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    Images of the Savior (28 -- The Levitical Sacrifices)

    And Yahweh called unto Moses and spoke unto him from the Tent of Meeting, saying, “Speak unto the children of Israel, and you shall say unto them, 'Any man of you who will bring an offering unto Yahweh, from the cattle, from the herd or from the flock, you shall bring your offering. If his offering is a burnt sacrifice, a male without blemish from the herd he shall offer it, at the door of the Tent of Meeting he shall offer it, that he may be accepted before Yahweh. And he shall lay his hand upon the head of the burnt sacrifice, and it shall be accepted for him, to make atonement for him.'” – Leviticus 1:1-4

    At the end of the book of Exodus, God has just given Moses his servant very careful instructions for the building of the tabernacle, and for the institution of the Levitical priesthood to serve in it, in order to make atonement for the people, and bring them into the presence of the holy God; and in precise accordance with those instructions, Bezaleel, filled with the Spirit of God, has built the tabernacle and prepared the vestments for the priestly class, whom Moses has just finished consecrating for their ministry. Now, in acceptance of their careful adherence to his instructions, God has been pleased to establish his presence in the midst of Israel, filling the newly constructed tabernacle with his glory, and calling out to Moses from the midst of it, with the detailed instructions for its ongoing service and ministry that will take up the entire book of Leviticus. This book, then, has a very definite centrality and culminative nature both in the Pentateuch and the entire Old Testament: it is placed in the center of the Pentateuch, and at the shadowy climax of God's fulfilling his long-awaited promise that he should bring a people back to himself, and be their God, and dwell in their midst; and it is the most intricate and detailed typological intimation of just how he should accomplish that promised reconciliation in the searing daylight of the Gospel, elaborating as it does the sacrificial system for which the tabernacle and the priests existed and served day and night. Let us be very clear about the significance of this book of Leviticus, before we venture into its sacred pages: the very heart of the entire scriptures consists of that utterly crucial principle of substitutionary sacrifice and resulting atonement and reconciliation. This is what God first promised and signified to Adam and Eve after their sin in the Garden, this is what was typified and foreshadowed in countless ways throughout the history of God's people in the Old Testament, and this is precisely what was actually accomplished through that one great work for which all of history was designed, the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of the Son of God. And there is no more elaborate description of that absolutely central reality of all history than the sacrificial instructions contained within the book of Leviticus. If the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ stands at the pinnacle and climax of redemptive history, the very crux of that tree, casting its shadow backwards through the pre-incarnational history of the people of God, falls precisely upon the first seven chapters of the book of Leviticus. Father, if we cannot see Christ here, then where will we see him? Open our eyes to our spotless sacrificial Lamb!

    The very heart of God's favored means of revelation before his last and greatest revelation in the incarnation of his Son, that is, of the types and foreshadows of the Old Testament, was the Levitical system of sacrifices; and the very heart of the sacrificial system, which binds all the various types of sacrifice together in a consistent whole, is the principle of substitution, even as Alfred Edersheim noted in his classic work on the temple:

    The fundamental idea of sacrifice in the Old Testament is that of substitution, which again seems to imply everything else – atonement and redemption, vicarious punishment and forgiveness. The firstfruits go for the whole products; the firstlings for the flock; the redemption-money for that which cannot be offered; and the life of the sacrifice, which is in its blood (Lev. 17:11), for the life of the sacrificer. Hence also the strict prohibition to partake of blood. Even in the 'Korban,' gift (Mark 7:11) or free-will offering, it is still the gift for the giver.1

    In light of this truth, it will be a most advantageous and necessary thing, before we begin to examine the peculiar features of each various kind of sacrifice, to notice those one or two features in common with which they are all joined together, and which shout out in the clearest of terms that idea of substitution, and the effects of forgiveness, purification, and reconciliation which follow it; and those are, first, the laying of the hands of the offerer upon the head of the offering, which is a thing held in common for every blood sacrifice (see Leviticus 1:4; 3:2, 8, 13; 4:4, 15, 24, 29, 33), and which signifies the identity of the worshiper with the sacrifice, so that the latter is made to stand in the place of the former, and to undergo vicariously what the worshiper ought by rights to experience himself; and second, the sprinkling of the blood of the offering (see Leviticus 1:5, 11; 3:2, 8, 13; 4:6, 17; 5:9), which signifies the pleasing effects of that substitutionary slaughter, namely, redemption, forgiveness, purification, and acceptance with God. These two common features inform and undergird the finer instructive points of every kind of offering and sacrifice, so that, if one were to miss their significance, he would make no head at all in trying to understand anything whatsoever about the meanings inherent in the entire worship cultus of ancient Israel. But let us now mention briefly the major types of sacrifice, and see what we may learn from each one in particular.

    First, we encounter a description of what is perhaps the most fundamental and characteristic sacrifice of all, the burnt offering (Leviticus 1). When a man brought a burnt offering to the tabernacle (or later, the temple), he would place his hands upon its head, and the priest would then slaughter it, sprinkle its blood upon the altar, and there burn the entire animal, so that its smoke should arise as a sweet-smelling savor to God. This teaches us that, if we would approach God, we must lean hard upon a substitute, who should be slaughtered in our place, and who should pour out his whole life for us, and be consumed entirely with the fire of God's wrath; and because of whom, in consequence of this substitutionary and wrath-bearing sacrifice, God would be pleased with us, and would accept us again. Of course, the perfect and final burnt offering is only Jesus Christ, who “loved us and offered himself up for us as an offering and a sacrifice to God, for a sweet-smelling savor” (Ephesians 5:2); who sprinkled his blood in the Most Holy place in the heavens, before the throne of God (Hebrews 9:12-14); and who thereby redeemed us (1 Peter 1:18-19), atoned for us (Romans 5:11), and propitiated the Father's wrath against us (1 John 2:2; Romans 3:25).

    Second, we encounter the meal offering, which was the only major bloodless offering, but was commonly offered up in conjunction with the blood offerings, to complement the truth that they conveyed (Leviticus 2). This offering was to be of flour mixed with oil and sprinkled with incense (Leviticus 2:2); it was in no case to have any admixture of leaven or honey (Leviticus 2:11), but was to be seasoned with salt (Leviticus 2:13); and only a “memorial” portion of it was to be burned before Yahweh, while the rest was to be consumed by the priests (Leviticus 2:2-3). This teaches us several things: first, it serves to remind us of Jesus Christ, who offered up his body to be broken as the bread of his people, that they might thereby be nourished from it, even as many as God has called to be his kingdom of priests (1 Peter 2:9). It is therefore fitting that the bread was to be made with oil, for Jesus carried out his sacrificial ministry by the power of the Spirit with whom he had been filled, and who is often symbolized by oil (see Isaiah 61:1); and also that it be sprinkled with incense, which symbolizes the priestly prayers with which Jesus offered up his own body, which arose with a sweet smell before the Father, who therefore accepted his sacrifice and admitted us into his presence (see John 17). That there could be no leaven signifies that Jesus offered himself up with no sin or spot of any kind; and that there could be no honey signifies that there wants no good gift or addition to the sacrifice of his body alone for it to be eminently sweet to the Father. God is pleased with Jesus' sacrifice alone, and not the honey of all our good works and gifts can make that perfect sacrifice a whit sweeter. And then, the addition of salt signifies the eternal and immutable covenant which Jesus was fulfilling, salt being a preservative which keeps foods good and wholesome even as Jesus' sacrifice kept good the Father's many promises to us. And finally, just as the worshiper brought this meal offering as a gift to God, so we today are able to offer up sacrifices of thanksgiving, in remembrance of Jesus' sacrifice of himself (for that, remember the memorial portion of the meal offering). As the gift stood for the giver, who thereby offered up himself in a figure, so we are instructed to offer up our whole bodies and selves as a sacrifice to God (Romans 12:1-2); and inasmuch as the offering was given for the nourishment of the priests who served in the tabernacle, so we are taught that it is a good thing to give to those who minister God's word and blessings to us (1 Corinthians 9:13-14), and that our sacrificial giving to other Christians is a most pleasing offering to God (2 Corinthians 9:7; Philippians 4:18).

    Third, we encounter the peace offering in chapter three of Leviticus; and we find in chapter seven that this type of offering may in particular be a peace offering given in thanksgiving for some specific mercy or blessing; or else in fulfillment of a vow; or else simply out of one's own freewill, who desires to fellowship with God for no specific external cause (Leviticus 7:11-21). This offering is different from the others in that its emphasis is upon the results of the offering, which include a time of joyous feasting upon the sacrificial animal, in the presence of and in fellowship with God himself. So too, we feast upon the results of Jesus' blessed self-sacrifice, and those results are nothing less than the joy of being brought into his presence for eternal fellowship with him, and in unity with one another (Revelation 19:6-9). We must also make mention here of the “wave breast” and the “heave shoulder,” which were waved before Yahweh and then contributed to the priestly family (Leviticus 7:29-34). This signifies that what we offer for the support of God's ministers ultimately comes from God, and is given back to him, just as the breast and shoulder were moved upwards toward God, in a symbolic gesture, and then given to the priests.

    Fourth is the sin offering, which an Israelite would offer up for sins committed unintentionally, in ignorance, or in the weakness of his flesh, and for which there was true regret and penitence (Leviticus 4-5:13); only let us note that there is no sacrifice for presumptuous, high-handed sin (see Numbers 15:27-31; Hebrews 10:26-27)! Those who think they can sin at their pleasure, and buy back their right standing with God for a price, when their heart is still far from him, deceive themselves, make a mockery of his grace, and trample upon the blood of the Son of God. Woe to such a one! But for those who hate their sin, and repent and seek mercy, free forgiveness is to be found in Jesus (1 John 1:9-2:2). When they place their hands upon the head of Jesus, and lean upon him in faith, his sprinkled blood will find them forgiveness with God, and purification for their sins.

    Fifth, the trespass offering, which is similar to the sin offering, differs in that it emphasizes the debt that sin incurs, and the price that must be paid (Leviticus 5:14-6:7). The price is not according to man's standard, but God's, and is therefore valued after the shekel of the sanctuary (Leviticus 5:15). So in Jesus we have been purified from our uncleanness and forgiven of our sin, as the sin offering teaches us; but we have also been bought with a price, that is, redeemed; and our sin debt has been paid for in full, and cancelled (1 Peter 1:18-19; 1 Corinthians 6:20).

    As we look to these various sacrifices, dear brothers and sisters, let us feast by faith upon our great sacrifice, the Lord Jesus Christ, who offered himself up fully and willingly upon the cross, where the wrath of God consumed him and exhausted itself against him. Because of the sweet savor of his broken body, and the blood of his perfect self-sacrifice, we can come before God for forgiveness, and reconciliation. God is now pleased with us, for Christ's sake: his wrath has been appeased, his price has been met, and he has only mercy and forgiveness, reconciliation and fellowship with which to greet us. In response to so great a gift, ought we not to give ourselves up as acceptable sacrifices to God, following in the steps of our Savior, and giving of ourselves, our time, our talents, and our money for the good of God's people and the spread of his Kingdom over all the earth?

    1.Edersheim, Alfred. The Temple: Its Ministry and Services. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994, p. 76.

    Posted by Nathan on October 17, 2008 10:16 AM

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