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Such a Sacrifice

by Tim O'Hearn

That was a real sacrifice. How I sacrifice for my kids. You have to sacrifice for your art. Think of the sacrifices he made to get to the Olympics. We hear statements like these and get the impression that a sacrifice is something harsh or difficult. Yet when we look at biblical sacrifice we may find exactly the opposite.

The English word "sacrifice" has the same root as "sacred", and originally meant that which makes one holy. The Hebrew word, "korban", is from a root that carries the meaning of closeness. Thus a sacrifice, rather than that implied in the quotes above, is something designed to bring us closer to God and his holiness. This is a good and pleasant thing. We are separated from God. We want to return to God; to be closer to Him. We gladly bring a sacrifice to get us into that position.

Admittedly, sometimes it is difficult to bring a sacrifice. This is not because we don't want to bring it, but sometimes because of the cost. Yet God did not want sacrifices that were so costly that they put the giver into a difficult situation. Sometimes He decreed different sacrifices based on the financial ability of the individual. Such was the case for the "trespass offering" in Leviticus 5:6-7:

And he shall bring his trespass offering unto the LORD for his sin which he hath sinned, a female from the flock, a lamb or a kid of the goats, for a sin offering; and the priest shall make an atonement for him concerning his sin. And if he be not able to bring a lamb, then he shall bring for his trespass, which he hath committed, two turtledoves, or two young pigeons, unto the LORD; one for a sin offering, and the other for a burnt offering.

Sometimes we think of the place of sacrifice, if we think of the Temple at all, as a solemn place, filled with the smell of blood and the sound of animals being slaughtered. The courtyard of the Temple, actually, was a busy place resembling a small town. Rather than the smell of blood, the predominant smells were probably cooking meat and baking bread. Instead of the butcher shop it more resembled a restaurant row. While the beef and lamb cooked on the altar, and the meal offerings baked alongside it, those whose offerings had already been made sat in an area off to one side, talking and eating the tasty foods that had been offered on their behalf. In another area tables were set up for the portion that was to go to the Levites, and they could be seen coming and going with their families as their duties allowed. The noise of sheep, goats, and calves separated from their mothers was no doubt significant. But over all that came the sounds of the priestly chorus, singing the psalms, sometimes accompanied by musicians on stringed instruments or the shofar, the ram's horn trumpet. The laments of those bringing a sin offering met their counterpoint in others rejoicing because God was merciful and gracious. The daily clothing of the worshippers was in contrast to the fancy, almost festive, garments of the priests, and particularly the high priest. The Temple was a place full of sights, sounds, smells, and tastes to make the sacrifice as pleasant as possible. Rabbi Dovid Green points out, "On that stage, in costumes unrivaled, and with drama real as life itself the Jewish soul learned to laugh and cry to sing and sigh its way back a state of wholeness."

That is what sacrifice is for; to bring us back to a "state of wholeness." Without God we are incomplete. "And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." (Gen 2:7) Of all the creation, only in the case of man do we find God breathing himself into the creation. Although we still breathe, we are separated from God by sin (Isa 59:2). We are no longer whole. We need something or someone to bring us back to wholeness with God.

We offer sacrifices

Although there is no longer a Temple and the sacrifices of animals and grain are no longer presented to the Levites, even we still have sacrifices to offer to God. They are not costly, or even difficult to bring. Nor do we bring the sacrifices to a priest to offer. As priests, we offer our own sacrifices for ourselves. "Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ." (1 Pet 2:5)

Among the sacrifices we can offer we find doing good for others. "But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased." (Heb. 13:16) Paul spoke of God's pleasure in what others had done for him. "But I have all, and abound: I am full, having received of Epaphroditus the things which were sent from you, an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, wellpleasing to God." (Phil. 4:18)

We daily have the opportunity to offer other sacrifices. These are of little real cost to us, but are of great value in the eyes of God. Too often, though, we forget these sacrifices: prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. "The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD: but the prayer of the upright is his delight." (Prov. 15:8) "By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name." (Heb. 13:15) "I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the LORD. (Psa. 116:17) Perhaps it is because we think of sacrifice as something difficult that we forget to offer these easiest of sacrifices.

More than anything, though, God has always wanted men to bring breathing sacrifices, the offering of life. This wish has continued even to our time. David said that our heart was of supreme importance. "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (Psa. 51:17) God wants a broken heart, but not a dead one. Instead he wants our sacrifice to be an ever-living one, not one that dies upon the altar. "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. (Rom. 12:1)

All of these are sacrifices in the sense of offerings that will bring us closer to God. None of these, in themselves, will make us holy. For that God required a sacrifice of blood. For that sacrifice God served as the High Priest to bring the blood of atonement into the Holy of Holies.

The best and last sacrifice

"And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour."(Eph 5:2) With these words Paul introduces the sacrifice that makes us holy. In this case it cost dearly. God gave of Himself, because nothing else was of sufficient value or purity, in order to show man how much He valued man and desired his purity. The sacrifices of prayer and good works bring us closer to God, but it is only through God's grace and justice in Jesus Christ that we can be made holy.

The writer of the book of Hebrews spends a significant portion of that letter showing that Jesus is the best and the last sacrifice for sin. Best because he was the sinless Son of God. Last because there is no longer need for another.

But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Heb 9:11-14)

Jesus is a better sacrifice for sin. The older sacrifices were good and effective, but they were of limited effect. They consisted of the blood of innocent animals; his consisted of his own blood. They purified the flesh; he purified the conscience.

Of equal importance, the former sacrifices were offered yearly; Jesus offered himself once and that was sufficient. "And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified." (Heb 10:11-14) The previous offerings had to be repeated yearly, reminding the people yearly of sin. Jesus gave himself once, and needs not repeat that sacrifice.

Since Jesus gave himself to purge our consciences from sin, we have at least three obligations in response. One of those obligations is to offer our own sacrifices of good works and prayer. A second, and sometimes neglected response is to allow our consciences to be purged of sin-to forget those sins that have been forgiven, in ourselves and in others. A third obligation is to not add unnecessarily to the sins for which Jesus gave himself. "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?" (Rom 6:1-2)