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Friday, March 14, 2014

The Purpose of the Sacrifices [Part 4]

Continuing an examination of the sacrifices of the Old Testament. We started with what the sacrifices WERE NOT.

In my last post I pointed out what should be obvious to any evangelical Christian or cursory reader of the book of Hebrews: that the Old Testament sacrificial system neither disposed once-and-for-all with the question of sin from God’s perspective, nor did it clear the conscience of the worshippers.

So what WERE the sacrifices for then?

1. The upkeep of the priesthood

To say that sacrifices are “for” the upkeep of the priests is to sort of beg a major question. I mean, it would be silly to initiate a system of sacrifice for the sole purpose of taking care of those who serve in it, wouldn’t it? It would be like starting a business for the sole purpose of paying the employees.

So perhaps this is not so much a “purpose” of the sacrifices as a practical, well-designed benefit of the sacrificial system.

We may forget that, to those who do not read the Old Testament regularly, the sacrifices may appear to be nothing more than a spectacular waste of useful livestock. What may not be instantly recognized is that, with a few specific and carefully noted exceptions, the vast majority of offerings and sacrifices were designated as the daily food of the priests and the rest of the tribe of Levi who assisted in the service of the tabernacle.

There was nothing wasteful about the sacrifices God instituted. 

Though, frankly, this is the service of God we are talking about. If God, hypothetically, commanded his people to incinerate all their livestock in one fell swoop on a bonfire the size of an airport parking lot, who are we to complain? He is God, after all. What is the concept of “waste” in importance, really, compared to the imperative of worshipping God? This sort of unspiritual thinking was what prompted the disciples to complain about “waste” when a woman anointed the Saviour’s head with expensive ointment, and what prompted Judas to betray him.

God is God, and is not to be judged by our mortal standards if we are wise. He is beyond our reason, but he is never unreasonable, which is why Abraham could declare “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?”

The answer is a resounding “Of course!”

That said, there really was a very practical side to the sacrifices. God, though everything belongs to him, actually asked for very little from Israel. Most of what he instructed them to give him actually benefited and provided for their own Jewish brothers. So animals that would have been killed and eaten in the ordinary course of life now served a practical secondary purpose in addition to the spiritual purpose of making atonement for the Israelite who offered them: They allowed the priests and their assistants to remain entirely devoted to the work of God without having to worry about where their next meal was coming from.

The “holy things”, the offerings by fire, apart from the portion designated for God on the altar, were for the priests, the Levites who assisted, and their entire households, including any servants they might have.
“The Levitical priests, all the tribe of Levi, shall have no portion or inheritance with Israel. They shall eat the Lord’s food offerings as their inheritance. They shall have no inheritance among their brothers; the Lord is their inheritance, as he promised them.”
The only restriction on the consumption of the offerings was that they were not, under any circumstances, to be eaten by “laymen”.

Just as today, if we send a gift to a missionary or other servant of God, we may quite legitimately say we are “giving to the Lord”, so in Israel, giving to Jehovah, in most cases, effectively meant supporting the priesthood he had instituted.

In the book of Nehemiah, reforms were necessary because the service of the temple had fallen into disarray. Nehemiah discovered that the Levites and temple singers who did the work were not receiving the portions of the offerings designated to them under the Law. Seeing this, the people had quite rightly stopped giving. Until Nehemiah restored things to the way God had originally intended, the temple service was rendered dysfunctional.

Those who serve the Lord full time today are in the same position as the priests and Levites of Israel in terms of being dependent on the spiritual offerings and sacrifices of the people of God. While we do not tithe today, as Israel did, and while God will always take care of his own servants regardless of the dysfunctionality and decline of churches and the disinterest of Christians, our ability to fellowship with the Lord, enjoy his spiritual blessings and the rewards of giving to him can be significantly curtailed by failure to take care of his servants.

It is worth remembering that giving to those who serve the Lord is giving to him

Next: More on what the sacrifices WERE for

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