Transition and Triumph
My maternal grandfather grew up in Odessa. A gentile lady protected him during the pogrom of 1905. As a young teenager he migrated to the northeastern United States. He left the Ukraine in 1914, one month before the start of World War I. I have never had the opportunity to visit the region where my grandfather spent his boyhood, but I am thrilled to serve God's Church in the Ukraine by means of this and other articles.
This introduction will close with the words of a fellow product of rabbinical training, Saul of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, ....for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
S GOD'S New Covenant Church observed its first Pentecost, the one hundred and twenty disciples of Jesus saw three thousand of their fellow Jews also accept Jesus as their personal Savior, Lord and Master, High Priest, and coming King--three thousand in one day!
The community of believers continued to grow, " and the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved" (Acts 2:41, 47, NKJV, here and unless otherwise stated). Further reading of Acts informs us that after the ordination of seven deacons, " the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the Priests were obedient to the faith" (Acts 6:7). Writing as an Aaronic priest (Kohen in Hebrew, Kaplan in European languages), I can understand why many of my relatives would accept the Gospel in the fourth decade of the first century. Their priestly activities foreshadowed the role of Jesus Christ in God's awesome plan of salvation.
The New Testament revelation presents us with the most effective explanation possible for the major role that sacrifices played in the religion of the Old Testament. In nations whose dominant culture is connected with Protestantism, there is a tendency to underemphasize the important of sacrifices under the Old Covenant.
MANY OTHER CULTURES still maintain sacrificial rituals. The spectacle of the bullfight is very popular in many Spanish-speaking countries. The bullfight is very much akin to a sacrificial ritual. The slaughtering of animals in connection with religious activity can be encountered in many non-western nations.
Until 70 A.D. the Holy Temple was still standing on Mount Moriah. The Levitical priesthood continued to function as the Mosaic law commanded. Bulls, sheep, goats, and doves were slaughtered on God's altar. The very existence of that system of worship played a major role in the early success of apostolic Christianity.
Devout Jews, steeped in the sacrificial system could readily understand the significance of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Devout Jews, steeped in the sacrificial system could readily understand the significance of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He had died at the very hour when the slaughter of Passover lambs officially commenced on the Temple Mount. He was and is, " the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John1:29).
The sacrificial system is, directly or indirectly, the most frequently discussed subject in the Five Books of Moses. God Himself slaughters the first sacrifice in Genesis 3:21. The death of an animal normally would be necessary to obtain the skins with which God clothed Adam and Eve. The account of how God clothed our first parents occurs almost immediately after the messianic prophecy of Genesis 3:15 which revealed Christ's sacrifice over four millennia in advance! Yes, the Head of God's Church is also, " the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Revelation 13:8).
If we continue to read in Genesis, we quickly notice that righteous Abel " brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the Lord respected Abel and his offering" (Genesis 4:4). The Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 15:18 is preceded by Abraham's sacrificing a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon (verse 9). It is connected in Genesis with a sacrificial sign, circumcision. Male descendants of Abraham were to be circumcised on the eighth day. The sacrificial nature of this ritual is clearly illustrated in Exodus 4:26 by the comment of Zipporah connecting circumcision with blood. Circumcision was required for access to the specific sacrificial system which was a part of the Old Covenant.
THE SACRIFICE of the paschal lamb was of particular importance. It was commanded of the Israelites before they ever left Egypt. The positive response of the Hebrew slaves to God's command regarding the Passover sacrifice was a critical factor in the entire account of their deliverance from bondage. The instructions in Exodus 12 make clear that the Passover sacrifice was to continue through the years, and it was also quite clearly commanded that for a man to fully participate in the Passover rites, he had to be circumcised.
The actual sacrificial death of God's Messiah removes the required slaying of a paschal lamb.
One can understand how first century Jewish Christians might have had difficulty considering uncircumcised Gentiles as full members of the Church. An uncircumcised Gentile was excluded from ever being involved in the sacrificial rituals, including, of course, those which began the Days of Unleavened Bread. God inspired the Church to understand that such participation was unnecessary after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Since it was unnecessary, it did not matter whether or not Gentile Christians were able to offer a Temple sacrifice, even one so important as the Passover sacrifice. Even for Jews, this and other Temple sacrifices were no longer required. Jesus Christ is our Passover (I Corinthians 5:7), the antitype of which the animal sacrifice was the type. The actual sacrificial death of God's Messiah removes the required slaying of a paschal lamb.
Genesis 22:1-2 is an obvious foreshadowing of John 3:16. Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac, having faith that God would resurrect this son of promise. Isaac figuratively gave his life and was, in a sense, resurrected. (Hebrews 11:17-19) Isaac had inquired concerning the sacrificial lamb. (Genesis 22:7) "And Abraham said, 'My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering'. " (verse 8). Later a ram was provided, " So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son" (verse 13).
God prohibits human sacrifices but commanded animal sacrifices for ancient Israel. The ancient Church was learning a lesson. The lesson became clear to the 3000 Pentecost observers who responded to Peter's inspired sermon. The sin of Adam and Eve led to death (Genesis 2:17). Ezekiel taught that " the soul who sins shall die" (18:4, 20). Everyone of us is facing eternal death unless that penalty can somehow be paid. The death of one or even thousands of animals would hardly seem efficacious.
The death of the King of all human beings, who was also sinless, could reasonably substitute for the death of each of us, His subjects, provided that we accept His sovereignty over us. Even more so do we appreciate the power of that sacrifice when we understand that God created human beings though Jesus Christ. He who created us could take responsibility for us, and offer up His life for us.
THE ANCIENT SACRIFICES were a constant foreshadowing of that awesome reality, an aspect of God's plan that most effectively demonstrates God's love, His unselfish outgoing concern. Shortly before His arrest, Jesus reminded His apostles that "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends" (John 15:13).
when you read the New Testament, keep in mind the major importance of sacrifices in first century religion
This basic Christian concept is so powerful that it is a factor in making professing Christians the largest religious community in the world. Within Christendom, the Church that Jesus Christ established and heads includes a relatively small number of members. When you read the New Testament, keep in mind the major importance of sacrifices in first century religion. The entire ministry of Peter and that of Paul were conducted while God's Temple still stood in the Holy Land and sacrificial rituals were, of course, an ongoing reality affecting the life of the Jerusalem church for well over three decades.
The decision in Acts 15 becomes more understandable when its historical context is kept in mind. An uncircumcised gentile man could choose to observe the Sabbath and the dietary laws. However, he could never choose to participate in the Israelite sacrificial system. That male might rant and rave, or stand on his head, or whatever, but he had no access to the Temple Court of the Israelites unless he were circumcised. That area was not open to uncircumcised gentiles. God revealed to His Church that the New Covenant does not require even theoretical access to the Temple Court of the Israelites. Under the New Covenant, such access is unnecessary.
SUCH A REVELATION might have been shocking at first to some church members in the thirties A.D. Sacrifices were a very important part of their religious heritage going back many centuries. Even today there is a tradition among strictly Orthodox Jews to teach their young children the book of Leviticus because of its emphasis on purity. The children thus become very familiar with the subject of animal sacrifices.
Gentile converts having no access to the Israelite sacrificial system might be tempted to continue to be involved in local, pagan sacrificial rituals. The four prohibitions required of gentile converts in Acts 15 are all directly related to such rituals. As soon as Noah left the ark, he offered sacrifices (Genesis 8:20-21). It should not be surprising that his descendants, in their various pagan religions, continued to offer sacrifices, yet often in an inappropriate manner and in connection with inappropriate conduct.
In almost the same moment that the Israelites were given the Ten Commandments, they received instruction concerning sacrifices (Exodus 20:24-26). Chapters thirty-five through forty of Exodus contain detailed instructions relating to the Tabernacle, which was the required location at which Israel's sacrifices were to be offered.
Probably at first, the required sacrifices were those offered by the Priests and Levites as a court ritual, not obligatory for other Israelites. Evidently, the sinfulness of ancient Israel caused God to impose upon them a system of sacrifices to be brought, as required, by individuals not otherwise serving in the Tabernacle. These sacrifices are included in the material contained in Leviticus chapters one through seven. These commanded personal sacrifices were a part of the disciplinary measures included in the written code which God gave to ancient Israel through Moses.
In a community in which few of the members have received God's Holy Spirit, an external discipline would be needed to maintain proper standards.
In a community in which few of the members have received God's Holy Spirit, an external discipline would be needed to maintain proper standards. The rituals and penalties imposed upon sinners under the Old Covenant foreshadowed the incarceration, beating, and death that Jesus Christ endured on behalf of each and every one of us. In that sense, Paul wrote concerning the written code, "Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith." (Galatians 3:24)
It is unlikely that God will ever again require these sacrifices from individual sinners. That disciplinary system need not ever return. The prophet Ezekiel has much to say concerning the restoration of sacrifices during the millennium. The required sacrifices described in Ezekiel chapters forty through forty-seven are, as at the beginning of the Old Covenant, a court ritual carried out only by Priests and Levites in Jerusalem. Sacrifices will not be required of anyone else.
The Old Testament scriptures emphasize that the attitude of obedience to God was at the core of Israel's religion. Animal sacrifices had nowhere near the same importance. (Exodus 19:4-6; Jeremiah 7:21-23; I Samuel 15:22) Yet that same collection of Scriptures frequently make positive reference to those sacrificial offerings.
God prefers sincere repentance to sacrifices.
Psalm 51:14-17 tells us that God prefers sincere repentance to sacrifices. But notice that the very next verses enthusiastically endorse the sacrificial system. "Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion; Build the walls of Jerusalem. Then You shall be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, With burnt offering and whole burnt offering; Then they shall offer bulls on Your altar" (verses 18-19).
The last Old Testament prophet, Malachi, looked forward to a Messiah who would enhance the Temple service. " He will purify the sons of Levi, And purge them as gold and silver, That they may offer to the LORD An offering in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem "Will be pleasant to the LORD, As in the days of old, As in former years" (3:3-4). As an Orthodox Jew, I used to recite Malachi 3:4 thrice daily. Traditional Judaism remains traumatized over the loss of the Temple and its sacrificial system of worship. But, consider, can wading around in the blood of livestock actually exempt anyone from the reality that his or her character is flawed, and that God has no compelling reason to keep him or her around beyond the length of a physical lifespan?
THE ULTIMATE LESSON of the Temple sacrifices will become clear to an embattled Jewry in Jerusalem as the history of human civilization comes to its prophesied climax. The Jews keep the Feast of Trumpets and will welcome the Messiah while many other nations will initially oppose Him. But then His full identity will be revealed to His people. For these devout Jews, the result will be even more profound than on Pentecost, 31 A.D. The Jews " will look on Me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a Firstborn" (Zechariah 12:10). Men and women will pray separately, in Orthodox fashion, as they reconcile with Jesus Christ (verse 12-14).
Perhaps in anticipation of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the author of the epistle to the Hebrews reminded Jewish Christians that " it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins" (10:4). Christianity does not require temple activities because " we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all"(10:10 NRSV). The Old Testament sacrifices pointed to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ . Perhaps contemporary religious Jews would be more open to the New Testament if the sacrificial system were currently operating.
Orthodox Judaism recognized a need for an authoritative explanation for the full intent of the Hebrew and Aramaic scriptures. In Jewish tradition, the light of the Holy Scriptures must be viewed through the prism of the Talmud. For Orthodox Jews, the Talmud is their guide to properly serving God. The New Testament is the "Talmud" for God's Church, the true guide to properly serving God, the authentic completion of the written revelation of His plan of salvation. It explains the spiritual intent of God's sacrificial system.
WILL SACRIFICES BE OFFERED during the millennium? Yes! Why? To illustrate graphically the significance of the death of Jesus Christ in God's marvelous plan of salvation. Jesus Christ is our living Savior and High Priest. But we need to keep in mind that each and every one of us is responsible for His death. From another perspective, the salvation of anyone of us would have been sufficient to cause this ultimate expression of God's love. God's love for each and every one of us is beyond our capacity to fully understand.
The existence of God's sacrificial system in the first century was a powerful factor in the early, dramatic rise of Christianity. The millennial sacrifices will be an important pedagogical device for teaching basic Christianity in the wonderful world tomorrow. The Hebrew (including Aramaic) portion of the Bible and the Greek portion fit together like two pieces of a puzzle. Neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament makes complete sense without the other. Whenever we read about the sacrifices offered by ancient Israel, we are reminded of a basic and critically important truth quoted here from Romans 5: 8 " while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
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