The need of sacrifice is somewhat troubling to us in our day, but there is a system to this. If the people left Egypt to go out and worship God, they would need priests. If there are going to be priests, there is a need for a process to ordain some. If the service to ordain some involves sacrifice, then Leviticus logically opens with instruction for how sacrifices of various sorts will be carried out. Yet aside from the practicality of all this is the relational aspect that sacrifice serves. The foundational way Israelites were to understand their exercise of worship and relationship was far greater than singing a song, prayer or sitting in church. The depth of their thankfulness was so great that they were willing to offer to God something tangible from their own lives that would actually cost them something.
Atonement for sin is that other significant aspect of offering a sacrifice because sin within the presence of God demands His judgment. In the Old Testament, this idea of judgment is far more significant than the way we understand it today. It is easy to picture judgment as anger for just stepping out of line, but the offense of God is one of personal offense. For God to provide a sacrifice in our place that can take that judgment away is incredibly gracious. We understand Him to be extremely merciful. If for sin we really deserve death it is incredibly significant that I can have my sins forgiven and something or someone else can take my place.
This may better be explained by the Bible’s speaking of Christ being our “ransom”. We might think of ransom being paid as if we are imprisoned by someone evil and so a ransom is paid to let you go free. This is not the way ancient Israel would have understood the term.
28 “When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. 29 But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death. 30 If a ransom is imposed on him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is imposed on him.
– Exodus 21-28-30
From the passage the idea of ransom is quite the opposite. Think of a couple who is deeply in love, where the two really cherish each other. Now say that one member of that couple is brutally gored by the ox described above, and the neglectful owner knew of the animal’s behavior to gore in the past. It is a deep and serious tragedy, and yet a ransom is a price that can be laid upon the owner so as to set him free from the righteous judgment of death. The ransom is imposed upon the guilty by the innocent. The penalty or ransom to be paid is far less that what it is deserved. In this manner although God is offended and we stand as guilty before Him, He is able to set the ransom for our lives, one that indicates both the seriousness of our crime and the deep love that He has for us. When God or the surviving spouse does this, they are in fact stating that they will accept peace over continued enmity and that they are passing over their right to exercise justice. In the case of God not only does He set the ransom for our lives, He pays it Himself knowing we are not able. This is a ludicrous type of grace echoed by Paul in Romans;
7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. – Romans 5:7-9
The Grace of God is not just setting a term of substitution on our behalf, but in actually paying that substitution price for us. The line from a hymn of Charles Wesley states, “Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”