“You shall not sacrifice to the Lord your God an ox or a sheep in which is a blemish, any defect whatever, for that is an abomination to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 17:1, ESV).
This verse may at first seem like an Old Testament commandment that has little relevance for Christians today. I would submit, however, that it is a commandment of God that has much relevance for God’s people of all generations.
Let’s start by asking why God would require the Israelites to sacrifice only oxen or sheep without any physical defects when they made a sacrifice to God. What difference did it make to God since the animal was going to be killed and cooked or burned up anyway?
While there are several theological principles you could derive from this Old Testament commandment, here’s the one I want to address:
The fidelity of the sacrifice indicates the fidelity of the sacrificer.
“Joyful are people of integrity, who follow the instructions of the Lord. Joyful are those who obey his laws and search for him with all their hearts. They do not compromise with evil, and they walk only in his paths” (Psalm 119:1-3, NLT).
I recently read the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas. Bonhoeffer was a German pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident, and the key founding member of the Confessing Church in Germany during the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich in Germany prior to and during World War II. Bonhoeffer, who wrote the Christian classic, The Cost of Discipleship, was imprisoned and eventually executed by the Nazis at the age of thirty-nine for his Christian faith and participation in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler.
The detailed biography was an interesting and inspirational read but left me with some disturbing theological questions concerning the tension between good and evil in this present world. Although Metaxas probably didn’t intend to agitate his readers when writing the biography, the story of Bonhoeffer’s brief life and tragic death certainly raised some concerns about God’s justice for me!
“So Christ has now become the High Priest over all the good things that have come… With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever…For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. That is why he is the one who mediates a new covenant between God and people, so that all who are called can receive the eternal inheritance God has promised them.” (Hebrews 9:11-14, NLT).
In the ancient Jewish religious order God’s presence was represented as residing in the Most Holy Place in the temple behind two sets of curtains. Only a high priest could enter into this Most Holy Place once a year and then never without a blood sacrifice, which he offered to make atonement for his sin and the sins of the people (see 9:6-7).
“And if any native Israelite or foreigner living among you eats or drinks blood in any form, I will turn against that person and cut him off from the community of your people, for the life of the body is in its blood. I have given you the blood on the altar to purify you, making you right with the Lord. It is the blood, given in exchange for a life, that makes purification possible.”
These verses explain the theology of substitutionary atonement.
Israel was forbidden to consume blood because blood was symbolic of the life given by God and was reserved as God’s portion of each animal sacrifice.
God had also designated the sacrificial blood as the means of atonement. In other words, God’s grace permitted the life of the animal to be a substitute in exchange for the life of the human sinner.
The sacrifice of Christ on the cross follows this same pattern for substitutionary atonement as described in Leviticus with the exception that Christ’s sacrifice, because He was God Incarnate, was once and for all while the sacrifice of bulls and goats had to be made repeatedly.