Biblical Worship 2: Sacrifice

In the first post in this series, we talked a little about paradise and how God has purposed from the beginning to create a place for man to have fellowship with him. The Garden of Eden (paradise) was more than a garden, it was a beautiful nature-sanctuary where God and man could walk together in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8). But this paradise was to be (tragically) short-lived.

Of course we know the story, that the Serpent deceived the woman and our first parents’ choice to disobey God caused the major rift in our relationship with our Creator called sin. They were subsequently cursed to endure all kinds of pain and hardships in life and banished from the perfect paradise of the garden. Their banishment meant not only the loss of a perfect environment in which to live and thrive, but more seriously the separation from the presence of God.

But there is one detail that we may overlook in the Genesis narrative. Because of sin, there was a gap between man and God that was impossible to ignore. God in his holiness cannot simply excuse or ignore sin. Someone (or some thing) must pay the penalty. Enter sacrifice:

“And the LORD God made for Adam and his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” (Gen. 3:21)

Immediately following Adam and Eve’s sin, we see God’s mercy in supplying for them a covering for their sin. In order for them to have this covering, an innocent animal had to die. God was angry (rightly so) at their disobedience, but don’t let that fact overshadow his love seen in the first sacrifice recorded in scripture.

Of course the concept of sacrifice becomes very familiar to the descendants of Adam. From Abel to Noah to Abraham we see worship being connected with sacrifice (burnt offerings). God’s instructions given through Moses for how he was to be worshiped involved an incredibly complex milieu of ceremonial sacrifices. It is difficult to imagine the bloody scene at the temple when an entire population brought sacrifices to God in order to make covering for their sins. As disturbing as this visual would be, it was undoubtedly very clear to God’s people that their privilege to worship was costly.

The word used in much of the Old Testament for the sacrifice is atonement. If you look up this word in the dictionary you will probably find something like “reparation for wrong or injury (or sin).” Atonement is required to repair what has been broken in our relationship with God through sin. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). If humans were to receive this just wage any time sin occurred, not many people would live to a ripe old age. So you can see how the system of killing animals is a desirable alternative…

But, lest we write off these rather unsettling and gory details as ancient and forgotten customs, we should look closely at why it matters to us. Even though it’s not very likely that slaughtering animals would bring people flocking to any church (sorry for the pun), sacrifice is still extremely important for us today. Sacrifice is what makes our worship possible today, even if there are no bloody bulls involved. It is against the backdrop of sacrifice that we hear the words of John the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29) The people in Jesus’ day would have understood this as a direct reference to sacrifice, but it still would have boggled their minds. How can a man be the sacrificial lamb?

Hebrews 10 tells us that Christ’s sacrifice, one that is far greater than the sacrifice of any animal, is what makes it possible for us to draw near to the throne of grace:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. (Hebrews 10:19-23)

Sin makes sacrifice a requirement for us to draw near to God, but just as in the Garden God has made that sacrifice for us and provided a covering for our sin. He has done that through Jesus Christ and the blood that he shed which covers us once and for all and makes us pure. Because of this sacrifice we have access to bring to God our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving and be accepted. Thanks be to God!

“There is a fountain filled with blood

Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins

And sinners plunged beneath the flood

Lose all their guilty stains.”

William Cowper