4:3, 13, 22-23, 27-28
It's interesting to note that those with greater spiritual authority (not necessarily those with more wealth) were required to bring a proportionately more valuable sacrifice. This is consistent with the New Testament teaching that those who teach will be judged more strictly. (James 3:1)
I love preparing the "In Search Of Truth" post and podcast segment each week, because I'm wired to get a lot of satisfaction from sharing truth with others and seeing their light-bulbs turn on. But I have to admit that whenever I remember this truth about teaching it's usually sobering. So I want to remind you to join this conversation anytime, especially if you detect that I may be saying something that doesn't line up with scripture or truth.
Something that makes the Sin Offering stand out is its mandatory nature. Of all the sacrifices we've looked at so far, this is the first that was mandatory. The rest were completely voluntary.
The blood from this sacrifice was sprinkled on the horns of the incense altar. The high priest also sprinkled blood on the horns of this altar once a year to atone for the sins of Israel. (See Exodus 30:10) Horns were a symbol of power or strength during this time period. So the symbol here seems to be that of God's power to provide atonement, reconciling forgiveness, to Israel.
It's again not perfectly clear what is meant by laying hands on the animal before it is sacrificed. We know it's not necessarily some kind of "transference of sin", since this act is included in sacrifices not dealing with sin. (See Leviticus 1:4) It may symbolize that here, but this would mean that the symbol of this act changes depending on the sacrifice. A more consistent symbolic meaning that some scholars have accepted is that the animal somehow stands in place of or represents the one offering the sacrifice.
Unlike other sacrifices, there is no meal associated with this sacrifice. What is not burned on the altar is burned outside of the city. It seems the purpose here is not to symbolize relational interaction with Yahweh (no portions are left to be consumed in a meal by either the offerer or the priests). The animal parts of the sacrifice are of practical benefit to no one. 100% of the animal is destroyed, making this feel more like a "payment" or transaction of some kind than other sacrifices. This makes sense, given that this sacrifice is about justice, and dealing with sin.
So did these sacrifices actually enable people to be forgiven? Cleared of their guilt before God?
The Hebrew word for "atonement" in verses 20, 26 and 31 is "Kaphar", and should be distinguished from the way we use the word "atonement" when speaking on a doctrinal level. It's not that Kaphar was not often used to mean "atonement", but it literally means "to cover" and only later in its historical use did it take on the idea of atonement. In fact the first time we see this word in the Bible is in Genesis 6:14, where God is instructing Noah to "cover" the ark with pitch. Moses wrote both Genesis and Leviticus, so even during the writing of Leviticus this word still primarily meant "to cover".
All that to say we want to be careful about assigning a lot of doctrinal baggage to this word as it is used here. It may refer to some form of "covering" sin that was still ultimately incomplete.
Although there is no mention of this forgiveness being incomplete or imperfect in these verses, elsewhere in scripture the sacrificial system and the entire Old Covenant is implied, or directly stated, to be lacking in some way.
In the Tanakh (Old Testament)- Psalm 40: 6, Jeremiah 31:32-34, Jeremiah 33:8
In The New Testament-Hebrews 9:15, Hebrews 9:22, Hebrews 10:4, Hebrews 10:11
The atonement and forgiveness available through the Sin Offering was incomplete, both in its ability to repair human relationship with Yahweh, and its ability to satisfy justice and right wrongs. In Numbers 14:19-24 we see an example of God granting forgiveness during the Old Covenant period, but not withholding punishment. So the Israelites could be forgiven, but were still required to suffer appropriate punishment for their sin according to the Law.
The Sin Offering (or Purification Offering as some scholars now call it) was not in itself some formula or actual payment that balanced the scales of justice. First, it also dealt with ritual uncleanness. Second, if it were a "recipe for forgiveness", then we would expect that the animal offered would be the same, no matter a person's financial situation. But this was not the case. Yahweh provided alternative options for those who couldn't afford the default animal types for their offering, so that they could share in this experience despite their poverty.
It makes much more sense to conclude that this was a prescribed experience that Yahweh wanted his people to have, to instruct them regarding who he is, who we as humans are, and the problem in our relationship that we would live in denial of if not made aware of it and continually reminded of it in a powerful, graphic way. At best this offering seems to be a temporary placeholder, until true payment could be somehow made to finally deal with our sin problem, once and for all. The book of Hebrews describes Jesus as the one who actually accomplished this.
(Hebrews 7:22-27, ESV) This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He 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.
It's easy to be critical of the ancient Hebrews for developing the harmful belief that they could actually do enough to "get on God's good side". But the truth is that mentality is the natural tendency for all of us. It certainly is mine.
I unknowingly try to figure out how much sacrifice in my life is "enough" to make God happy with me. For awhile now I've sensed God's increasing call for me to give up some of my play time. Some of that precious time that I devote to my favorite geek hobbies. I believe I've sensed a gentle but persistent tug on my sleeve from the Holy Spirit, calling me to give up some of that time to replace it with something more directly focused on his agenda.
To me right now, it feels like I need every second of that time. And saying that openly only further highlights how ridiculous it sounds. (Really, Paeter? You need every second of it?) But even so, as I look for where I can make cuts and adjustments, I regularly catch myself thinking, "I could do 'blank', and then that will be enough."
But when it comes to turning our attention to serving Yahweh, there is no "enough". I could drop every second of my free time and live a life of constant stress and exertion and it would never equal what Jesus deserves.
There are two things I can do with that understanding. I can say, "Well, I'll just trust in Jesus and remember that even if I give my life to entertainment and pleasure 'there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus'(Romans 8:1)." Or I can realize that because I have no condemnation to fear, I can feel free to explore new levels of trust and dependence on Yahweh, knowing that I will fail, I will revert back, I will need to hit that reset button and take another shot at it again, and again for the rest of my life. And all of that is okay.
Failing no longer means I'm a failure. Because of Jesus, my record before God has no failures in it, and so I have no reason to be discouraged. I can pursue that mysterious life of immensely deeper joy that Jesus and his disciples knew, content to awkwardly stumble and repeatedly not measure up along the way as I pursue it.
Now I'll admit, all of that can sound a little like motivational pie in the sky talk. But if the Bible is true, than it's not. If the Bible is really the truth, our brains need to be rewired and reprogrammed to clean out the corrupt files and registry errors convincing us that God cannot bring about change in our lives, or that committing ourselves to him more deeply will result in misery.
That's where community is so vital. First and foremost a local church community where we can develop friendships and spend time with others who are physically in the same place with us. Secondly in other communities like Christian Geek Central.
So I want to encourage you to go get encouraged by the truth. Connect and live life with other believers, so we can all see our day to day grind in light of what our perfect High Priest and ultimate sacrifice has done for us.