of Moses, from the day the Lord gave commandment and onward throughout your generations— 24 then it will be, if it is unintentionally committed [נֶעֶשְׂתָ֣ה לִשְׁגָגָה֒], without the knowledge of the congregation [מֵעֵינֵ֣י הָעֵדָה֮ literally “from the eye of the congregation”], that the whole congregation shall offer one young bull as a burnt offering, as a sweet aroma to the Lord, with its grain offering and its drink offering, according to the ordinance, and one kid of the goats as a sin offering. 25 So the priest shall make atonement [ וְכִפֶּ֣ר הַכֹּהֵ֗ן] for the whole congregation of the children of Israel, and it shall be forgiven them, for it was unintentional [וְנִסְלַ֣ח לָהֶ֑ם כִּֽי־שְׁגָגָ֣ה]; they shall bring their offering, an offering made by fire to the Lord, and their sin offering before the Lord, for their unintended sin [עַל־שִׁגְגָתָֽם]. 26 It shall be forgiven the whole congregation of the children of Israel and the stranger who dwells among them, because all the people did it unintentionally [כִּ֥י לְכָל־הָעָ֖ם בִּשְׁגָגָֽה literally, “for all the people were in shegagah”].
27 ‘And if a person sins unintentionally [וְאִם־נֶ֥פֶשׁ אַחַ֖ת תֶּחֱטָ֣א בִשְׁגָגָ֑ה literally, “And if any soul sins in shegagah (ignorance)”], then he shall bring a female goat in its first year as a sin offering. 28 So the priest shall make atonement [וְכִפֶּ֣ר הַכֹּהֵ֗ן literally, “So shall the priest cover”] for the person who sins unintentionally [עַל־הַנֶּ֧פֶשׁ הַשֹּׁגֶ֛גֶת literally “for the shegagah soul”], when he sins unintentionally [בְּחֶטְאָ֥ה בִשְׁגָגָ֖ה literally, “in shegagah sins”] before the Lord, to make atonement for him; and it shall be forgiven him. 29 You shall have one law for him who sins unintentionally [לָכֶ֔ם לָעֹשֶׂ֖ה בִּשְׁגָגָֽה literally, “for him who acts in shegagah”], for him who is native-born among the children of Israel and for the stranger who dwells among them.
30 ‘But the person who does anything presumptuously [וְהַנֶּ֜פֶשׁ אֲשֶֽׁר־תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה׀ בְּיָ֣ד רָמָ֗ה literally, “But the soul which acts with his hand high”], whether he is native-born or a stranger, that one brings reproach on the Lord, and he shall be cut off from among his people [וְנִכְרְתָ֛ה הַנֶּ֥פֶשׁ הַהִ֖וא מִקֶּ֥רֶב עַמָּֽהּ]. 31 Because he has despised the word of the Lord, and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely cut off; his guilt shall be upon him.’” (Num 15:22-31 NKJV)
Animal sacrifices were only for the unintentional shegagah sins, which the people committed in ignorance. When Israelites committed sins against each other, they had a complex system of laws to reconcile those who had been wronged including any necessary compensation. The New Testament lays out instructions for reconciliation between Church members in several places. When an Israelite would sin openly, “with his hand high” (בְּיָ֣ד רָמָ֗ה), then he would be “cut off from among his people” (וְנִכְרְתָ֛ה הַנֶּ֥פֶשׁ הַהִ֖וא מִקֶּ֥רֶב עַמָּֽהּ). The Church Age also has a system in place for cutting off a local church member who openly engages with his hand high in certain sins as well. If reconciliation with God was settled at the cross and if the Church has a system in place for interpersonal reconciliation and cutting off the “high hand” sinners, then what is there to take care of the shegagah sins?
The current priesthood
The solution to the Church Age saint’s shegagah sins is found in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is credible and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (ἐὰν ὁμολογῶμεν τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἡμῶν, πιστός ἐστι καὶ δίκαιος, ἵνα ἀφῇ ἡμῖν τὰς ἁμαρτίας καὶ καθαρίσῃ ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ πάσης ἀδικίας). The condition is “If we confess our sins.” The plural article and noun in the phrase, τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἡμῶν, indicates that these are specific sins to confess, rather than just a general doctrinal agreement that a person has sin.1 God’s first response to our confession is that He forgives us these sins (note the repetition ἵνα ἀφῇ ἡμῖν τὰς ἁμαρτίας), One can only confess specific sins if he knows about them, so these are not shegagah sins in question yet. Then God goes a step further and cleanses us from all unrighteousness (καὶ καθαρίσῃ ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ πάσης ἀδικίας). Being cleansed from all unrighteousness (ἀπὸ πάσης ἀδικίας) would include not only the sins that the sinner knows about, but all of the shegagah sins as well. In the most basic terms, confession is the current solution to the problem that animal sacrifices alleviated and Christ is the current Priest who intercedes on our behalf. This intercession is effective for fellowship with God (1 John 1:3) after a relationship with God (John 1:12) has begun through faith in Christ.2 The reason that this system can work today is that believers have a High Priest who sits at the right hand of the Father and intercedes on their behalf.
Another purpose of the Old Testament sacrifices is to point forward to Christ’s work, much like our current celebration of the Lord’s Supper points back to Christ’s work. There is an educational aspect of sacrifice in which sin is remembered (Heb 10:3). We live in a fallen world and it is easy for us to become desensitized to sin, just as a fish can live his whole life unaware that he is wet. The gore of animal sacrifice served as a great reminder that there was still terrible shegagah that Israelites committed unknowingly. There is much more to animal sacrifice, but this shall suffice for today’s discussion.
- Also, the pronoun is first person plural to include John and his saved audience, which indicates that this confession is not a prerequisite for salvation as it is commonly taught.
- See more about the important distinction between relationship and fellowship with God here.