Rhyse Furio, a dear friend who lives in Lebanon, asked me questions that led to an enjoyable discussion on Facebook.
Why did God require the Israelites to make all those sacrifices? I thought their purpose was to cleanse the Israelites from their sin?
Hebrews 9:13 says that Old Testament sacrifices only provided outward purification (“sanctify for the purification of the flesh” with emphasis on “flesh”), unlike Christ’s sacrifice which provides inward purification (verse 14: ”purify our conscience from dead works” with emphasis on “conscience”).
So why did God institute the sacrificial system of the Old Testament? He did so to teach the Israelites and us about:
1. Our sinfulness and inexcusable guilt before Him
2. His unfathomable holiness and wrath against sin
3. His mercy and grace in providing a way of atonement by substitution and imputation
4. What Christ has done for us through His sufferings and death
Note: To God’s people in the OT, the sacrifices were types and shadows that pointed to the Messiah (Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53, etc., see also Luke 24:46).
5. Salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice alone
The false believers in Israel rejected the gospel that God preached to them through the types and shadows of the OT sacrificial system. But the true believing Israelites (who has always been just a few remnant) did embrace the promise of the Messiah. Although they (having lived in the OT age of promise and preparation) did not have the same knowledge of the gospel that we now have (in the NT age of fulfillment), they did understand and believe that the Messiah to come will deal with sin, “crush” satan and re-establish God’s kingdom on earth.
By the time of the prophecies, I know God was pretty explicit about the Messiah. But before then (e.g., the Exodus, the Conquest, etc.), did the Israelites “get” what God was telling them? Did Abraham know the Messiah would come from him… or just that a nation would come from him?
It should strike us that God is the first Evangelist. He is the Author and Owner of the Gospel, and its first Preacher. That is most probably why Paul calls it “the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1).
Now, after the giving of the “mother promise” in Genesis 3:15 (often called the “protoevangelium” because it is the first preaching of the gospel), God sacrificed an animal and “made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them” (verse 21).
Again it should strike us that:
- Whereas God warned Adam, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (2:17), the very first recorded death in the Bible is that of an animal.
- The animal was killed to provide good, strong and sturdy clothes for Adam and Eve. It was a sacrifice.
- God Himself did the killing-sacrificing. He is the Author-Architect and first practitioner (Priest?) of the OT sacrificial system.
It should not surprise us, therefore, that without preliminary or explanatory remarks, the Genesis story moves swiftly to Cain and Abel bringing sacred offerings to Yahweh (Genesis 4:3-4a). Then, we read of Noah, Abraham and others sacrificing animals before the Lord (8:20; .22:13; 31:54; 46:1; etc.)
Did they see those sacrifices as types and shadows that point to the saving work of the coming Messiah? I believe so. Because when the author of Hebrews says that “by faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice” (Hebrews 11:4), “faith” could only mean “assurance” and “conviction” (see verse 1) that God will fulfill His promise to send Eve’s “offspring” who will “crush” satan and reverse the curse of sin and death.
Regarding Abraham, we read in John 8:56 that “he saw” the “day” of the Messiah and “was glad.” Moreover, the Apostle Paul teaches us in Galatians 3,
And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” (verse 8)
Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. (verse 16)
And regarding Moses, Hebrews 11:26 tells us,
He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.
All these and more teach us that yes, Adam and Eve, Abel, Seth, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua and all the remnant of true believers in Israel did understand and believe the gospel that Yahweh preached to them through His deeds, words, the sacrificial system, etc. By faith in the coming Messiah-Savior, they received God’s free gift of salvation and justification-righteousness (Romans 4:3 and 6; Hebrew 11:4 and 7)
So this means that Abel offered a better sacrifice because he knew/acknowledged that the sacrifice pointed to Jesus… and Cain didn’t?
Hebrews 11:4 tells us why God accepted Abel and his offering. It was because of “faith” — the “assurance” and “conviction” (verse 1) that God will fulfill His promise in Genesis 3:15 to send Eve’s “offspring” who will “crush” satan and reverse the curse of sin and death.
In contrast, 1 John 3:12 teaches that Cain “was of the evil one” (equivalent to “offspring” of the serpent in Genesis 3:15) and that “his own deeds were evil.” And so he was a hypocrite or false believer. He offered a sacred offering to Yahweh but he was unrepentant of his sins. And so God rejected Cain and his offering. But in mercy and grace, the Lord still encouraged, instructed and warned him:
“Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6b-7)
I didn’t understand the significance of clothes from animal skins.
The subject of “nakedness and clothing” is a key theological theme in Genesis and the whole Bible. In the same way that God killed an animal to provide clothes for Adam and Eve, so He sacrificed His own son to cover our sins and clothe us with His perfect righteousness in justification. We read in Revelation 7:13-14,
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
To sum it all up…
- In the OT, by His deeds (i.e. creation, exodus, conquest of the promised land, deliverance from enemies, restoration from exile, etc.), His promises, the prophecies, temple worship and sacrifices, etc., God preached to His people the gospel of salvation through the coming Messiah. And the NT makes it clear to us that His people in the OT received God’s free gift of salvation and justification-righteousness by faith alone based on His promise of free forgiveness, salvation and restoration through the coming Messiah alone (Romans 4:3 and 6; Hebrew 11:4 and 7).
- Today, in addition to the witness of the OT, we have the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ clearly taught and proclaimed to us in the NT. And by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ’s person and finished work alone, we are saved from wrath and have received God’s free gift of eternal life.
Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, as we meditate on these great truths today, let us be comforted and strengthened in the divine assurance that God our gracious Father gives us in the glorious gospel of His Son Jesus Christ, our only Lord and complete Savior.
For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:13-14)
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29b)