What was the purpose of animal sacrifices in the Old Testament?
The animal sacrifices of the Old Testament were used to offer atonement for sins and foreshadowed the complete, perfect sacrifice of the blood of Jesus upon the cross for sins. Animal sacrifices were prevalent throughout the Old Testament time period and were still practiced in the temple during the early New Testament time period.
The first animal sacrifice was made by God when He clothed Adam and Eve with garments of skins in Genesis 3:21. Then in Genesis 4 Abel's offering, of an animal, was acceptable to God.
Both Noah and Abraham would offer animal sacrifices to the Lord prior to the Law of Moses. In the time of Moses, the sacrifice of a spotless Passover lamb was required on the night that God sent death upon the firstborn males of Egypt. Those who obeyed were spared of this plague and were freed from slavery.
The Mosaic Law would be developed during the 40 years in the wilderness and included the Passover as well as many other animal sacrifices. Hebrews 9:22 explains, "Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins." The instructions for the sacrifices included many details to ensure only an acceptable animal was sacrificed at an acceptable location in an acceptable method and typically through a priest in the presence of the Lord. The regulations were so specific because of what the sacrificial system foreshadowed—the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus, who was completely without sin and through whom we are able to be made pure before God.
With the coming of Jesus as the Messiah, He fulfilled the Law (Matthew 5:17), making the previous practice of animal sacrifice obsolete. Though the Law is considered good, salvation is only through Jesus Christ (John 3:16; Acts 4:12). No actions or sacrifices made by humans can provide salvation; what matters is faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9).
John the Baptist first announced this change in covenant when God revealed Jesus as the Messiah to him. He said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29). Jesus is the ultimate sacrificial lamb. Second Corinthians 5:21 adds, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
Hebrews 7:27 helps to explain why these sacrifices are no longer necessary today: "He [Jesus] has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself." Jesus paid the price and was the one-time substitute for our sins. There is no longer a need to seek atonement or forgiveness through another method.
Finally, Hebrews 8:6-7 points out that the system of animal sacrifice was incomplete as it required repeated sacrifices. Instead, "Christ has obtained a ministry that 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 to look for a second." Animal sacrifices provided a picture and temporary covering for what Jesus accomplished on the cross.
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