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Animal Sacrifices and the Atoning Death of Christ in the Book of Acts Pt. 2

Having established that Luke-Acts emphatically teach that salvation comes from trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ…ook-of-acts-pt-1/, and not by the Law and/or the sacrificial system prescribed by Moses, we can now address the verses in question.

Here they are one more time:

“Then on the next day, Paul took the men and purified himself with them. And he went into the temple, announcing when the days of purification would be complete and an offering would be given for each one of them.” Acts 21:26

“Now after many years I came to bring alms and offerings to my nation,” Acts 24:17

In order to properly understand why the Jewish apostles and believers would continue to observe animal sacrifices we need to keep in mind that these offerings were meant to point to something greater. As the following passages confirm, the entire OT points to the Lord Jesus:

“You search the Scriptures, because you think in them you have eternal life. These are they who bear witness of Me. Yet you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life… Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you—Moses, in whom you trust. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote of Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?” John 5:39-40, 45-47

This especially includes all the religious feast days, Sabbaths and sacrifices which the Hebrew Bible prescribed for the people of God:

“Therefore let no one judge you regarding food, or drink, or in respect of a holy day or new moon or sabbath days. These are SHADOWS of things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Colossians 2:16-17

As such, the offerings, which God commanded the priests to present in the tabernacle/temple, were intended to foreshadow the one perfect sacrifice of the Lord Jesus, just as the inspired book of Hebrews explains:

“For the law is A SHADOW of the good things to come, and not the very image of those things. It could never by the same sacrifices, which they offer continually year after year, perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshippers, once purified, would no longer be conscious of sins? But in those sacrifices there is an annual reminder of sins. For it is NOT POSSIBLE for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when He came into the world, He said: ‘Sacrifices and offerings You did not desire, but a body You have prepared for Me. In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have had no pleasure. Then I said, “See, I have come to do Your will, O God,” as it is written of Me in the volume of the book.’ Previously when He said, ‘You did not desire sacrifices and offerings. You have had no pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin,’ which are offered in accordance with the law, then He said, ‘See, I have come to do Your will, O God.’ He takes away the first that He may establish the second. By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ ONCE FOR ALL. But every priest stands daily ministering and repetitively offering the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time He has been waiting for His enemies to be made His footstool. For by one offering He has forever perfected those who are sanctified. The Holy Spirit also witnesses to us about this. For after saying, ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them,’ then He adds, ‘Their sins and lawless deeds will I remember no more.’ Now where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer an offering for sin.” Hebrews 10:1-18

As the author puts it, the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sins, but merely provided a temporary covering of those sins, which explains why they had to be constantly repeated. The very repetitive nature of these offerings proves that they were not intended to remove the sin and guilt of God’s people forever (since they could not do so). After all, how could the death of an animal make complete and perfection satisfaction for the sins of human beings, when animals by nature are inferior in value and worth in the sight of a perfectly just and holy God who made man the crown of his creation?

The repetitive aspect of the sacrifices also served to remind God’s people of their wickedness, showing them just how corrupt and sinful the human condition truly is, thereby highlighting the need for something greater to save mankind and transform human nature so as to overcome the power and influence of sin which has taken humanity captive.

Lest the readers assume this is a uniquely Christian teaching that is not supported by the Hebrew Scriptures, note carefully the following OT citations:

“Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. The Lord smelled a soothing aroma; and the Lord said in His heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth, nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done.’” Genesis 8:20-21

“Who can say, ‘I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin’?” Proverbs 20:9 – cf. 1 Kings 8:46

“I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” Psalm 51:5 – cf. 58:3

“If you, O Lord, should keep track of iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?” Psalm 130:3

“Enter not into judgment with Your servant, for in Your sight no one living is righteous.” Psalm 143:2

“For there is not a righteous man on earth who only does good and refrains from sin.” Ecclesiastes 7:20

“And this is an evil in all that is done under the sun: that the same event happens to all. Truly the hearts of the sons of men are filled with evil, and folly is in their hearts while they have life, and after that they go to the dead.” Ecclesiastes 9:3

“Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good, who are accustomed to doing evil.” Jeremiah 13:23

“The heart is more deceitful than all things and desperately wicked; who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9

This is why the Hebrew prophets emphasized the need for spiritual transformation or, as they put it, the necessity for God’s people to undergo a circumcision of the heart and ears, which would result in a new heart and mind that would enable a person to fear and love the Lord God and to always walk in his commandments:

“Therefore, circumcise your heart, and do not be stubborn anymore.” Deuteronomy 10:16

The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live.” Deuteronomy 30:6

Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskins of your heart, you men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, lest My fury come forth like fire, and burn so that no one can quench it, because of the evil of your deeds.” Jeremiah 4:4

I will give them a heart to know Me, that I am the Lord; and they will be My people, and I will be their God, for they will return to Me with their whole heart.” Jeremiah 24:7

“And they shall be My people, and I will be their God. And I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me forever, for their good and for their children after them. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them that I will not turn away from them, to do them good. But I will put My fear in their hearts so that they shall not depart from Me.” Jeremiah 32:38-40

“When they come there, they shall take away all the detestable things and all the abominations from it. I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them. And I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes, and keep My ordinances, and do them. And they shall be My people, and I will be their God.” Ezekiel 11:18-20

“Then I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean. From all your filthiness and from all your idols, I will cleanse you. Also, I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.” Ezekiel 36:25-27

These passages amply attest that God was preparing his people for something better and greater than what was prescribed in the sacrificial and priestly system, since the Israelites could see that the priestly offerings weren’t affecting a permanent change in their characters, whereby they could avoid coming under the wrath and judgment of God.

Another way in which the Law pointed to Christ is in God’s insisting that both the priests and the animals be physically perfect, having no physical blemishes whatsoever:

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron, saying: None of your offspring in their generations who has any blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. For whoever has a blemish, he shall not approach, whether a blind or lame man, or one who has a physical flaw on his face or a limb that is too long, or a man who has a broken foot or broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a defect in his eye, or eczema or scabs, or is a eunuch. No man who has a blemish from the offspring of Aaron the priest shall come near to offer the food offerings of the Lord made by fire. He has a blemish; he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God. He shall eat the food of his God, both of the most holy and of the holy. Only he shall not go in through the veil or come to the altar, because he has a blemish, so that he does not defile My sanctuaries, for I am the Lord who sanctifies them. Moses spoke this to Aaron, and to his sons, and to all the children of Israel.” Leviticus 21:16-24

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron, and to his sons, and to all the children of Israel, and say to them: Whoever from the house of Israel or from the foreigners in Israel who offers his burnt offering for any vows or freewill offerings that he offers to the Lord, then if it is to be accepted for you, the offering shall be a male WITHOUT BLEMISH, a bull, sheep, or goat. But whatever has a blemish you shall not offer, for it shall not be acceptable for you. Whoever offers a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord to fulfill his vow or a freewill offering, whether from the herd or flock, to be accepted IT SHALL BE PERFECT, WITH NO BLEMISH ON IT. Blind, or disabled, or maimed, or having an ulcer or eczema or scabs, you shall not offer these to the Lord, nor make a food offering by fire on the altar to the Lord. A herd animal or a flock animal that has a limb that is too long or short you may offer for a freewill offering, but for a vow it shall not be accepted. You shall not offer to the Lord an animal that is bruised or crushed or torn or cut; nor shall you make any offering of them in your land. Nor from a foreigner shall you offer an animal as the food of your God, because a blemish is in them from their mutilation. They shall not be accepted for you.” Leviticus 22:17-25

The reason why God demanded that both priests and animals be free from all physical imperfections isn’t because God had something against physical deformities. Rather, God intended to use such physical perfection to point to the absolute spiritual purity of the One to come.

In other words, since none of the Levitical priests were sinless, and since no human being can ascertain the moral condition of animals, God wanted to use the physical bodies of these objects to point to the essential moral perfection and sinlessness of the Lord Jesus Christ:

“Since then we have a great High Priest who has passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who was in every sense tempted like we are, yet without sin. Let us then come with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Hebrews 4:14-16

“And the former priests were numerous because they were hindered from serving because of death. But He, because He lives forever, has an everlasting priesthood. Therefore He is able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, because He at all times lives to make intercession for them. For such a High Priest was fitting for us, for He is holy, innocent, undefiled, separate from sinners, and is higher than the heavens. Unlike those high priests, He does not need to offer daily sacrifices—first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for He did this once for all when He offered up Himself. For the law appoints men who are weak as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came after the law, appoints a Son who is made perfect forever.” Hebrews 7:23-28

“But Christ, when He came as a High Priest of the good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation, neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by His own blood, He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats, and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies so that the flesh is purified, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself WITHOUT BLEMISH to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? For this reason He is the Mediator of a new covenant, since a death has occurred for the redemption of the sins that were committed under the first covenant, so that those who are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.” Hebrews 9:11-15

“For you know that you were not redeemed from your vain way of life inherited from your fathers with perishable things, like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb WITHOUT BLEMISH and WITHOUT SPOT. He was foreordained before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for you.” 1 Peter 1:18-20

Hence, what the priests and sacrificial animals were in regards to their physical makeup, the Lord Jesus happens to be in respect to his essential Being and moral character, e.g. Christ is the only spiritually unblemished and flawless High Priest who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for the express purpose of completely and permanently removing the sins of all those who place their trust in him.

Remarkably, God had already announced all this to his people through the prophet Isaiah:

“Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before Him as a tender plant and as a root out of a dry ground. He has no form or majesty that we should look upon him nor appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from him; he was despised, and we did not esteem him. Surely he has borne our grief and carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray; each of us has turned to his own way, but the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; he was brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away, and who shall declare his generation? For he was cut off out of the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was struck. His grave was assigned with the wicked, yet with the rich in his death, because he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; He has put him to grief. If he made himself as AN OFFERING FOR SIN (asham), he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days, and the good pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the anguish of his soul and be satisfied. By HIS KNOWLEDGE My righteous servant shall justify the many, FOR HE SHALL BEAR THEIR INIQUITIES. Therefore, I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death, and he was numbered with the transgressors, thus HE BORE THE SIN OF MANY and made intercession for the transgressors.” Isaiah 53:1-12

Here we have the perfect atoning death of Christ detailed over seven hundred years before his birth!

The prophet describes the vicarious death of the Servant in the very language which God had Moses employ in connection with the sacrificial system prescribed in Leviticus (i.e. v. 10 asham – cf. Lev. 5:1-19, 6:1-7), especially Leviticus 16 which is all about the national day of atonement, the day when the high priest would make atonement for all of Israel’s crimes, wickedness, transgressions etc.

Isaiah also highlights the essential moral purity of Yahweh’s Servant, i.e., unlike the nation of Israel and even the prophet himself,

“And I said: “Woe is me! For I am undone because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips. For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.’” Isaiah 6:5

This glorious Servant is righteous in God’s sight, being someone who does no violence and whose blessed mouth never utters anything deceitful.

We know that the Apostles were fully aware of this prophecy since the Lord himself cited Isaiah 53, specifically v. 12, in reference to his being taken away to be crucified alongside two transgressors:

“For I tell you, what is written must yet be accomplished in Me, ‘And He was numbered with the transgressors.’ Indeed, what is written concerning Me has a fulfillment.’” Luke 22:37

As did Philip the Evangelist who employed Isaiah 53:7-8 to lead a eunuch to saving faith in the risen Christ:

“Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Rise up and go toward the south on the way that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ This is desert. So he rose up and went. And there was a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in command of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship. He was returning, sitting in his chariot and reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit said to Philip, “Go to this chariot and stay with it.’ Then Philip ran to him, and heard him read the book of Isaiah the prophet, and said, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. The passage of Scripture which he was reading was this: “He was led as a sheep to slaughter; and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so He opened not His mouth. In His humiliation justice was denied Him; who will speak of His generation? For His life is taken from the earth.’ The eunuch said to Philip, ‘I ask you, of whom does the prophet speak, of himself or of someone else?’ Then Philip spoke, beginning with the same Scripture, and preached Jesus to him. As they went on their way, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?’ Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ He answered, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’ And he commanded the chariot to halt. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him.” Acts 8:26-38

Even the Apostle Peter made use of Isaiah 53, particularly vv. 5-9, and 11-12, in his inspired Epistle:

“For to this you were called, because Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: ‘He committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth.’ When He was reviled, He did not revile back; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but He entrusted Himself to Him who judges righteously. He Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness. ‘By His wounds you were healed.’ For you were as sheep going astray, but now have been returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.” 1 Peter 2:21-25

Thus, the followers of Christ knew full well that animal sacrifices did not and could not remove sin or transform the hearts of their offerers. Only the blood of Jesus has the power to accomplish all these things.

Why, then, did they continue to observe and condone such offerings?

In light of the foregoing the answer is rather simple and obvious. Christ’s Jewish followers would have observed these rites with the view that such offerings commemorated the work of the crucified and risen Lord since they were deliberately designed to point to his perfect life of righteousness and vicarious death for the sins of the world. They would have also been able to use these offerings in their evangelism to their fellow countrymen, showing them how inadequate such rites were in providing complete and full atonement, which is why they had to be offered repeatedly. The Apostles and their followers would have then showed them how all of these practices and sacrifices were meant to be fulfilled in the perfect life and once and for all sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah, God’s only perfect means of attaining eternal redemption and transformation from the power of sin, Satan and death. This is precisely what we find the inspired author of Hebrews doing, namely showing how the entire OT system looked ahead to God’s beloved Son who alone is able to perfect and save forever all those who look to him for eternal rest and comfort:

“So also Christ did not glorify Himself to be made a High Priest, but it was He who said to Him: ‘You are My Son; today I have become Your Father.’ As He also says in another place: ‘You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.’ In the days of His flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death. He was heard because of His godly fear. Though He was a Son, He learned obedience through the things that He suffered, and being made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey Him, being designated by God a High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” Hebrews 5:5-9

“Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the Great Shepherd of the sheep, make you perfect in every good work to do His will, working in you that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” Hebrews 13:20-21

Amen! Come Lord Jesus, come! We confess and believe that you are our great High Priest who offered yourself as the only perfect sacrifice which has the power to redeem all those who love and trust in you for eternal life. Amen!

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