The Old Testament system of animal sacrifices ended in 70 A.D. when the Roman army destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. The only major religions to continue practicing animal sacrifice are Islam and Hinduism. But because Christianity grew out of Judaism and the Old Testament, the modern church must wrestle with attacks on its Jewish heritage.
One recent challenge to the Christian faith is from “animal-rightists” who attack the Old Testament system of sacrificing animals. Some of them teach that the Bible has been corrupted by wicked priests who promoted sacrifice only to fatten themselves on meat from the altar. Later, they claim, the apostle Paul promoted sacrifice and meat eating to appeal to Gentiles to grow the church.
Thus, they propose that the Bible contains many evil errors that lead us astray.
Their foundational premise is that humans should not kill animals. Therefore, if the Bible ever allows animal killing, the Bible has to be wrong. I hope that you can recognize the danger of such a view. Such a view means that the Bible is actually partly evil, and thus, the God of traditional Judaism and Christianity was a bloodthirsty Deity.
On the contrary, I reply, God has protected the Scripture from major error in its transmission through the millennia. Furthermore, God is not a bloodthirsty monster, but instead provided a remarkable means for bringing forgiveness to doomed sinful humanity. While animal sacrifice was ugly and bloody, it was the only possible solution to the problem of bringing peace between God and
wicked humans before the coming of Jesus Christ.
Modern people have decided that God is only love; not justice, or holiness. Animal sacrifice was how God showed His anger at sin and simultaneously showed His plan to redeem His people. Animal sacrifice was the demonstration of God’s character and the plan of salvation. That is why we have to talk about it.
The first killing on Earth was not Cain’s murder of Abel. Jesus killed animals first. In Genesis chapter 3, when Adam and Eve sinned by eating of the forbidden tree, they were ashamed and made fig leaf clothes. Jesus came and made for them “clothes of skin.” The humans had been warned that death would come if they violated God’s one command. But it was not instant death.
Jesus did not execute the man and woman. The process of death came upon their bodies, and their lifespans would come to an end in centuries future.
Adam and Eve would be kicked out of the Garden of Eden. So Jesus killed animals to make clothing for them. The Bible does not directly specify that He killed lambs, but it seems likely. It would be a symbol of the future death of Jesus the Lamb of God. Also, Abel soon after, would be raising flocks of sheep and sacrificing them. That implies that they had learned how to kill sheep.
Jesus covered our sins with His blood just as He covered Adam and Eve with the skins and blood of the lambs.
Paul is attacked by animal rightists is because he makes the clearest explanation of the purpose of sacrifice and blood. As God told Adam and Eve, and Paul said in Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death.” And in Romans 3:25 we learn how God can forgive us. “Through His faithfulness, God displayed Jesus as the place of sacrifice where mercy is found by means of His blood.”
So Paul doesn’t get all the credit or blame, this is also found in I Peter 1:19. “
You were liberated by the precious blood of Christ, like that of a flawless, spotless lamb.” In Genesis 9, God said you can eat animals now, but you must drain out all the blood, because life is in the blood. So blood is the symbol of life. Hebrews 9:22 says “Almost everything is cleansed by blood, according
to the Law’s regulations, and there is no forgiveness without blood being shed.”
Death is the penalty of sin.
God told His people that He would temporarily accept the blood of
animals instead of their human lives. That was the early edition of the plan of salvation.
If I lived before Jesus, and I sinned, I was supposed to go to a priest with an animal to kill it on the altar, to gain forgiveness. A bull, or a sheep, or a lamb, or a goat, or a bird, might be my substitution. I would get blood all over me, killing this animal. Then the priest sprinkles it everywhere, and burns some of it.
And sometimes I could take parts of the body home to eat.
This sacrifice was not because an animal’s death in itself had the power to purify humans from their sins (see Hebrews 10:4); but because God accepted this offering as a sort of down-payment, to be finally certified when Jesus died for our sins, replacing the animal, on our behalf. Jesus as the Lamb of God took on the sins of His people.
There were other sacrifices that did not require blood and death. There were grain offerings and thankgiving offerings where produce was the gift. These did not involve forgiveness for sins. Forgiveness only came by bloody death.
Animal rightists use several verses from the prophets, poorly interpreted, to claim that God never wanted sacrifices. The most commonly used verse is Isaiah 66:3. “The one who slaughters an ox kills a person; the one who sacrifices a sheep breaks a dog’s neck; the one who makes a grain offering offers swine’s blood; the one who burns incense blesses an idol. All these have chosen their own ways, and prefer detestable things.” (Common English Bible) They cite this verse to equate the sacrifice of an ox with the murder of a human being.
But taken in context, God was condemning the ritualistic worship of hypocrites, who were making their sacrifices while still murdering people and worshiping idols. As Samuel the prophet, said to King Saul, “Does the Lord want entirely burned offerings and sacrifices as much as obedience to the Lord? Listen to this: obeying is better than sacrificing, paying attention is better than the fat from rams, ” (I Samuel 15:22-23 CEB) The prophetic rebukes are restatements of that key truth.
Your heart had to be asking for God’s forgiveness while killing the animal, or the sacrifice was wicked and contemptible to God.
Let’s talk about Jesus again, from the Gospels now.
The gospels never say flat out, Jesus made a sacrifice. Therefore, using the argument from silence, some animal rightists claim that Jesus never made sacrifices.
We have several reasons to believe that Jesus made animal sacrifices.
First of all, Joseph and Mary sacrificed two pigeons in Luke chapter 2 right after Jesus was born. So His parents practiced sacrifice.
Second, Joseph died when Jesus was a teenager. As head of the household, Jesus would have to make sacrifices on behalf of his mother and brothers, even if not for Himself (since He did not sin).
Thirdly, in Mark chapter 1, Jesus healed a man of skin disease then ordered the man to go make the required sacrifices for cleansing. The cleansing sacrifice required killing a sheep and some birds at the Temple. Jesus believed that there was good reason to kill animals in cleansing and restoring the man to acceptance in the Jewish community. If sacrifices were sinful Jesus would not command it.
Lastly, Jesus did make one sacrifice in Genesis chapter 3. He killed lambs to cover Adam and Eve. Then, in the Gospels, Jesus sacrificed Himself, to end the whole sacrificial system. Jesus performed the very first sacrifice, and the very last necessary sacrifice, for all time. Hebrews 7:27 says, “He doesn’t need to offer sacrifices every day like the other high priests, first for their own sins, then for the sins of the people. He did this once for all when he offered himself.”
If you are a Christian, you are saved because of a sacrifice. You just didn’t have to kill an animal yourself to gain that salvation.
All of us now, today, live as adopted children because of Christ’s sacrifice.