The Bible speaks of Jesus Christ as a sacrifice for us. (Ephesians 5:21) We hear quite a bit about the blood of Jesus, and sometimes this is tied in with the idea that Jesus was suffering a punishment from God for our sins. Some people think of sacrifice as a way of escaping God’s punishment by letting it fall symbolically upon a sacrificial animal. This same idea is applied by some to Jesus Christ as One who took on Himself God’s penalty for all our sins, and so reconciled God to us by satisfying God’s “justice”. Yet the idea that sacrifice is a punishment, and that Christ’s sacrifice was a punishment from God, is not actually taught in the Bible, although He was in a symbolic sense a sacrifice.
Sacrifice is actually a symbol of holiness rather than punishment. God is loving and merciful, and has no desire to see either human or animal suffering. When we sin, we are not reconciled to God through punishment, but by repenting and living a good life. The sacrifice is then a symbol of the our desire to repent and dedicate our life to God. Christ was symbolically a sacrifice because He purified and sanctified Himself by His holy life. He is symbolically our sacrifice because He enables us to life a holy life.
The “punishment” theory of sacrifice is based on the idea that God desires punishment for sin, or else sacrifice as a substitute and symbol of that. There are passages which taken out of context with the rest of the Bible, would seem to indicate that sacrifice was the result of God’s will and law. For example: “Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two one year old lambs each day.” (Exodus 29:38)
The overall teachings of the Bible, however shows just the opposite. Before the laws about sacrifice were given, sacrifice was already widely practiced, both with the Israelites and other nations. The effect of the laws was not to establish but to limit the sacrifices. All sacrifices were forbidden except the ones offered in the tabernacle (or later, the Temple). (Deuteronomy 12:5-11) Also sacrifices to any other God but Jehovah were outlawed. In addition, the laws had clear provision against human sacrifice. (Leviticus 18:21) The laws turned a bloody and potentially murderous ritual into a reasonably limited and more symbolic kind of worship.
The early history of Israel bears out the need for this kind of limitation. There was a strong tendency to practice unlimited sacrifice without any moral bounds. It was done “in all their towns,...on every high hill, and under every green tree,” (2 Kings 17:10; 16:4) and very often it included human victims. (2 Kings 16:3; 17:17; 21:6; 23:10; 2 Chronicles 28:3, 33:6; Psalm 106:37, 38; Isaiah 57:7; Jeremiah 7:31; 19:4-5; 32:35; Exodus 16:20; 20:26, 31; 23:37)
Actually, sacrifice itself was neither required nor desired by God. God could not be interested in--much less appeased by--such slaughter of animals. David wrote, “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire...burnt offering and sin offering You have not required.” (Psalm 40:6) And in another place he said, "You desire not sacrifice...You delight not in burnt offering." (Psalm 51:16) The Lord repeatedly gives the same message: “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? says the Lord. I am full of the burnt offering of rams and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lams, or of he-goats.” (Isaiah 1:11) With even stronger words, He says, "I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies. Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them." (Amos 5:21; Jeremiah 6:20; 14:21) He even states that sacrifice did not come about by His command: “For I spoke not unto your fathers, nor commanded them...concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices: but this thing I commanded them, saying, Obey my voice.” (Jeremiah 7:21) Clearly, sacrifice is not a penalty demanded by God.
Even though God did not desire sacrifice, He did desire the things that sacrifice symbolized, that we should love, Him, and love others, acting fairly and mercifully. This--not punishment--is what sacrifice really stands for:
Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. (1 Samuel 15:22)
The sacrifices of God are a broken (that is, humble) spirit. (Psalm 51:16)
To do justice and judgment is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice." (Proverbs 21:3)
For I desired Mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:6)
Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? ...He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6)
To love the Lord...and to love his neighbor...is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. (Mark 12:33)
Though you offer me burnt offerings...I will not accept them.... but let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a might stream. (Amos 5:24)
The kind of sacrifices God asks for are the "sacrifices of justice," (Deuteronomy 33:19) of "confession" and "thanksgiving." (Psalm 50:14, 23; 107:22; 116:17)
The Bible ties sacrifice with love, mercy humility, and justice. But there is no direct connection anywhere in the Bible between sacrifice and punishment. Rather, it was a symbol of communion with God. The altar was called the Lord’s table, upon which the Israelites offered a meal for Him to eat. (Malachi 1:7,12; Psalm 50) In fact, many offerings were grain offerings, which could be eaten, but not in any way punished or killed. Killing and burning the animals is never called a penalty. It was simply the necessary means of preparing the food. Thus sacrifice was a kind of sacrament or symbolic feast with God.
Some people use the word “atonement” as if it implies that Christ was punished by the Father for our sins. Actually, “atonement” has no connection with punishment. It comes from "at-one-ment" and simply means “making one” or “reconciliation.” In fact, “atonement” and “reconciliation” are the same word in the Greek. We might ask, Who was reconciled--God or the human race? The Bible’s answer is the human race. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself.” (2 Corinthians 5:19) We receive “at-one-ment”, never God. “We were reconciled to God by the death of His Son.... We have received atonement” (Romans 5:10,11)
Jesus’ living sacrifice is never connected with punishment received from God. Christ sacrificed Himself in the sense that He made His own life holy and pure. His whole life exemplified the love, justice, mercy and humility represented by the sacrificial meal. His suffering and death were not a punishment, but a means to perfection. “By the things He suffered” He was “perfected.” (Hebrews 5:8,9) “Ought not Christ to have suffered these things and entered into His glory?” (Luke 24:26)
We say that He died for us, because it was for our sakes that He overcame evil and perfected Himself through His suffering. Jesus said, "For their sakes I sanctify myself: that they also may be sanctified through the truth." (John 17:19) Christ was our sacrifice because He reconciled us with Himself. He made it possible for us to have love, mercy, justice and humility by following His example and letting Him live within us. The New Testament throughout gives the same picture of sacrifice. It is never connected with punishment. For Christ and for us, sacrifice means "doing God’s will," (Hebrews 10:7,9) and having "His law written on our hearts." (Hebrews 8; 10:16) It means avoiding sin, (Hebrews 10:26; John 1:29) and keeping a pure conscience." (Hebrews 10:22; 9:14) Sacrifice means loving others, (Ephesians 5:2) serving God, (Romans 12:1) praising God, (Hebrews 13:15) and supplying the needs of others. (Philemon 2:17) As Paul said, “Do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” (Hebrews 13:16)