The Work of Christ on the Cross: Sacrifice (NT)

A. General Introduction

  The New Testament was largely written to people in three main cultures: Greco-Roman, Diaspora Judaism, Pharisaical Judaism. The images of those respective religious views would be the background to the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus.

Just as all the various messianic strands found their fulfillment in Jesus, so too did all the sacrificial system.

And the appeal of the various sacrifices in non-biblical religions also was satisfied uniquely in the sacrifice of Jesus.

B. The "Logic" of Sacrifice in the Old Testament

  Sacrifice was always about repairing and maintaining community and personal relationships within the community (which included God as community member).

If a man or woman destroyed the property of another, the offender had to repay the victim, restoring like for like. Some aspects of sacrifice (e.g., reparation offerings) focused on this community repair.

Some (but not most) aspects of some sacrifices looked like what we would call today "fines." Since the "money" of the day consisted of livestock, fines were paid in that 'currency'.

The community had been created by God, and His people were His 'portion' in the world. When someone would do damage to a community member, there was also a "loss" to the Community Owner and original Community Member, and it too had to be "made good." Since all sin weakened the community to a greater or lesser extent, God had to be "paid back" for the damage. God took His payment in the currency of the day--livestock and agricultural products. Once the payment had been given over to God, and was now His property, God was free to do with it as He pleased: some of it He gave to His workers (i.e., the priests), some He gave to the poor and disadvantaged, some He used as "object lessons" (e.g., burnt offerings, post-exodus Passover lambs), but most of it He used in community and family celebration--to actively build community bonds. Since these sacrifices were at the center of the main community institutions, community life constantly reminded the Israelite of their relationship to the God of the Exodus. All of these uses of sacrfice by God added value and goodness "back into" the community, to help make up for the damage originally done.

The burnt offerings were a special category, which functioned like a perpetual reminder that (1) everything was the Lord's already; that (2) He had absolute authority over what was His (including Israel!), and that (3) His absolute commitment to His people was to be matched by their absolute commitment to Him (in order to enjoy the incredible blessings He had designed for the community of which He was the founding Member).

Sacrifices were pervasive in the life of the Israelite, as a constant reminder that God's ways and laws were only intended for community and individual welfare, and that deviations from that community design robbed the community of those intended blessings. They also functioned as a constant reminder that sin was not only a community issue, but also a personal issue--the offender had to approach God with a heart of honesty about the offense (and self-judgment in the process, obviously), and an action of relinquishing some personal property/value (e.g., livestock) as a just recompense to God. Sacrifices always cost something, and always required confession (by the very act of coming forward) and faith (that God had to be taken seriously).

Some sacrifices involved the notion of substitution--that the animal took the place of the community, select individuals, or offender (e.g., the scapegoat, original Passover lamb).

Sacrifices were expressions of an inward attitude and commitment. Sacrifices that were merely ritualistic were described as "worthless" or "empty" or even "treacherous." Israel was unique in ancient history in one aspect of her sacrificial system: the concept of atonement as the repairing of personal communion with God, as a way to facilitate the constructive and creative interaction between Falling Humanity and a perfect, yet eager to bless, God.

Every sacrifice reminded Israel that she had been redeemed by God and was still in an interpersonal and corporate covenant with her Redeemer...

C. Sacrifice in the New Testament World

The phenomena of sacrifice in the Greco-Roman world:

The phenomena of sacrifice in the non-Pharisaical Jewish world of first century Judaism:

  "In the Intertestamental literature, the spiritualization of sacrificial ideas which we find in the Psalms and Prophets continues. Examples are Sir. 35:1-3; Test. Lev. 3:6; IQS 8,9; Philo, Som. 2:183. The instances from the Dead Sea Scrolls are particularly interesting, because the Qumran community had separated itself from the Temple until better times arrived, and was thus actually substituting spiritual sacrifice for literal, to a degree which even the Jews of the Dispersion, who could visit the Temple only occasionally, did not equal. When the Temple was destroyed in AD 70, rabbinic Judaism followed a similar course, as the prayers of the later Jewish liturgy indicate." [STB:108]  
      We have an interesting passage on substitutionary suffering (martyrdom) in this period as well:
  • 4 Macc 6:26-28: "When he was now burned to his very bones and about to expire, he lifted up his eyes to God and said, 27 "You know, O God, that though I might have saved myself, I am dying in burning torments for the sake of the law. 28 Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. 29 Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs."
  • 4 Macc 17.20-22: "These, then, who have been consecrated for the sake of God, are honored, not only with this honor, but also by the fact that because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation, 21 the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified-they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. 22 And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an atoning sacrifice, divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated."

    The phenomena of sacrifice in the Pharisaical Jewish world of first century Palestine:

  • "...the first thing to note is that the literal sacrifices of the Pentateuchal Law were still being offered in the NT period, and continued to be offered until the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in AD 70." [STB:107]



  • "Jewish sacrificial practice differed from that of the Greeks in two principal ways. In the first place, in Judaism during the Roman period the view prevailed that there should be only one temple and one place of sacrifice... The Greeks and Romans had almost countless temples, and sacrifice could be offered even where there was no temple."

  • "Secondly, Jewish sacrificial worship was more expensive. There was a large hereditary priesthood that was supported by non-priests. In Greece and Rome priesthood was not a profession or a caste. In Rome, and not infrequently in the Greek-speaking world, it was an honour to be a priest, an honour reserved for the elite; like other honorary positions it was sometimes expensive for the office holder. Rulers whom we now think of as generals, conquerors, kings and emperors were also priests. Julius Caesar was a high priest. Alexander the Great, in his triumphant conquest of much of the known world, sacrificed regularly. In Greece and Rome, it is difficult to understand just what a priest was because the 'distinction between civic magistracy and priesthood' is elusive. Those who wanted to get on in the world sought priestly appointments (e.g. Pliny the Younger). In Judaism, on the other hand, priestly office was hereditary, priests were forbidden to support themselves by working the land, and the care and feeding of the priesthood were substantial costs borne by the rest of society, especially farmers. Another element that made Jewish sacrificial worship expensive was the use of holocausts, 'whole-burnt offerings', of which there were at least two each day in the Jerusalem temple. Such sacrifices were unknown in Greece. In Judaism, although a majority of the sacrifices provided food for the priest and/or the worshipper, some animals were entirely consigned to the altar. In Greece all sacrificed animals were eaten, and the gods usually got only some of the bones. In this second case, the expense of religion and the importance of a priestly caste, we can find parallels to Judaism in Babylonia, Egypt and other countries." [E.P. Sanders, JPB:50f]


  • After the temple was destroyed, the sacrifices were (necessarily) spiritualized, substituting various alternatives as sacrifice:



    1. Acts of love and mercy:

    "When the court's right to impose the death-penalty was abrogated and the Temple was destroyed, involving the abolition of the sacrifices, a sense of despair and the feeling that Israel had been deprived of the possibility of atonement prevailed. 'It once happened that Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai was leaving Jerusalem and R. Joshua was walking behind him, when the latter saw the Temple in ruins. Said R. Joshua: "Woe to us that this is in ruins - the place where the sins of Israel were expiated!" Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai replied: "My son, be not grieved, we have a means of atonement that is commensurate with it. Which is this? It is the performance of acts of lovingkindness, as it is said 'For I desire loving kindness and not sacrifice"' (Hosea vi 6).' ('Avot de-R. Nathan, 11a) [Ephraim Urbach, Sages:434-5]

    "In another place, with reference to Prov 21.2, it is pointed out that the superiority of practicing the works of charity and justice over sacrifices consists in this, that whilst the atoning effect of the former extends also to the sins committed willfully, that of the latter is confined only to sins committed unintentionally" [Deut R., 5.8] (Solomon Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology:296)

    "Rabbah Johanan ben Zakkai was the authority for 'Even as the sin-offering makes atonement for Israel, so does charity make atonement for the Gentiles.' [Baba Batra 10b] (Gedaliah Alon, JTLTA:51)

    2. Hospitality to scholars (!): "In the spirit of this teaching of Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai, the Tanna R. Eliezer b. Jacob said: 'Whoever entertains a scholar in his house and lets him enjoy his possessions it is accounted to him by Scripture as if he had offered up the daily burnt-offerings' (T.B. Berakhot 10b).... [Ephraim Urbach, Sages:434-5]
    3. Weight loss from fasting (!): "The fasts that multiplied after the Destruction also assumed the character of a surrogate and replacement for the atonement effected by the sacrifices. This fact found concrete expression in the prayer attributed to Rav Sheshet: 'Sovereign of the universe, it is known to Thee that when the Temple was in existence, if a man sinned he would bring a sacrifice, of which only the fat and the blood were offered up, and he would be granted atonement. Now I have observed a fast and my own fat and blood have been diminished. May it be Thy will that my diminished fat and blood be accounted as though I had offered them up before Thee on the altar, and do Thou show me favour.'" (T.B. Berakhot 17a) [Ephraim Urbach, Sages:434-5]
    4. Death of the Individual himself, with repentance:
      "death and the day of atonement effect atonement, if combined with repentance. Repentance effects atonement for lesser transgressions against both positive and negative commands in the Law; while for graver transgressions it suspends punishment until the Date of Atonement comes and effects atonement.' (M. Yoma viii.8)
    5. Death of the Individual himself, without repentance:
      "The doctrine of R. Ishmael, R. Judah, and Rabbi that death--even death without repentance--has the power to atone originated only after the Destruction" [Urbach, Sages:432]
    6. Criminal executions and punishments:
      "The sacrifices only expiated iniquities between man and God, for which it was not in the power of an earthly court to impose punishment. Transgressions that were liable to punishment by a court were not atoned for by sacrifices, and only the penalty brought with it atonement for the sin. Those who were sentenced to death were told to make confession, 'for such is the way of those condemned to death to make confession, because every one that makes confession has a share in the world to come...and if he does not know to make confession, he is told: 'say, may my death be an atonement for all my iniquities,'' (M. Sanhedrin vi.2) Similarly, it is stated regarding the penalty of lashes: 'lashes are precious, for they atone for sins, as it is said: "according to the measure of wickedness'--the lashes suffice to atone for his wickedness' [Midrash Tannaim, and TB Shevu'ot 21a]..." [Urback, Sages:433-434]
    7. Involuntary suffering and disease:
      "But besides satisfying the claims of a just God or of justice, death and suffering also atone and reconcile man with God. They form, according to the Rabbis, two of the four (or the three) kinds of atonement taught by the Scriptures. Self-inflicted suffering, such as fasting, assumes naturally the aspect of sacrifices. Hence the prayer of a Rabbi after a fast that the fat and blood which he lost through the fast should be accounted to him as a sacrifice on the altar, and have the same effect as the sacrifice in the days of yore when the Holy Temple was in existence. This was considered as a kind of self -sacrifice, or rather sacrifice of his soul, but this notion was not entirely limited to voluntary suffering. Every loss of property sustained by man, as well as every kind of physical suffering which he happens to undergo, are considered an atonement. "A man stumbled in a transgression, and became guilty of death by heaven (in contradistinction of the worldly tribunal). By what means shall he atone? His ox died, his chickens went astray, or he stumbled on his finger so that blood came out - by these losses and suffering, his debts (to the account of heaven against him) are considered paid." Indeed, the loss of blood through any accident atones as the blood of a sacrifice [Chullin 7b]. It is further maintained that the appearance of leprosy on the body of a man is the very altar of atonement. Hence the dictum, "Beloved is suffering, for as sacrifices are atoning, so is suffering atoning." Nay, suffering has even a greater atoning effect than sacrifice, inasmuch as sacrifice affects only man's property, whilst suffering touches his very self. [Berakhot 5.b] (Solomon Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology:307-309)
    8. Bible study:
      "Atoning power is also ascribed to Torah and charity. The descendants of Eli could find no atonement by sacrifice and meat-offering, but they might receive pardon through the occupation with the study of the Torah and acts of loving-kindness. [ Rosh Hashanah, 18a] Indeed, the Holy One, blessed be he, foresaw that the Holy Temple would be destroyed and promised Israel that the words of the Torah, which is likened unto sacrifices, will, after the destruction of the Temple, be accepted as a substitute for sacrifices. [Tanchuma ahri, 10; Midrash Tanchuma, 3.85a] (Solomon Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology:312)
    9. The dinner table:
      " Reference may be made here also to the atoning effect ascribed to the dining-table in the household of a man, which is considered, by reason of the hospitality offered on it to the poor, as the altar in the Temple, on which the sacrifices were brought. [Berachoth, 55a] (Solomon Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology:312)
    10. A chaste wife:
      "The chaste woman is also likened to the altar; as the altar atones (for the sins of Israel), so she atones for her house.' [Tanchuma, yishlh, 6] (Solomon Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology:312)
    11. The death of a righteous/innocent person:
      "The atonement of suffering and death is not limited to the suffering person. The atoning effect extends to all the generation. This is especially the case with such sufferers as cannot either by reason of their righteous life or by their youth possibly have merited the afflictions which have come upon them. The death of the righteous atones just as well as certain sacrifices.' [Mechilta, 72b]... There are also applied to Moses the Scriptural words, "And he bore the sins of many" (Isa- 53 12), because of his offering himself as an atonement for Israel's sin with the golden calf, being ready to sacrifice his very soul for Israel, when he said, "And if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book (that is, from the Book of the Living), which thou hast written" (Exod- 32 32).' [Sotah, 14a and Berachoth 32a] This readiness to sacrifice oneself for Israel is characteristic of all the great men of Israel, the patriarchs and the Prophets acting in the same way, whilst also some Rabbis would, on certain occasions, exclaim, "Behold, I am the atonement of Israel"" [Mechilta, 2a; Mishnah Negaim 2.1] (Solomon Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology:310)

    D. What might have been their first impression, at hearing John 1.29?

    The next day he saw Jesus coming to him, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1.29)  
  • The Greek: appeasement of a deity, peace from evil spirits, communal celebration, violent death, surprise at the scale, uncertainty of acceptance, curiosity about the necessary repeatability.

  • The Roman: surprise at the human victim, model of a general in battle, holding together more than the empire, surprise at the "commonness" of the victim, still subject to the Emperor's authority, but would have "checked out" at any mention of crucifixion.

  • Diaspora Jewry: Israel's feasts, innocent victim, surprise at forgiveness for the world perhaps, a vagueness about the 'how', not surprised at the human victim (but no precision as to who 'offers' the sacrifice), an idea of the ethical purity of Jesus, awe and curiosity about such a remark from John the Baptist.

  • Pharisaical Jewry: the Suffering Servant, the Temple service, the Messianic age of forgiveness but with a dying/martyred messiah(?), curiosity over the scale, clear understanding of perfection and purity of the Lamb, confusion over the Lamb/scapegoat problem, confronted with inward response (in context of "repentance" preaching of the Baptist), and threatened by the mention of the Spirit.

    E. How do the New Testament references to Christ's death as sacrifice map to the OT sacrificial system?

  • Of the OT sacrifices, we noted:



  • And now the New Testament...



    A. Inaugural
      1. The sealing of the covenant

      2. The initial Passover
      3. (Cleansing of altar and tabernacle) B. Routine (with overlap within the types)
      1. Burnt
    2. Purification/Sin
      3. Guilt/Reparation
      4. Peace/Communion
      C. Festival offerings
      1. Passover
    2. First Fruits 3. Booths (no special theme-offerings in the OT, but the Jewish lit refers to the atonement for the Gentiles)  
    D. Spontaneous offerings
      1. Vows, including Nazarite (not applicable, unless "Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: "Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, 'Here I am-it is written about me in the scroll- I have come to do your will, O God.'" (Heb 10.5ff)

    2. free-will offerings:

      E. Day of Atonement
      1. The high priest
    2. The slain goat   3. The scapegoat

    F. So, what was the problem again?


    G. And what did the sacrifice on the Cross do?

      "whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom 4.25)
    Our access to God was very limited before this: Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, (Heb 10.19)

    we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; (Rom 5.1)

    The promise of the Spirit (New Covenant) required a new Passover

        1. the robustness of the sacrificial system,

        3. the value of the sacrificial victim,

        5. our shock at the innocence of the Lamb,

        7. the abject shame of the manner of death

        9. the need for this to occur before the Restoration

        11. the difficulty of the Example of the Life

        1. It is a "shared" sacrifice and builds unity of spirit among those who love and appreciate the Loving Lamb

        3. It "provokes" forgiveness within the community, under the logic of "God forgave--who are you not to?!!"

        5. It encourages consideration, under the logic of "do not destroy those for whom Christ died"

        7. It builds shared experiences, through celebration of the Lord's supper and group exploration of implications of His death

    From: The Christian ThinkTank...[] (Reference Abbreviations)