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Monday, March 17, 2014

The Purpose of the Sacrifices [Part 5]

Continuing an examination of the sacrifices of the Old Testament. We started with what the sacrifices WERE NOT and are now examining what they WERE.

In my last post we examined the way in which the sacrifices served the very practical purpose of providing food for God’s servants and their families.

What other purposes did the sacrifices serve?

2. The sacrifices were a reminder of sin

It may seem odd to imagine that the people of God need to be reminded of sin, but that is very much the teaching of the book of Hebrews: “But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year after year.”

In this respect the sacrifices did what the entire Law of Moses was designed to do: Point out failure. Paul says in Romans that “the law came in to increase the trespass”.

Wait, what? Is Paul saying that God desired an increase in sin?

Not at all. Without a law, there is still sin, still iniquity, still hardened hearts and hearts and minds that do not submit, comprehend, worship, thank, appreciate, seek knowledge of God or desire his will. Whatever is not of faith is sin. Whatever is not of God is sin. Sin existed from the fall of man in every single life and every single heart.

What the law increases is not sin in general, but trespass in particular. Trespass is not amorphous, atmospheric, pervasive or merely attitudinal; it is a violation of an established standard — in this case a standard not imposed on the people of Israel, but one that they specifically agreed to. The Law does not increase sin, but it increases the awareness of sin. It turns a wicked, distant, Godless heart — an intangible, invisible problem — into a specific, clear and evident violation that can be recognized and dealt with.

It is a reminder, as the sacrifices were a reminder.

And why a reminder? Because we constantly forget, don’t we. We assess ourselves not by God’s perfect and righteous standard, but by all kinds of other metrics: “I’m not perfect, but I’m a lot better than I was as a teenager”, “Nobody’s perfect”, “To err is human”, “It’s just the way I am”, “At least I’m not like [fill in the blank]”.

We assess our behavior by every standard other than the one that matters. God’s standard is “There is none righteous, no not one”. So a constant reminder is necessary.

But the sacrifices are an exceptionally vivid reminder, aren’t they. Why so much blood? Why all that death?

Possibly because nothing but blood and death could demonstrate the seriousness and genuine horror of sin. Separation from God is not a laughing matter or something to be rationalized away. It is very literally life and death, so much so that nothing but an actual death could demonstrate the extent of God’s hatred of sin, the magnitude of his holiness, the implacable nature of his righteousness and the inevitability of eternal loss for the sinner.

The wages of sin is death, we read. And nothing but a perfect, spotless, sacrificial death could take the issue off the table forever.

The sacrifices of the Law provided a means of atonement, a covering over of sin (the Hebrew word translated “atonement” is kaphar, which means “to cover”), just as after Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden, a covering of skin became necessary, and God himself provided it. God was willing to temporarily overlook sin, provided the sinner was willing to recognize his righteous standard and acknowledge that he had fallen short of it — but only because he planned a permanent solution to the problem of sin from even before the first sin took place, and told us about it in the curse on the serpent, Satan: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

So the sacrifices of animals could not provide permanent relief from the judgement of God. Animals had to replace the sinner, not because they were insignificant to God or unimportant in themselves, but because, having no consciousness of sin themselves, they provide an illustration or picture of innocence.

Only an innocent sacrifice could provide atonement, even of a temporary kind. A guilty sacrifice would have its own sin to give account for, and therefore could not possibly cover over the sin of another. And even the sacrifice of an “innocent” could only delay judgement and temporarily restore fellowship between God and the sinner. The solution was coming. A permanent “covering” was necessary, but would only be provided through the death of Christ.

In the meantime, the people needed a regular reminder of sin. And there is nothing in the world as conducive to clear thinking as the sight of blood. There is nothing like death to jolt us out of our self-indulgent rationalizations and makes us realize we have serious issues to deal with.

Because, too often, we just don’t take sin all that seriously.

Next: More on what the sacrifices WERE for

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