“God is love,” says 1 John 4:8 and 16. Many people believe that. But most of them also reject the Old Testament and its laws—especially its laws on sacrifices. This is a terrible mistake. Those sacrifices offer some of the Bible’s most profound insights into God’s love!
We no longer perform these animal sacrifices and other physical offerings. Spiritually, however, they remain astonishingly relevant.
This article focuses on two of the offerings described in God’s law. But first let’s look at the principle of the sacrifices as revealed in the first Passover—an Old Testament picture of the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The book of Exodus tells the story of redemption from sin. The Israelites are a type of those called out of the world. We started in bondage within spiritual Egypt. The Passover lamb that each family killed typified Christ’s sacrifice for our sins (e.g. 1 Corinthians 5:7).
Note God’s instructions in Exodus 12:3-5 to each family in Israel regarding this lamb. The lamb had to be without blemish because it typified Christ, who was sinless. See also 1 Peter 1:19. Then read God’s instructions regarding Passover night in Exodus 12:6-7. Hundreds of thousands of lambs were slaughtered on this most bloody night! The Egyptians’ firstborn were killed—but among the Israelites, those lambs died instead. The blood was a sign of that substitutionary sacrifice. That blood of the lamb was what protected each household from death. It pictured the “Lamb of God” shedding His blood (John 1:29).
Consider why the Israelites prepared the lamb the way they did in Exodus 12:8-9. The flesh was roasted with fire—foreshadowing the fiery trial that consumed Christ in His last moments. It was roasted whole and placed on the table whole; none of its bones were broken (also see verse 46), just as none of Christ’s bones were broken (John 19:33, 36). The Israelites symbolically ingested Christ, just as New Testament Christians do on Passover night (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:23-25). They ate the lamb with unleavened bread—pointing toward the bread we eat at Passover, a symbol of the body of Christ, broken for us. The bitter herbs pointed to Christ being a man of sorrows and dying a bitter death.
This ancient ritual was a prophecy! It prophetically pictured Christ’s Passover sacrifice many years later. This portrayal of God (the One who became Jesus Christ) as a little lamb that was slaughtered is one of the most powerful and illuminating in the Bible. It expresses the magnitude of God’s sacrifice. This idea is expanded most of all in the book of Revelation, which concludes the Bible with 29 references to Him being “the Lamb” (e.g. Revelation 5:6; 7:14; 13:8).
The Passover sacrifice is just one of several sacrifices God commanded and described in the Old Testament. All of these sacrifices were a substitute for the sacrifice of Christ and pointed people toward that future sacrifice. Many of them illuminated several different aspects of what Christ accomplished. That is one reason why understanding these sacrifices teaches us such powerful lessons.
Communion With God
Exodus relates how God delivers us from sin. Leviticus, which follows Exodus, is more about our relationship with God after we have been redeemed. It shows the consequences for sin, but it also reveals how we can be reconciled to God. Most of all, it illustrates exactly how Jesus Christ has opened access to God for us and enables us to have communion with God! Fittingly, it is in Leviticus that we find most of the laws regarding the offerings—laws that reveal how Christ facilitates our communion with the Father.
These rituals were a means by which God taught physical, carnal people principles that would later come to fruition with Christ’s life and death. They were among the aspects of God’s law added “till the seed should come” (Galatians 3:19).
Of course, the sacrifices didn’t originate with the Israelites. Cain and Abel offered sacrifices (Genesis 4). Noah built an altar and offered a sacrifice after leaving the ark (Genesis 8). Both Abraham and Jacob sacrificed (Genesis 14 and 35). In Exodus 3:18 and 5:3, Moses told Pharaoh that he wanted to take the Israelites three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice.
But notice Jeremiah 7:21-23. This is talking about the sacrificial system God gave Israel. God provided a lot of instruction in His law—all the moral and civil laws—before ever discussing sacrifices. The rules and regulations for sacrificing came later, when God established the sanctuary (Exodus 40). Thus, any sacrifices in Scripture before Exodus 40 were voluntary and didn’t conform to the laws that God later put in place.
“It would have been wrong for just anyone to offer sacrifices after the beginning of the second year of the Exodus. But before this time, God did allow voluntary offerings to be sacrificed by anyone in Israel and on individual altars which were not located in any sanctuary. Why shouldn’t God allow this?” (Good News, September 1965). After all, those sacrifices reflected men’s love and devotion to God.
“There was no priesthood or sanctuary established, so there was nothing wrong in this. It was only after the sanctuary had been built that God forbade sacrifices by anyone, except a priest be in attendance. It was only after the sacrificial system began that God forbade offering sacrifices anywhere but on the altar in the sanctuary” (ibid).
Just like all the other laws we have looked at, that sacrificial system came from God’s mind. It is loaded with glorious vision! None of those sacrificial animals actually paid for sin, but they pointed to spiritual realities—and in a lot of beautiful detail.
Study Hebrews 9:9-10. That system was replaced by Christ’s sacrifice and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Notice, though, how specific is this list of things imposed on the Israelites “until the time of reformation”: only “meats and drinks” (offerings), “diverse washings” and “carnal ordinances.” “Notice that these temporary laws did not pertain to murder or theft or Sabbath-breaking, but were only those ordinances regulating meat and drink offerings and different washings or ablutions of the unclean. (These external washings were a type of the Holy Spirit cleaning us up from within.) Any other laws not included in Hebrews 9:10 were not part of the rituals added because of sin!” (Good News, August 1972). Even so, though these were separate from the eternal spiritual law, they still point to spiritual realities and supply profound instruction. Continue reading verses 11-14.
“All of these physical rituals foreshadowed, in a variety of ways, the coming of Christ, His sinless life, His atoning power, His resurrection and glorification. They prefigured the working of the Holy Spirit, and showed, in symbolism, many other important spiritual principles” (Good News, September 1965). Notice: It’s not all about Christ’s death; the offerings also teach us about “His sinless life” as well as “His atoning power, His resurrection and glorification.” The many details in the offerings focus our attention on the parts and different aspects of what Christ achieved.
The reality is, if what Christ did in His life and His death had been less monumental—less rich with things to contemplate—then God wouldn’t have needed such a variety of types and symbols to represent it.
The Different Offerings
In ancient Israel, God instituted two main kinds of offerings: 1) offerings of a sweet savor; and 2) offerings as payment for sin.
The first of these was not about sin. It was a picture of a faithful Israelite giving a sweet offering, merely to be accepted by God as a worshiper. Think of a child giving a voluntary gift to a parent. These offerings were offered on the bronze altar, the sacrifice altar, in the court of the tabernacle.
The second type pictured a sinner giving a sacrifice as payment for sin. Some were burned on the ground outside the camp; some of them the priest ate after sprinkling the blood for atonement. They were not consumed on the altar, and there was an important reason for that.
Of the sweet-savor offerings, there were three main categories: 1) burnt; 2) meal (or “meat”); and 3) peace offerings, which included thank, vow and freewill offerings. The second type of offering included 4) sin; and 5) trespass offerings.
Studying each of these teaches different aspects of Christ’s sacrifice. Considering these details enhances our appreciation for both the offering Christ made to the Father in His life and the sacrifice He made in His death. As we compare ourselves to Him, we can take a great deal of personal correction as well. This article focuses only on the first two, the burnt offering and the meal offering. The next installment will examine the third sweet-savor offering as well as the sin and trespass offerings.
The Burnt Offering
The burnt offering is explained in the first chapter of Leviticus. Read Leviticus 1:2-3. The phrase without blemish describes all the offerings. It shows that Christ was the one being portrayed by these sacrificial animals.
The Revised Standard Version provides a better translation of the phrase “of his own voluntary will”: “he shall offer it at the door of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the Lord.” This isn’t payment for sin: It is the offerer coming before God and offering this gift in order to please God and to be considered acceptable in His sight. We aren’t acceptable in God’s sight of ourselves, so this pictures Christ, coming in the flesh and making this offering on our behalf.
Now read verse 4. The word atonement in the context of the sin and trespass offerings always connects it specifically with sin and forgiveness. For example, “The priest shall make an atonement for him as concerning his sin, and it shall be forgiven him” (Leviticus 4:26; see also Leviticus 5). The context of the burnt offering in Leviticus 1, however, contains no mention of sin. It’s talking about “at-one-ment” between the offerer and God, and about God’s satisfaction with the offering.
Continue reading Leviticus 1:5-9. This animal was completely burnt on the altar. Not a scrap remained. Think about what this tells you about Jesus Christ’s sacrifice to His Father! The first and great commandment is that we love God with all our heart, soul, mind and might (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37). Christ actually did that—perfectly! He held nothing back!
The head symbolizes the thoughts. The “inwards,” or internal organs, symbolize feelings and affections of the heart. The legs are a type of the walk—what we do day to day. The fat pictures our general health and vitality. Christ offered all of it to God! Every thought, every affection, every action, all His energy! He wrapped His life around God’s Work. He did always those things that pleased His Father. He gave Himself fully to obeying the first and great commandment—loving God with all His heart, soul, mind and strength!
Andrew Jukes wrote in The Law of the Offerings, “Had there been but one thought in the mind of Jesus which was not perfectly given to God; had there been but one affection in the heart of Jesus which was not yielded to His Father’s will; had there been one step in the walk of Jesus which was taken not for God, but for His own pleasure—then He could not have offered Himself or been accepted as ‘a whole burnt offering to [God].’ But Jesus gave up all: He reserved nothing. All was burnt, consumed upon the altar.” How inspiring to think about! This is what true obedience to that first and great commandment looks like in the flesh. Just meditate on that picture: the animal being totally consumed!
What do we withhold from God? We need to emulate Christ’s example. Our lives are to be totally consumed on the altar! We are to be living sacrifices. “As a man, His thoughts were human thoughts; His affections human affections. But how much of these did He reserve for self, for His own ease, or credit, or pleasure? What one act recorded of Him was for His own advancement? What one word which was not in entire devotedness to His Father? … Such was ‘the whole burnt-offering’: the entire surrender of self to God in everything” (ibid).
Jukes goes on to say this, forcing us to compare ourselves to that example: “With us how many thoughts are there for self; for our ease, our pleasure, our interests. How much of our walk, how much of our affections, is consumed on anything rather than the altar!”
Leviticus 1:9 says this burnt offering was a sweet savor to God. God was pleased with the offering. Read how Paul confirmed this fact in Ephesians 5:2. This isn’t about Christ serving as a sin offering, which was not “a sweet smelling savour.” In His life as well as in His death, Christ offered His Father something truly pleasing; the sweet savor satisfied God.
With other offerings, the priests or even the offerer ate part of it. Here, God consumed the whole thing, and was delighted by it. The sacrificial altar is called “the table of the Lord” (Malachi 1:12). It was a “feast” for God!
The Meal Offering
The meal offering (or “meat offering”), described in Leviticus 2, was also a sweet savor to God. Notice its main ingredient, listed in Leviticus 2:1. This offering was not of an animal, but of grains; it was the only bloodless offering of the five main offerings. (Incidentally, sacrifices involve the death of an animal—offerings don’t necessarily.)
What do grains symbolize, as distinct from animal flesh? God says the life is in the blood and commands that man not eat it (Genesis 9:4); God reserves that for Himself and His sacred purpose. But God never put any limitation on plant life—herbs, nuts, fruits and vegetables (Genesis 1:29). Jukes gathers from this distinction that corn and the fruit of the earth “is man’s part in creation; as such, it stands the emblem of man’s claim, or of what we owe to man.” I believe he is probably right: Essentially, if the burnt offering represents our duty to God, the meal offering represents our duty to fellow man. This would mean that these first two offerings correspond with what Christ called the two great commandments: love toward God, and love toward neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). And just as the burnt offering pictured how Christ perfectly obeyed that first commandment, the meal offering showed how He kept the second.
Jukes wrote, “The one case is man satisfying God, giving Him His portion …. The other is man satisfying his neighbor, giving man his portion as an offering to the Lord.” We need to fulfill both, as Christ did. Cain, by contrast, offered only the grain offering, without fulfilling his obligation to God.
Considering this, think on the ingredients of the meal offering.
The main component, the “fine flour,” wasn’t grain newly sprung up and beautiful; it was grain that had been pulverized and ground down. It pointed to bruising, grinding, pressing, wearying trial.
Jesus Christ was a “man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3). Why? “I know why Jesus was a man of sorrows,” Herbert W. Armstrong wrote in his autobiography. “It was not because of persecution against Him, or personal suffering, but the anguish of seeing those He loved reject the truth and be willing to turn the wrong way to their own perdition! It hurts, deeply, to see people drop by the wayside!” It wasn’t a self-oriented sorrow. He grieved because He was giving His life for people—teaching, ministering, healing and loving them, in fulfillment of that second great commandment—and they didn’t get it! He grieved for their blindness and the hardness of their hearts.
“[R]ejected when He would minister blessing; misunderstood when He gave instruction … He goes forward without the slightest faltering; He never stops for a moment in His devoted service to all around Him. To the very end of His course, as at the beginning, He is the meat of all who need and will accept Him” (Jukes, op cit). Christ offered Himself, feeding those around Him, giving Himself wholly to serving them in every possible way.
Examine yourself in comparison. How you put limits on your self-sacrifice; how you withdraw kindness and love when it is rejected; how diligently you preserve your “me time.” Christ did none of those things.
Christ continually gave to those around Him, but it was an offering to God. That’s an important difference. “May we thus be like Him, that so through grace we may be steadfast. If, on the other hand, our labor of love is offered for man’s acceptance, when man rejects us, our labor will cease. And surely this is the secret of much of our half-hearted service. But let us, when ministering to others, offer ourselves, like Jesus, ‘unto the Lord,’ and not unto man; then, though our love is here slighted, it will be accepted by Him to whom we offer it” (ibid). When we serve and seek to love and do things for other people, we often do so to gain something from them. Instead, do so to really serve God! He gives us spiritual gifts so that we can serve Him and do His Work. Let’s not use them to try to gain advantages for ourselves from other people.
As you think about that fine flour, you can also consider how Christ was bruised and broken physically in fulfilling this part of His offering. When He broke bread on Passover, Christ said, “This is my body, which is broken for you.” We need to discern that broken body! He was ground down to a fine flour! He had to drag Himself to Golgotha, and couldn’t bear His own stake; someone had to help Him with it. He was completely ground and broken—and ready to be put on the sacrificial altar.
Three More Ingredients
Note the other two ingredients spoken of in Leviticus 2:1. The first of these, oil, is a symbol of the Holy Spirit—the power of God. Though Christ was bruised and broken, He always had that power! That was what enabled Him to carry on in His service to others throughout His life.
So often when we serve, we do so with our own power and energy rather than with God’s Spirit. In our service, we always need to ask ourselves: Am I doing this with my own effort, or is this empowered by God? Does this offering really have that oil from God poured all over it?
The other ingredient, frankincense, is a precious perfume that gives the offering a wonderful fragrance. Its full aroma doesn’t emerge until it is burned. When you look at Christ’s offering, the fire of the trials He faced brought out qualities of character we would never have seen had He not suffered. Hebrews 5:8 says He actually learned obedience by those trials. Much of the beautiful fragrance of Christ’s offering emerged as a result of those fiery trials!
There is an interesting contrast here. Read God’s instructions in Leviticus 2:11. God didn’t want honey in the meal offering. Though sweet, it ferments and spoils when it burns. That is how many of us handle trials: We are OK as long as things are good, but increase the heat and we turn sour. When trials come, we get a better look at the contents of our hearts, and we realize there is still much within us that could not be offered as a sweet savor on the altar.
Note one final ingredient of the meal offerings in verse 13. Salt is a preservative against corruption. That was the effect Christ had in His ministry: He drove out corruption in those with whom He came into contact. Jude 1 says we are called by the Father and preserved in Christ.
More About the Meal Offering
Read Leviticus 2:11 again to see another ingredient God forbade in the meal offerings. Leaven could not be offered as a sweet savor to God. Christ is always pictured in Scripture as unleavened bread.
Read about Pentecost in Leviticus 23:15-16, then notice in verse 17 the special grain offering God commanded be offered on that feast day. These two wave loaves represent God’s people under the Old and New Covenants. Notice: They were leavened. God accepted them, but they could not be burned as a sweet savor. Take note of this fact in Leviticus 2:12. How, then, could they be accepted? Find the answer in Leviticus 23:18-19.
Consider the contrast in Leviticus 23 between the wavesheaf and wave loaves. The wavesheaf offering pictured Christ. It was offered with a burnt offering and a meal offering—offerings of a sweet savor to God (verses 9-13). The wave loaves, however, could only be accepted if they were offered with a burnt offering, a meal offering, a peace offering—and a sin offering! We are nothing without all those aspects of Christ’s work. Because we have sin, we need that sin offering to be accepted!
It is remarkable that on Pentecost God pictures the Church as bread—a meal offering, representing our duty toward man. That is precisely the job to which He has called His firstfruits: to serve and to feed a lost, needy world. That really is the message of the day of Pentecost!
Observe, too, in Leviticus 2:2-3 that the meal offering was not completely burned. Part of it was offered to God, and then the priests ate the rest. This also supports the idea that this offering represented the fulfillment of man’s duty to his neighbor: Yes, it is an offering to God, but it is food for man.
Even though the meal offering wasn’t completely burned, it was completely consumed—either by God on the altar or by the priests; the offerer had nothing left for himself. When we really obey the two great commandments—loving God with everything, and others as ourselves—what do we have left over for ourselves? What did Christ reserve for Himself?
These physical offerings teach us rich detail about Christ’s spiritual offering. And since Christ is our example and we are to walk as He walked, they also instruct us in how we should conduct our own lives. This makes the study of these offerings incredibly exciting, corrective and profound.