When Adam and Eve sinned, God promised atonement:

“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)

This first promise is also the first prophecy and says that a descendant, referred to here as “her [Eve’s] offspring,” would do irreparable harm to the serpent, Satan. Just after God spoke these words, He gave Adam and Eve a practical illustration of the idea of “substitution”; that a sacrifice – a life for a life – would be needed to fulfill that promise:

The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. (Genesis 3:21)

We have evidence that the first family understood God’s promise and illustration in the actions of Cain and Abel. The sons of Adam and Eve understood both the concept and the need for atonement. In Genesis 4 we see them offering their own sacrifices to the Lord. God rejected Cain’s offering, but He wasn’t condemning Cain, He was teaching a lesson. He spoke to Cain with all the patience of loving parent:

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:6-7)

There was no anger in what God said in response to Cain’s offering. There was no punishment inflicted on him. What did God explain to Cain? If Cain continued in his present state – angry and downcast – he would be sinning. But if he would present a sin-offering, his sin would be pardoned. Cain’s offering needed to be more like that of his brother’s. Abel the man wasn’t necessarily any better than his brother, but his offering was. What was wrong with Cain’s offering? It was the result of HIS work, and God did not find it acceptable.

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. (Genesis 4:2-3)

This was the lesson: sin is atoned for, not by our works of righteousness, but by God’s mercy. Forgiveness of sin is wholly a work of God; we cannot earn God’s pardon through our efforts.

Abel’s offering was acceptable because it was offered in faith, something we learn from a verse in the New Testament:

By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. (Hebrews 11:4)

The death of Jesus is described in the same kind of language as the sacrifices of the Old Testament. For example, when John the Baptist referred to Jesus as “the Lamb of God,” everybody that heard him understood exactly what he meant. However, we who are living 2,000 on have no relationship to those words. Unless we have even a modicum of knowledge about the Old Testament idea of a life-for-a-life, those words, “the Lamb of God” have little or no power.

1. Atonement in the Old Testament: Concepts and Reality

The sacrifices in the Old Testament and the whole sacrificial system were types – examples – pointing God’s people to the perfect or ultimate Sacrifice, Jesus Christ. They were to prepare the people of God for the time when Christ would come to completely fulfill the first promise and prophecy of the Bible.

The whole idea of “atonement” and “sacrifice” was in no way an afterthought of God brought on by the Fall of man. In fact, Jesus Christ is described this way in Revelation 13:8–

...the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world. (Revelation 13:8b)

In other words, God’s plan of sacrifice was ordained in Heaven even before the creation of the material universe. When Jesus is referred to as “the Lamb of God,” God’s people would have immediately been reminded of their Passover Lamb, that was chosen several days before it was killed:

Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. (Exodus 12:3)

Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the people of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. (Exodus 12:6)

Jesus Christ, like the Passover Lamb, was chosen before the creation of the world to be offered as the final Sacrifice for man’s sin.

He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. (1 Peter 1:20)

When we understand this, we understand that Christianity is in no way a “new religion” that began with the coming of Jesus into the world 2,000 years ago but it is in reality a manifestation of God’s eternal plan. All the clues that pointed to Jesus scattered throughout the Old Testament were there to be seen by God’s people for generations.

Beginning with the very first animal sacrifices in Genesis, we see an innocent animal dying so that man’s guilt may be covered. That is the primary purpose of sacrifice: a covering for a guilty conscience. In fact, the word “atonement” means “to cover.”

But did the ancient people get what God was trying to teach them? The answer is obvious: yes, they did. Even though man took a very good and righteous concept, sacrificial worship, and perverted it, the fact that there sprang up religions all over the world that involved the killing of innocent creatures to appease a deity, shows that buried deep in the subconsciousness of all men is an understanding of “atonement.” All men seem to instinctively know that the God who made him has every right to kill him unless an acceptable offering is made. In behind the idolatries of every human religion and cult, is an understanding that there is a great “spirit” or a great god above all other gods who made man, gives and takes life, and demands atonement.

Paul makes it clear that at one time, all people on the earth knew God:

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:21)

So just as fallen man still bears the image of God, marred as it may be, and the marks of his divine origin, so even religions, false and otherwise, with their sacrifices, bear some marks of an original Divine revelation from God to man.

2. Atonement in the Old Testament: Efficacy

Where the God-instituted sacrificial systems of the Old Testament (from Adam’s time to Noah’s time and finally to the Mosaic Covenant) effective? Where those who offered the prescribed sacrifices in the proper way pardoned?

The answers to these and other questions surrounding the Old Testament sacrificial system are found in the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament. This letter was written to Hebrew Christians who were depressed and discouraged and tempted to return to their former religion, Judaism. In doing so, they would go back to the Temple and it’s animal sacrifices. The author of that letter did his best to persuade them to remain faithful, for to return to the Temple and it’s priests and animal sacrifices would be to exchange the reality for the shadow. The overall argument of Hebrews is that the Old Covenant was good as far as it went, but the New Covenant is better in every way.

The Old Testament sacrifices were good because that whole system proceeded from the heart and mind of God. They were good because they fulfilled a plan that originated in Heaven as part of God’s plan of redemption: they were a means of grace.

He shall burn all the fat on the altar as he burned the fat of the fellowship offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for the man’s sin, and he will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:26)

As faithful Israelites participated in the various sacrifices, they were conscious of two things. First, repentance was not enough; it had to be accompanied by an outward act that showed the community of faith that sins where covered.

In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. (Hebrews 9:22)

If an Israelite claimed to have been forgiven, there had to be proof; one of his animals had to have been sacrificed.

Secondly, that outward act of sacrifice had to be accompanied by inward expressions of sacrifices; things like praise to God, and an attitude of humble thankfulness.

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalms 51:16-17)

This was something that Solomon completely understood:

The Lord detests the sacrifice of the wicked, but the prayer of the upright pleases him. (Proverbs 15:8)

The Bible makes it plain that merely “going through the motions” in terms of offering the prescribed sacrifices were not at all acceptable to God.

However, Jesus Christ’s One sacrifice in the New Testament is better in every way. Faithful, thinking Israelites realized that their present means of sacrifice was not perfect. How could the blood of a mere animal compensate for the sins of a man, created in the image of God? Obviously, the offering had absolutely nothing in common in any way with the offerer and the shed blood of that animal had no power to do anything for anybody.

But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10:3-4)

The writer to the Hebrews, a Hebrew himself, understood that at best those animal sacrifices demanded by the Lord were a very temporary means of atoning for sin only until the perfect Sacrifice would come. The sacrifice of animals only covered the outward acts of sin but were of no spiritual value.

…the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings–external regulations applying until the time of the new order. (Hebrews 9:9b, 10)

The very fact that these sacrifices had to be repeated over and over and over proved that they were far from perfect.

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming–not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. (Hebrews 10:1-2)

Thinking, faithful, and enlightened Israelites knew something better was coming their way. The prophet Jeremiah was one who knew the truth. He knew:

(a)  The people could never keep the Law because their sins were so deeply etched into their inner-most being :

Judah’s sin is engraved with an iron tool, inscribed with a flint point, on the tablets of their hearts and on the horns of their altars.” (Jeremiah 17:1)

(b)  Their hearts were desperately wicked and deceitful:

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)

(c)  That nobody was capable of changing their hearts any more than they were of changing their skin color:

Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil. (Jeremiah 13:23)

(d)  His people had long passed the point where sacrifices did any good:

What do I care about incense from Sheba or sweet calamus from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable;your sacrifices do not please me.” (Jeremiah 6:20)

3. Atonement in the Old Testament: Some were justified

The Bible teaches that in spite of the limitations of the Old Testament sacrificial system, people were indeed saved before the atoning work of Christ. Abraham was said to have been justified by faith (Romans 4:23). Moses was glorified (Luke 9:30, 31) and Enoch and Elijah were translated. Many, many people who lived and died before the New Testament era were godly and true believers. How could they have been saved before Christ did His work on the Cross?

They were saved in anticipation of, and looking forward in faith to, the future perfect Sacrifice just as we, today, are saved in consideration of, and in looking back to, Christ’s past Sacrifice. Christ’s once-for-all Sacrifice was so powerful, it reached back in time and and reaches forward in time to save all those who, by faith, trust in His atoning work on their behalf.

Naturally, those true believers in the Old Testament did not enjoy the blessings of salvation afforded believers today. We enjoy the abiding presence of God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, they did not. They did not enjoy the fullness of the gifts of the Spirit and they certainly did not have the completed revelation of God at their fingertips! Believers are so blessed today, and yet we fall into the exact same sinful and destructive thought patterns and behaviors the Israelites of the past did.


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