What an amazing experience it must have been to witness God dwelling amid the people. God’s Presence was unmistakable, His Glory completely filling the thick cloud overshadowing the Sanctuary. Heaven intersected with earth, yet despite the visible manifestation of the divine Presence, something was lacking. The people kept their distance. God was inside the Sanctuary, dwelling behind a veil, as the frightened people stood outside, anxiously awaiting some favorable sign. How would the Israelites draw near? They remained separated, unable to approach God. Something had to happen to bridge the gulf, and sacrifices were the solution.
Why would God choose this method to achieve closeness? To modern sensibilities, sacrifices seem primitive, but in the ancient world, they were a common mode of worship that carried symbolic meaning. Many believe that sacrifices were necessary because God was angry and had to be appeased to act favorably, but the Sanctuary teaches an altogether different worship that makes God look beautiful and attractive.
Properly understanding the sacrifices helps us see God’s character in not only the Old Testament but the New Testament. I think it’s important to learn what the Sanctuary teaches about coming into God’s Presence and having a closer relationship with Him. Without such understanding, we may come to believe that we don’t belong, that we deserve to die, or that we need protection from an angry God. Whatever your ideas and beliefs about sacrifice, they directly impact your understanding of the Sanctuary. When we talk about sacrifices, we are ultimately talking about the cross as a fulfillment of them.
I have to admit that I get frustrated every time I hear fellow Christians refer to sacrifices as small versions of the cross, as this often reflects inadequate explanations learned in church rather than learning about the sacrifices themselves. The most popular theory portrays God as demanding punishment because sin warrants a death penalty. Since sin must be punished, a sacrifice is killed instead of the sinner. When we believe that God wants to punish sin, we can transfer the penalty to someone else through sacrifice. This punitive understanding envisions people running to the Sanctuary with innocent lambs every time they sin. This misconception can then go on to distort our beliefs about the death of Jesus. While the idea of substitution is certainly derived from sacrifice, it is not well expressed when sacrifices are considered merely personal payment for sin. Perhaps if we return to the Sanctuary, we can gain a fresh understanding that is both richer and fuller in meaning.
As I read and studied the Old Testament sacrifices, I began to see that they were not what they are commonly thought to have been. I highly recommend reading the explanations of Roy Gane, a leading commentator on sacrifice, but the purpose of sacrifice is first and foremost to draw near to God. Sacrifices were a clear way for the Israelites to be confident that they were forgiven and able to draw near to God, who was never far from the offerer. They were a concrete way to indicate the reality of God’s plan to set people free for experiencing life in His Presence.
Sacrifices were primarily made to draw near and serve God in this world. God desires nothing more than to have us in His Presence, but in our present state, we bring fatal things with us. God invited the people to come near to His awesome Presence, but the worshippers needed sacrifices on their behalf to purify them from their ordinary corruption and mortality. As Paul declared, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:50).
Sacrifice is about both nearness and cleansing the stains of sin and mortality that form a barrier between us and God. Since we live in a world of sin and death, sacrifices reflect God’s cleaning and transforming work. The sins of the people defiled God’s Sanctuary, but the blood of animals cleansed, allowing God’s Presence to continue dwelling among them. Blood cleanses because it represents life, not death (Leviticus 17:11). We must be cleansed and transformed into the image of God’s Presence and life. Living like Jesus reflects the outflow of God’s self-giving life. Jesus’s sacrifice frees us from the hold of sin and death to live a new life with ever-increasing glory. It is about cleansing and freedom from an enslaving power. It is about forgiveness and destroying the power of death.
These matters are crucial for understanding God’s ultimate solution and how His saving work cleanses and transforms both people and the universe. So, how can God’s Sanctuary message be made sensible and believable to modern people? Sacrifice is also about drawing near in a spiritual or psychological sense. It represents learning and preparation processes, not a condemnation process. Understanding sacrifice as God intended helps us learn that He is not responsible for the tragedies of evil in this world. Sacrificial victims die because of man; humanity is responsible for bringing death through its own sin and blindness to its death-dealing ways. Death is man’s idea, not God’s. If we can realize that we are part of the problem, we may turn away from our evil and accept God’s solution. God had to communicate not only the cost of forgiveness but also how He cleanses and restores. Sacrifices are not punitive in function. Understanding that God does not need to be appeased changes the way we understand the Sanctuary.
The harsh reality is that our sin and death pollute God’s Sanctuary, His creation, and His space. Amazingly, however, despite our sin and corruption, our relationship with God has not been severed. Sin and death in this world are man’s doing, but God works to cleanse and heal. God’s commitment to dwell with us and bring us into union with Him is the grand narrative, and at its end, we are destined for eternal life in His Presence. However, as we do not yet fully dwell in God’s Presence after the cross, we must consider priestly responsibilities beyond sacrifice. These considerations will be the topic of next week’s post.
Craig Ashton Jr.