Burnt offerings were presented to God long before the Levitical economy, by Noah, Gen. 8. 20, by Abraham, Gen. 22. 2, and by Job, Job 1. 5. They were offered also by the heathen to their gods, for example, by the king of Moab, 2 Kings 3. 27., and by Balak, Num. 23. 3. The main conception in a burnt offering is that there is someone above, whom the offerer wished to propitiate. The essential meaning of the Hebrew word ‘olah is that of something ascending.
In Scripture, the term burnt offering is used of (i) any animal sacrificed and burned with fire to cause a savour to ascend to God, and (ii) the specific Levitical offering prescribed by God to indicate how the Israelite should approach Him in worship. This study has to do exclusively with this latter use. These offerings were not intended to be mainly for expiation. Other offerings dealt with the sins of the Israelite, this one more with his approach to God in worship. The Levitical burnt offering is divided into two groups, (i) the statutory burnt offerings – laid down as obligatory by God, and (ii) voluntary burnt offerings – offered by individuals over and above the statutory offerings.
God ordained that these should be offered on many and varied occasions. The nature and number of animals were specified, differing with the time and the purpose for which they were offered. A burnt offering was offered twice every day, one lamb each morning and evening; this was called the continual burnt offering, Exod. 29. 42. It was basic, and had to be offered apart from any other special or voluntary offering. The fire of this continual burnt offering was always kept burning, the ashes being cleared away each morning. The evening burnt offering was on the fire all night. Every morning the fire was replenished with wood in preparation for the day’s offerings.
Each Sabbath, two lambs were offered for ‘the burnt offering of every sabbath’, Num. 28. 9-10. On the first day of each month a special burnt offering was presented, consisting of two young bullocks, one ram and seven lambs, Num. 28. 11. The seven annual feasts of Jehovah each had its quota of burnt offerings: (i) on the Passover many oxen were sacrificed, 2 Chron. 30. 24, (ii) on each of the seven days of the feast of unleavened bread two bullocks, one ram and seven lambs were offered, Num. 28. 24, (iii) on the feast of firstfruits one he-lamb, Lev. 23. 12, (iv) on the feast of Pentecost one young bullock, two rams and seven lambs, Lev. 23. 18, (v) on the feast of trumpets one bullock, one ram and seven lambs, Num. 29. 2, (vi) for the day of atonement two burnt offerings were commanded, one for Aaron and one for the people. Lev. 16. 24, and (vii) during the feast of tabernacles a different-sized burnt offering was prescribed for each of the eight days of the feast, Num. 29. 13 ff.
Burnt offerings also formed part of the ritual of many other functions of the Levitical economy; for example, (i) the consecration of the priests, Lev. 8. 18, of the people, Lev. 9. 2, and of the Levites, Num. 8. 12, (ii) at the dedication of the altar, Num. 7. 87, and of the temple, 1 Kings 8. 64, (iii) as part of the cleansing rites of the parturient woman. Lev. 12. 6, of the leper, Lev. 14. 19, of the person with an issue. Lev. 15. 15, of the defiled Nazarite, Num. 6.11, and (iv) on the completion of a vow, Num. 13. 3 R.V., or of a Nazarite separation, 6. 14.
These statutory burnt offerings were given by God to Israel to enable them to keep in contact with Him. He wanted them ever to seek His habitation, Exod. 29. 42. They were a constant reminder to His people that God was over all in heaven; that ‘he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him’, Heb. 11. 6. To God they presented a sweet savour of rest; He found satisfaction in them as a source of delight.
In them, God sets forth His desire for the believer to be continually drawing near to Him in worship. The Lord taught that men ought always to pray. Paul’s theme so often was ‘continue instant in prayer’. Like the burnt offerings in the set feasts, God in His wisdom has given us the Lord’s supper as a recurring reminder to approach His presence, there to make much of His Son. We then present the Lord Jesus Christ as our burnt offering, seeing in Him the One whose offering makes us acceptable to God; whose blood has cleansed us and made us fit to be in God’s presence; whose perfections the Father delights to hear mentioned as on each occasion we proclaim the Lord’s death.
In addition to the statutory burnt offerings, God ordained that an individual Israelite could of his own free will present a burnt offering. Lev. 1. 2 ff; 22. 18. The ceremonial law prescribed what should be offered on such an occasion, and how it had to be presented. The choice of the oblation was fourfold, and was left to the offerer, according to his appreciation or to his ability to provide. The offering must be valuable; he may not offer what had cost him nothing, 2 Sam. 24. 24. He could bring either a bullock, a lamb or a goat – these were animals of value to a rich man. But provision was also made for the poor man in that a turtle-dove or a pigeon would be accepted. A high standard of perfection was ever demanded in the animal chosen; it had to be a male without blemish – God would accept only the best, Mal. 1.8.
This offering indicated a desire of the Israelite to approach God, to acknowledge full dependence upon Him, and to express just how much he appreciated God – the greater his offering, the greater his appreciation. It was an expression of the worship of his heart. The animal was accepted for him, Lev. 1. 4; it represented the consecration and self-surrender of the whole man to God. As a result, the man was accepted by God, although it could never be a substitute for obedience to God, 1 Sam. 15. 22, neither could it take the place of a broken contrite heart, Ps. 51. 16-17.
The ritual of the burnt offering followed a very clearly prescribed pattern. Set out as for a voluntary burnt offering in Leviticus 1, this pattern possibly applied very largely to the statutory offerings also.
First, the animal had to be presented at the door of the tabernacle, at which stood the brazen altar upon which alone the offering had to be burned, Lev. 17. 8-9; no other altar would suffice. It is significant to notice that the brazen altar was sometimes called the ‘place of the burnt offering’, 4. 29. The offerer laid (fit., leaned) his hand on the head of the offering, thereby to acknowledge his identification with, and dependence upon it. In offering the animal, he offered himself to God. He depended upon its acceptance by God, that with it an atonement might be made for him.
Secondly, the offerer killed the animal and shed its blood, which the priest took and sprinkled round about upon the brazen altar. The sprinkling of the blood signified that the life had been given to God, and thus atonement was made for the offerer. The Hebrew word translated atonement means ‘to cover’. The Greek word in the Septuagint implies that God is graciously disposed towards the offerer. Thus when the burnt offering was slain, its blood on the altar covered that which caused displeasure to God. Some have differentiated between the atonement of the burnt offering and that of the sin offering, in that the former had to do with the wrong thoughts or designs of the Israelite, and the latter with his wrong acts.
Thirdly, the offerer prepared the carcase of the animal for the altar. He removed the skin, the only part which was not burnt, and which became the property of the priest, 7. 8. Next he cut the flesh of the animal into suitable pieces; these the priest placed on the altar, after the inwards and legs had been washed with water so that nothing unclean would be attached to the offering. Then all was burned on the altar by the priest. The word ‘burn’ here implies ‘to emit fragrance’; it was for God. This word is always used for burning on the brazen altar, and is different from that used for burning the sin offering outside the camp, 4. 12, where it means simply to set on fire. In some offerings the offerer and the priest shared a part, but in the burnt offering all went to God; the sacrifice was wholly burnt as a sweet savour to God.
Provision was also made for an offerer who by reason of poverty could only bring a dove or a pigeon. As in the case of an animal, he presented the bird to God, but to the priest was given the task of killing it. This he did by wringing off the head, and placing it on the altar. The blood was drained out at the side of the altar, thereby to make atonement. It is not clear why God ordained that the priest kill the bird instead of the offerer, except that the quantity of blood would be too small to be caught in a bowl. The crop and the ‘filth thereof’, Lev. 1.16 R.V., were discarded, corresponding to the washing of the inwards and legs of the animal. The wings were pulled apart, but not separated from the body of the bird; this exposed all the parts equally. Then the whole was burned on the altar, causing a sweet savour to ascend to God.
The burnt offering had to be accompanied by a meat and a drink offering, but the size of these subsidiary offerings varied with the animal presented as a burnt offering, Num. 15. 3-12. Also trumpets were sounded over the burnt offerings sacrificed at the set feasts, and at the beginning of the months, 10. 10.
Three main features are evident in this ritual: (i) the offering, Lev. 1. 3 – for the offerer’s acceptance with God;, (ii) the killing, v. 5 – for the offerer’s atonement before God, (iii) the burning, v. 9 – for the offerer’s adoration of God. These facts teach us that the burnt offering, to the Israelite, was essentially an act of worship. This was the method by which he could approach God, expressing his total indebtedness to Him and his dependence upon Him.
The Israelitish offerer portrays the believer today in his desire to approach unto God; by faith, he presents the Lord Jesus Christ as a burnt offering. In His sojourn on earth, the Lord showed His suitability, for He was sinless and without blemish; He is accepted by God, for in Him was the Father’s delight as One ever doing the will of God. The different animals offered under the Levitical economy suggest different appreciations of Christ. Even the least instructed believer -one young in the faith – can offer his dove-like appreciation of Him. Mature believers – those well instructed in the Word – present Him in the magnitude of His perfection as represented by the bullock.
The believer is now accepted by God in all the acceptability of Christ; ‘he hath made us accepted in the beloved’, Eph. 1. 6; ‘we are in him that is true’, 1 John 5. 20. In the will of God ‘we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all’, Heb. 10. 10. But as in the case of the Israelite, he cannot approach God unless conscious of a wholehearted obedience to Him – in brokenness and contrition of spirit, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and disputing, 1 Tim. 2. 8 R.V.
The removal of the skin and the cutting of the animal into pieces typify the display of the secret perfections of Christ’s inner life.
The work of the priest in connection with the burnt offering sets forth the work of the Lord Jesus Christ as our Great High Priest. He ‘pleads the merit of His precious blood’. Fire is emblematic of the Holy Spirit, Acts 2. 3; by the Spirit He displayed before God and demonstrated to the believer His manifold perfections as evoked by His experience on Calvary.
The death of Christ, too, forms the basis of the believer’s approach to God. He has ‘boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus’, Heb. 10. 19; ‘now in Christ Jesus we who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ’, Eph. 2. 13. In the consecration of the priests, Exod. 29. 21, atonement was made by the blood of the burnt offering being sprinkled on them, covering the displeasure that their evil minds had caused God. In like manner, the believer’s heart has been sprinkled from an evil conscience by the blood of Christ, fitting him to draw near to God, Heb. 10. 22.
On the cross, we see Christ’s perfections displayed before God for His appreciation; let us look at some of these. There we see His love, which ‘to the utmost was tried, but firmly endured as a rock’; His obedience to the Father’s will; His grace in humbling Himself to ‘death, even the death of the cross’; His determination to carry out God’s great plan; His ability to accomplish this task, to endure the cross, to bear the curse; His delight to provide salvation for man; His desire to glorify the Father. All these, and more, the fires of Calvary accentuated, and caused God to appreciate them in wondrous profusion.
How willingly then God accepts into His presence the believer who presents such an offering! By faith we approach God now in the name of Christ; in a future day we shall stand before God in reality, in virtue of what Christ is and what He has wrought.
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