The writers and the original readers of the New Testament were all familiar
with animal sacrifice.
Both among Jews and Gentiles, animals were sacrificed every day.
Modern Europeans have no experience of animal sacrifice
and find the language of the New Testament,
which implies familiarity with it, very hard to understand.
Nevertheless it must be understood,
for otherwise important parts of the New Testament will be meaningless;
and we shall not be able to understand many phrases used in Christian worship, especially in hymns.
"Washed in the blood of the Lamb" (Rev.7.14) is a phrase which causes needless difficulty to modern congregations.
Faith in the only sacrifice
That can for sin atone.
English Hymnal, 79; Hymns Ancient and Modern, 547.
"When I have sinned, I must repent;
if I repent, I expect to be forgiven.
Where does sacrifice come in,
and why was the death of Christ necessary?
Cannot God forgive me without anyone's death?"
So anyone might argue.
But to think in this way is to be completely out of touch with the religion of the Bible.
Sacrifice, or offering to God, has an important place in all religious
systems except that of Muhammad who deliberately rejected it.
(The modern misuse of the word "sacrifice" as meaning loss shows how difficult the meaning of sacrifice is for most people to grasp.
A man sacrifices his life for his country.
He loses, or may lose, his life for his country's good.
But sacrifice does not mean loss;
it means offering.
He has offered his life to his country.
He may not be called upon to lose it,
but in that case it has been offered just as much as if he had lost it.
Sacrifice therefore means neither loss nor killing.
It may, on the contrary, mean gain and more abundant life.
The essential idea of sacrifice is offering, usually to God.)
The sacrificial system of Israel,
which is the background of all that is said about sacrifice in the New Testament,
had a long and complex history.
We need not discuss the earlier stages of that history.
We are only concerned with the last stage that was reached under the influence of the prophets and particularly the sacrifices of the Day of Atonement.
At this period sacrifice was not a bribe to God to make Him give help
or refrain from punishment.
No doubt that had been one purpose of heathen sacrifice (as in II Kings 3.27) and of early Hebrew sacrifice (Gen.28.22; Judges 11.30),
but the prophets had rejected such ideas (Mic.6.7:
Shall I give the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?).
What was needed to reconcile sinful man with the righteous God was not a
change in God but a change in man.
God is always the same.
He cannot be bribed.
But man has sinned and therefore requires to be changed.
What must be changed is the guilt of man before God
and his weakness in the presence of sin.
Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.
(English Hymnal, 477; Hymns Ancient and Modern, 184).
And St. Augustine taught that fallen man suffers from "reatus", guilt, and "vitium", fault.
The Hebrews did not claim that their sacrifices removed the power of sin,
but only that they availed for sins of ignorance and weakness,
not for sins deliberately committed.
The sinner had to overcome the power of sin by his own strength,
and it was believed that he could.
St. Paul rejected Judaism for this very reason because he found by experience that he could not (Rom.7.23).
The purpose of the sacrifices, then, was to remove the guilt of man.
This was done by means of the sin offering.
The greatest sin offering was made on the Day of Atonement (Lev.16),
which belonged to the last stage of the sacrificial system in the Old Testament.
It does not appear to have existed before the Exile,
though there were features in it that must have been older.
The slaying of the victim was the duty of its owner in private sacrifices.
The victim must be the property of the sacrificer
or at least have been bought with his money,
and it must be a living creature that would otherwise have been used for food.
Unclean animals, not being suitable for food, might not be offered, nor might wild game since it was not the property of the sacrificer and had cost him nothing.
The sacrifices on the Day of Atonement were national sacrifices for the
national sins of Israel.
The High Priest representing the whole people took the place of the man who made the sacrifice.
There were five victims on the Day of Atonement:
a bullock for a sin offering, and a ram for a burnt offering, for the priests;
a goat for a sin offering, and a ram for a burnt offering, for the people;
and the goat for Azazel (mentioned in the Book of Enoch as a fallen angel), formerly called the "scapegoat".
With the last, which was taken into the wilderness and let go and was supposed to carry away with it the sins of the people, we are not here concerned except to say that it was in no sense a type of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that there is nowhere in the New Testament any evidence for such a notion;
nor is it supported by any of the ancient translations nor by any of the Fathers.
[S. C. Gayford, Sacrifice and Priesthood, p. 98.]
that is, reconciliation
was made for the priests first,
then for the people.
The High Priest, acting not as priest but as sacrificer,
presented the bullock and the first goat, and then slew them,
representing first the family of the priests and then the whole people.
Having done this, he offered the blood,
which was his work, not as sacrificer but as priest.
He entered into the Holy of Holies
carrying with him the blood of the victim
and the lighted censer full of incense,
the smoke from which rose between him and the mercy seat.
He sprinkled the blood on the mercy seat seven times,
and he went out
and sprinkled the blood on the horns of the altar of burnt offering in the court outside.
Then he laid his hands on the head of the live goat,
confessed over him the sins of the people,
and sent him away to a solitary place.
After this he changed his linen garments for the priestly vestments
as a sign that the penitential ceremonies were over,
and he proceeded to offer the two rams as burnt offerings
to show that reconciliation with God was now effected.
There were six stages altogether in the complete sacrifice:
The two chief ideas, which underlay these ceremonies,
were the removal of sin and reconciliation with God.
There was no reparation of any kind.
The victim represented the sacrificer (in this case the people of Israel),
and was regarded as part of him because, if it had not been sacrificed, he would have eaten it.
But instead of being eaten and becoming part of his life, it was surrendered to God.
It was not a substitute for the sacrificer, but in a sense it was he, for his whole life represented by the blood was offered to God.
Then the blood was taken into the Holy of Holies, the innermost shrine
that is, God accepted it.
It was the high priest who carried the blood.
He was the intermediary between the sacrificer and God.
But since he also was a sinner,
he had to carry in the blood for himself and his family,
and thereby be himself reconciled to God,
before he could perform the same office for the people.
Then the altar and the temple were cleansed.
"Almost all things are by the law purged with blood" (Heb.9.22).
Reconciliation with God meant that the sins of the sacrificer were erased.
They were said to be washed with the blood, which was the means of reconciliation.
This is the origin of such expressions as "washed in the blood of the Lamb".
By the reconciliation with God, which was now accomplished,
the sacrificer became entitled to share the Divine life.
This was represented by the feast on the flesh of the victims with which some forms of sacrifice (but not those of the Day of Atonement) were concluded.
But of what value is all this to us?
Could the sins of men really be removed by animal sacrifice?
That is why the system of animal sacrifice was brought to an end.
There has never been animal sacrifice in the Christian Church (except where, as in some Eastern churches, it is a survival of pre-Christian Semitic custom).
The sacrificial system did not effect its purpose.
It did not remove man's guilt in the sight of God.
It did nothing to make him capable of overcoming temptation.
In the first place, the animal sacrificed was not really equivalent to the sacrificer.
It could only be regarded as equivalent in the age before the development of the idea of personality when a man, his family, his slaves, and his property were regarded as one indivisible thing, so that if he committed a crime, his family and cattle were slain with him as in the case of Achan (Josh.7.24; cf. Dan.6.24)
Second, the priest was a sinner and had to offer sacrifice for his own sins,
so that he was not really competent to act as a mediator (Heb.10.1-11; etc.).
But the animal sacrifices were merely a type and prophecy of what was to
be done by Jesus Christ.
What they did not and could not do, He did.
He is at once Sacrificer (John 10.17),
Victim (I Cor.5.7; Heb.9.12),
and Priest (Heb.5.10, 6.20, 7.26).
His sacrifice in its different stages corresponds to the Hebrew sacrifices
that foreshadowed it.
The presentation took place when He was crucified;
the slaying at His death;
the entry into the sanctuary with the blood at His Ascension;
the cleansing with the blood at our baptism;
the feast on the flesh at the Holy Communion.
We must carefully distinguish between these different stages.
What took place once for all was the death on the Cross.
There is no more immolation or slaying.
Our medieval ancestors, who wrongly identified sacrifice with slaying,
supposed that in some sense Christ was slain again at every Eucharist.
It was against this idea that the Reformers rightly protested.
What was done on Calvary was done once for all,
but that was not the offering but the slaying.
The seventh-century hymn [Ad cenam Agni providi: English Hymnal, 125; Hymns A. And M., 128.] which says, "Upon the altar of the Cross", is wrong.
The Cross was not an altar.
The altar is in heaven where our Lord,
the Priest after the order or Melchizedek,
offers His sacrifice continually.
It cannot be repeated because it never ceases to be offered.
What He offers is His living body and blood,
not His dead body and blood,
for He is not dead but risen.
Those who have held that what He offers and what we feed on in the Eucharist is His dead body are profoundly mistaken.
Such an idea is really inconsistent with His resurrection.
His death on the Cross was voluntary.
He gave Himself for us.
Therefore it effected what the involuntary death of bulls and goats could not effect.
But it was not penal; He did not suffer punishment.
For the purpose of punishment is reformation, and He needed no reformation.
The priest in the Hebrew system was a sinner liable to death.
Our Priest is not a sinner and not liable to death.
Hence He is truly what the old priests were by type.
Now we can see in what sense the Christian Eucharist is a sacrifice.
Our Lord said at the Last Super,
"This is My blood of the covenant" (Mark 14.24).
A covenant was inseparable from sacrifice.
The blood of the covenant must be poured out in sacrifice,
and the Christian Church has always regarded the Eucharist as sacrificial.
It is true that the usual words, such as ἱερεύς, priest, are not used of any officer of the Church in the New Testament.
If they had been, its readers would have supposed that Christians,
like the adherents of every other religion in that age, offered animal sacrifices.
But the Christian Eucharist is not sacrificial in that sense.
It corresponds to the lasts stages in the old sacrifices.
In it we take our part in the sacrifice
that is being perpetually offered by our Lord in heaven.
In it we receive the Divine life with which our Lord's human life is united.
It is not a whole sacrifice, still less a repetition of what was done on Calvary.
It is the means by which each member of the Church can take his or her part in the one sacrifice of Christ.
And the earthly priest who officiates is a priest only in a secondary sense.
He is not all that the priests in the Old Testament were.
The whole Church is a royal priesthood (I Peter 2.9) because she shares the priesthood of her Head, and the official priest is the means by which the priesthood of the Church is exercised. [See pp. 368-373, 393.]
But though it has been shown that the death, resurrection, and ascension
of Jesus Christ fulfil the idea of the Hebrew sacrifices, has that idea any
meaning for us today?
Why should God's forgiveness require sacrifice?
We find this question difficult because most of us have an insufficient
sense of the terrible and deep-rooted nature of sin.
It is only by fixing our eyes on the Cross, that we learn what sin is.
Neither the guilt nor the power of sin can be removed by a mere apology.
The sinner is guilty before the Divine Justice.
The chain of sinful habit binds him.
God cannot simply forgive him and let him go.
It is a fact of experience that nothing of any value is carried out without suffering.
The removal of man's guilt and man's sinful habits could not be effected without the suffering of God Himself.
This is the truth that underlies the sacrifice of our Lord.
"Without shedding of blood is no remission" (Heb.9.22) is profoundly true.
It is not a notion that has passed away with Semitic sacrifices.
Man is bound by the chains of his sins and guilty in the sight of God.
The guilt and the power of sin had to be removed,
and he could not remove them for himself.
Our Lord Jesus Christ has removed them,
but not in such a way that man has no more to do.
Man is like a prisoner in a dungeon,
the door of which is locked on the inside.
He is too weak to rise and turn the key.
Indeed he often does not even wish to get free or believe that freedom is possible or even desirable.
It is not enough to force the door and break the chains.
The prisoner must be changed from within, or he is not really free.
And this is what God the Son did when He became Man.
The language of Hebrew sacrifice, therefore, is true if it is understood,
and we must understand it if we are to make sense of the New Testament.
But most of us are not, as the writers of the New Testament were, and as many of our hymn writers were, soaked in the thought of the Old Testament. If we are to sing with sincerity,
There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Emmanuel's veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains
Hymns Ancient and Modern, 633; English Hymnal, 332;
Oft as it is sprinkled
On our guilty hearts,
Satan, in confusion,
[The first verse was written by the Evangelical, William Cowper;
the second was translated from the Italian by Edward Caswall of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri.]
Hymns Ancient and Modern, 107; English Hymnal, 99;
we must both believe the truth which these metaphors signify,
and understand how they apply to it.
But many people in our congregations do neither,
and it is a question whether, until they do, they should be encouraged to sing such hymns.