In considering further the question of “does sin need to be punished?” the subject of the sacrificial system in the Old Testament is a natural progression in this discussion. To set the stage for this, let’s return to the perfection of Eden. God warned Adam and Eve, “You must not eat the fruit of that tree; if you do, you will die the same day.” (Genesis 2:17)
Why was there such a serious consequence associated with eating the fruit of that tree? “…you will die the same day.” How we answer this question reveals a great deal about whether we believe sin to result in natural consequences that lead to death, or imposed penalty that leads to death.
The death that God warned them about did not refer to the death of old age or pneumonia. God was warning them about the death that is the result of sin. If that is true, do we believe that God meant, “If you follow the path of Satan, you will die as a natural consequence of separation from Me – the source of life.” Or, do we believe that God meant, “If you eat the fruit, I will have to kill you because of your sin.”
I see God again and again revealing to us the 2 sides: one side that leads to life and another side that leads to death. Adam and Eve rejected God’s warning and notice what immediately followed. God came for a walk in the garden and instead of running up to God with words of repentance and to tell Him about this terrible serpent they had encountered, they are now terrified of God. Their picture of God as they trembled in the bushes was certainly not that of a God who would be willing to spend 9 months in the womb and 3 days in the tomb for them. They had believed the lies of Satan about God and were on the path of death and destruction that God had warned them about. They desired separation from their Creator rather than to come close.
So what is God to do? How does God reach people who are trembling in fear and hiding from Him? Sadly but for their own good, they must leave the presence of their Creator. In their distrustful and rebellious state, dwelling in the presence of God was no longer a joy. In their current state, how could God vividly impress on them that the path of Satan, which would further and further separate them from Him, would lead to death – not merely physical death, but spiritual death as well? They needed to be “born again” as Jesus would later explain to Nicodemus. They needed to experience true repentance which is ultimately to change one’s mind about God.
Enter the sacrificial system
What meaning was this service to hold for Adam and Eve? Was it a meaningless ritual until thousands of years later, when it could finally be understood in the light of Jesus’ death? Was the blood needed from God’s perspective? Did God need the blood to change His view of humanity or so that His wrath should be appeased by somehow punishing sin in the form of a dying lamb?
Having rejected God’s warning about the tree (“sin leads to death”), I believe that the sacrificial system was to further impress on the minds of Adam and Eve the serious consequences of sin.
What was going through Adam’s mind when he killed the first lamb? They surely did not have sharp swords in the garden. What did he kill it with? Did he kill it with his hands or beat it with a rock? It must have been a revolting experience, and that was the whole point, to remind Adam, and his children, of the horrible consequences of rebellion, “As it is, however, the sacrifices serve year after year to remind people of their sins” (Hebrews 10:3).
The sacrificial system does not tell us, “God should kill you, but he is satisfied with the death of a lamb instead.” Rather, the sacrificial system should impress on our minds the horrible consequences of sin. As we shall see later, the death of Jesus makes an infinitely stronger case for the inherent consequences of sin that lead to death.
But God not only showed Adam and Eve by this shocking demonstration that the way of sin leads to death, He also revealed hope for a coming Savior – a Savior who would bring eternal life to all.
God clearly did not want to be misunderstood and notice how many times Scripture tells us that God does not desire sacrifice. Rather, the sacrifice was entirely for the benefit of the people who needed it – God did not need the blood. Notice how redundant the Bible is on this point (there are many more verses than these!):
“You do not want sacrifices, or I would offer them; you are not pleased with burnt offerings. My sacrifice is a humble spirit, O God; you will not reject a humble and repentant heart” (Psalms 51:16,17)
“He says, ‘Do you think I want all these sacrifices you keep offering to me? I have had more than enough of the sheep you burn as sacrifices and of the fat of your fine animals. I am tired of the blood of bulls and sheep and goats. Who asked you to bring me all this when you come to worship me? Who asked you to do all this tramping around in my Temple? It’s useless to bring your offerings. I am disgusted with the smell of the incense you burn. I cannot stand your New Moon Festivals, your Sabbaths, and your religious gatherings; they are all corrupted by your sins. I hate your New Moon Festivals and holy days; they are a burden that I am tired of bearing’” (Isaiah 1:11-14).
“What shall I bring to the Lord, the God of heaven, when I come to worship him? Shall I bring the best calves to burn as offerings to him? Will the Lord be pleased if I bring him thousands of sheep or endless streams of olive oil? Shall I offer him my first-born child to pay for my sins? No, the Lord has told us what is good. What he requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humble fellowship with our God” (Micah 6:6-8).
Re-read Micah 6 one more time! Does God need to be appeased? Does God need the blood? No! All God wants is a trusting relationship – “to live in humble fellowship with our God.” The sacrificial system met people hiding in the bushes, but it was to lead them to the path of life, which is “to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humble fellowship with our God.” Beautiful!
And finally, this verse makes it very clear
“I want your constant love, not your animal sacrifices. I would rather have my people know me than burn offerings to me.” (Hosea 6:6).
That is, “Adam and Eve, I don’t need the blood. I want a trusting relationship with you! I want your constant love and I want you to experience My constant love. I would infinitely rather that you knew Me as a Friend than to have you burn offerings.”
In the process of restoring us back to this ideal of trusting friendship, God has had to stoop to do many things to meet us where we are. This included the sacrificial system, the shaking of mountains and the sending of she-bears, etc. But let’s not confuse these actions of the God who desperately wants to marry us, with the false image of an angry god who needs to be appeased and who must punish sin.
Next time, the story of Abraham and Isaac. Some have interpreted this story as God needing to kill sinful humanity (representing Isaac), but that instead Jesus came to take the penalty (or punishment). What do you think about this story?