In the book of Leviticus, the Lord set forth for the people a system of sacrifice, offerings for a variety of purposes. When the people sinned against the Lord, he gave them particular things to do in order to be forgiven. And the forgiveness of sin never came about without the death of an animal. A substitute was put to death in the place of the sinful person. And, hopefully, the people saw that sin is an ugly, bloody, deadly business.
And some might wonder why this would work. Why would God allow the blood of an animal to be shed in place of the blood of a sinful person who, according to God’s own law, ought to die for his own sin? How can a bull or a goat or a lamb or a bird be enough to take away my guilt?
Hebrews 10:4 – For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
Then we read the book of Hebrews, and we see that it is impossible that the blood of such animals could take away sin. There is no way that a bull’s blood is sufficient payment for the wrongs that I have committed before the Lord. There is no way that a sheep’s life can substitute for my own, not really. There is no way that a finite animal could ever make up for my falling infinitely short of God’s perfection.
So, obviously the offerings didn’t work, right?
Leviticus 4:20 – Thus shall he do with the bull. As he did with the bull of the sin offering, so shall he do with this. And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven.
Note that last phrase, “they shall be forgiven.” Moses did not tell the priests that the offering would not work. In fact, he makes it clear that the sacrifice, the blood, the transference of guilt, the substitution, all of it would lead to forgiveness. This was not a pretend forgiveness. God said they would be forgiven of their sin if they went through this system.
So, what gives? How do we understand the sacrifice? Hebrews says that the blood of the animal is not enough. Leviticus says they will be forgiven.
Romans 3:23-26 – 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put 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. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Look at Paul’s explanation for a few of the reasons for the death of Jesus on the cross. Paul tells us that Jesus died to accomplish something glorious. Jesus died for propitiation. He died as an offering for sins in order to take away the wrath of God and turn God’s face of favor toward the saved.
We know all that pretty much instinctively if we grew up in a gospel-preaching church. But the next phrase in verse 25 is not one many dwell on: “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” That sentence tells us another reason for the death of Jesus. It says that this, this sacrifice, this propitiation, was for a purpose. It was to prove the righteousness of God. It was to prove that God had never and would never wink at sin and just let it go. The death of Jesus was to prove that God always rightly, justly, and perfectly punishes all sin, all of it. God had, in the time before Jesus, not perfectly punished all sin. He had passed over former sins. How? He had forgiven people who had made the offerings like those in Leviticus, even though the blood of those animals and the lives of those animals were nowhere near enough to be a just and right substitute for the sins of men. Jesus died to show that God is perfectly righteous.
In verse 26, Paul further says, “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” God is just and must be just. God also desires to demonstrate his grace. The sacrifice of Jesus allows both to happen, as God is proved to be just, rightly dealing with sin with no tolerance for evil, and at the same time the one who justifies, who makes right in his sight, the one who has faith in Jesus. So God is both perfectly and totally just as he is also perfectly and justly merciful, facts proved by the blood of Jesus.
But what about those sacrifices of old? Did they work? Yes and no. The blood of those animals never took away sin. But the blood of those animals pointed to Jesus whose blood would pay the price for sins. It was as if God was reminding himself that all sins would be perfectly punished. Either the sinful man would be justly judged in hell for his sin, or he would be justly forgiven, not because of the blood of the animal, but because of the infinitely perfect sacrifice of the Son of God.
Then, were the saved in the old Testament saved by works? No, at least not by their own works. They were saved by God’s grace through faith. They believed God enough to obey his commands to make the sacrifice that would ultimately point to Jesus. They were saved, not by the action of the offering of the bull, nor by the blood of the bull, but by faith in the God of the promise who commanded the offering of the bull, the offering that points all to Jesus.