(A) The first of five offerings: the common burnt offering
Leviticus opens with the Lord instructing Moses at the tent of meeting, speaking of the making of sacrifice. In verse 3, we read of two actions that must be performed, one by the worshipper, one by the LORD. The worshipper has to offer the offering by bringing it to the entrance of the tent of meeting. The Lord has to accept the presented offering. The act of presenting the burnt offering is important, because it is not just a ritual that God demands, but is highly important because it is relational. In Mal 1:1-11, we read of God rejecting Israel's poor offering because it revealed how they despised his name. Worship is actually interaction between human beings and God. What about us today? When we approach God in circumstances like this Bible study, we are worshipping Him. What are we bringing, and does He accept it?
There are 3 types of burnt offerings that may be offered. They could either offer an animal from the herd such as a bull (v.5a), from the flock such as a sheep or goat (v.10) or a type of bird such as a pigeon (v.14). God gave them choices in the type of animals they could present. It wasn't just for variety's sake, but He took into account their economic statuses. This tiering allows for both the rich and the poor to worship Him. After all, this is a God that is wholly self-sufficient and does not need the bulls or pigeons. Rather, He has provided a way of reconciliation and worship for all sinners.
But when is the burnt offering to be performed? Num 28:3 speak of a daily sacrifice of two male lambs without blemish, while Lev 6:8-9 speak of the burnt offering that has to be kept burning all the time. Together with the other numerous references in both Numbers and Leviticus (c.f. Num 9-11, 16, 27, 29:1, 6; Lev 5:7, 10, 17-18, 9:2-3, 7, 12:6, 8, 14:19-20, 15:14-15, 15:30, 15:22-26, 16:3, 5, 24, Num 8:12) we realise that essentially, worship never stops! The smoke from the bronze altar keeps going all day and all night long without end. There is an offering all the time.
(B) How to offer the burnt offering: a costly substitute offered in blood and consumed by fire
Three sets of instructions are given, one for each type of burnt offering, whether from the flock, herd or a bird. Let us walk through the process step by step, and at the same time envision the actions performed in each case.
|Selection c.f. Mal 1||Worshipper||They had to present blemish-free male animals, i.e. perfect and the more expensive and valuable of the lot. They were not to give their spares, but to give their best. The entire selection process was a stringent one with many considerations and it afforded them much time to prepare and think about what it was that they were doing, and who it was they were coming before. The God of the Bible is not a bully you can pay off, but a judge who demands justice. Only a pure offering will do.|
|Substitution c.f. Ps 66||Worshipper||The worshipper had to declare their sins over the animal substitute, who was to be offered on the altar in place of him or her. Everything that is about to happen to this animal should have happened to the worshipper instead. The lines of the hymn describe this wonderfully -- "In my place condemned he stood, sealed my pardon with his blood"|
|Killing||Worshipper||The worshipper had to kill the animal substitute and sacrifice, a reminder that death is the price for all our rebellion. This picture of blood and gore of dead animals everywhere is a striking visual representation of where we should be as recipients of God's wrath and judgment. We have problems accepting this, because we don't believe that we are that bad, and that this is what we deserve. The animal sacrifices continue to be a reminder that our sin is that awful and deserves that much of a judgment.|
|Throwing the blood against the altar||Priests||This entire process is a partnership and certainly not a clean process. The priests were not involved in the killing, but were responsible to prepare the altar where the offering would be made.|
|Flay the offering into pieces, or severing for birds||Worshipper||This is similar to the procedure for making a covenant in the OT (c.f. Gen 15).|
|Arranging wood and laying the fire||Priests||The priests handled the fire and associated things because the fire symbolized God consuming the offerings. They were tasked to manage the fire properly and it was important, because God is holy. He provides the rules and means of worship. We were not to come on our own terms. |
|Arranging the offering||Priests||The worship of God is laid down and designed by God.|
|Washing certain parts (entrails, legs and crop for birds)||Worshipper||These were the dirty bits of the animal and needed to be washed by the worshipper before being presented. The priests would not touch it, because the priests have been made holy, and should not be made unholy by coming into contact with these animal parts.|
These verses might seem very foreign to us, but remember that the Israelites would have the Passover in the back of their heads, and they would do this regularly. How would you describe this process of worshipping Yahweh, where we are worshippers are actively involved in every step? Every part has instructive, didactic value for our lives. It is a drama of God's holiness and our sins, and is certainly not something we come to lightly and flippantly. The personal involvement in the act of killing an animal is tiring, dirty and has a personal significance. Multiply this by the constant need for making such or similar offerings due to the various other laws, and it will surely fill the Israelites with a dread and shame, a regular reminder of our uncleanness. Contrast it with how we think about the Christian life today -- what we wear to church, the time we arrive for service, the kind of heart, mindset and preparation we adopt before going for service. How are we worshipping God?
(C) Significance of the burnt offering: Atonement and Worship
We've spent such a long time studying the ‘how’ of the process, but what is the final goal of making a burnt offering? The final goal is for it to be accepted as "a pleasing aroma to the Lord" (v.9b, 13b, 17b). The aim is for God to be pleased with their offering. This phrase and description is similar to the one in Gen 8:20-22, where Noah built an altar and offered an offering after the flood. God smelt the pleasing aroma and pledged not to destroy again, and his righteous wrath against sin was propitiated. What does propitiation mean? Simply, instead of being against us, now he is for us. This is the function of the pleasing aroma of the offering. But, why does God need to be propitiated? It is important to understand and see God as a righteous judge, and to recognise that sin is not just a moral failure, but is relational opposition. It is not just that I did something wrong, but it is actually me being so brazen as to tell the one person in the universe who is always right and true, that He is wrong. Every aspect of sin has a Godward dimension where I rise up and tell God that He is not kind, loving, righteous, perfect, holy as He is and I will take it upon myself to make things right. Do you see how serious sin is, and more so, against a holy, perfect and righteous God?
The burnt offerings, therefore, enables us to be reconciled to God and forgiven. Verse 4 speaks of the animal being the Israelite's substitute, "to make atonement for him". Atonement speaks of ransoming from the hold of sin and making a purification from the defilement of sin. Therefore, atonement makes reconciliation possible between us and God, who is the offended party. Have you ever thought of God as the offended party? If we are honest, we are prone to thinking of God as a cosmic Santa that dishes out blessings if we are nice, and withholds them if we are naughty, and is rather distant for most part of our lives, useful only when we need him. But, Levticus 1 presents to us a different God of the Bible, one that is actually a "problem" for us sinners, because God in His righteousness is against us in our sin.
As sinners, we were enemies of God, and recipients of His wrath. In Gen 3:22-24, we read of Adam and Eve being kicked out of the Garden and since then, no man has been able to return to the Garden. Why? The way to Eden is guarded by a cherubim with a flaming sword. Any return to Eden requires one to go pass the flaming sword. This is the way back to God, and this is our biggest problem. But God, in His mercy and grace, did not leave us alone. The offerings recorded in Leviticus 1 are not just rituals designed to pacify a needy God. These show us a way of reconciliation, for sinners to encounter this holy God. But it was not complete, and there are many offerings and purification steps that the rest of Leviticus will detail for us. This points us to Jesus Christ, the perfect sacrifice. Jesus was the one who went to the flaming sword, and was consumed completely as a burnt offering as the Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world. He was cut up, burnt completely, so that by His death, He is offered up as a pleasing aroma to God (c.f. Eph 5:2).
What does this mean for us today? Do you know and rest in Jesus as the perfect substitute for your sins? As Christians, these verses also remind us that when bad things in life happen, they are not evidences of God's wrath! He has poured out His wrath fully on Christ, and Christ has declared that it is finished. If we have a substitute in Christ, God feels no wrath towards us but only delight. How does this change our view towards the trials and sufferings in our lives?