Why is the OT Sacrificial System so Bloody?
Modern readers can feel a little bit of reasonable queasiness when reading through the Torah–particularly the bits about the sacrificial system. It’s all so bloody! The NT book of Hebrews seems to sympathize a bit:
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins (Heb. 9:22).
There’s blood everywhere! Why? It seems so barbaric to us, so primitive and backwards. For the author of Hebrews, however, the bloodiness of the OT form of worship speaks volumes. It tells us something about ourselves that we don’t like to think about. Our world is constantly trying to convince us that “Baby, you’re a firework,” but the message of the Bible is “I am evil, born in sin” (see Ps. 51), and that message is vividly and perpetually on display in Israel’s sanctuary.
That’s actually a hard message to remember. I am too quick to forget that I am broken, sinful, and an abomination before a Holy God. What is more, human beings are constantly telling themselves that such cannot be the case; the kids are alright. It’ll all work out in the end. If we fool ourselves into believing hese things, we will inevitably approach God wrongly. That’s where all the blood comes in. The OT sacrificial system is a constant reminder that we are not, in fact, “all right.” In fact, as an OT saint approaches the tabernacle, the ceremonial law repeatedly and consistently proclaims “you’re not welcome here.” Or, more accurately, “come, but not to close.”
Not too close
To see the logic of this, we need to take a closer look at the Tabernacle, particularly it’s structure and function. Why the tabernacle? What does it do? What is it’s purpose? I argued in a previous post that the whole point of the tabernacle is to provide Israel with access to the presence of God. We need God to come with us in our wilderness wandering, and because God is gracious and forgiving, he provides a system by which his presence is guaranteed. He will come, and he secures his presence by providing a sacrifice to atone for our guilt.
So the sacrificial system guarantees God’s presence, but at the same time it also quarantine’s God’s presence–or, rather, quarantines Israel from unencumbered access to God. It’s like an airlock on a spaceship, or a cleanroom at a pharmaceutical factory; certain people are allowed in if they follow certain procedures, but the place itself is guarded, protected, and not for the masses. As such, the tabernacle reminds them (us) that they (we) are guilty and polluted. It keeps them at a distance. Here’s Hebrews again:
The priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (Heb. 9:6-8).
The tabernacle is designed to provide Israel with the presence of God, but also and simultaneously remind them that the presence of God is dangerous, and remains dangerous, until the true High Priest should come. It perpetually keeps them at a arm’s length. Come, but not to close, and don’t stay long. The highly intricate rituals involved in the sacrificial system, the constant killing required, and ubiquitous shedding and spreading of animal blood, are all constant reminders of uncleanness, sin, guilt, and the enmity that exists because of those things. The rituals are, on the one hand, the means by which Israel draws near to her God, but they are at the same time reminders to be extremely cautious; this is a dangerous place for you. You are not fully welcome here–not yet at least.
To put it another way, as Hebrews goes on to do, and here is our main point, these sacrifices “cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper” (Heb. 9:8). The sacrificial system provides access to the presence of God, but not without a lingering consciousness of a guilty conscience. The result is a wariness, a caution, a distance that cannot be bridged until one’s conscience is “perfected.” Correspondingly, our conscience cannot be perfected until God’s pleasure in us is unqualified. Is such a thing possible? Can we approach of holy God with a clear (“purified”) conscience?
The full assurance of faith
Yes! NT Saints, by contrast to their OT counterparts, have fuller access to the presence of God. We are, in fact, exhorted to “draw near…in full assurance of faith” (Heb 10:22). Why are we able to come into God’s presence with a confidence not possible for an OT believer? Is it because we are more faithful? Is it because our faith is more mature and less primitive? No; it’s because of the “new and living way that Christ opened for us.” It’s because an event has taken place–an event to which the Old sacrifices pointed and anticipated, but could not reproduce.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption (Heb 9:11-12).
Jesus removes the lingering distance. His sacrifice is perfect because his life was perfect, and so he brings us directly into the presence of the Father. We no longer require the blood of bulls and goats to draw near to God’s presence–Christ’s blood, shed once and for all for the remission of sin, brings us into his presence. Washings are no longer required. No ceremony need be performed. No earthly holy place need be erected and cleansed and maintained. Why? Because the beloved Son already stands ready to receive us and to present us before His Father as Holy and honored (“behold, I and the children God has given me,” Heb. 2:13). We draw near not in fear, but with the confidence of faith, because Christ has entered on our behalf.
That’s not to say that in the New Covenant we have license to ignore our sin. Far from it! We have a clear conscience because of the sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ, but even as we consider that sacrifice, and the blessing we obtain thereby, we are reminded of our depravity and guilt. In the words of the hymn:
Ye who think of sin but lightly
Nor suppose the evil great
Here may view its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.
This, then, is the perfection of the New Covenant: we see our sin all the more clearly, but at the same time we have a perfect peace because of Christ’s perfect priestly ministry.
In short, because God has delighted in the life and sacrificial death of his beloved Son, we who trust in him are to take confidence as we approach the throne of grace. God is pleased with us because he is pleased with his Son. The lingering guilt is removed, and so the distance is also removed. It’s no longer “come, but keep your distance;” now its simple “come!”
Some lingering question I have: what does confident worship look like? What is the tangible difference that we experience now that was held from OT saints? Should they have been timid, but we can be bold (2 Cor. 3:12-17)? What’s the difference there? And of course we need to distinguish confidence from presumption–we still should approach God with confession of sin and acknowledgement of our guilt (1 John 1:5-10). What does “confident confession” look like?