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The primary responsibility of the priests was to offer sacrifices to God on behalf of the Israelites – for individuals, families, and the nation. The offering of animal sacrifices has been traced back to Adam; there, God took the skins of animals to make clothing for Adam and Eve. The sacrificial offerings, from the time of Adam to the death of Christ, are recognized as a covering for sin in anticipation of the day when the death of Christ would permanently wash away sins. The practice of offering sacrifices was so widespread when the Law was given that the Gentiles were offering sacrifices to their idols.
Because of the tremendous influence that the Gentiles had over God’s chosen nation, God, through the law, restricted and refined the sacrificial services for Israel. The new rules and procedures given to Israel were patterned after and symbolic of God’s blueprint in heaven for man’s eternal salvation. The Gentiles were offering sacrifices of their own design, including humans, to appease their pagan gods. These gods were created through their vain imaginations. It is incredible how closely Satan imitates yet distorts the meaning of the things concerning God the Creator.
God’s first requirement was that sacrifices be brought to the door of the Tabernacle. “This is the thing which the Lord has commanded, saying: ‘Whatever man of the house of Israel who kills an ox or lamb or goat in the camp, or who kills it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the door of the tabernacle of meeting to offer an offering to the Lord before the tabernacle of the Lord, the guilt of bloodshed shall be imputed to that man. He has shed blood; and that man shall be cut off from among his people’” (Lev. 17:2b-4, NKJV).
The penalty was very severe for those who disobeyed the law about offering sacrifices. Since the sacrifices of Israel were in direct contrast to those offered by the Gentiles, God wanted his people to know that there was a significant difference in meaning.
Any animal brought to the Lord must be a male at least eight days old without blemish. “When a bull or a sheep or a goat is born, it shall be seven days with its mother; and from the eighth day and thereafter it shall be accepted as an offering made by fire to the Lord. Whether it is a cow or ewe, do not kill both her and her young on the same day” (Lev. 22:27-28, NKJV). “You shall offer of your own free will a male without blemish from the cattle, from the sheep, or from the goats. Whatever has a defect, you shall not offer, for it shall not be acceptable on your behalf.” (Lev. 22:19-20, NKJV). God required that the animals be perfect because they symbolized His perfect son.
The Law required that the man offering the sacrifice place his hand upon the animal’s head to signify the acceptance and identification of his offering. The priest would then slay the animal, sprinkle the blood upon the altar, and burn a portion of the flesh upon the altar. Special significance was placed upon the shed blood.
“‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.’ Therefore, I said to the children of Israel, ‘No one among you shall eat blood, nor shall any stranger who dwells among you eat blood’” (Lev. 17:11-12, NKJV). Also, once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the blood was sprinkled upon the Mercy Seat of the Ark for the atonement of national sins (Lev. 16:1-34).
Not all of the flesh of animals was burned. Therefore, the priests, and sometimes the person making the sacrifice, were allowed to eat the remaining meat. This remaining meat, stale bread from the table of showbread, and food sacrifices provided food for the priests. However, some of the remaining sacrifices were used in communal meals with the Lord, and the common people were allowed to eat a portion of the meat and food sacrifice.
Five types of offering: burnt offering, meal offering, peace offering, sin offering, and trespass offering, are described in the first seven chapters of Leviticus. The first three are classified as sweet savor offerings and represent the perfection of the sacrifices before the Lord. The last two are classified as non-sweet savor offerings as God considers the sins of the one making the offering. The offering of sweet savor offerings seems to follow the pattern given in the Passover (Ex. 12:1-20), where an animal is slain first, and then a meal (bread) offering follows. Scripture is clear that both the burnt offering and the peace offering must be followed by the meal offering (Ex. 29:38-46, Lev. 7:8-15). Scripture is less clear on the sin and trespass offering where the specific offering is required for individual sins and trespasses (Lev. 4:1-7, 5:1-19, 6:24-7:10).
God required a continual burnt offering upon the altar. “Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two lambs of the first year, day by day continually. One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight…This shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the door of the tabernacle of meeting before the Lord, where I will meet you to speak with you” (Ex. 29:38-39, 42, NKJV).
In addition to the continual burnt offering required by the priest on behalf of the nation, it is very clear from the first chapter of Leviticus that individuals also offered burnt offerings. All the flesh except the skin, which the priest ate, was burned as a sign of complete dedication and consecration to God.
A peace offering (Lev. 3:1-17, 7:11-21, 28-34) was made voluntarily as a communal meal to express peace and fellowship between man and God. Male or female animals without blemish could be from a herd of cattle or a flock of lambs depending upon the wealth of the one making the sacrifice. The blood was sprinkled upon the altar, the fatty portion was burned upon the altar, and the breast and right shoulder were to be eaten by the priest. Still, the person who was making the sacrifice, along with his family, ate the remainder of the animal.
The meal or cereal offering ( Lev. 2:1-16, 7:12-13), signifying one’s homage and thanksgiving to God, followed all burnt and peace offerings. Unleavened bread, made of flour or grain mixed with oil and frankincense, was divided into two portions. One portion was burned on the altar, and the priest ate the other. Many of the sacrifices and rituals were required in the purification process.
The offering of a burnt offering, a peace offering, and a meal offering were required in the consecration ceremony of the priests. After assuming office, they kept ceremonially clean by washing their hands and feet at the bronze laver. Individuals defiled by body and skin conditions were required to bring sacrifices as part of their cleansing ritual (Leviticus chapters 12-14). Certain animals and all carcasses were unclean, and anyone having contact with them became unclean until evening. All these rituals and ceremonies of purification were required to remind the people of whom they were – a chosen nation married to a Holy and perfect God.
It was the practice of some Gentile nations to offer human sacrifices. God clearly warned His people that this was forbidden. “Whoever of the children of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell in Israel, who gives any of his descendants to Molech, he shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones. I will set My face against that man, and will cut him off from his people, because he has given some of his descendants to Molech, to defile My sanctuary and profane My holy name” (Lev. 20:2b-3, NKJV).
Molech was the national god of the Ammonites and required the offering of human sacrifices – usually a child. God required the life of only one as a human sacrifice – His Only Begotten Son, made of the “Seed of Woman’’, who became the “Lamb of God.”
However, without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness for sin. “Therefore not even the first covenant was dedicated without blood. For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water, scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which God has commanded you.’ Then likewise he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry. And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission” (Heb. 9:18-22, NKJV).
The entire system of sacrifices looked forward to the coming of Jesus, who would die for our sins, thus fulfilling the whole law. Jesus told his disciples, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matt. 5:17-18, NKJV).
In the book of Hebrews, we read these words about the sacrifices: “For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? The worshipers, once purified, would have no more consciousness of sins. But in those sacrifices, there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (Heb. 10:1-4, NKJV).
“But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without [spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:11-14, NKJV)?
“And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:11-14, NKJV).
“But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, [sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without [spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb 9:11-14, NKJV)?
Scripture quotations marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible, copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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