It is commonly understood that the New Testament treats Levitical sacrifices as types of the redemptive work of Christ, but some have alleged that there is serious discontinuity between the two that creates “plot holes” on a typological reading. It has been argued by Henri Blocher that the intimate and inseparable bond between Christ’s death and his resurrection does not receive a clear prefiguration in the Levitical rite. He maintains that the sacrifices shout to us about death but only whisper at best about the possibility of a resurrection. Though it should be noted that he does see some faint glimmer of resurrection in the actions of the priests who approach God’s presence in sacrifice yet survive. But this hardly seems to me to be a reasonable “resurrection.” Resurrections usually, at the very least, require a death. Holding one’s breath for a few seconds before finally inhaling does not typify mortification and vivification. Hopefully I can demonstrate that this kind of typological jerry rigging is both convoluted and unnecessary.
For starters, while a priest would approach the altar in sacrifice (something prohibited to lay Israelites), he wouldn’t normally enter the tabernacle—much less the Most Holy Place. He would offer the animal with a buffer of space and curtains between himself and the Lord. It would not be un-dangerous, but it would be quite a stretch to think that this would constitute a near-death experience. We have every reason to believe that most priests lived to tell about their ministerial careers.
Most importantly though, the sacrificial procedure itself does include a prefiguration of resurrection.
After the animal is slain, the various parts are placed on the altar and transformed into smoke that ascends to God (This is why the offering is better termed an ascension offering rather than a burnt offering. Burning only implies consumption; ascension implies communion). The dismembered and transfigured animal gains new life as a “spiritual body” that can be incorporated into the cloudy presence of God Himself. The animal parts constitute God’s “food” or his “bread” (Leviticus 21-22), his portion of the communion meal that is offered up to him. As the fire of God “eats,” or consumes the sacrificial food, it becomes one body with him. It is brought into union with him. For our God is a communing fire.
This forms the basis for the statements of Jesus, recorded by John, to the effect that His death on the cross should be seen as a “lifting up.” For John, the whole life of Christ is a sacrificial movement. Sent by the Father to be the Lamb of God, He lives in perpetual obedience, and at the last returns sacrificially to the Father. The sacrificial movement culminates in a grand sacrificial meal: the Bread of God is offered for His Father’s delight and as sacrificial Bread for those who would taste and see that the Lord is good.
The claim that the Levitical sacrifice doesn’t properly prefigure resurrection seems to be based on a truncated view of the rite, which focuses on death as the central moment of sacrifice. That has been a common assumption in much Christian thinking on sacrifice, but it doesn’t fit the Levitical rites. The animal dies and rises to God; He consumes in order to commune. The dominating theme isn’t placation or expiation. The chief aim is reconciliation. The person represented by an elected substitute is brought near, into union and communion with God, by virtue of a substitute dying, rising, and ascending on his behalf. In other words, if we are going to get a firm grasp of what the NT writers meant when they described Jesus as a sacrifice, we will have to camp out in Leviticus a good bit longer than the Church has generally been pleased to do.