If we want to fully understand Jesus’s sacrifice, we have to look into Leviticus. The substitutionary theory of the atonement is particularly clear in this offering. The New Testament even teaches that Christ became our sin offering. (References: Leviticus 4:1-5:13 and 6:24-30 and Num. 15:1-16)
As I note in many of these posts that touch on the Levitical priesthood and sacrifices, the Spirit-inspired writers of the New Covenant Scriptures (New Testament) encourage us to read the Old Testament, particularly the priesthood and the ministry of the priests, as containing types and shadows of the substance or reality, which is Christ and his heavenly priesthood.
They [priests] serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven (Heb. 8:5)
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. (Heb. 10:1)
Then the author of Hebrews writes many, many verses explaining the realities of the copies and shadows. They are revealed most clearly in Jesus’s sacrifice and his priesthood in the heavenly, eternal sanctuary.
Peter explicitly makes the water of the flood during the time of Noah symbolic:
And this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. (1 Pet. 3:21)
Paul writes that food and festivals are but the shadow, while Christ is the substance:
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Col. 2:16-17)
Even the lives of the people in the OT serve as exemplary warnings for us:
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. (1 Cor. 10:11)
With their permission, so to speak, I apply their typological and symbolic method here.
For a general overview of the interrelations between the Old Sinai Covenant and the New Covenant, click on:
Many (not even close to all) elements are retained, and what is kept is improved on or streamlined.
The NIV is used here, unless otherwise noted. Readers are invited to go to biblegateway.com, choose their own translation, and open another window to follow along.
The writer of Hebrews says:
In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. (Heb. 9:22, NIV)
Where did he get that belief about the blood? Let’s find out in this post.
Let’s use the Question and Answer format for clarity and conciseness.
What does atonement mean?
This area of biblical studies fits under the larger topic of the atonement or the cross, where Jesus sacrificed his life in our place.
Let’s define atonement first. In English the word literally means “at-one-ment,” or reconciliation, being at one with God (the -ment suffix means the “result of”). The Hebrew verb is kapar (used 102 times) and is generally translated as “to atone,” “to wipe clean,” and “to appease.”
In English the word literally means “at-one-ment,” or reconciliation, being at one with God (the -ment suffix means the “result of”). The Hebrew verb is kapar (used 102 times) and is generally translated as “to atone,” “to wipe clean,” and “to appease.” In Gen. 32:20, Jacob sent gifts ahead of him to “wipe” (atone) the anger off his brother Esau’s face. As it turned out, Esau was not angry because time healed his wounds, and he was prosperous. The main point, however, is that sacrifice and gifts atone for or wipe away just wrath. The sacrifice of an animal during the sin offering (Lev. 4:1-5:13), for example, was to atone for the worshiper’s own sins, by blood manipulation primarily. Then God’s judicial wrath would be lifted and he would smile on his people again. Jacob and Esau were reconciled. Either by gift or blood manipulation or handling, God and his people were reconciled.
Jewish commentators on Lev. 4:20 say that a Hebrew verb for “forgive” is salach (pronounced sah-lahkh), and it refers only to God’s forgiveness (Torah, p. 771). The forgiveness of God runs deep in NT Greek, and makes no such distinction in the Greek verb aphiēmi (pronounced ah-fee-ay-mee). Humans have to forgive, as well.
See the post: What Is Biblical Forgiveness?
The NT Greek nouns are hilasmos (used twice) (pronounced hih-lahs-mohss) and hilasterion (also used twice and pronounced hih-lah-stay-ree-own). The first noun appears in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10 and means “an atoning sacrifice, propitiation.” Propitiation means “satisfaction” or “appeasement.” Jesus is the sacrifice that atones for sins. Our sins destroyed and separated us from God, but the sacrifice of Jesus reconciles us to God (1 John 1:6-7).
For more information, please click on this post:
To forestall objections that falsely accuse God of being primitive or petty or a child abuser, please see this post:
What is the purpose of the sin offering?
There are four purposes for the sin offering. (1) to atone or receive forgiveness for sins; (2) to purify or decontaminate or “de-sin”; (3) to purify ceremonial uncleanness, like touching a corpse, or for a woman who recently gave birth (Lev. 12:6-8). (4) The sin offering is even offered up for “hidden” sins (Lev. 5:1-6).
Let’s develop these themes more deeply.
Through the blood manipulation done by an anointed priest during the sin offering, the violator of the law could be forgiven of his sin and the contamination of the tabernacle that his sin caused. Yes, the tabernacle or temple permeates the Old Testament and the New, though the church is the new place where God dwells (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 2 Cor. 6:16; 1 Pet. 2:4-5; Eph. 2:20-21). Jesus fulfills the temple as well, saying his body was the temple (John 1:14; 2:19-21).
In Lev. 4:1-5:13 virtually every paragraph begins or ends with a kind of sin committed: 4:2 (over all), 4:3, 13014, 22-23, 26, 27-28; 5:1, 5-7, 10-11, 13. So this covers the failings of all the entire Israelite community. Jesus’s sacrificial death covers not only the Israelite community, but the sin of the whole world (John 1:29). The noun “sin” in v. 29 is singular, indicating the sin that permeates the soul and humanity was a whole–the sin problem. In 5:11, if a grain offering is presented, it must not have a festive character, so oil and incense are omitted.
The important element of the sin offering was blood manipulation, or how the priest handled the blood with his hands, like splashing or sprinkling it. Other offerings, specifically the burnt offering (Lev. 1:5), the guilt offering (Lev. 7:2), and the fellowship offering (Lev. 3:2, 8, 13), required sprinkled blood, but not nearly as often as the priest handled the blood during the sin offering. This blood manipulation in the sin offering is the central purpose for blood atonement and purification. In the sin offering, when the priest sacrificed for himself or the whole community, he sprinkled blood seven times in the curtain of the sanctuary (Lev. 4:3, 6-7, 17-18). This placement of the blood indicates that no one should go further in God’s holiness without being atoned for by blood. The farther a priest went into the sanctuary, the more glorious was the presence and glory of God was. When a priest sacrificed for for a leader or a commoner, he applied the blood the horns of the burnt altar (Lev. 4:22, 25, 30, 34). Altars speak of total dedication and consecration. This can only be done after the blood is applied.
In all the offerings where the blood is mentioned, the blood connects with Christ’s blood poured out for us and ratifying the New Covenant. Jesus said at the Last Supper, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20, ESV).
Heb. 9:12 says that when Jesus entered the heavenly tabernacle: “He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12). He could sprinkle his own blood in the tabernacle and then on our conscience.
Further, Rev. 6:9 says that saints had been martyred are under the altar in heaven:
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. (Rev. 6:9; see 16:7)
So martyrdom is the ultimate sacrifice. They shed, so to speak, their own blood, if they died by the sword.
Oil: if the worshiper was poor and offered birds, the priest was not to put oil on the sacrifice because it was a sin offering (Lev. 5:11). God does not anoint sin.
See my posts:
Who needed to offer the sin offering?
There are four main classes of people who had to offer the sin offering, who broke any of the Lord’s commands (Lev. 4:2). All of humanity breaks the Lord’s commands in some way, whether the commands in the Law of Moses, the moral law throughout the world and focused in in the Mosaic law and the New Testament.
(1) if the priest sins, he is to make an offering for himself: a young (and expensive) bull without defect outside the tent of meeting (Lev. 4:3-12). The anointed priest can sin and bring guilt on the entire people (v. 3). In contrast, Jesus was without sin (Heb. 4:15).
(2) If the whole Israelite community sins unintentionally, then the community, in its representatives, must offer a young bull without defect outside the tent of meeting (vv. 3-22); One scholar says that the sin here may not mean exclusively “unintentional,” but living in error. The import here is that someone has strayed from the commands of the law by due to temptation (DOTP 719)..
(3) if a tribal leader sins unintentionally, he brings a male goat without defect and slaughters it at the altar of the burnt offering (vv. 22-26).
(4) If a member of the community sins unintentionally, then he is to bring a female goat or a lamb without defect and slaughter it at the place of meeting (vv. 27-35).
(a) If anyone becomes ceremonially unclean or swears a thoughtless oath, he must confess in what way he has sinned and pay a penalty by offering a female lamb or goat for their sins (5:2-6).”I swear I will do such-and-such! But then he omits to do it (Torah p. 775)
(b) If the person in the fourth class of people is poor, then he is to bring in two doves or two young pigeons (vv. 7-10). But if they are too poor even for those animals, then they bring in one tenth of an ephah of finest flour (3 1/2 pounds or 1.6 kilograms) (vv. 11-12).
So in other words, everyone had to bring a sin offering because everyone sins. However, this offering is for unintentional sins, when the person doesn’t realize what he was doing and came to understand later on his moral failure–his failure to keep the law.
It is a psychological benefit to offer people a way to atone for sins and wrongs they may have committed, without their clearly knowing about it. Many times they have a nagging guilt about such things. They need a way of freedom. Christ’s forgiveness is total and complete, even for sins one may not be aware of or one may guess at, but are not sure. Jesus’s blood covers all of them.
On the other side of the moral ledger, if the man had sinned defiantly, then he could possibly be stoned to death or run out (“cut off”) of the community. Jesus’s blood goes further than paying just for unintentional sins. It pays for sins that are intentional or unintentional. If someone intentionally killed or stole and planned it all out, then Jesus can still reach into the jail or prison and forgive him and become his sin offering.
The sin offering acquires forgiveness for hidden sins. If someone does not step forward and reveal what he knows about a case, then he is guilty. He must make the sin offering. In Christ, this speaks of people who have hidden their sins for many years. When they step forward and confess their sins, Jesus will forgive. He even shed his blood for secret sins.
So what does the priest do with the sin offering?
There are different details for the above classes of people, but let’s focus on the first class–the sinning priest. He stands in for the other groups, and his sin works outwardly to the entire community. “He brings guilt upon the people” (Lev. 4:3). When leaders in families or in church families sin, it is very costly for the whole family or community.
When the priest sins, an anointed priest–possibly the high priest, or perhaps another priest–slaughters the animal at the burnt altar, the farthest place away from the Holy of Holies or Most Holy Place. This indicates that a sinner–even a religious sinner–has to repent and be cleansed before intimate fellowship is restored. The nonpriest could go only as far as the bunt altar near the entrance of the tent of meeting. Jesus the great high priest, on the other hand, has gained us access to the very throne of grace (Heb. 4:14-16).
The man who offers it lays his hand on the animal’s head, indicating he identifies with it and it is his ransom. His laying on of one hand does not mean a transfer of sin to the animal, because the blood would become tainted and not be suitable to bring into the tent. Better, the laying on of one hand means that the worshiper identifies with it and dedicates it to the Lord as an acceptable offering, which stands in the worshiper’s place. It is his substitute.
Next, the priest carries some of the blood into the tent of meeting. He dips his finger into the blood and sprinkles some of it seven times. The number seven indicates complete purification. Recall this passage in the NT:
And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God” (Heb. 10:10-12, ESV, emphasis added).
Jesus’s sitting down indicates completed work and authority to rule from strength because of his finished work.
Further, when the priest sprinkles the blood seven times before the Lord in front of the curtain or veil of holy place for himself and the community, this signifies the Lord’s presence is active in the sin offering. The priest was allowed to go that far, while the nonpriest could not. But the priest stands in for the whole community, just as Jesus stands in for the whole world, particularly those who have repented. As noted, those who have repented can follow Jesus into the Holy of Holies or Most Holy Place, where God is, into his very throne room (Heb. 4:14-16). “[H]e entered once for all into the holy places [Holy Place and Most Holy Place], not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12, ESV).
This blood goes into the holy place, where only the priest could go. “The rest of the bull’s blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering at the entrance to the tent of meeting” (v. 18, ESV). This means, possibly, that the blood is poured out completely so the sin offering covers and deal with the sin completely. Christ’s sacrifice does it all. The author of Hebrews says: “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. “Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. 14 For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:13-14).
The priest cuts off the fat and burns it at the burnt offering altar. The fat is the most delicate part of the animal, and it goes to the Lord. The richest part belongs to God. On the other hand, the fat may symbolize the useless parts of the New Covenant believer’s life. God requires it for his purpose. We must shake off what is even lazy and unprofitable for us, and give it to God. he rest of the animal is taken outside the tent and carried to a sacred place and burn all of it. Burning all of an animal speaks of our offering our bodies as living sacrifices, “holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Rom. 12:2).
The fat produced an aroma pleasing to the Lord (Lev. 4:31). Let’s focus on the aroma. More deeply still than the mere animal part, recall this verse: “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). Jesus is the pleasing aroma when God inspects our sacrifice. Jesus stands in for us, and God is pleased with our offering, because of his Son.
In another passage for the sin offering of nonpriests (Lev. 6:25-30), it is to be slaughtered before the Lord in the place of the burnt offering. The priest who offers it shall eat of it in the sanctuary area, in the courtyard of the tent of meeting. It is rendered holy by the ritual. But if the blood of the sin offering is brought into the tent of meeting to make atonement in the Holy Place, the sin offering must not be eaten, but burnt up.
This speaks of Jesus’s blood being brought into our Most Holy Place, sanctified by the Spirit of God, where God lives by his Spirit. Jesus’s blood is sprinkled in our inner most being, so the Spirit can enter there and live. More globally, Christ entered the heavenly sanctuary: “For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence” (Heb. 9:24).
What is the resulting benefit of the sin offering?
The sin offering accomplished this verse embedded throughout the long passages: “In this way the priest will make atonement for the community, and they will be forgiven” (Lev. 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:10, 13). It is clear that the animal stood in for the man offering it. Its blood paid for or atoned for or wiped clean the sins of the offerer.
How does Jesus directly and clearly fulfill the sin offering?
Recall that the main part of the ritual of the sin offering is blood manipulation or handling, meaning what the priest did with the blood of the blood of bulls and goats and lambs. Here is what Father God did with the precious blood of of his Son.
First, as noted, this passage says that shedding blood is imperative for the forgiveness or remission of sins:
In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. (Heb. 9:22, NIV)
Jesus shed his blood for us. Now watch what Father God does, next
Second, Paul the apostle saw the connection between the sin offering and Jesus’s sacrificial death on the cross:
For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. (Rom. 8:3, NIV)
For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.(2 Cor. 5:21, NET)
Both those verses teach us that Christ did not know sin–he did not experience it in his flesh or soul or spirit–so he could offer himself as the perfect sacrifice.
Third, these verses do not use the word sin offering, but they speak of the same theological reality:
[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement,[i] through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:23-25, NIV)
Jesus was the sacrifice of atonement through the shedding of blood. He was our substitute who stood in our place, when we deserved to die on the cross. We receive the effect today by faith. Now he declares us righteous by this same faith and by his grace.
Finally, Jesus’s blood opened the way to the Most Holy Place, the very presence of God:
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (Heb. 10:19-22, NIV)
Our hearts are sprinkled with the blood of Jesus, so now our guilty conscience is clear and clean conscience. Now we can have full assurance of his love and forgiveness. Let’s walk today with a clear conscience. Let’s walk confidently in his love and forgiveness.
But isn’t this divine child abuse?
Some critics of Christ’s sacrifice say it smacks of divine child abuse. “Why would a loving father send his son to die, when the father knew he would die? That’s child abuse!” It is not. For a further reply, please see my post:
How does this post help me grow in Christ?
Rather than our offering animal sacrifices regularly, let’s look at what Jesus accomplished for us:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find Receive his love. Be grateful that you do not have to bring an animals to pay for your sins. grace to help in time of need. (Heb. 4:14-16, ESV)
Thanks to Christ’s once-and for-all sacrifice, we can now draw near or approach the throne of grace in our prayers, through faith. Why? So we can receive mercy and find grace in our time of need. God loves to give his people mercy and grace. Receive it now. He was our substitute when we should have died for our own sins. Instead, he died for us that we may have new life in him.
In gratitude for he accomplished let’s follow this advice from the author of Hebrews:
15 Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. 16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (Heb. 13:15-16)
The Sin Offering from a NT Perspective