What Does the Bible Say About Sacrifices?

Thabiti Anyabwile
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The gospel is the story of God’s sacrifice of His own beloved Son in the place of hell-deserving sinners. It’s a story that God unfolds from the opening chapters of the Bible all the way through to the climactic scenes of Revelation.

In the Beginning

The sacrifice motif begins as early as Genesis 3:15. Immediately after Adam and Eve fall into sin, God curses the serpent that tempted Adam and Eve. God promises that He “will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” Thus, God makes the Bible’s first promise of a Savior who will crush evil while suffering.

In His covenant promises to Abraham in Genesis 15, God calls Abraham to supply a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove, and a pigeon. Abraham obeyed and cut the animals into halves. Afterward, Abraham “fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.” And while he slept, the Lord appeared to him in a dream as “a smoking firepot with a blazing torch” and passed between the pieces (vv. 12, 17). In ancient covenants and treaties, ceremonies often included the sacrifice of animals and a solemn pledge that should a party default on the terms of the covenant then the slaughter that happened to the animals should happen to them.[1]

Abraham’s dream was God’s way of not only establishing a covenant with Abraham, but also of showing that His promises would be kept at the cost of sacrificing Himself.

Exodus and Leviticus

Exodus 11–12 records the plague on the firstborn and the events of the first Passover during the exodus of Israel out of Egypt. Each household was to slaughter a year-old lamb and spread the blood of the lamb onto the doorposts of their homes. God promised, “The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt” (Exod. 12:13).

Jesus would rescue His people from their sins by becoming God’s own Lamb.

The first seven chapters of Leviticus give detailed instructions for a variety of offerings that Israel was to make to the Lord. In the Ancient Near East, non-Israelite people made sacrifices to their deity for divine favor. But unlike pagan sacrifices for blessings, Israel made offerings to atone for sin and guilt, not to appease whimsical and arbitrary deities. Israel’s entire relationship with God was established by covenant, at the heart of which was a sacrificial system that provided a regular reminder of sin and transgression and atonement.

In the Prophets

Even the Old Testament prophets received the promise that God would make atonement for the sins of His people. For example, the prophet Isaiah tells of a suffering servant who “was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isa. 53:7). The suffering servant in Isaiah 53 would be “cut off from the land of the living;” the reason for his death: “for the transgression of my people he was punished” (v. 8b).

And after a long and graphic depiction of Israel’s spiritual adultery, for which they deserved God’s judgment, the prophet Ezekiel recorded God’s promise: “I will establish my covenant with you, and you will know that I am the Lord. Then, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed and never again open your mouth because of your humiliation, declares the Sovereign Lord” (Ezek. 16:62–63, italics added). Just as pictured with Abraham in Genesis 15, here God promises that He—not the people—would make atonement for all their sins. The sacrifice would be His.

Fulfillment in Jesus

All of these promises and prophetic pictures of sacrifice find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Matthew 1 includes the account of the angel of the Lord appearing to Joseph in a dream, instructing him to care for Mary because she was pregnant by divine intervention. Then the angel says, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21). From this episode, we learn Jesus’ very name indicates that He had come to fulfill God’s plan to rescue His people from their sins. But how would He do that?

John’s gospel borrows the imagery of the Old Testament sacrificial system in a striking way. John the Baptist, on seeing Jesus, proclaimed, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Jesus would rescue His people from their sins by becoming God’s own Lamb offered as a sacrifice in their place. All of the previous sacrifices simply pointed forward to this one sacrifice. The suffering servant of Isaiah 53 would be none other than Jesus, God’s own Son. “With the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect,” the sinner was to receive redemption (1 Peter 1:19). “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7).

This is good news, indeed! As the writer to the Hebrews teaches, “The law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness . . . But he [Jesus] has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself” (9:22, 26b). Christ was sacrificed, we’re told, “to take away the sins of many” (v. 28).

Sacrifice and Eternity

In honor of His sacrifice, the redeemed will sing for all eternity, “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:9–10, italics added). Angels also will sing before the throne: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (v. 12, italics added).

[1] Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 244–45.

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