Getting to Know Our God and Jesus – Part 5
God has provided the New Testament commentary on many Old Testament issues to help us understand what He intended His people to learn.
God’s Intention with Animal Sacrifices and the Death of Jesus
One of the areas we have been most surprised about needing to modify our earlier views is that of animal sacrifices and the sacrifice of Jesus. We grew up with a mistaken idea that we commonly hear today among Christadelphians about why God had people kill animals when offering a sacrifice.
In our experience, most responded, “Because sinners deserve to die,” which is a very passive way of looking at sacrifice. It views sacrifice as a punishment we deserve but doesn’t require us to do anything. This idea is much the same as the belief many Christians have that Jesus died as their substitute.
Both of these views generate thankfulness in most people, but they lack the daily motivation to take up their cross and follow Jesus in his death to sin. Although sinners do indeed deserve to die, that is probably not why God introduced and commanded animal sacrifices for so many years. Besides, do we really need a ritual to remind us sinners deserve to die when so many people are dying every day?
The “deserve to die” response links to our third article on “God’s Punishment vs Discipline.” If you view God as an austere or angry Father who wants to punish you for your daily sins, then your view of animal sacrifice, and possibly even the sacrifice of Jesus as well, is connected to punishment. You may tend to think the physical death of the animal represents the punishment sinners deserve.
You might even link the death of Jesus to this as well. But when we examine New Testament writers’ explanations, they do not make this connection at all! Thankfully, God has provided the New Testament commentary on many Old Testament issues to help us understand what He intended His people to learn. When New Testament writers all say the same thing, it should end any disagreements or debates we might have on the issue.
Think about all the New Testament passages that are connected to the sacrifice of Jesus, and see if you can find any passages that link the death of Jesus to the punishment that communicates “sinners deserve to die.” We haven’t found any! Your mind might go to Romans 6, where Paul says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 6:23).1
But within the context, Paul contrasts King Sin and the wages he pays out (death) with our loving Father who gives us a free gift of eternal life. No way does this indicate that God wants to punish His children for their sins, but instead, it shows He wants to give them the “free gift” of eternal life when they join with Christ in his death to sin.
The New Testament makes it truly clear that the lesson God wants us to take from the death and sacrifice of Jesus is that we must participate in his way of salvation—dying to sin and living for God. Consider how Jesus develops the exhortation he wants his followers to take from his death on the cross.
Jesus doesn’t link his death on the cross with “sinners deserve to die,” but instead makes the connection that his followers must take up their own cross daily and follow him. This directive isn’t about our physical death but rather about us actively putting our flesh to death daily, a spiritual death to sin, fighting the devil inside us, and living for God.
Jesus didn’t go through his life of obedience to God by putting the devil in himself to death to show sinners they deserve to die, but instead, he was trying to show sinners how to live as children of God!
As a community, we have spent too much time dwelling on the punishment we deserve, to the detriment of focusing on the new lives we should live as God grows His eternal way of life in us. Consider the words of Peter when he explains what the death of Jesus is supposed to mean to us:
Peter doesn’t mention anything about Jesus showing us the punishment sinners deserve. Rather, he points out Jesus went through all that suffering to leave us an example so we would follow in his steps by trying to put sin to death ourselves, just like Jesus did all through his trial and crucifixion. You see, the death of Jesus wasn’t really so much about his physical death as it was more about a public demonstration of his entire life of resisting the devil in himself and doing the will of God. God wants us to participate in that way of life.
So often at baptisms, we read Romans 6 because Paul says we are baptized into Christ’s death. Thankfully, we get Paul’s explanation of what the death of Jesus should mean to us. He points out that we cannot abuse God’s gift of grace by continuing to live a life serving sin because “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (v. 2).
Paul reminds us that when we were baptized, we were baptized into the death of Jesus, his death to sin. This thought should cause us to “walk in newness of life.” The only punishment going on here is that we should punish sin by putting it to death like Jesus did!
Paul goes on to say,
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing [destroyed, RSV] so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. (Rom 6:6).
Paul’s exhortation to us about the death of Jesus isn’t that we deserve to die; that’s a passive application that doesn’t require us to do anything. Paul wants us to be actively involved in joining Christ in his death to sin by putting sin to death in ourselves. If we missed the point, Paul clearly states,
Paul reminds us when we take bread and wine at memorial service,
He also points out that the lesson of crucifixion was about a way of life when he says:
When Paul wrote to the Philippians, he explained,
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” (Phil 3:8-10).
Paul clearly understood that the death of Christ illustrated a way of life associated with righteousness from God that depends on living by faith. He never mentions anything about some punishment that Jesus went through for us or demonstrated for us. Paul always refers to Christ’s death positively, calling us to participate by sharing his sufferings and becoming like him in his death.
In writing to the Galatians, Paul declared our responsibility to participate if we belong to Christ Jesus:
In Romans 12, after eleven chapters where Paul clearly explained God’s atonement without any mention of Old Testament rituals and sacrifices or even any reference to our internal devil, Paul finally declares:
It’s a “living sacrifice” because we continue to live while putting sin to death. Like Jesus, our minds are transformed to do the will of God.
New Testament writers and Jesus himself link his death to motivating us to participate with Jesus in his death to sin by resisting sin and living for God. It was all positive instruction about how Christ’s followers should live as children of God. Thankfully, God has given us these New Testament commentaries to clarify what the Old Testament types should teach. We really can’t argue with the New Testament writers! Why, then, did so many people misunderstand animal sacrifices?
Possibly because we are so biased to look for lessons about God wanting to punish sinners instead of realizing that God was trying to explain how to change our lives to live like His children so He could invite us into His family forever. We tend to focus on the negative lessons rather than the positives. This concept was the standard way Christians misunderstood God for hundreds of years, and they may have influenced us.
So now look back at animal sacrifices in the Old Testament. Who did the animal “without blemish” (Exod 12:5; Lev 1:3) represent? The sinner or God’s Messiah? Most of us would agree it was Messiah, God’s Son. He would be perfect, without sin. Then, when you lay your “hand on the head of the burnt offering” (Lev 1:4), it is an opportunity to identify with Messiah, connect with him, and indicate you want to live his unblemished way of life while at the same time recognizing your daily failures.
God then wanted you to “kill the bull before the LORD” (v. 5), hoping you would commit to joining with the Messiah in his death to sin. Making his unblemished life your aim. None of this was supposed to be about punishment, but rather an effective way of illustrating how God’s Son would live by putting sin to death. It also permits the worshipper to commit to joining Messiah in a death to sin! God used this ritual procedure as the basis to “make atonement for him.”
It was a ritual opportunity to identify with and participate in God’s method of salvation, as illustrated in His Messiah. If God were trying to teach a lesson about the punishment sinners deserve, then the animal would have represented the sinner, not God’s Son.
Further, God would have had the priest kill the animal as a judgment from Him and pour out the blood. Instead, God wanted the offeror to participate in the death because it represented death to sin. God was trying to teach His children how to live, not how He wanted to punish them.
The classic mistake in understanding animal sacrifice is to stop with the death of the animal without considering the rest of the sacrifice. Don’t forget that the blood was sprinkled against the altar, reminding us that all lives belong to God, including God’s own Son. As Jesus said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:24).
The animal was laid out bare on the altar. It was “naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Heb 4:13). Finally, it was burned in the fiery trials and sufferings of this life that refine our characters, so we conform to the image of Christ. Then it could ascend into the presence of God “as a pleasing aroma.” (Exod 29:25).
God wanted His children to understand that He could change their lives if they would identify with His Messiah, join him in his death to sin, and be found “in him.” Then God would forgive their sins, and they could eventually enter into the presence of God Himself as a pleasing aroma.
They needed to participate by joining Christ in his death to sin and striving to obey their loving Father in heaven, doing His will. What an awesome hope, illustrated through animal sacrifice, pointing forward to the life, death, and resurrection of God’s Son and all those who would be saved through him!
That’s a whole different way of looking at animal sacrifice versus substitution or as a punishment sinners deserve. God intended it to be an active training session to teach His children how to live as they identified with the life of the Messiah. As the Israelites lost track of the true meaning of animal sacrifice and turned to punishment and substitution theories, no wonder they got tired of performing sacrifices.
If they had truly understood what God was trying to teach, they would have continued to look forward to and enjoy the worship, much like we do today at our Breaking of Bread services. We know we need constant reminders to participate in God’s redemptive plan and thank God for His grace and mercy.
So when you remember the sacrifice of Jesus Christ in bread and wine at memorial service, which death are you there to remember? A passive one that speaks to you deserving to die for your sins, or an active one, where you are thankful for what God has done for you, realizing that you promised to die with Christ to sin when you were baptized. You re-commit to participate in Christ’s death by joining his war against sin, “becoming like him in his death.” (Phil 3:10). Think about it! Which one has the power to change your life?
It’s wonderful how Jude blends God’s intent with animal sacrifice to motivate us to identify with Messiah’s way of life and the power of God to change us and forgive our sins so we can ascend into His presence, rejoicing. He concludes his letter with:
Hopefully, the five articles in this series have helped us get to know our God and Jesus, His Son. We hope it will help us all to live more like our Lord Jesus Christ. Being called into God’s family is a great privilege, something we could never deserve.
We must be thankful for this every day and not waste our opportunities. How extraordinary is the grace and mercy of our heavenly Father that He doesn’t want to punish us for our sins but is willing to send His angels to train us so we can learn to live like Him, like His eternal life?
Although He may seem distant and so awesome at times, He invites us to talk to Him always and let Him know our fears, anxieties, and needs because He wants to respond if it can fit into His plan. Now we know that from the beginning, since sin entered into this world, He has done everything He can to motivate us to participate in His plan of redemption, even to the point of the torture and death of His Son. This example illustrates to us how His children are to live. “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor 15:57).
Sue and Jim Styles,
Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA
All Scriptural citations are taken from the English Standard Version, unless specifically noted.