The Exchange with Pastor Josh: Offerings & Sacrifices

Jesus commanded that we are to “love the Lord your God…with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). It is a command that can be joyfully obeyed especially when done together with other Jesus followers. That is what “The Exchange with Pastor Josh” is all about. The questions and insights that are shared are not from Pastor Josh but rather emerge from a group of Jesus followers discussing and interacting with one another. I have tried to faithfully capture the insights and flow of the conversation here so that others can be inspired to “love the Lord your God…with all your mind” as well. My acknowledgement and gratitude goes to the group of Jesus followers gathered for The Exchange on March 31, 2001. The Lord and you know who you are.

Soli Deo Gloria

Question: What is the difference between grain, burnt, sin and other offerings and sacrifices?

A couple of items are important to note to set the stage for responding to this question. First, for the sake of this discussion, we will use the words “sacrifice” and “offering” interchangeably. Second, it is immensely helpful to have context for these specific kinds of offerings such as grain, burnt, sin, etc. To provide that context, it is worth spending eight minutes to watch the BibleProject.com video overview of Leviticus where many of these sacrifices are introduced. Third, a detailed breakdown of the five different kinds of offerings presented in Leviticus 1-7 (burnt offering, grain offering, peace offering, sin or purification offering, and guilt offering) is beyond what we can tackle in the scope of this discussion, but we can make some general observations about offerings in the Old Testament and what that might mean for us today.

The detailed instructions about offerings given in Leviticus 1-7 are part of the overall story of God’s relationship with the people of Israel. After rescuing them from slavery in Egypt, God instructs the people to build a tabernacle in which they will encounter His presence. When the tabernacle is completed, God’s presence fills it up in the form of a cloud, and not even Moses is able to enter (Exodus 40:35). God is to live with His people, but His holiness is unapproachable for humans polluted by sin. What can resolve this problem of proximity?

The Lord speaks to Moses from the tent (Leviticus 1:1) and gives instructions about offerings which will serve to remove sin, make the people holy, and thus able to live in proximity to God as His chosen people. The opening verse of the very next book, Numbers 1:1, begins with the Lord speaking to Moses inside the tent suggesting that the problem of proximity has been solved by these offerings. However, proximity with God does not change the hearts of the people, and Numbers records an increasing breakdown of relationship between God and His people.

So what is going on with offerings? It is helpful to remember that offering things to God, especially animals, did not originate in Leviticus 1. As early as the story of Cain and Abel we encounter offerings being made to God (see Genesis 4). Abel’s offering of the “firstborn of his flock” was accepted by God, while Cain’s offering of produce was not. There is no indication as to why, but God’s interchange with Cain about “sin crouching at the door” gives a hint as to the inward disposition of Cain both towards his brother but more importantly towards God. What one offers physically to God is acceptable only in so far as one is rightly relating to God. How is one to relate to God? To see that more clearly, we can move on through the story of Genesis.

It is possible to see this in the story of Noah’s offering to God in Genesis 8:20-21, but Abraham’s offering of his only son Isaac is both emotionally compelling and deeply illustrative of the way one is to rightly relate to God. The story is found in Genesis 22. Abraham is commanded by God to offer his only son, the one through whom God has promised to give Abraham many descendants, as a sacrifice. Abraham obeys and walks with his son to the chosen place. Abraham goes so far as to build the alter, bind his son, and raise the knife to kill his son before God intervenes and provides a substitute sacrifice. Is God being capricious? No. The story depicts how one is to rightly relate to God. Abraham trusts God and demonstrates that trust through obedience. He trusts God even to the point of being able to raise his son from the dead (Hebrews 11:17-19). Not only that, but Isaac trusts his father, Abraham. Isaac was old enough to carry the wood for the fire and to notice that there was no animal to sacrifice (Genesis 22:6-7). Yet there is no mention of Isaac resisting his father even as he was bound and placed on the altar. Isaac’s willing, trusting obedience also puts on display what it means to rightly relate to God. What’s more, later Christians like Tertullian would see in Isaac a picture of Jesus Himself, a son willingly carrying wood on his shoulders up a hill to die as a sacrifice. While Isaac would figuratively be raised from the dead (Hebrews 11:19), Jesus would be actually raised from the dead. The story of Abraham and Isaac depicts the relationship of trust that is to mark the relationship of humanity to God.

By way of contrast, it is important to note that offerings were quite common in the ancient world in general and in Egypt in particular. Although the Israelites were freed from captivity in Egypt, their history shows that they were not free from the Egyptian proclivity to pagan worship. From Mount Sinai to the Promised Land, idolatrous offerings to other gods show that the Israelites were as polytheistic as any of their ancient neighbors in direct violation of their covenant with the Lord God. Why were they so inclined to offer sacrifice to these other gods? In the ancient world, offering to pagan deities was often a means of appeasing the deity in order to secure a favorable outcome. The gifts were given to the deity or demanded from the deity in order to garner favor. If then something bad happened, the assumption was often that the offering was not adequate. This relationship by appeasement put the worshiper on notice but never certain that their offering was adequate.

The Lord God’s arrangement with Israel was different. Just as God had provided the sacrifice in Isaac’s place (Genesis 22:13-14), so also God would provide the sacrifice that enabled humanity to live in right relationship with Him. The sacrifice would be His own Son, Jesus Christ (Mark 10:45). The problem of proximity would be solved not by human offerings to God but by Jesus offering Himself. There would be no more need of animal offerings since the blood of Jesus would fulfill what the blood of the animals was pointing to. Christians now relate in proximity to God on the basis not of their own sacrifices but on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice. This is a relationship requiring trust, trust that what Jesus did was really adequate. 

This does not mean that Christians don’t offer sacrifices. It means whatever a Christian offers to God is an act of trust not appeasement. When a Christian gives financially with joy (2 Corinthians 9:7), serves the vulnerable (James 1:27), prays fervently (Psalm 141:2), and lives in line with God’s moral instruction (James 1:27), he or she is acting out their trust in God through the blood of Jesus. Sacrifice is not eliminated by Jesus. It is restored. Ultimately, the sacrifice that the Christian trusting in Jesus’ sacrifice gives, is a living one…

“Therefore, brothers and sisters, in view of the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your true worship.” – Romans 12:1

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