What About Sacrifice?
Question: Why would God command people to sacrifice? I’ve heard some argue that he didn’t (Hebrews 10:5, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired…”) but that all the verses that seem to say He did are just ways that God has accommodated Himself to human ignorance. They say that all sacrifices are just the product of fear, and perfect love has cast out fear, so God doesn’t, and never did desire sacrifice.
Response: I’m hugely sympathetic to the underlying reasons that people question the sacrificial system in the Old Testament, but I am deeply concerned that we’ve missed the meaning and beauty of sacrifice due to the fact that we’ve believed absurd atonement theories presented by modern Evangelicals.
In Romans 12, after Paul stated that God “consigned all to disobedience that he may have mercy on all,” and as the entire imperative thrust of his eleven chapter theological discourse, he wrote: “I appeal to you therefore, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual (logikos, logical) worship.”
[I made this a new paragraph for clarity] Paul is clearly not stating that God needs further sacrifice to accomplish the work of forgiveness or to appease His anger; he is arguing that sacrifice is what God has been longing for all along.
Mercy is sacrifice. Atonement for sin was only part of the sacrificial system. Not all sacrifices were offered in fear, but clearly, some were offered in thanksgiving and praise. Think of Solomon dedicating the temple or David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant. Or think of Jesus; I think He enjoyed laying down His life for me. One day, I will enjoy laying down my life for Him.
Sacrifice is “giving blood.” “The life is in the blood.” Humanity is truly one Body in Christ. In a living body, sacrifice is not death but the very definition of Life. If one part of my body refuses to surrender the life or “lose the life,” it won’t find its life.
Unless each member bleeds out, nothing can bleed in and the blood clots.
[I made this a new paragraph for clarity] To freely sacrifice like Christ is the very definition of love. We do not need to sacrifice in order to appease the wrath of God, but until we sacrifice—as Christ sacrificed—we cannot know Love and live eternal Life. We must lose our life to find it (“The life is in the blood“).
I think CS Lewis and George Macdonald say it best:
“For in self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm not only of all creation but of all being. For the Eternal Word also gives Himself in sacrifice; and that not only on Calvary. For when He was crucified He ‘did that in the wild weather of His outlying provinces which He had done at home in glory and gladness’. From before the foundation of the world He surrenders begotten Deity back to begetting Deity in obedience. And as the Son glorifies the Father, so also the Father glorifies the Son… From the highest to the lowest, self exists to be abdicated and, by that abdication, becomes the more truly self, to be thereupon yet the more abdicated, and so forever. This is not a heavenly law which we can escape by remaining earthly, nor an earthly law which we can escape by being saved. What is outside the system of self-giving is not earth, nor nature, nor ‘ordinary life,’ but simply and solely Hell. . . .
The golden apple of selfhood, thrown among the false gods, became an apple of discord because they scrambled for it. They did not know the first rule of the holy game, which is that every player must by all means touch the ball and then immediately pass it on. To be found with it in your hands is a fault: to cling to it, death. But when it flies to and fro among the players too swift for eye to follow, and the great master Himself leads the revelry, giving Himself eternally to His creatures in the generation, and back to Himself in the sacrifice, of the Word, then indeed the eternal dance ‘makes heaven drowsy with harmony.’ All pains and pleasures we have known on earth are early initiations in the movements of that dance: but the dance itself is strictly incomparable with the sufferings of this present time. As we draw nearer to its uncreated rhythm, pain and pleasure sink almost out of sight. There is joy in the dance, but it does not exist for the sake of joy. It does not even exist for the sake of good, or of love. It is Love Himself, and Good Himself, and therefore happy.” — C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
Imagine the temple, not simply as a place to appease some angry deity, imagine the temple as the heart in the body of the New Jerusalem that is the Body and Bride of Christ. Why is it so bloody? …Is it because God is angry? NO! …It is because God is eternally happy and the heart continually pumps a river of Life to every member. To become a member of that Body is not to refuse to bleed, but to bleed freely and continuously.
- If only one bleeds it looks like a naked man nailed to a tree in the middle of a garden.
- If two bleed, it begins to look like a healthy marriage.
- When all humanity bleeds for each other and for God, it will be eternal life and the continuous ecstatic communion that is the Kingdom.
Take another look at Hebrews 10:5-7. “Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’ ”
What is the body that is prepared for Christ? It’s us. And what is God’s will? His will is that we would love as He loves. And how does He love? He gives His life for us. He bleeds for us and, in a healthy body, all members bleed one for another. “The life is in the blood…” Life is the circulation of blood. Life is non-stop mutual sacrifice.
I applaud the effort to do away with poorly formed theories of penal substitutionary atonement. I think they are the reason that we all struggle with passages about sacrifice. It’s true that God does not want dead sheep and goats, but it is untrue to say that God does not want us to present ourselves as living sacrifices… or that all the stuff about sacrifice was just people being wicked and then projecting their wickedness upon God. I think that to say so does such violence to Scripture that it seems absurd to read it at all.
On the day God delivered Israel from the Egyptians He did not instruct them regarding “burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Jeremiah 7:22), but he did instruct them regarding the sacrifice of a Passover lamb. He is that Lamb. He is standing on the throne as one “freshly sacrificed.” We are being made in His image—the image of absolute Love.
Jesus didn’t sacrifice Himself so that none of us would ever sacrifice. He sacrificed Himself so that all of us would sacrifice in freedom and joy. To sacrifice is to forgive—aphiemi in Greek; it is to let the blood flow.
As I stated, I wholeheartedly support the effort to portray God as Love, because He is. I would just argue that sacrifice is not the opposite of Love, but ironically, it is its definition.