In a previous essay, I argued that the writers of the New Testament employed the patterns of Old Covenant worship, along with certain rites and rituals, as patterns for New Covenant worship. Though the latter is vastly superior to the former, there is a great deal of typological continuity between the two covenants. In this article I want to extend the hermeneutical paradigm to include a treatment of the concept of sacrifice. I hope to demonstrate as before that, even though the death of Jesus clearly fulfills those Old Covenant sacrifices, there remains something of a sacrificial practice in the worshiping life of the Church.
Old Covenant Sacrifices and Offerings
It would probably be helpful if we began by wrapping our minds around the original concept of sacrifice and offering as instituted by God and mediated to Israel through the Torah. How did those sacrifices work? What did they mean? What did they do? I should point out here that the word “sacrifice” as used in the OT was not generally used as a generic term for every kind of animal offering, but rather as a particular kind of offering.
However, there are a few terms that are used as generic descriptions of levitical offerings. The first word one encounters upon launching into a study of Leviticus is the word Qorban. This term is used to describe all of the the various offerings that might be brought to the tent of meeting (2:1; 3:1-2; 4:23; 5:11; 7:38). Qorban comes from a verb which literally means “to bring near” or “to draw near.” Thus an offering is something brought near in order to bring the bringer near; offerings were means of approaching God. The levitical regulations were avenues of regulated access. They were gifts brought to God in order to receive the gifts of God.
Another term frequently used to describe these offerings was “the bread of God (Lev. 3:11, 16; 21:6, 21; Num. 28:2). The animal offerings are presented as God’s “food.” They are bread which he consumed in the fire of the altar (Lev. 6:10; “eat” and “consume” are the same word in Hebrew). These “covenant meals” are often enjoyed by both God and his people. God didn’t need the bread and he didn’t need the people who offered it (Ps. 50:7-15), but he accepted the gifts as a means of fellowshipping with his redeemed people.
So how is it that one could approach an infinitely holy God? How could sinful men sit down and partake of a meal at his table? Leviticus gives us the answer to those questions through these intricate rituals. The following are the basic elements which the various offerings share in common:
- A worshiper places his hand on the head of the intended sacrifice. This symbolizes the substitutionary nature of the offering.
- The animal is then slain. Access to God is granted only through the death of a substitute.
- The priest places the blood before the Lord. As in the Passover, blood effects a propitiation of the wrath of God.
- The priest then arranges the pieces of the “bread” on the altar and the pieces are transformed into smoke. Through the act of substitution, the worshiper is able to ascend into the presence of God.
- Often, there is a shared meal. Having been brought near to God through the death of a substitute, the worshiper can then eat and drink in the divine Presence.
It is difficult at this point to not jump ahead and see how this applies to Jesus and his sacrificial work.
- Christ is the sovereignly selected substitute. His death is propitious for those who believe in him.
- He died on behalf of his people.
- In addition to being the sacrificial substitute, Christ is also the High Priest. In this office, he placed his own blood before his Father.
- Christ ascended to the Father in order to stand in his presence as our representative. Those in union with Christ are also “ascended” and “seated in the heavenlies.”
- At the Lord’s Table, we feast with our risen and reigning Lord; we also feast upon our risen and reigning Lord.
The whole life and ministry of Jesus follows the sacrificial sequence, from the hand-laying selection of his incarnation and baptism, to the eucharistic meal shared in his presence by the Church. Order was important.
In the worship of the Older Covenant, God commonly required three kinds of sacrifices together. When offered together they are in this particular sequence: Sin (or guilt) offering, Ascension (or burnt) offering, and Peace offering (Lev. 8; Num. 6). This constituted a basic liturgical sequence: The sin offering was for the purpose cleansing and involved the confession of sin (Lev. 17); the ascension offering symbolized complete consecration and involved a symbolic ascent into God’s presence through fire and smoke (Lev. 16:24-25); the peace offering was a communion which offering included a shared meal (Dt. 12:17-19). The sequence moves from cleansing, to consecration, to communion. We see this pattern in Lev. 9 and 2 Chr. 29:20-36.
New Covenant Sacrifices and Offerings
Augustine said that the New Covenant sacrifices were the real sacrifices; the Old Covenant sacrifices were the symbols. Under the Old Covenant, the worshiper himself was never able to “draw near.” He had to rely on an animal substitute. While it is true that we still have a mediator, the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world,” we do have the privilege of drawing near. In fact, we are told to do so “boldly” and with “full assurance.” Another significant contrast is that, under the Old Covenant, the worshiper never was able to offer himself as a sacrifice; but we, having been cleansed and made acceptable by the blood of Christ, have been instructed to offer our bodies as “living sacrifices” unto God. We get to present the real sacrifice to which Israel’s shadowy worship only pointed.
Many passages in the New Testament speak of the Christian life in sacrificial terms. Romans 12:1, to which I just alluded, is explicit about this. In similar fashion, the instructions of Hebrews 13 grow out of the earlier exhortation that we are to render unto God “acceptable worship,” or “acceptable service,” with “reverence and awe” (Heb. 12:28). What is this but an exhortation to “priestly service?”
Although one could argue that this is just a simple, logical deduction: “If the whole Christian life is sacrificial nature, so too is Christian worship;” there is actually more direct biblical evidence than that. The New Testament often employs the language of sacrifice when speaking specifically about Christian worship. In the context of completely consecrated life, Hebrews 13 speaks of the “continual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” (v. 15). (This is an allusion to the “continual burnt offerings” mentioned frequently in Leviticus.) Calvin tells us that the author of Hebrews is answering the question of whether or not New Covenant believers continue to offer any kind of sacrifice to God. His answer:
“Another form of sacrifice is left for us which is no less pleasing to God, namely the offering to Him of the calves of our lips, as the prophet Hosea says (14:3). The sacrifice of praise is not only equally pleasing to God but more so than all the outward things that were used under the law . . . . We therefore see that the finest worship of God, and the one which is to be preferred to all other exercises, that we should celebrate the goodness of God by the giving of thanks. This, I say, is the rite of sacrifice which God commends to us today.”
Peter teaches us that the Church is the “new Israel.” As such, she is established as a “holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). The entire concept of the Church as a “temple of God” underscores the apostle’s point, since the temple exists primarily as a place of worship and sacrifice (1 Cor. 3:6). The Church, then, isn’t the place where sacrifice ends; it’s the place where sacrifice begins. Calvin also recognizes that the passages focus on liturgical sacrifice, but he also makes a broader application for the worshiping Christian:
“Among the spiritual sacrifices, he gives first place to the offering of ourselves . . . for we can offer nothing to God until we offer to him ourselves as a sacrifice, which is done by denying ourselves. Then, afterwards follow prayers, thanksgiving, alms, and all the duties of religion.”
The New Testament Scriptures make it abundantly clear that worship under the New Covenant is every bit as sacrificial as worship under the Old Covenant, if not more so. It is also clear that we cannot properly understand one without the other.