If I led a group of believers and I told you we were practicing ancient Jewish rituals such as lamb sacrifices you might have one or more of the following reactions:
“Why on earth would you be doing that?”
Or, if you’re a student of the Bible:
“You know Jesus is the new, one-time Lamb Sacrifice God has provided to replace annual sacrifices in the Old Testament, right?”
Or, most likely,
Totally understandable. Most ancient religious rituals, even the ones we believe were instituted by God himself, we view as being a little bit weird in our day and age. Heck, even the Jews don’t do lamb sacrifices any more.
The reason I want to bring up the Jewish sacrifices is because I believe how the Jews viewed their lamb sacrifice is a good model for how we should view the sacrifice of Christ. It provides an alternative to the predominant Protestant view that says that every human being must believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus in order to be forgiven of their sins. This is called the Penal Substitution Theory of Atonement because it’s (errantly) believed that God must punish all sin (that’s the penal part of the theory), that God provides a way for someone else to be punished instead (that’s the substitution part), so that people can be saved (that’s the atonement part – never mind the fact that atonement does not mean “salvation”).
So why delve into Jewish understandings of salvation when us Christians know they often got things wrong? Because what we end up doing is read our modern ideas into the ancient writings and say such things as,
“Ancient Jews sacrificed sheep every year to gain their salvation, looking for the coming of their Messiah who would die only one time to bring about the salvation of believers. The Jews rejected their Messiah so God gave that salvation to the Gentiles – like us.”
Here’s the problem with that line of thinking: the Jews read the same scriptures we read on the subject, which is the Old Testament, and both Jews and even many Christian teachers will tell you that the Passover lamb sacrifices are not about being forgiven of sins – as we normally think of sins as something for which God must punish the sinner. And why should they? The reason for the sacrifices is not vague or left up for speculation. The Old Testament is fairly clear about it, if we will just make the effort to find out what it says.
Or we can take the lazier route and let others do the heavy lifting, like the Jewish and Christian scholars who agree with them.
You are welcome. All I ask in return is that you remember me in your will.
What Was the Cross For?
When we try to answer questions like:
Can a Catholic be saved?
Can a Mormon be saved?
Can a Muslim be saved?
Can a Jew be saved?
Can an atheist be saved?
And here’s a really tough one…
Can Justin Bieber be saved? (according to this article he already is!)
When we ask questions like that we are really asking this:
What did Jesus accomplish on the Cross? And for whom did he accomplish it?
Here’s the typical answer we come up with: Jesus died on the cross to save people. And by “people” we mean Christians, those who put trust in him so God now has a viable reason to forgive sins rather than punish the sinner. Without giving God that reason he might love us but will be forced by his own holy nature to reject us at the judgement, it is thought. He died for everyone else too but everyone else doesn’t put their trust in that event so it doesn’t do them any good. “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” (Heb. 11:6)
Here’s how we picture salvation. If we were to draw a circle around who we think is going to go to heaven we tend to put ourselves within the circle (naturally), because we believe the sacrifice of Christ saves us, and we believe in that sacrifice. We put everyone else outside the circle of salvation because they do not believe in that sacrifice.
I would like to offer a way in which we can view the sacrifice of Christ so that we can include some, or even many, non-Christians within the circle of salvation. There are other scriptures which seem to indicate only Christians are saved, things that Jesus said, but that will have to be addressed at another time. For now, let’s just focus on the Cross: what it did, how it saves people, and who can we include within that circle of salvation.
Because we have narrowed salvation down to only believers in Christ in a post-Christ world we then must figure out a way in which God could have also saved people who existed prior to Christ. How was anyone saved in Old Testament days? The lamb sacrifices provide a ready answer it would seem. But then what about the many periods in Israel’s history when they had no temple and so had no sacrifices? For more than 200 years of Israel’s history between the inception of the sacrifices and the sacrifice of Christ they didn’t have any sacrifices. Were they unable to gain salvation with God during those times?
It seems reasonable to think that if a Jew had a lamb sacrificed for him then he was putting faith in his future Messiah to save him, albeit through a symbol that preceded the Messiah. The lamb “stood in” for the real deal, Jesus Christ, who we now believe stood in for sinners to take a punishment for them because of their sins so they don’t have to take it themselves. A Jew prior to Christ could trust in God’s provision for him in the annual lamb sacrifice and that faith justified him.
Since that symbol was supposed to point him to Christ, when Christ actually came the Jew who formerly got saved by obeying the Law of Sacrifices could now demonstrate his faith in God by having faith in Christ. His rejection of Christ would only indicate he was not the kind of person who ever had genuine faith in God, no matter how faithfully he followed the Law.
Reject the Messiah, we’ve been told, and you’ve rejected God. Therefor your lamb sacrifices are null and void, not even worth an old rusty shekel. To hammer that message home to the Christ deniers, God sent the Romans to destroy the temple and the whole sacrificial system that went along with it in 70 A.D.
This is fairly standard thinking in Evangelical Christianity, but instead of looking at the sacrifices the way a Jew would have looked at them at the time what we end up doing is taking our ideas about what we think Jesus accomplished on the Cross and read that back into what we think was accomplished for a Hebrew as he witnessed the annual Passover festival where a lamb was sacrificed.
Still with me? Let me put it more simply: We think a Jew looked at the lamb sacrifice the way we look at the Lamb sacrifice. My point is: we’ve got that backwards. Let’s turn that around and look at the sacrifice of Christ the way a Jew looked at the lamb sacrifice.
We assume – I repeat – ASSUME – that a Jew was saved by this act of the lamb sacrifice, and he went to the annual sacrifice thinking it was his salvation. It doesn’t help when we read in the Old Testament that this was done for the “atonement” of the people, and then assume (once again) that “atonement” means “salvation.”
Let’s answer this question: “Did the lamb sacrifice save the Jew?”
The short answer is: No, it didn’t. And more importantly, he didn’t think it did. That’s not why he went. The sacrifices were for a totally different reason altogether, and we don’t even have to rely on Jewish scholars to inform us of that reason. It’s all right there in our Old Testaments.
But, for the sake of clarity (and laziness), let’s see why Jews have always done sacrifices.
Let’s Hear It From the Horse’s Mouth
Here’s what Jews will tell you about their sacrifices, taken from the good folks at Judaism 101:
- Sacrifices are not offered today because there is no Temple and there hasn’t been one since 70 AD.
- Jews don’t believe they lost a means of salvation in 70 AD when the Temple was destroyed.
- Sacrifices were offered at the temple as a way of getting closer to God, not as a way to “get right” with God.
- Sacrifices served the same purposes as prayer today, including providing an avenue for praise and thanksgiving.
- Forgiveness was obtained through repentance, prayer and good deeds, with or without sacrifices.
- The purposes for bringing sacrifices were very similar to the purposes for prayer. It’s a devotional act, not a salvation ritual.
- In Judaism, sacrifice was never the exclusive means of obtaining forgiveness, was not in and of itself sufficient to obtain forgiveness, and in certain circumstances was not even effective to obtain forgiveness.
I would like to add that the way in which a Jew obtained forgiveness through the sacrifices, to the degree that he did, was not by exercising his faith in God providing some animal to be punished in his stead. The way in which the sacrifice obtained forgiveness was by reminding the Jews that God is forgiving. This was to give him hope, to encourage him toward repentance, if he hadn’t already done so during the interim since the last Passover. It was his repentance that saved the Jew, not the sacrifice.
To summarize and to put it in terms us Christians might be able to relate to, it was all very devotional and relational toward God. It’s kind of like how us Charismatics like to worship: we like to involve our whole person, really get into it, and enjoy God in a way that mere ritual might not get us there. Do we sing songs of redemption to get redemption or because we are redeemed? Understood in this way I find it all very rich, especially compared to thinking of it as something to be performed in order to be forgiven of sins.
When a Jewish family packed their bags and piled into the family oxcart and set off for Jerusalem every year to participate in the sacrifices they weren’t thinking they were going off to “get their not-guilty verdict,” or “earn their way to heaven.” They were thinking of bringing themselves before God and being reminded once again that God is forgiving, and spending time enjoying that revelation apart from the demands of everyday life like trying to keep the roof from leaking, putting food on the table and keeping the kids from destroying the farm.
The purpose of the sacrifices was not to provide forgiveness, but to draw the Hebrews into a relationship with the God who is forgiving. The Hebrew word for sacrifice even means, “To draw near.”
The idea that sacrifices actually obtain for the participants their means of forgiveness is quite likely how the pagans viewed their sacrifices. They brought their sacrifices to their gods – including human sacrifice – to appease their angry gods. For them, it was about changing the minds of their capricious gods to save their own hides. It was not done in thanksgiving to merciful gods who had already forgiven them.
History has shown us that animal and human sacrifices existed among pagan societies, including the neighbors of the Israelites, long before the Law of Sacrifices was given by Moses. Atheists insist that the Jews weren’t told by God to do sacrifices, they just copied their neighbors.
They may have copied the form of the ritual, but the heart and the reasons behind it were transformed by the God of the Hebrews to something so much more beautiful and inspiring than what the pagans could ever imagine.
I think that’s a better way to understand history, for those not hell-bent on removing God from history, to say that God did indeed copy the practice of animal sacrifices from the Hebrews’ pagan neighbors but he didn’t copy the purpose for those sacrifices. He put a new spin on it, a divine one at that. He raised the reason for doing them to a whole new level of devotion to God. It wasn’t done for the sake of persuading capricious gods to go easy on them, but to honor a loving God who compassionately reached out to humans so they would be able to understand and enjoy that revelation.
When the prophet Jonah was called on by God to go to his pagan neighbors in Nineveh, Jonah didn’t want to go because he didn’t want God to be gracious to his people’s enemies. Jonah hated the Ninevites and would rather see God judge them for their wickedness. Jonah said to God, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (4:2) How did he know that? Because he had been participating in the annual Jewish sacrifices all his life.
He got the message!
Did Jonah go to Nineveh and teach them to follow the Law of Moses in order to be spared from judgement? No, he never said a word about lamb sacrifices. He just told them to stop doing their wicked deeds and the God of the Hebrews would spare them. They got saved without performing the Jewish sacrifices. God is gracious and forgives. That’s all that mattered.
They got the message! And repented!
When Jesus compared the Pharisee who was proud of his lawkeeping to the tax collector on whom the Pharisee looked down on he said of the tax collector, because of his repentance, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” (Luke 18:14) He didn’t need to wait until Passover to be justified because it wasn’t the Passover that would justify him, it was his repentance. This is how the Old Testament Jews understood justification and Jesus did nothing to change that understanding but rather reinforced it.
I should also add there was no sacrifice for willful, malicious sins. This to me explains the language in Hebrews:
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. (Heb. 10:26-27)
In other words, for the types of sins that land people in hot water with God, the kind that would make someone considered to be wicked and not righteous, there was no sacrifice for atonement for sin. This means there were no sacrifices for eternal salvation, so for the sacrifice of Christ to be represented by those sacrifices it means that his sacrifice was not for eternal salvation.
The answer for the wicked in the Old Covenant was to repent, that is, stop being wicked.
That did not change with the New Covenant.
Of course, if a willful sinner was brought to his senses while joining his brethren for the annual trek to Jerusalem because the confessions of sin and the sacrifices brought him face to face with his own sin, and because of that he sincerely repented and stopped doing those wicked deeds, then the animal sacrifices DID save him.
It’s the same with the sacrifice of Christ. It will save the wicked from the “judgment and raging fire that will consume the enemies of God,” if they repent.
What About the Scapegoat?
One of the Levitical practices involved taking two identical goats, sacrificing one of them just like they sacrificed the lambs. The other one, according to Leviticus 16:7-22:
“[the High Priest] shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat.”
The goat was then handed over to a “fit man” who drove him into the wilderness and over a cliff to fall to his death. What this means to Christians has morphed over the centuries to where the goat symbolizes the future Messiah, laying hands on him symbolized a transfer of sins from the people to the goat, and the goat being driven over the cliff meant he took the punishment of sin on behalf of the people so the people wouldn’t have to take it themselves. Penal Substitution Atonement, in other words. Again, that’s not how the Jews understood it. Not only does this understanding give a false idea of the salvation we receive in Christ but it robs us of a deep and beautiful revelation.
When the high priest lays hands on the goat confessing the sins of the people it is only because the people are bringing their sins out in the light and forsaking them instead of hanging on to them. “Putting them upon the head of the goat” means letting go of sin, not holding on to it like we tend to do. It’s an act of contrition and repentance, not a ritual to achieve forgiveness.
Atonement means many things, but it’s never a unilateral action on the part of the people. It’s always done in a cooperative covenant between God and man.
With the goat, atonement means cleansing: “On this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins.” (Lev. 16:30) It wasn’t the High Priest’s act that cleansed the Jew. If any particular Jew attending the Yom Kippur festival was determined to continue to live in sin then nothing was accomplished. The ritual was symbolic of what was supposed to be taking place in the heart of the penitent. The Hebrew could believe in what he was seeing all he wanted but if he wasn’t willing to repent then he left the festival in the same condition as when he arrived: dead in his sin.
It’s the same with the sacrifice of Jesus. It doesn’t automatically accomplish anything. You can have all kinds of faith in it but if his death and resurrection doesn’t lead you to repentance then he didn’t die for you. Faith, by itself, is not sufficient. Without the fruit of repentance faith is dead. (Jms. 2:26)
The ritual of the two goats symbolizes both God and man working together for salvation. The goat didn’t just wander off on his own; he was handed over to a shepherd who didn’t just passively stand by waiting for the goat to make his move. He took sticks and beat the poor beast, driving him into the wilderness. He zealously drove him away the way God zealously drives sin out of our lives.
The message of the scapegoat isn’t that our sins are transferred to another who then takes a beating in our stead. The message is this: God actively pursues us and drives our sin out of us. It is a picture of a life-long covenant relationship with God, not an annual rite of forgiveness to be replaced by a Messiah as a one-time rite of forgiveness. The reason we are represented by a goat is because we are stubborn, just like a goat. Gentle prodding doesn’t always get us moving. Sometimes God has to take a six foot two by four and whack us in the behind with it to get us stubborn old goats moving. God has an uncanny ability to get us to cooperate with Him in our salvation.
The scapegoat is not a picture of a just God removing sin out of his view so he can avoid having to administer justice to us because of that sin. How can it be? God is omniscient. He’s always going to see our sin. The scapegoat is a picture of a loving God removing sin out of our lives so we don’t have to suffer the consequences of our own sin. It’s a picture of a God zealous to restore wholeness to his people.
The Jews didn’t go to Jerusalem every year to be forgiven. They went to be reminded that God is forgiving, by nature. That understanding encouraged them to bring themselves and their wickedness before their God, then make a dedication to turn from their wickedness, and once having done that to rejoice in that forgiveness. Or, if they haven’t been wicked, they come to rejoice in the knowledge that their God is a forgiving God eager to enter into relationship to save man from all of his sin, whether benign or malignant.
In our modern vernacular a scapegoat has come to mean someone we blame for our troubles, but this is one hundred and eighty degrees opposite to the purpose of the scapegoat to ancient Hebrews. Rather than blaming someone else for the trouble our sins cause us the message of the scapegoat was that we take full responsibility for our sins and do what we can to be cleansed from sin. That doesn’t mean to just stop sinning, but seeking a change of character so that we won’t even want to or be inclined to sin, as much as possible.
The lamb sacrifice and the scapegoat saved the Jew not because God pronounced him legally “saved” because of his attendance at Yom Kippur and faith in God, but because he entered into relationship with God to rid his life of sin and be restored to wholeness. What Jesus accomplished on the Cross was to provide another avenue for restoration, by means of faith, that extended well beyond the borders of Israel.
In the Old Covenant Jews came to Jerusalem once a year to be drawn by God. In the New Covenant Jesus said, “If I be lifted up I will draw all men unto myself,” and by “all men” he meant all humans on the planet from that point on. Through Jesus, God has “opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles,” (Acts 14:27) “purifying their hearts by faith,” (Acts 15:9), giving them “access by faith into this grace,” (Rom. 5:2) and greater access to the Holy Spirit because of this faith. (Gal. 3:2) For many this begins with their own “observance” of the Lamb Sacrifice which draws them into being a good person which brings them eternal salvation.
Jesus saves, but that salvation is not just forgiveness, it’s a process of being transformed into the image of Christ. “Whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son.” (Rom. 8:29)
This is a follow-on article to Introduction to Salvation by Being Good and Salvation by Being Good.
You might also be interested in:
Salvation by Being Good – Table of Contents
There Are None Righteous – Except For Everyone Who Is.
Righteousness by Self-Effort is Good, Expected, and Attainable
God Really is Just – Justice Demands Forgiveness
If Being Good Can Not Save a Soul
Love, Righteousness & Salvation: Foundational Christianity