Over the years, one thing that has fascinated me about the gospel is the way it takes our familiar human longings and instincts and transforms their common, sinful manifestations in liberative ways.
Take the almost universal human impulse to sacrifice, for instance. Jewish philosopher Moshe Halbertal notes in On Sacrifice that sacrifice is the “most primary and basic form of all ritual.” In Greco-Roman religion, the principle do ut des (I give that you might give) governed sacrificial ritual: You gave gifts to the gods to put them in your debt so they might bless you—or to appease their wrath on the chance you angered them. In ancient times, sacrifice was the anxious, human end of the bargain.
We may think we’re too modern, enlightened and humane to practice the sacrifices that marked the worship of our ancestors, but a quick scan of our contemporary culture says otherwise. We too have rituals of sacrifice.
We put on sacred vestments and sacrifice sweat (and blood, even) at the gym so the gods will bless us with sex appeal (Aphrodite) or spare us from sickness (Apollos). We sacrifice time (and our families) at work so Mammon will shower us with possessions and recession-proof 401(k)s. We sacrifice our neighbors’ reputations in ritualized social media posts to Pheme, goddess of fame and rumor, that we might protect our own in exchange.
When it comes to Scripture, then, we shouldn’t be surprised to find sacrifices. But we should slow down and notice that sacrifice works a bit differently there. Halbertal says that in Scripture, sacrifice in its most basic form is still a gift to God. It is either offered to bring about communion and intimacy or to atone for a breach and restore that communion, putting away God’s wrath.
But take a closer look at the most important sacrificial text in the Old Testament, from the book of Leviticus, which explains why Israelites weren’t allowed to eat blood in their meat: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life” (17:11, ESV). The author of Hebrews picks this up in the New Testament to explain that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (9:22, ESV).
On the surface, this seems familiar: The lifeblood of the sacrifice is to be offered up as a gift, making atonement. Functionally, the gift is a substitute for the life of the sinner—who owes it to God for his sin—ransoming him from death. But the familiarity of the mechanics of atonement makes it easy to skip the most remarkable line in the verse: “I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls” (emphasis added). Reading this should stop us, should prompt a mental record-scratch moment.
Note that God doesn’t say to reserve some blood to give to him on the altar. No, God has given it for us on the altar. He himself is the one who provides the means of sacrifice we need to make atonement for our souls before him!
Lest we think that’s a one-off, we see the same principle at work throughout Scripture. We see it dramatically displayed in the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah. Right before Abraham brings the knife down on Isaac, the angel of the Lord appears and stops him. Abraham looks up, and “in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns” (Gen 22:13). God provides the sacrifice! That is why on that day Abraham called the place “The Lord Will Provide” (v. 14).
We see the very same movement, taken to its glorious, shocking conclusion, in the gospel. The miracle is that we are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood” (Rom. 3:24–25, emphasis added). Herein we find the uniqueness of the gospel. We see a God unlike the gods—ancient or modern—that we are so often tempted to appease. He is the one who offers the sacrifice.
We don’t give so that he will give to us in return. He gives first. Even more, in Christ, the God-man, he gives himself. His is the blood that ransoms our souls and purifies our uneasy consciences “from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:14, ESV). He liberates us to offer our whole lives as living sacrifices—motivated by God’s mercy, not our anxious fears.
Derek Rishmawy is the Reformed University Fellowship campus minister at the University of California, Irvine and a doctoral candidate at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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