Doctrine Ch.21 - Sacrifice

Jewish animal offerings were killed painlessly, so the concept of a sacrifice implied a costly gift, not suffering. What did Paul and others mean when they compared Jesus’ death to a sacrifice?

My teenage daughter returned from a foreign trip and was regaling us with her adventures. She’d described several experiences before hitting us with “And I took part in a ritual slaughter.” I decided to remain calm and let her tell me about it.

       The group had been helping renovate a school in rural Mongolia, and the villagers wanted to give them a feast to express their thanks. As honored guests, they were invited to share in the slaughter of the goat for their meal. They sat down around an expensive rug with an elder who had a knife and a bowl. He stroked the goat, talked to it quietly until it was calm enough to lie on the rug unrestrained, then put the bowl beside it and made a small incision in its neck. The goat didn’t even bleat. It just lay there, being stroked and falling asleep as the bowl filled with blood. Gradually it stopped breathing.

       Old Testament sacrifices were very similar to the killing of the goat witnessed by my daughter. Of course, there was still plenty of blood, and they would not have taken place in a quiet gathering—the Temple was a busy place. However, the animals were killed in the same humane way—by slitting their jugular and letting the blood drain out—because this was the only way to make sure that all the blood was removed (Lev 17:11-14).

       In contrast, our initial thought about sacrifice is suffering and horror, and Jesus’ death was so horrific that it helps to confirm this in our mind. If “sacrifice” didn’t signify the pain and cruelty of Jesus’ death, then what does the New Testament mean when it describes Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sin?

5-minute summary

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Not suffering but a gift

Personally, I like to imagine that meat grows inside supermarket packaging because I find the concept of slaughtering animals somewhat horrifying. However, I can see that Jewish sacrifices involved minimal suffering and were in line with other Old Testament laws against animal cruelty (e.g., Exod 23:5, 12; Deut 22:4-7; 25:4). Most animals in the Jewish sacrificial system were killed by the person who brought them. The owner may well have known the animal well—if they were farmers they probably helped deliver it and watched it grow. During the journey to the Temple, they would have kept it away from other animals to make sure it didn’t get blemished in any way. The easiest way of doing so was to keep it in their own tents, so it became almost like a pet. The manner in which it died would therefore have been important to them, and later rabbinic law said that if the knife wasn’t sharp enough to prevent the animal feeling pain, it wasn’t kosher.1

       So while “sacrifice” makes me think of a victim suffering, an ancient Jewish reader would have regarded it differently: as a gift from the person making the offering. We still use the term “sacrifice” in a similar way when we say, “Giving that will be a real sacrifice.” This concept of a really valuable gift or commitment is how a first-century Jew would have understood the doctrine of Jesus’ sacrifice. Even an urban Jew in the first century would not link “sacrifice” with “suffering” because they’d be familiar with the emphasis on the pain-free killing of sacrifices. They were very aware of this because they knew that if the animal they brought suffered pain, their offering was liable to be refused.

       Sin offerings were central to Jewish religion—they reminded people to say sorry to God in order to be reconciled to him—so this imagery was an effective way of explaining the significance of Jesus’ death. And they were different from other offerings. Most offerings were celebrated with a party: you had to eat the sacrificed animal immediately, so you would invite lots of family and friends to help you. In contrast, sin offerings could only be eaten by priests. By accepting and eating your offering on God’s behalf, the priests demonstrated that your relationship with God was healed. That’s why Moses became so angry when, on one occasion, the priests didn’t eat a sin offering (Lev 10:16-17).

Wanting to be reconciled

We know that Jesus bore the consequences of our sin (as foreseen in Isa 53), but we shouldn’t confuse that suffering with the Jewish concept of sacrifice. For them, sacrifices represent reconciliation, not punishment. The word “atonement” was invented by William Tyndale, who couldn’t find a way of denoting this concept in English so merged the words “at-one-ment.” It indicates the reuniting of people or groups who were estranged. Sin—the barrier between God and humanity—was removed by sacrifice, and the visible proof of this was that God came and ate a meal with you. Actually, of course, all you could see was the priests eating your meal, but this was as close as you got to eating with God until Jesus introduced the Eucharist.

       Paul elaborates this concept in Colossians 1:20-22: “You were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death.” In 2 Corinthians 5:19-21 he defines what kind of sacrifice was needed: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. … God made him who had no sin to be a sin offering for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:19, 21). The NIV text actually says “to be sin for us,” but the translation “to be a sin offering” is in the footnote. It is based on the fact that this Greek word means “sin offering” in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, where it is used more than fifty times. Jesus was our sin offering.

       The most important sin offering in the Jewish sacrificial system occurred on the Day of Atonement, when, uniquely, the animal was burned outside the city—a parallel with Jesus, who was crucified outside the city (Heb 13:11-12). This and all the other sin offerings were pointless after Jesus’ sacrifice. These sacrifices had symbolically reunited sinners with God, but Jesus’ death actually reunited sinners with God. His sacrifice finally fulfilled the longing of all the people who had brought such offerings over the centuries in order to be reconciled to God.

       In Israel’s sacrificial system, God didn’t require a huge feast—any small offering was sufficient. If you were poor, you could bring a couple of doves or even a small amount of flour; they were equally acceptable for atonement, even for the same sin (see Lev 5:7-13). This showed that the significance of a sin offering wasn’t punishment, and the amount didn’t relate to the sin like someone paying a fine. The sin offering was a gift—however much you could afford—to show God that you were sorry. God was like the prodigal’s father, who longed for any indication, however small, that his son wanted to be reconciled.

The most valuable offering

We lose this precious message when we confuse sacrifice with punishment. Paul explains that Jesus’ sacrifice “destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations” (Eph 2:14-15). Unlike the image of vicarious suffering (which is a separate aspect of Christ’s death), the image of sacrifice emphasizes that God wants us back at any cost—even the death of his son. A sacrifice was not made more valuable by making the victim suffer more, because no sacrificial victim was supposed to suffer. A greater sacrifice was made by bringing a more expensive animal such as an ox. God’s sacrifice, by which he wanted to reconcile us to himself, was the most valuable offering imaginable.

       The language of sacrifice shows that the cross is about a father who longs to gather his lost children, a shepherd who goes looking for stray sheep, and a husband who (like the prophet Hosea) forgives the wife who has strayed—and he is willing to pay whatever it takes. If we put all our emphasis on punishment for sins, it means that we can forget God’s grace and forgiveness. No single representation of the cross can convey its full meaning, and attempting to rely on only one explanation will lead us astray. Jesus suffered for us in his death, and his death was a sacrifice—but these are entirely separate aspects of the cross.

       For many of us, our personal horror at the concept of animal sacrifice may have made us miss a precious aspect of this portrayal of Jesus’ sacrifice and left a huge gap in our theology. Jesus’ sacrifice, seen through the eyes of a first-century reader, unveils a glimpse of the depth of God’s love. Like the heartfelt plea by a bereft father who longs to reunite with his children, at any cost, God offered to us his own son as an atoning sacrifice—the most costly gift he possessed.

1^ See “Shechita,” Wikipedia (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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