Sacrifice Sunday


At my church the Sunday morning classes are interrupted several times a year for all-church functions, such as exhibits by our missionaries or local ministries for example. A recent Sunday was "Servant Sunday" which highlighted two-dozen activities within the church. Servant Sunday this year interrupted our class in Hebrews where we were in the middle of a discussion on the radical differences between the Old Covenant and the New.

In his commentary on Hebrews my mentor Ray Stedman noted the living under the Old Covenant is kind of a default mode for many people today. In our class discussion of this several people pointed out how easy it was for any of us to lapse into Old Covenant living (i.e. living the Christian life by self-effort instead of through the power of an indwelling Spirit). We discussed the fact that many church people have perhaps not been taught about the New Covenant and its dynamic freedom. Legalism, for instance, is one form of attempting to live up to the demands of the Law of Moses by self-effort. (Hebrews and Second Corinthians are especially helpful in explaining the New Covenant and how it differs from the Old).

We wondered what would happened if the church were to sponsor an annual "Sacrifice Sunday?" Everyone would be responsible for bringing to church a lamb, a goat, a cow, a pair of doves. (Sorry no cats, dogs, gold fish or pet turtles). The animals would be slain, (in the parking lot), the blood poured out on an altar, and the carcasses cut up and burned in a great fire pit. But first each supplicant would need to check with the church recording clerk to see that his tithes were paid up. (Some members of the congregation, me for instance, might need to bring a flock of animals, not just one). The pastor-priests could explain that they, too, had to bring sacrifices and that all day Saturday had been spent in their own ritual cleansing and purification. The pastor-priests would help us to see that the expensive and valuable animals sacrificed did not actually remove sin, but only covered the sins of the offender. Sin would be dealt with and removed definitively only in the future when the Messiah came. Furthermore, God's judgment for sin was only temporarily averted by these animal sacrifices. In addition, we'd be told that sin was so serious that if any member of the congregation failed to deal with his or her sin, the entire congregation was put in jeopardy.

Finally about mid-afternoon on "Sacrifice Sunday" the most-senior elder would take a wash basin of blood into a mysterious tent which had been in erected in the center of the parking lot, At this point the choirs would stop singing and a "holy hush" would fall over everyone. Would God accept the collective atonement for our church that year or would we all be disqualified? With "luck" our priest would return to us and we'd be off the hook (sort of) for another year.

Naturally, "Servant Sunday" could be only a very modest one-time reenactment of the very detailed and complex ceremonies of the Tabernacle and Temple. We are not Jews, (therefore in fact we are ineligible--the Old Covenant was made between Israel and Yahweh). We have no Levitical priests today, and according to the Epistle of Hebrews, the Old Covenant was actually rendered null and void by Jesus when He came. The Old Covenant specifies a myriad of sacrifices, one could only hope to illustrate one of two of Israel's sacrificial offerings in a church-sponsored "Sacrifice Sunday teaching lesson." (See Ray Stedman's studies in Leviticus).

Cleaning up the bloody, messy parking lot would be a big effort. There will be the neighbors to deal with next, and the League for Animal Rights would surely protest. We could expect to hear from the City Council and from countless neighbors. Expect the paparazzi to show up in full force! We'd probably draw widespread public outrage. "Do you people actually think human beings are actually sinful and that some blood-thirsty God could possibly be appeased by such pagan rites?" "We aren't living in the Dark Ages now, we moderns know that there is no God, and if there is a god, He certainly doesn't get involved in our affairs." Or, "I believe in a God of love, not in a God of judgment."

I think that the very idea of killing even one innocent sheep for "sin" is repulsive even to us Christians. "Surely sin can not be that serious?" "We are civilized people, are we not, our seminary professors have surely found for us a better plan than the shedding of so much expensive animal blood just to keep us into good standing with God awhile longer. After all, 'God is love.'"

Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. Some followers of the Rev. R. J. Campbell, in their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest saints and the strongest skeptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and Man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.--G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy [1909]

The Old Covenant provided for forgiveness of sins from God through the blood sacrifice of animals. As noted, one's sins were not removed, but only "covered" until the day of final redemption. Similarly the judgment all sinners deserve was not accomplished and finished, but only postponed to a future date by the Old Covenant sacrifices. Then, too, there were numerous sins which had to be kept track of--sins against God and sins against one's neighbors. Each individual over the age of accountability had to deal with his or her sins, it could not be done by proxy. The Temple sacrifices only dealt with externals, it should be apparent that we what we need is a new heart. The Old Covenant also tended to result in a deep fear of God, fear of His punishment, His holiness and His unattainably high standards.

The Apostle Paul, writing about the glorious news of the death, burial and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ, explains that the sacrifice of Jesus was retroactive--taking away sins that previously had only been "covered."

"Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." (Romans 3:19-26)

Presented with a set of laws which reveal God's perfect character, the response of Israel was to immediately agree to keep the Law -- even though this was an impossibility. "Trying harder" and "self-effort" are marks of Old Covenant Living. The Old Covenant was intended to show Israel that they were not able to meet God's standards and needed to go to Yahweh for mercy and grace instead. When anyone approaches God on the basis of need and helpless, he or she is immediately received and "justified" by God. In Romans, Paul explains that as a group Israel has refused the grace of God (and hence not received the imputed righteousness that comes by faith: "For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes." (Romans 9:3-4)

Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, "All the words which the LORD has spoken we will do." And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD. And he rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the LORD. And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, "All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient." And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, "Behold the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words." (Exodus 24:3-8)

After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses' minister, "Moses my servant is dead; now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land which I am giving to them, to the people of Israel. Be strong and of good courage; for you shall cause this people to inherit the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law which Moses my servant commanded you; turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go." Then Joshua commanded the officers of the people, "Pass through the camp, and command the people, `Prepare your provisions; for within three days you are to pass over this Jordan, to go in to take possession of the land which the LORD your God gives you to possess.'" And to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh Joshua said, "Remember the word which Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you, saying, `The LORD your God is providing you a place of rest, and will give you this land.' Your wives, your little ones, and your cattle shall remain in the land which Moses gave you beyond the Jordan; but all the men of valor among you shall pass over armed before your brethren and shall help them, until the LORD gives rest to your brethren as well as to you, and they also take possession of the land which the LORD your God is giving them; then you shall return to the land of your possession, and shall possess it, the land which Moses the servant of the LORD gave you beyond the Jordan toward the sunrise." And they answered Joshua, "All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go. Just as we obeyed Moses in all things, so we will obey you; only may the LORD your God be with you, as he was with Moses! Whoever rebels against your commandment and disobeys your words, whatever you command him, shall be put to death. Only be strong and of good courage." (Joshua 1:1-18)

What many miss is that the Law was not given to produce good behavior. It was given to indict us.

"Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin." (Romans 3:18-19)

James says,

"Whoever keeps the whole Law but fails in one point of it is guilty of all of it." (James 2:10).

Jesus said,

"For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:20)

The law is intended to drive men to despair, to see our hopeless inadequacy to attain to God's righteousness by self-effort. The Old Covenant can easily cause us to try harder, to be afraid or failure and to live performance-oriented lives. We must stop and look at the meaning behind the Law and the sacrifices. What is God showing Israel (and us) about Himself in the Old Covenant?

What God wants from us now (the same thing He wanted from Israel of old) was a cry from a desperate heart for grace and mercy. Some Old Testament saints saw this, even if the majority did not.

"Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love; according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight, so that thou art justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Fill me with joy and gladness; let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice. Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors thy ways, and sinners will return to thee. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of thy deliverance. O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise. For thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise." (Psalm 51:1-17)

As my friends and I talked about "Servant Sunday" as a hypothetical gedanken (thought) experiment, we soon realized how revolting it would be to do such a thing--even if intended as a teaching lesson about blood sacrifice. Our own instinctive abhorrence of a substitutionary animal sacrifice on our behalf surely betrays a lack of sensitivity and awareness of the infinitely-greater New Covenant sacrifice which was actually presented by Jesus before the Father. It was not the blood of bulls and goats that was sacrificed for us, but the life of God's own Son. Instead of merely covering our sins, Jesus removed them once for all--taking our place and dying in our stead. As one result, before the eternal courts of heaven our New Covenant High Priest came to the rescue-- all charges against us have been dropped--settled forever. God is now treating us as if we had never sinned in the first place. The price God paid to set us free is enormous.

"You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake. Through him you have confidence in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere love of the brethren, love one another earnestly from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for 'All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord abides for ever.' That word is the good news which was preached to you." (I Peter 1:18-25)

"...and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power. In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it." (Colossians 2:10-15)

If we could stand at the foot of the cross, or somehow catch of glimpse of God's sacrifice for our sins, the response the New Testament asks of me would surely seem more reasonable:

 The cross is the symbol of death. It stands for the abrupt, violent end of the human being. The man in Roman times who took up his cross and started down the road had already said goodbye to his friends. He was not coming back. He was not going out to have his life redirected. He was going out to have it ended. The cross made no compromise, modified nothing, spared nothing. It slew all of the man completely and for good. It did not try to keep on good terms with its victim. It struck swift and hard and when it had finished its work the man was no more. That evangelism which draws friendly parallels between the ways of God and the ways of man is false to the Bible and cruel to the soul of the hearers. The faith of Christ does not parallel the world. It intersects it. In coming to Christ we do not bring our life up on to a higher plane. We leave it at a cross. The grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die. That is the beginning of the gospel (A.W. Tozer).

Thank God we do not need to try to live by the Old Covenant today. The Old has been replaced by something New and far better. Are we worthy? No, not at all. Do we need to pay attention to the New and Better Covenant? Yes, with all our heart and mind and soul and might.

But, is the Law gone forever? Not all all. It is still there to show us the character of God. No wonder we find that Psalm 119, the longest Psalm in the Bible, is all about the marvelous character of the Law. In writing to the Galatians, Paul says this:

"What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator does not mediate for one only, but God is one. Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." (Galatians 3:19-29)
Although the sacrifice of Jesus Christ took place at a point in time in earth-history, in reality it is an eternal event. Jesus Christ is "the Lamb of God slain before the foundation of the world." Thus the New Covenant is not really "new" since it the very basis by which God has always saved men and women from the beginning--ever since He restored Adam and Eve to Himself after the fall. However, there will come a day when the New Covenant is at last observed universally in Israel:

"But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says: 'The days will come, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; for they did not continue in my covenant, and so I paid no heed to them, says the Lord. This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach every one his fellow or every one his brother, saying, `Know the Lord,' for all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.' In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away." (Hebrews 8:6-13)

In our church class in Hebrews several class members gave examples from daily life to illustrate how easily we can lapse into trying to live the Christian life by performance and self-effort. I've expanded these examples and came up with the following indicators that one is trying to live under the Law of Moses. If you have had experience with the flesh and its thousand subtle deceptions, send me your additions to this list.

An Old Covenant Check List

1. I am a good person and I try my best to obey the law.

2. I can handle this situation without God's help.

3. There I am some things I've done that I won't tell anyone about, not my spouse, not my best friend, and certainly not God.

4. I'll just work this out on my own and not bother God with this problem.

5. As soon as I get my life straightened out, I plan to start going to church.

6. I don't really need God right now. Perhaps later on I can fit Him in.

7. I just try to serve God in my own humble way.

8. If I gave God my life He would probably make me like all the rest of those awful people at my church.

9. I picked preaching as my career so I could get a big reward in heaven.

10. My parents want me to become a Catholic priest since I don't fit in anywhere else in society. God is secondary in my plans.

11. I went to seminary so I could write books on religion.

12. I give money to my church and sing in the choir. What more does God want?

13. This New Year's Day I made a number of resolutions that I still intend to keep.

14. I told God if he would give me a million dollars I would give him back 20%.

15. America is a land of opportunity. I have a right to become anyone I wish to become by hard work and determination.

16. I've signed up for a self-improvement program and it really works.

17. God can't use me. I have never been to Bible school or seminary.

18. God can have 10% of my income. The rest is mine.

19. Look out for #1. No one else will.

20. "God helps those who help themselves." (Benjamin Franklin)

21. I just follow the Golden Rule

22. My God is a loving God. He would never send anyone to hell. I am counting on my good deeds getting me into heaven.

23. There are some things in life I can't handle, but most of the time I know what to do on my own.

24. I have had years of experience in my job so I know how to manage that area of my life perfectly.

25. We have a committee to deal with that sort of thing. Go see them.

26. If you are going to serve in our church you need to dress more conservatively.

27. I never bother God with my small day to day problems.

28. Who me? God isn't interested in little old me.

29. I am doing fine in life thank you. If I find I need God I'll reconsider.

30. I'll start going to church when I get older and have a family. I am too busy now.

31. I was raised in the church. That's where I learned to be a good person.

32. I can't serve the Lord because I don't have any academic credentials.

33. I'm the best qualified to serve because I have been to XYZ Trinitarian Seminary.

34. If I can learn to live like a pauper maybe God will be pleased with me.

35. With my talents I should be an elder.

36. Missionaries are God's favorite people.

37. Successful parents are God's favorite people.

38. This situation is too small for God to bother with. I think God wants me to handle this myself.

39. I have done enough for God, now it's time to do things for me.

40. I probably did enough. A little vacation from doing things for God won't hurt. For now, my relationship with Him is on hold.

41. Know thy enemy. How can you fight sin if you don't know what it is?

42. Boys will be boys. There's no harm in sowing wild oats when you're young.

43. But this is how we have always done things here at Archaic Baptist Church

44. Son, when you are as old as I am you have all the right answers. So do what I tell you.

45. I just rely on common sense when I have decisions to make.

46. My intuition has never failed me. I follow my hunches.

47. I let my wife make all the day-to-day decisions in our family.

48. I know all about quitting smoking. I've quit a dozen times.

49. God made me the way I am, I can't help it. I was born gay.

50. It wasn't my default. Drinking runs in our family.

51. "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

52. I deserve someone better. I am getting a divorce.

53. I earned everything I have gained in life by hard work and self-effort.

54. I believe all people are basically good. They just need the right education and training.

55. I've preached the gospel for forty years now and I know what I'm talking about.

 One of the really surprising things about the present bewilderment of humanity is that the Christian Church now finds herself called upon to proclaim the old and hated doctrine of sin as a gospel of cheer and encouragement. The final tendency of the modern philosophies, hailed in their day as a release from the burden of sinfulness, has been to bind man hard and fast in the chains of an iron determinism. The influence of heredity and environment, of glandular makeup and the control exercised by the unconscious, of economic necessity and the mechanics of biological development, have all been invoked to assure man that he is not responsible for his misfortune and therefore not to be held guilty. Evil has been represented as something imposed on us from without, not made by us from within. The dreadful conclusion follows inevitably that as he is not responsible for evil; he cannot alter it. Even though evolution and progress may offer some alleviation in the future there is no hope for you and me now. I well remember how an aunt of mine, brought up in an old-fashioned liberalism, protested angrily against having continuously to call herself a miserable sinner when reciting the Litany. Today, if we could really be persuaded that we are miserable sinners, that the trouble is not outside us but inside us, and that therefore, by the grace of God, we can do something to put it right, we should receive that message as the most helpful and heartening thing that can be imagined. (Dorothy Sayers)

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
Israel's strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.

Born thy people to deliver,
born a child and yet a King,
born to reign in us forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit,
raise us to thy glorious throne.

Text: Charles Wesley, 1707-1788

Note added from Elaine Stedman: Oswald Chambers was even more radical:

"Righteousness cannot be imitated. If I abide in Jesus, His righteousness is done through me. Nowadays the tendency is to switch away from abiding in Christ; it is--'Do this,' and 'Do that.' You cannot do anything at all that does not become, in the rugged language of Isaiah, 'as filthy rags,' no matter how right it looks, if it is divorced from abiding in Christ. Haul yourself up a hundred times a day till you learn to abide. Ask yourself--Is this work, this activity, deflecting me from abiding in Christ? If so, then fling it overboard."

Notes by Lambert Dolphin 

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June 4, 2002, Revised December 23, 2007. March 19, 2019. AZL 2/20/2020. April 2, 2022.