In a world that doubts God’s goodness, Christ’s sacrifice stands as the historic proof of divine love, grace, and righteousness. His propitiatory death undergirds the believer’s justification, sanctification, and eventual glorification. It also manifests the appointed way of salvation by grace through faith, thereby rejecting mankind’s meritorious schemes of salvation. It reveals the truth about God: He is incomparably holy and loving. It also exposes humans as utterly lost without His intervening deliverance. God demonstrated His love for humanity and His commitment to justice by sending His Son to the cross, Rom. 3. 23-26; 5. 8. A preacher once declared, ‘In the cross of Christ I see the love of God working out through passion and power for the redemption of man. In the cross I see the light of God refusing to make any terms with iniquity and sin and evil. The cross is the historic revelation of the abiding facts within the heart of God’.1 To understand both God and man, therefore, one must grasp the significance of Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary.
Humanity’s desperate condition is graphically portrayed in the Old Testament sacrifices. Sin’s entrance into the world was met by divine judgement and later by grace. After exposing their sin and bringing them to confess it, God pronounced judgement on Adam and Eve; the penalty was spiritual and physical death. Afterwards, He provided them with skins to cover their shame. These clothes imply animal death; the beginning of bloodshed to atone for sinners. Chafer remarks, ‘Few types are as complete as this. God undertakes for man; the imputation of sin to a substitute is implied; and the covering of the sinner is revealed’.2 Sin is so costly that it brings about the slaying of a sacrificial victim. The penalty must be carried out on a substitute before humans could come near their holy Creator.
Cain and Abel were taught to come near God with an offering, Gen. 4; Hebrews chapter 11 affirms that Abel offered a sacrifice of the flock ‘by faith’, v. 4. Since faith is a response to revelation, this suggests that they were instructed in the proper approach to their Maker. Noah, Abraham, and the patriarchs continued to draw near with burnt offerings, Gen. 8. 20, 21; 12. 7.
Sacrificing an unblemished lamb was central to Passover, Exod. 12. 1-13. After the exodus, Israelite lives revolved around bringing the prescribed sacrifices for worship, thanksgiving, and atonement. Leviticus chapters 1 to 7 spell out the five major categories of offering: 1. the burnt offering; 2. the grain offering (also known as the meal or meat offering); 3. the peace offering; 4. the sin offering; 5. the trespass offering. The Israelites were repeatedly reminded of sin’s high cost by the ritual slaughtering of birds, bulls, sheep, and goats.
The burnt offering showed the divine requirement of the totality of the sacrifice. He wants us to love Him with all our heart, soul, and mind, Matt. 22. 37. The bloodless grain/meal offering demonstrates the purity of life that He requires. The peace offering brings God and the offeror together in reconciled communion. The sin and trespass offerings were similar, with the latter emphasizing restitution. As Wiersbe explains, ‘The trespass offering emphasized the damage done to others by the offender, while the sin offering emphasized the offender’s guilt before God’.3 Gooding asserts that these offerings collectively show the Most High’s holy requirements, as well as demonstrating the comprehensive nature of Christ’s person and redemptive work, saying, ‘The very fact that God provided a number of different sacrifices with different characteristics for the ancient Hebrews shows the wealth that there is in our blessed Lord – that it takes all these prefigurements, pictures and prototypes to adequately illustrate his ministry, person and sacrifice’.4
Despite the ubiquitous offerings in Israelite life, they often hardened their hearts against God; they did not use the rituals for their intended spiritual purposes. In the eighth century BC, for example, the Almighty complained concerning them, ‘To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood’, Isa. 1. 11-15. He expressed similar disdain through the later prophet Malachi, Mal. 1. 7, 8. Israel went through the motions without displaying true faith.
The New Testament’s first mention of sacrifices is a negative citation of first-century Judaism’s empty practices, Matt. 9. 13, showing that the Jews were of the same stripe as those faced by the former dispensation’s prophets. They missed the point of the sacrifices, and thought that their conformity to ceremonial statutes would curry favour with God. Despite their blindness, the Lord Jesus proceeded to fulfil all the Old Testament types, prophecies, and shadows. The forerunner, John the Baptist, marked Him out as ‘the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world’, John 1. 29. He was the true Passover who died as a sacrifice for sin, 1 Cor. 5. 6-8. Hebrews chapter 10 verses 5 to 7 contrast His death with those of the Old Testament victims, ‘Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me: in burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure. Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy will, O God’.
In contrast with Judaism’s offerings, His sacrifice was:
Just as the Passover lamb was ceremonially unblemished, even so Christ was morally perfect. He was absolutely impeccable in His Father’s eyes in life and death. Yet as the substitute, He became ‘sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him’, 2 Cor. 5. 21.
The Lord Jesus presented Himself as an offering that only He could give. Psalm 49 says, ‘None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him: (For the redemption of their soul is precious, and it ceaseth for ever:)’, vv. 7, 8. But the Son of God, uniquely uniting full deity and perfect humanity, could offer a sacrifice of infinite worth that paid for human sins.
Christ is the true Boaz, Ruth 3. 18, a strong kinsman-redeemer who restores what He did not steal, Ps. 69. 4, and pays the debts of humanity. Only the Son of God could offer the satisfactory payment for sin; only He could become the propitiation for the sins of the world, 1 John 2. 2. No one else could accurately say, ‘I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do’, John 17. 4, or, ‘It is finished’, 19. 30. Hebrews chapter 10 verses 11 to 14 confirm the completion of His sacrificial work, in contrast to the Old Testament system, ‘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 forever, 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’.
Christ’s sacrifice fulfilled the typical teaching of the Old Testament offerings. His life was given sacrificially for God’s glory and man’s eternal good, and it reconciled the Creator and His creatures, Col. 1. 21, 22. It robbed death of its sting and enabled God to judge sin justly, while just as righteously justifying sinners who believe in Jesus, Rom. 3. 21-26.
The cumulative effect of His once-for-all sacrifice was to open the way into God’s presence. Gooding joyfully declares, ‘We can now do what Israel’s high priest could never do. He could enter only the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle on earth; every day of our lives we can enter the immediate presence of God in heaven’.5 This access stemming from Christ’s death is expressed in a well-known hymn:
‘Rent the veil that closed the way
To my home of heavenly day,?In the flesh of Christ the Lord,
Ever be His name adored!6
Considering the perfect nature of Christ’s sacrifice, one should worship the triune God who planned and executed salvation’s immense work. Bonar expresses it well, ‘O perfect sacrifice, what is there that a sinner, burdened with guilt, and weary of the evil within him, does not find in Thee? Peace for trouble, liberty for bondage, righteousness for unrighteousness, fulness for emptiness, holiness for pollution, rest for weariness, light for darkness, life for death – all, all in Thee’!7
G. Campbell Morgan, ‘The Purpose of the Advent’, in The Westminster Pulpit, Vol.1, Wipf & Stock, 2012, pg. 323.
L. S. Chafer, ‘Soteriology’, in Bibliotheca Sacra 104.413. Jan. 1947, DTS, 1947, pg. 21.
Warren Wiersbe, Be Holy, ‘Be’ Commentary Series, Victor, 1996, pg. 25 [Italics original]. Another adds: ‘The names of these offerings, guilt-offering (trespass-offering) and sin-offering, are the names of the offences for which they are to atone, ‘?š?m ("guilt") and h.at.t.?’t ("sin")’. R. J. Thompson, ‘Sacrifice in the Old Testament’, New Bible Dictionary, IVP, 1996, pg. 1041.
David Gooding, Prepared For Glory: A Myrtlefield House Transcript, Myrtlefield Trust, 2019, pg. 29.
David Gooding, An Unshakeable Kingdom: The Letter to the Hebrews for Today, Myrtlefield House, 2013, pg. 185.
R. C. Chapman, Hymn: ‘Oh my Saviour Crucified’.
Horatius Bonar, The Christ of God, Robert Carter & Brothers, 1874, pg. 80.