The story of sacrifice is a story that goes all the way back to the earliest times of creation. God created Adam and Eve and he placed them in the garden. He called them good and they were holy. God gave them one command, to not eat from a certain tree. But they disobeyed God and sinned against him which changed them from being holy to being sinful. Because of their one act of disobedience they were cast out of the garden. One sin was enough to lose paradise. This raises a basic question: how can we, with many sins, expect to regain paradise and holiness?
The answer is forgiveness. And what we know of God’s forgiveness is that it will be consistent with his character and the way he rules over his creation. God said that the way of the LORD is “by doing righteousness and justice (Genesis 18:19).” The Psalmist wrote that God “loves righteousness and justice (Psalm 33:5)” and that righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne (Psalm 89:14). So we’re pretty clear on God’s character. How does God’s forgiveness fit within his character?
If God is perfectly righteous (holy, or sinless) then his forgiveness makes us righteous. And if God is perfectly just, then his forgiveness satisfies his justice. When God gave Adam the command to not eat from the tree, he set forth a law: Do not eat from that tree. What did God say would be the consequence of breaking that law? In his justice he declared the penalty for disobedience to be death. So, when Adam sinned, how did God display his forgiveness?
When Adam sinned, he realized he was naked, and became ashamed. So, he made a covering for himself from leaves in order to cover over his own shame. However, God replaced Adam’s attempt to cover his own shame by covering Adam with the skin of an animal. This was God forgiving Adam. God sacrificed an animal himself and used the skin of that animal to cover over Adam’s shame and demonstrate his forgiveness. God, in his mercy, allowed for a substitute to take the punishment that Adam deserved. God himself sacrificed, killed, an innocent animal in order that his justice would be satisfied. He then used that animal as a sign of Adam’s forgiveness which resulted in his being made righteous by God. Adam did not earn his righteousness and he did not pay the penalty himself. Instead, God did everything on Adam’s behalf.
In this new paradigm of being cast out of the garden, Adam and Eve taught their children what they had received from God. They taught them sacrifice. Two of their children, Cain and Abel, made offerings to God one day. Cain made his offering with wickedness and evil in his heart. Abel made his offering by faith. God accepted Abel’s offering but rejected Cain’s. God accepted Abel’s offering because it was by faith. Interestingly, Abel’s offering was a blood sacrifice. The offering of the person of faith was a blood sacrifice. The pattern of sacrifice can be seen in these first two generations – blood saves because there is life in blood sacrifice. As God said through his prophet Moses, “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 (Leviticus 17:11).”
Years later God’s people were enslaved in Egypt under an unjust ruler. They cried out to God for salvation and he heard his people. God sent punishments upon Egypt, the last of which was to kill the firstborn son of every household. God used his prophet Moses to warn the people of this final punishment and told them that if they sacrificed a lamb and put it’s blood over the doorposts of their houses, then they would be spared from God’s punishment. The blood of the sacrifice saved God’s people from God’s punishment.
Later in history, God gave his people a king named David. David was also a prophet, and God showed David that there is a deeper meaning to sacrifice. David questioned how the blood of animals could be sufficient to cover sins in any kind of meaningful way. Year after year God’s people had to sacrifice animals. Wasn’t there a better, more permanent sacrifice? God also revealed to David that someone from his household would always rule over God’s people. In time, after God’s people rebelled against God and he punished them, God sent prophets to declare that a king from David’s household would come to save God’s people and rule them forever. This coming king became known as the Messiah.
Around 700 BC God sent a prophet named Isaiah. God spoke through Isaiah that the coming Messiah would be born of a virgin. He also said that the Messiah would be a suffering servant. He would be one who would be pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our sins, and that the punishment that brings us peace would be upon him and by his wounds we would be healed. This pointed to the deeper meaning of sacrifice. Blood from animals had been the accepted sacrifice by God but here we see God revealing that a person would be the accepted sacrifice. How could this be? Well, if we think about what sacrifice does, it takes the punishment that a person deserves and places it on an animal. But, an animal’s blood isn’t the same as a person’s blood, because an animal’s life is not as valuable as a person’s life to God. What’s unique about this coming Messiah is that he would be the only person who God ever says would or should shed blood for the sins of others. No other person would be accepted.
Long after Isaiah, we meet John the Baptist, who was a very important prophet. He revealed who the Messiah was. When John the Baptist saw Jesus, he declared him to be the Messiah and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus is the only person whose blood God will ever accept. Jesus was the final sacrifice. Jesus lived sinless. He lived a life of perfect obedience to God that we cannot live. He alone is the righteous man. The blood of the only righteous man was shed for unrighteous sinners. If God allowed for a physically blemish-free animal’s blood to satisfy his justice, how much more the blood of the morally blemish-free man? In this way God’s justice has been satisfied in full. God’s righteous requirement of perfect obedience obtained by the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous. God’s forgiveness is offered through the death of Jesus and made sure through his resurrection.
If we could summarize this story, the entire Bible (all of human history, really!), it would be in one verse: Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” What is a wage? It’s something we earn. Do we earn righteousness? Do we earn forgiveness? Do we earn mercy? No. We earn death because we sin.
By contrast, what is a gift? It is something given, not earned. It is given freely by the one who can give it; but it must be accepted. What is God’s gift? Eternal life is the gift of God. But this gift is only given through Jesus. God has given us a gift and all it requires of us is faith in the sacrifice of Jesus. As we see through the story of Abel, God is pleased by faith. We are saved by faith alone, through Jesus Christ alone. This is God’s gift to us. We are saved from God’s punishment by the blood of the Lamb. Our shame of sin is covered by the sacrifice of Jesus. All we have to do is accept God’s gift by faith.