Did Jesus Disregard the Sacrificial System?
Well, if you’ve read and studied the Gospels, you notice that in the life of Christ there’s not a lot of detail about temple practices — in particular, animal sacrifices. We know that Jesus, as a small child, was presented at the temple with an offering of turtledoves or pigeons (that’s told to us in Luke 2:24). This was the offering of a poor mother, in lieu of a lamb sacrifice (as permitted in Leviticus 12:8). But this is a pretty rare connection between Christ’s life and temple sacrifices. In fact, later in his ministry, Jesus will forgive sin all by himself, bypassing the whole Jewish sacrificial system altogether. And that leads to a question from Karen, a listener to the podcast who wants to know why.
Here’s her email: “Hello, Pastor John, my name is Karen, and I live in Germany. Thank you for this podcast. My question concerns the act of forgiveness mentioned in the Bible. I have learned that without blood there is no forgiveness. Hence the sacrifices in the Old Testament and the dying of Jesus in the New Testament. I understand that. But what I don’t understand is the period between the two. When Jesus walked on earth, he often addressed people by simply telling them that their sins were forgiven. He didn’t prescribe an offering in the temple. And he had not shed his own blood yet. So how was that possible, under the assumption that blood is still needed for forgiveness?”
This may sound like a question with limited application or a question of interest to only a tiny number of Christians. But I want to show that it touches on the issue that is at the heart of Christianity. Every Christian needs to be aware of it for our own stability and courage and joy. So, hang on.
Forgiveness Requires Blood
The question starts with a biblical assumption from Hebrews 9:22, which says, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” That’s what it says. So God instituted in the Old Testament the way, the plan, that there would be animal sacrifices, and that sinners who looked to God and, by faith, identified with this killed animal would be forgiven for their sins. The death of the animal would be counted, so to speak, as the punishment for their sin.
For example, in Leviticus 4:15, if the people as a whole have sinned, it says, “The elders of the congregation shall lay their hands on the head of the bull before the Lord, and the bull shall be killed before the Lord.” Then verse 20 says, “The priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven.” So that’s where Karen’s question starts. God regards sin as so evil and so destructive that in order to set things right there must be a death, a blood-shedding, in order for sins not to be counted — that is, to be forgiven.
“God regards sin as so evil and so destructive that in order to set things right there must be a death.”
Then the second premise of Karen’s question is that Christ has in fact shed his own blood for sinners so that, if we are united to Christ by faith, our sins are forgiven for his sake. His blood-shedding counts for us.
He became “a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). He bore our condemnation in his flesh (Romans 8:3). This is the center and the glory of the gospel. So Paul says in Romans 5:9, “We have now been justified by his blood,” or in Ephesians 1:7, “In him we have redemption through his blood,” or in Ephesians 2:13, “You who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
So Karen’s question is, When Jesus walked the earth, he often addressed people by telling them that their sins are forgiven, but (she says) there was no offering in the temple, and Jesus had not yet died — how’s that possible under the assumption that blood is needed in order to have the forgiveness of God from all the sins that we do or that take place?
Animal Blood Was Not Enough
Now let’s clarify the question, first of all. Whether or not there were sacrifices being offered in the temple, Jesus pronounced forgiveness on his own authority, without any reference to those sacrifices. For example, in Mark 2:5–7, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” And the scribes say, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
So Karen wonders about this relationship of forgiveness that Jesus pronounced to the God-appointed shedding of blood, when Jesus hasn’t yet shed his blood and he isn’t pointing people to the blood-shedding of the animals. And here’s one of the keys that unlocks this puzzle for Karen. In Hebrews 10:4 and 11, the writer says, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. . . . Every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.”
So now we get the startling revelation that all those animal sacrifices actually in themselves accomplished nothing. Oh, we’re not between two really effective seasons here — Old Testament, New Testament. The forgiveness that God pronounced on faithful worshipers in the Old Testament was not ultimately owing to animal sacrifices.
The true saints in the Old Testament, they grasped this — they did, at some level. For example, David said in Psalm 51:16–17, “You will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” And God said in Hosea 6:6, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” And Jesus quoted that verse, Hosea 6:6, twice to show how badly some of the Jewish leaders were misreading the Old Testament (in Matthew 9:13 and 12:7).
Every Sacrifice a Pointer
So now we can see that Karen’s question about forgiveness during Jesus’s lifetime really does apply to the entire history of Israel. The animal sacrifices were not achieving the forgiveness of sins — not ever. So what were they doing?
The answer is, they were pointing to Jesus — God’s final, once-for-all, decisive sacrifice for sins. They were foreshadowing the blood-shedding of Christ. So it says in Hebrews 9:12, “[Christ] entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” So the reason all blood-shedding has ceased — animal blood-shedding has ceased; Christ’s blood-shedding has ceased once for all — is that Christ’s sacrifice was so complete, so glorious, so full, so decisive that it secured an eternal redemption.
“Christ’s sacrifice was so complete, so glorious, so full, so decisive that it secured an eternal redemption.”
If you have Christ, you have eternal forgiveness for all sins. Now I think Karen knows this, but what she may have overlooked (I don’t know) is that not only does the sacrifice of Christ extend forward as an eternal redemption but also backward in history as a redemption for all those saints who put their faith in God for his forgiveness — through the foreshadowing of the cross in the animal sacrifices. The cross worked effectively backward and forward.
And that’s what Paul makes clear in Romans 3:25. He says, “God put [Christ] forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” In other words, the reason God was righteous to pass over — that is, forgive — the sins of all Old Testament saints, and the sins that Jesus forgave during his lifetime, was that God was looking to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. So just as our sins two thousand years after Christ are covered by the blood of Christ, so Abraham’s sins were covered by the cross of Christ two thousand years before Christ existed. And so it was with all the saints in between.
Glorious Divine Achievement
So, Karen’s question is not of limited significance. It takes us to the very center of the gospel — indeed, the center of reality. It shows us that all forgiveness, and all the benefits that flow from forgiveness through all time — as far back as you can go, as far forward as you can go, all of it — all of that forgiveness is based on those few hours when the Son of God suffered and bled and died for sinners.
If we grasp how central, how profound, how glorious was that divine moment, that divine achievement, our lives will be more stable, more courageous and more joyful.