So what is the big deal about burnt offerings? No one is going to be in church this coming Sunday where the pastor has a grill up front all ablaze with smoke billowing through the sanctuary. So why should a modern Christian care to know anything about them?
One of the things you will notice when reading through Leviticus chapter one is that the sacrifice requirements are repeated three times. This is not for a sense of emphasis but for a sense of economy. God intending to care for all the people establishes a descending scale of what one can bring. If you could afford the bull, then it was expected that you brought a bull. If you were not wealthy enough to own cattle you could then bring a sheep. If this was still too costly for you, then the birds would suffice just as equally. If you recall Joseph and Mary offer two small birds at the temple when presenting Jesus for their purification (Luke 2:21-26). God was not out to bankrupt His people. There was a scale available based on an Israelites’ means. We don’t think in these terms so it might be best illustrated by the modern tradition of a man buying a wedding ring. A diamond is a diamond but there is a type of social scale to which a man submits to in attempting to show his love for his bride to be. The millionaire who only buys his bride a diamond chip or baguette is thought of as cheap or maybe not so serious about his love. To the other extreme a man who goes into severe debt and bankruptcy in order to purchase his fiancé a 5 carat diamond ring would be foolish. There is a medium to which each person can submit to God what is appropriate according to their means. No one is left out. If only bulls were required, then the poor and middle classes would not be able to participate in having their sins atoned for. Yet a provision is made for all.
I find it interesting, and some women find it ironic, that the animal is to be a male without blemish, holy, spotless. All puns aside, this is what was required. God directs that the animal will be a male, because this was, from a herd standpoint, the most costly of animals, even in today’s cattle standards. This elevates that not just any animal will do. It is a costly sacrifice not just in the rarity of males within a herd but that it would be the best one of them. Try going to a cattle show and asking how many of the bulls there are the breeders second best because their first choice and best male was at home still waiting to be burnt on an alter for God. I can image such an inquiry would turn heads and they would size you up for the funny farm. It’s just not done in our culture that you would purposely take the best and sacrifice it. Aside from its value if you were even to consider it from a consumer standpoint, you go to the store look through the meats select the best steak and then just burn it up in the fire place. It’s taking the Thanksgiving dinner sides and all and not being able to take one bite. It is meant to be an indication of loss, and indication that our sin is costly, and yet we retain our lives.
Next, it’s important to realize that this is not a cold transaction (as the observance fell into in more sinful times.) There were real feelings from the heart of sorrow, thanksgiving and joy. Sorrow that an animal the family personally raised and looked after was being killed. In just reading the account of chapter one, we should be thinking, “Aw the poor innocent animal.” This is a correct way to think of it, not just from the standpoint of the animal but from the standpoint of Jesus’ death in our place. We knowingly let someone we know is innocent die in our place. There is a sorrow in just idly standing by and allowing this to happen. In the same event there is the thanksgiving that such a provision was made, a way of escape so that we might live. There was nothing that we have or can do or perform on our own to remove the guilt and sin we have before God. In Joy there is the greatness of owing one’s life to another who laid down their life for them. To know that God provided a way that although it was costly to Him, we are made alive and as such we are grateful and thankful to be His. It is to embrace someone who just saved you from stepping out into traffic because you were texting. Mark 8:37 asks what can a man give in exchange for his soul. The answer is nothing. Man does not possess anything by which he can offer or present something to exchange, the price is too big. The symbol of a bull being burnt up and the transfer of sin and guilt to it so that you might live was a shadow of this.
I mentioned in a previous portion of this series that the animal’s innocence is reflective of God’s character. This is true but it’s not the only thing. Yes the animal reflects God’s character because we would not symbolically offer to God that something that would dishonor Him (Malachi 1:7-8) but, the innocence of the animal also reflect our lack of innocence. The animal is acceptable to God, we are not. The animal is presentable to God but the sinner stands in need of the animal’s intersession and blood, just as Jesus does in fullness. The rite of placing one’s hand on the forehead of the animal before it is killed is that substitution of life for death, of guilt for innocence. We are the guilty ones.
Next is to realize that there is nothing in the religious motion or mechanics of the process that made an Israelite cleansed and holy before God. It was and has always been a matter of one’s heart before God. A heart matter that must be understood the same way as the Gospel. Good works do not make us saved or right with God, but our good works flow from a heart that understands that we as sinners have been set free by the blood of Christ (1st Peter 1:18-19; Hebrews 9:12-14).
Lastly because this sacrifice was repeated and was not a once for all time sacrifice, the focus was not on conversion but upon a continued walk and sanctification before God. This was a rite for Israelites who were already God’s people. They already reside within His presence and are called His own. Yet just as for the Christian, our life does not stop at conversion. We go on, and as such we are cautioned by this. If their sacrifices fell into carelessness and their service because remote and mechanical we too must be watchful that our worship, service and prayers do not become heartless endeavors. We stand, walk and have our being before God of all creation and we should not take His presence or salvation lightly. He is to be reverenced and feared for a reason.