John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.
What ideas, pictures, images, associations does the word sacrifice conjure up for you? it’s a word we use quite a lot in everyday speech, but perhaps somewhat loosely. People sacrifice ambition for the sake of service; a place in a national sports team to be with their wife in childbirth. Here we’re thinking about sacrifice as giving up something of importance or value to the individual. There is something of this in the Biblical use of sacrifice. Indeed, it’s possible to look at the death of Christ this way. He gave up something valuable – his own life.
But while this is a fundamental aspect of sacrifice, it is not the one and only key lo unlocking the mystery of the cross as sacrifice. It is too easy, too restricted, too much a reading of our own ways of thinking into the cross event. For though the cross is of universal – even cosmic – significance, it was nevertheless played out against a very particular cultural and religious background, one which is far removed from our situation and assumptions.
The Cross as Sacrifice must be seen in relation to the different sorts of sacrifice in the Old Testament. The people of Israel offered many different sacrifices, a variety we neglect at our peril if we try to explain, as some do, God’s work within just one conceptual or theological framework.
The best known sort of sacrifice, of course, is the burnt offering, or holocaust. In this sort of sacrifice the whole victim – usually an unblemished male bird – was burned, and the person making the offering laid his hand on the victim’s head to signify that the sacrifice was to be offered in his name or for her benefit. As in all animal sacrifices, the use of the blood of the victim was an important part of the ritual – it was poured round the altar. In essence, the holocaust sacrifice was an acknowledgement of the power and might of God. But with Jesus – the representative human – as the victim, whose hand is on the head? And who is acknowledging the power and sovereignty of God?
A similar but different sort of sacrifice was the Communion Sacrifice. Maybe there are more useful resonances here? Actually, there were three different types of Communion Sacrifice – the sacrifice of praise; the freewill sacrifice made out of pure devotion; and the votive sacrifice made in fulfilment of a vow. Communion sacrifices were shared: a part for God, a part for the priest and a part for the person making the sacrifice. Interestingly, the part which went back to the offerer was then shared with family and friends. This sharing highlighted the intention of a communion sacrifice to create a sense of union between the offerer and God. But with Jesus – in whom God has made the union flesh in the incarnation – what is the effect?
A third type of animal sacrifice was the sacrifice of expiation – sin offerings and guilt offerings. The rules and regulations go on for pages and pages of the Old Testament. But the distinguishing characteristic of sin offerings and guilt offerings was once more the use of the blood. This could be sprinkled in various places – the veil of the temple, the corners of the altar, round its base. The victim’s flesh wasn’t shared. Sin offerings were only thought to be effective in the case of inadvertent sin. Guilt offerings were more about repairing an offence, offered by an individual and often accompanied by the levying of a fine. But, as the passiontide chorale says
Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended?
So Old Testament sacrifices are much more than the stereotype of a means of appeasing an angry and wrathful God. Rather they are about acknowledging God’s power, offering praise and devotion, effecting union with God and expressing it with others. And with all of them we can see God using the idea, but turning it on its head, going far beyond it, asking questions of it, exploding it in the outstretched arms of love on the cross.
I’m conscious that I’ve not touched on cereal offerings and perfume sacrifices at all; that’s because, though Paul certainly uses the latter imagery, Christians have always associated Jesus, God made human, with animal sacrifices.
The clue may lie in blood, which we have already seen is important. Blood in the Old Testament is the source of life, and so belonged to God in a special way. Hence some of the Kosher regulations. Hence was happened to the victim’s blood being very significant. The blood always came into contact with the altar, because the altar was the focus of the presence of God.
But there was one particular time when the importance of blood for the whole people was made abundantly clear. After the Covenant between God and the People of Israel has been made at Sinai, Moses offered a Communion Sacrifice during which half of the blood was poured over the altar and half thrown over the gathered people of Israel. The old Covenant was sealed in blood. And Jesus says, this is my blood of the New Covenant which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Maybe the idea of the cross as sacrifice is less important than the idea of the cross as the place of the new covenant sealed in blood – I will be your God and you will be my people. I your God have come among you as one of you and shed my blood for you.
All this we have to carry in our minds when we talk about the sacrifice of the cross.
But there are two other sacrificial rituals of the Old Testament we must hold on to as interpretative lenses or mirrors for the death of Jesus on the cross.
One is the Day of Atonement, a day of complete rest, penance and fasting when special services were held in atonement for the sanctuary, the clergy and the people. It was a ritual involving two goats, in one of which lies the origin of the idea of scapegoat. These two goats were set aside, one for God and one for Azazel (whom we presume to be a demon). The goat chosen for God was sacrificed for the sins of the people, the one for Azazel had a rather different fate. The High Priest laid hands on him denoting that he was transferring to this goat all the sins of the community. But this goat was not sacrificed; it was led into the desert and with it went all the sins of the people. Complex images when considering Jesus as the sacrifice ‘that takes our sins away’.
The other is the Passover Sacrifice. This originated as a communion sacrifice offered in extraordinary circumstances, in a hurry, the people dressed and ready to flee, the victim an unblemished lamb whose blood has to be spread on the lintels of the house as protection against the angel of death which would pass over the land.
This is the beginning of Exodus, of liberation, of Covenant – the great acts by which God freed his people from slavery in Egypt. And Jesus’ passion and death are enacted against the background of the Passover Festival, when all this would be fresh in people’s minds.
Yes, rich pictures indeed, allowing of no simple way of interpreting Jesus’ death as sacrifice. Especially as the one sacrifice that is utterly prohibited in the Hebrew Scriptures is human sacrifice.
So while these pictures weave a fascinating backcloth, they also suggest caution. The more so since, as the Psalmist says
You have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give you a burnt-offering
you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God,
you will not despise.
As Jesus enters the pages of the New Testament, his path crosses that of his cousin John, who immediately says: ‘Look, there is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ At once we are put into sacrifice mode of interpretation, into the idea of sin offering, into the language of the Day of Atonement (though that might demand Jesus as the Goat of the God!).
But apart from that there is remarkably little sacrifice language in the Gospels, though there is Covenant and ransom language.
There’s also the idea of the Suffering Servant. Jesus aligns himself with Isaiah’s servant of God. this could be taken to mean that he saw his life and death as some sort of guilt offering on behalf of the people, whom he – as God’s Son – represented as no other could do. But there is no evidence that Jesus himself saw the category of sacrifice as being determinative for understanding his death.
But even if he didn’t, others did. ‘God appointed him as a sacrifice for reconciliation, through faith, but the shedding of his blood’ says Paul to the Romans. ‘You know that the price of your ransom from the futile way of life handed down by your ancestors was paid, not in anything perishable like silver or gold, but in precious blood as of a blameless and spotless lamb, Christ’ says Peter.
And large chunks of Hebrews are all about the High Priesthood of Christ and the sacrificial nature of his death. Hebrews is an extraordinarily complicated book, especially for those of us who do not share its basic philosophical assumptions. But it’s overall message is simple: Jesus did what the sacrificial system of Israel could never do. it gave us
confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he has opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with out hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and out bodies washed with pure water.
But Hebrews does something else as well. Hebrews returns us to Mount Sinai, to the sprinkling of blood over the people, and compares the shedding of Christ’s blood with that event. Here perhaps is the key, for though there’s not a lot about sacrifice in the Gospels, there’s loads about Passover.
When we talk about the cross as sacrifice we are to understand Jesus as being the Passover Lamb which was slain so that it’s (his) blood could be sprinkled as a sign of salvation, so that it’s (his) flesh could be shared by all the people. And of course, the Sinai event fits in with all this because Exodus and Covenant are two sides of the one coin. They were God’s great saving events for his people the Jews. The death of Jesus is God’s new, great and final saving event for all people, which puts an end to all sacrifices for ever.
This isn’t to say that all the other pictures from Old Testament usage aren’t there. Of course they are. But they aren’t primary. On the cross, in the self giving of perfect love and obedience which is the hallmark of Jesus’ life, is an acknowledgement of the power of God, is praise, is devotion, is fulfilment by God of God’s promises, is the taking away of sin from and the power of sin over us. But above all the cross as sacrifice takes us back to the idea of covenant, opens for us a new relationship, sealed by the shedding of blood; a relationship in which we can be and are united with one another, with Jesus the Christ, and with the wholeness of God. ‘And you shall be my people, and I shall be your God.’