An Insufficient Sacrificial System
Hebrews 10:4 is of particular importance for this study (even though it is not in Leviticus). “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Does this verse dismantle the purpose of Mosaic Law? What good were the sacrifices, offerings and ordinances if they did nothing to take away Israel’s sin? Perhaps this question would be more helpful: “Why did God give the Law if it could not save Israel?” A similar question would be: “If offerings and sacrifices did not take away their sin, then how was anyone ever saved?” First consider the second question.
I. How Were Old Testament Believers Saved?
Old Testament believers were saved by the same grace New Testament are: the blood of Jesus Christ upon the cross. “Christ Jesus, whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:25-26). Christ’s death demonstrated righteousness not simply for all future acts of grace but for all the forbearance of God in which He passed over sins previously committed.
When Old Testament believers sinned, God forgave their sin by looking-forward to Christ’s death on the cross. When New Testament believers sin, God forgives their sin by looking-backward to Christ’s death on the cross. The death of Christ was timeless. It satisfied God’s wrath for the sin of God’s people – for all time.
II. Why Did God Give the Mosaic Law?
Now we address the second question: if Jesus paid for His people’s sin, what purpose did the Mosaic Law serve? I have included three brief thoughts below. There is more to say, but certainly we can see this much.
A. To teach the ugliness and seriousness of sin. Modern depictions of the Tabernacle often show the altar as a clean, pristine place – but was this really so? I suggest not. The sacrificial places would have been gruesome. Imagine the stain of blood from daily offerings – the smell of animal flesh – the rough, knife-grooved altar. The place of sacrifice was anything but pretty: it was a place of death. This demonstrated that sin always warrants death and God always follows through with the warrant. In seeing blood being spilled week after week for their sins, the Israelites were given a vivid picture of the sin’s costliness. “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23) was engraved into their very culture and it prepared them for the arrival of a true sacrificial Lamb Who would spill His blood to truly cleanse them of their sins.
B. To show the need for a propitiation. As they witnessed the routine sacrifices for sin, none could doubt that God was a righteous God Who saw punished all rebellion. Israelites presented an offering in their stead, taking their place under the wrath of God. Every bull, ram and lamb were all substitutes in someone’s place, to make atonement on his behalf. As these offerings were made regularly, it would have been near impossible for any Israelite to overlook the definite conclusion: “I need another life to die my death, or else I shall die for my sin.” The sacrificial system taught the Jews that God always punishes sin. In light of Hebrews 10:4, we know that this sacrifice didn’t actually serve as a propitiation for their sins. It simply still showed Israel her need for a propitiation.
C. To foreshadow Christ. The slaughtered animals did nothing to atone for sin – but Christ did. Every animal put on the altar served as a horn: blaring the seriousness of sin and the need for propitiation. In doing so, every sacrifice groaned for the Messiah Who would one day come and truly redeem God’s people. He would be the propitiation that Israel needed. It is not mere coincidence that John the Baptist cried, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). The sacrificial system established a principle: forgiveness was only possible through sacrifice. This paved the way for Christ.
Looking back at the Old Testament from the New Testament, we see that the sacrificial system was an exercise of faith and a foreshadowing of Christ rather than a means of atonement. Christ gave the Levitical Law its proper context. Certainly we may confess that God inspired Leviticus with Christ’s redemptive work in view. You cannot understand all that is going on in Leviticus until you read it in the context of Jesus Christ.