He is then to take some of the bull’s blood, bring it into the Tent of Meeting, dip his finger in the blood, and sprinkle some of it seven times before God, before the curtain of the Sanctuary. He is to smear some of the blood on the horns of the Altar of Fragrant Incense before God which is in the Tent of Meeting. He is to pour the rest of the bull’s blood out at the base of the Altar of Whole-Burnt-Offering at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Leviticus 4:5-7 (MSG)
Let’s face it, reading through all of the prescribed sacrifices in the book of Leviticus is a very bloody affair. I have to keep in mind that in all of this blood-letting there is a core spiritual teaching that is central to understanding who Jesus is, why Jesus came, and what Jesus did.
When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, God’s message tells us that sin entered the world. Every one of us, at one time or another, has willfully chosen to do what we knew was wrong. That’s sin. As we learned the other day, that willful disobedience is like yeast which taints the whole loaf. We may be good much of the time, but the fact that we sin at all (sometimes even without knowing it) seperates us from God, who is holy.
How do we, divorced from relationship with God by our own sin, get back into relationship with God? That is the ultimate question, and the ultimate story God authors in the Bible from beginning to end.
God’s message tells us that the penalty of sin is death. Therefore, the penalty must be paid in order for relationship between human beings and God to be reunited. Without the shedding of blood, there is no payment for sin. What we are reading in Leviticus is a methodical (and very burdensome) prescription for payment. The sacrificial lamb atones for the sins of the person sacrificing it. It is a brutal and bloody affair designed to address an eternally serious matter.
When Jesus came, He came on a mission. He was God’s son, sent to be the lamb without defect sacrificed for the sins of the entire human race. His death on a cross was a brutal, bloody affair designed to pay the ultimate penalty for sin once and for all:
The old plan was only a hint of the good things in the new plan. Since that old “law plan” wasn’t complete in itself, it couldn’t complete those who followed it. No matter how many sacrifices were offered year after year, they never added up to a complete solution. If they had, the worshipers would have gone merrily on their way, no longer dragged down by their sins. But instead of removing awareness of sin, when those animal sacrifices were repeated over and over they actually heightened awareness and guilt. The plain fact is that bull and goat blood can’t get rid of sin. That is what is meant by this prophecy, put in the mouth of Christ: You don’t want sacrifices and offerings year after year; you’ve prepared a body for me for a sacrifice. It’s not fragrance and smoke from the altar that whet your appetite. So I said, “I’m here to do it your way, O God, the way it’s described in your Book.” When he said, “You don’t want sacrifices and offerings,” he was referring to practices according to the old plan. When he added, “I’m here to do it your way,” he set aside the first in order to enact the new plan—God’s way—by which we are made fit for God by the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus. Hebrews 10:1-10 (MSG)
All of these bloody sacrifices accomplish two things. First, they reminded us of how impossible it was, and is, to completely atone for sin by ourselves. Nothing we do, in and of ourselves, can atone for sin and please God. I can’t imagine trying to manage this web of offerings and sacrifices on an on going basis. Second, the sacrifices of Leviticus foreshadow the ultimate plan, which was for God to make the ultimate sacrifice for sin on our behalf.
Understanding the sacrificial system of Leviticus, I gain a much greater appreciation of what we celebrate on Good Friday.Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and joshuamellin