Christ’s Atonement and Animal Sacrifices In Israel
How does the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ relate to the animal sacrifices which God gave to Israel through Moses? What did the blood of these animals accomplish during the days of the Old Covenant theocracy? How does the Old Covenant sacrificial system compare with the New Covenant system envisioned in Ezekiel 40-48 and other Old Testament passages? And how does this New Covenant sacrificial system square with the emphasis in the Book of Hebrews on the finality of the atoning work of the Lord Jesus? The answers to these questions lie in the recognition that there are distinct functions in the plan of God for the blood of sacrificial animals and for the precious blood of Jesus Christ.
The Superiority Of The New Covenant
The atoning work of Jesus Christ is infinite in value and is, therefore, eternally sufficient for those who put their trust in Him. This truth is clearly and repeatedly taught in the New Testament. The New Testament also teaches, especially in the Book of Hebrews, that “[animal] sacrifices. . . can never take away sins” (Heb. 10:11; cf. v. 4) and that under the Old Covenant of Moses “were offered both gifts and sacrifices that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience” (Heb. 9:9; cf. 10:1). Thus, the New Covenant, which is based on Christ’s atoning work and which, in turn, is the basis for the salvation of the Church (Heb. 8:6-13; cf. Lk. 22:20), is infinitely superior to the Old Covenant, which was indeed only “a shadow of good things to come” (Heb. 10:1).
The Participation Of Israel In The New Covenant
Does this mean, then, that Israel, the chosen theocratic nation, has been forever set aside in favor of the Church? This has indeed been the conclusion of many Christian theologians from the days of the Church fathers down to modern times. Israel is seen as apostate and, therefore, broken off forever as a distinct nation in the program of God.
However, the New Testament does not teach that Israel has been forever set aside. It does teach the end of the Old Covenant given by God to Israel through Moses. Yet it does not reject the earlier and unconditional Abrahamic Covenant (which the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31 further elaborates).
Not even the Book of Hebrews teaches that God is finished with Israel as a nation. It must be remembered that this book was not written to the whole nation of Israel, but only to those individuals within Israel who had placed their faith in the Lord Jesus. As new believers, they were being pressured by their “kinsmen according to the flesh” to abandon the distinctive freedoms they had found in the Christian gospel and to turn to a supposedly Mosaic legalism (cf. Acts 15; Gal. 3). To such Christians the author of Hebrews emphasized the shadowy insufficiency and temporary nature of the Old Covenant. In no way, however, did he indicate that God’s unconditional covenant with Abraham had been rejected or that God was forever finished with Israel as a nation.
Although the Church was graciously placed into a New Covenant relationship with God, it did not thereby replace national Israel. This is made clear in Romans 11:11-32. During the present age, Israel has indeed been “broken off” (11:17-22) because of transgression and unbelief (11:11, 23). But that is by no means the end of Israel as a nation, for Israel did not stumble “that they should fall” (11:11). Someday, in fact, it will experience divine fulfillment (11:12) and acceptance (11:15). This refers to God’s New Covenant provision for Israel which was revealed through Jeremiah and Ezekiel and rooted in the Abrahamic Covenant. The fact that the Church participates in the soteriological benefits of the Abrahamic and New Covenants demonstrates continuity between Israel and the Church, but it hardly demonstrates that the Church has supplanted Israel in God’s program, for “the gifts and calling of God are without repentance [irrevocable]” (11:29).
The Benefits of Israel In The New Covenant
The New Covenant, first promised to Israel as a nation (Gen. 12:1-3; Jer. 31:33-34), now provides the Church with the infinite and eternal benefits of the substitutionary blood of Christ. But what did the New Covenant originally involve? It provided for the regeneration of the entire nation of Israel through the Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:26-27), the restoration of this regenerated nation to its ancestral land (Ezek. 36:28, previously guaranteed by the Abrahamic Covenant), and a dynamic, functioning theocracy of twelve tribes gathered around a great new city and Temple (Ezek. 40-48). The New Covenant (millennial) Temple with its many animal sacrifices is especially prominent in Old Testament prophecy.
The Prophet Isaiah foresaw various aspects of the New Covenant system, even though he did not use the technical term. In the deepening gloom of national apostasy under Ahaz and even godly King Hezekiah, the prince of writing prophets spoke of a future Temple in the Holy Land (Isa. 2:2-3; 56:5; 60:13) and indicated that animal sacrifices would be offered on its altar (Isa. 19:21; 56:6-7; 60:7) through priests and Levites (66:21).
Jeremiah, who lived to see the final collapse of the politically independent theocracy of Israel, also prophesied concerning the New Covenant which God would one day make with the nation. In fact, it was to Jeremiah that the expression “new covenant” was first revealed (31:31). This New Covenant included the offering of animals upon the altar of a temple in the Holy Land through the Levitical priests (33:18).
Ezekiel was the third major prophet who spoke of Israel’s new and everlasting covenant of peace. Included in this covenant was provision for “my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore” (37:26, 28). In amazing detail, this sanctuary or Temple is described in chapters 40-48 with regard to the precise dimensions and arrangements of its courts, gates, chambers and furnishings; its officials, including the Levitical descendants of Zadok who would serve as priests; and the different types, characteristics and purposes of its animal sacrifices.
Other prophets who spoke of the future Temple were Daniel (9:24-27), Joel (3:18), Micah (4:1-5) and Haggai (2:7, 9). Zechariah also anticipated a full functional sacrificial system in New Covenant Israel (Zech.14:21).
The Church’s Understanding Of Old Testament Teaching Concerning The New Covenant
How should Christian participants in the New Covenant view these prophetic utterances concerning a restoration of national Israel to its land, complete with Temple, Zadokian priests and animal sacrifices, especially in the light of the emphatic pronouncements of the Book of Hebrews? Liberal and Neo-orthodox theologians dismiss Ezekiel’s Temple vision as either a dream or a tentative plan for the second Temple which the returning exiles never adopted. Conservative commentators typically assume that the covenants of God with Israel are being fulfilled in the Church or refer somehow to the eternal state. Even some premillennialists, finding it difficult to reconcile millennial sacrifices with the declarations found in Hebrews, conclude that Israel’s New Covenant will indeed eventuate in national conversion and divine blessing in Palestine, but without a Temple, priests and sacrifices. Those premillennialists who do believe that literal sacrifices will be offered in the millennial age generally view them strictly as memorials of the death of Christ, like the Church’s memorial using the bread and cup.
The key to the whole problem is to be found in answers to three questions. (1) What was the true function of animal sacrifices in the Old Covenant? (2) What is the significance of the differences between Ezekiel’s picture of the New Covenant system of worship and the Old Covenant system of worship? (3) Would a worship system involving animal sacrifices necessarily represent a great step backward for New Covenant Israel during the Kingdom Age?
The True Function Of Animal Sacrifices
In answer to the first question, animal sacrifices could never remove spiritual guilt from the offerer. The Book of Hebrews is very clear about that (Heb.10:4,11). It is, however, erroneous to conclude that the sacrifices were mere teaching symbols given by God to Israel to prepare them for Messiah and His infinite atonement. Such a view is contradicted by precise statements in Exodus and Leviticus (e.g., Lev. 4:35). From God’s perspective, this was surely a major purpose of animal sacrifices, but it could not have been their exclusive purpose from the perspective of Old Covenant Israelites.
The Scriptures tell us that something really did happen to the Israelite offerer when he came to the right altar with the appropriate sacrifice. What happened was temporal, finite, external and legal – not eternal, infinite, internal and soteriological. Nevertheless, what happened was personally and immediately significant, not simply symbolic or prophetic. When an Israelite erred in respect to a particular ordinance of the Mosaic Law, he was actually “forgiven” through an “atonement” made by the priest (Num. 15:25-26).
But what was the precise nature of this forgiveness and atonement? In the covenant at Sinai, God provided a highly complex and rigid structure for His “kingdom of priests.” Within that structure, national/theocratic transgressions received national/theocratic forgiveness when appropriate sacrifices were offered to God through legitimate priests at the altar. This forgiveness took place regardless of the spiritual state of either the offerer or the priest. However, such sacrificial blood could never cleanse the conscience or provide eternal salvation (Heb.10:1-2), so God repeatedly sent prophets to call His people to love and obey their God from the heart. Apart from such genuine faith, all the ceremonially kosher animals in the whole world would avail nothing in the spiritual realm (Jer. 6:20; Hos. 5:6; Mic. 6:6-8). It was not to be either faith or sacrifices; rather, it was to be both faith and sacrifices (cf. Ps.51-19).
What does all of this indicate with regard to Israel’s animal sacrifices in the Millennial Temple under the New Covenant? It indicates that future sacrifices, like those of the past, will have nothing to do with eternal salvation which only comes through true faith in God. Animal sacrifices are unable to remove spiritual guilt. It also indicates that animal sacrifices during the coming Kingdom Age will not be primarily memorial, any more than sacrifices in the age of the Old Covenant were primarily prospective or prophetic. Ezekiel does not say that animals will be offered for a memorial of Messiah’s death; he says that they will be offered for atonement (45:15, 17, 20). Finally, it indicates that something significant will be accomplished through the animal sacrifices: They will secure atonement for the offerer. Just as under the Old Covenant system, this atonement will be ceremonial in nature. It will restore theocratic harmony within the Millennial Kingdom.
The Significance Of The Differences In Israelite Worship Under The Old And New Covenants
Ezekiel’s picture of millennial worship and the Mosaic worship system which had been established nine hundred years earlier exhibit fundamental differences. Old Testament scholars have long wrestled with the significance of these differences. Ancient Jewish rabbis believed that when Elijah returned he would be able to explain them all away. Modern theologians frequently abandon all attempts to explain them, declaring that the differences are plainly “discrepancies.”
There are no discrepancies within Scripture, however, and it is not necessary to wait until Elijah appears to discover a satisfactory solution to the problem. The solution, simply put, is that the worship system which Israel followed before Calvary had to be modified somewhat to be appropriate for use after Calvary. Accordingly, Ezekiel sets forth the modified system which will govern Israel’s service for God during the Millennium. As Nathanael West noted over a century ago, Ezekiel’s modification of the Mosaic system strongly suggests the “vanishing away” of the Old Covenant to make way for the New Covenant. Thus, Ezekiel’s changes in the size and location of the Temple, the furniture of the Temple, the nature of the priesthood and the order of the feasts and sacrifices all result from the fact that God is to be served differently by His theocratic nation following Christ’s atoning work than He was when that work had not yet been accomplished.
Millennial Sacrifices Will Not Be A Backward Step For Israel
Consistent Dispensationalism must teach the practice of animal sacrifices for a restored and regenerated Israel in the Millennium. But this raises the third major question: Would such a worship system necessarily represent a great step backward for New Covenant Israel during the Kingdom Age? The answer is no, for Israel will be under a New Covenant program, not the Old Covenant given to Moses which was never designed to guarantee salvation. In fact, animal sacrifices within a New Covenant structure, endorsed by the living Lamb of God, will actually constitute a gigantic step forward for Israel, not a reversion to “weak and beggarly elements” (Gal. 4:9) which enslaved the nation because of its unregenerate misuse of the Law.
These sacrifices, illumined by a corporate understanding of the true significance of the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world, will be appreciated all the more for what they can and cannot accomplish for the offerer. For non glorified millennial Israel and her Gentile proselytes, the continued presence of a sin nature will call for constant instruction in revealed truth. Not even a perfect government will automatically solve this deep, universal problem. In distinction from the perfection of the eternal state, Christ will “rule them [all the nations] with a rod of iron” (Rev. 19:15) with strict controls, especially in religious practices.
How can vital spiritual instruction be accomplished for citizens of the Millennial Kingdom through a system of animal sacrifices? It is theoretically possible for the Church today to achieve a spiritual, symbolic and pedagogic balance in the use of bread and cup in communion. It will be all the more possible for regenerated Israel to attain the divinely intended balance between form and content, Iip and heart, hand and soul, within the structures of the New Covenant. Further, it is not only possible, but prophetically certain, that millennial animal sacrifices will be used in a God-honoring way (e.g. Ps. 51:15-19; Heb. 11:4) by a regenerated, chosen nation before the inauguration of the eternal state when animals will presumably no longer exist.
Before the heavens and the earth flee away from Him who sits upon the Great White Throne, God will provide a final demonstration of the validity of animal sacrifices as an instructional and disciplinary instrument for Israel. The entire world will see the true purpose of this system. Of course, the system never has and never will function on the level of Calvary’s cross, where infinite and eternal guilt was dealt with once and for all. But the system did accomplish, under God, some very important pedagogical and disciplinary purposes for Israel under the Old Covenant (Gal. 4:1-7). There is good reason to believe that it will yet again function – and this time function perfectly – on the level of purely temporal cleansing and forgiveness within the strict limits of the national theocracy of Israel during the one thousand years of Christ’s reign in accordance with the terms of the New Covenant.
DR. JOHN C. WHITCOMB
Dr. John C. Whitcomb is a professor of Theology and Old Testament at Grace Theological Seminary, Winona Lake, Indiana.
While a student at Princeton University, he was led to Christ. Dr. Whitcomb is the editor of the Grace Theological Journal. He has authored a score of books and scholarly articles.
Dr. Whitcomb is in demand as a Bible teacher throughout the world. His devotion to Christ and genuine piety compliment his courageous and uncompromising proclamation of the gospel.