Speak unto Aaron and to his sons, saying, “This is the law of the sin-offering: in the place where the burnt-offering is killed shall the sin-offering be killed before Jehovah: it is most holy. The priest that offereth it for sin shall eat it: in a holy place shall it be eaten, in the court of the tent of meeting. Whatsoever shall touch the flesh thereof shall be holy; and when there is sprinkled of the blood thereof upon any garment, thou shalt wash that whereon it was sprinkled in a holy place. But the earthen vessel wherein it is boiled shall be broken; and if it be boiled in a brazen vessel, it shall be scoured, and rinsed in water. Every male among the priests shall eat thereof: it is most holy” (Leviticus 6:25-29).
Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Perhaps one of the concepts found in Scripture that is most “foreign” to people today involves the sacrificial system. Most people are familiar with the fact that the Bible talks about killing lots of animals “for sin.” It seems quite strange to many people, and rather barbaric to others. Nevertheless, there is a point to it all, and, as perhaps is expected, the path leads us to Jesus.
In some cultures, sacrificing animals was considered the way that the gods would be fed. For others, it was to provide a soothing aroma to the gods so as to gain or maintain their favor. While it is true that some sacrifices were made as peace offerings to God (cf. Leviticus 3:1-17), and the aroma was to be pleasing (e.g. Leviticus 3:16), it is not as if God needs sacrifices in order to survive (Psalm 50:7-14). Sacrifices for sin are based in an entirely different system than these.
Sacrifices for sin go back to the problem of sin. Sin separates man from his God (Isaiah 59:1-2); for man to have some relationship with God, the problem of sin must be addressed. During the old covenant, the means of addressing this was animal sacrifice– the sin offering.
But why does the animal need to die? As God explains in Leviticus 17:11, it is a matter of life atoning for life. Since life is in the blood, blood is shed on the altar, and that blood, by virtue of the life in it, can atone, or cover, for the sin and guilt of the one atoning. Since the penalty of sin is death (cf. Genesis 3:17-19, Romans 6:23), something has to die in order for sin to be covered. If it is not the sinner, then it must be a substitute for the sinner– and thus we have the animal that gets sacrificed. Its innocent blood/life can pay the penalty for the guilty life, and God was willing to provide cleansing on the basis of an animal offered up in faith.
In the New Testament, we are told that the blood of animals could not really take away sin (Hebrews 10:4)– the animal sacrifices were the shadow, or type, of which Jesus of Nazareth was the reality, or fulfillment. He was without sin and willingly gave Himself up for sin so that we could be reconciled back to God (Romans 5:6-11, Hebrews 4:14-16, 7:14-28, 9:1-26). Jesus’ blood/life, then, can truly atone, or cover, for the guilty life, for the one who offers up himself in faith through repentance, baptism, and discipleship (Acts 2:38, Romans 6:3-7, 12:1-2, Galatians 2:20).
Well and good; hopefully we can understand the reason for the sacrificial system, even if it seems a bit strange or foreign to us. Nevertheless, it is the prism through which we must understand Jesus’ sacrifice for our sin.
Yet a challenge remains. If sin separates us from God, and Jesus, who knew no sin, was made to be sin for us, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, does this mean that Jesus was separated from God?
Some have advanced such a position based on that correlation and Jesus’ words in Matthew 27:46. Nevertheless, beyond the fact that as God in the flesh, the Son cannot really be separated from the Father (John 1:1, 14, Colossians 2:9), what we learn about sin offerings in Leviticus 6:25-29 provides good evidence against such a view.
The sin offering, by virtue of being for sin, is not automatically defiling. Quite the contrary– the sin offering was most holy! In the old covenant, particularly in Leviticus, holiness was understood in very physical terms– holiness (and, for that matter, defilement) could be transmitted. In such a view, contact with the sin offering did not lead one to be defiled here, but in fact makes them holy (Leviticus 6:27). The sin offering must be treated as holy, eaten in a holy place, and accorded the respect given to that which is holy!
The parallels with Jesus and His sin offering are evident. Those who come into contact with Jesus do not become unholy or defiled; instead, they can receive cleansing through Him and become holy– just as Paul indicates in 2 Corinthians 5:21. Through Jesus we become righteous and holy before God (Ephesians 1:4). We are to treat Jesus and His death in every way as holy, and revere Him as holy because of what He has accomplished as our sin offering (1 Peter 2:21-25, 3:15)!
Since “sin” and the idea of real spiritual and environmental consequences for “sin” have become rather “foreign” concepts in our society, we should not be surprised that a system designed to cover and atone for sin should likewise be considered “foreign.” Nevertheless, the Bible has taught us about the problem of sin, and has laid out the solution for sin in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was the sin offering to cover for the sins of mankind; in so doing, He did not become defiled but most holy, able to communicate holiness to all who came to Him, experienced Him, and were transformed by Him. Let us be made holy through Jesus of Nazareth and His sin offering, and be reconciled with God!
Ethan R. Longhenry