Romans 3:21-25a, 27,28 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood … 27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. 28 For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.
Growing up on a farm, I had plenty of animals to take care of – beef cattle, a flock of sheep, a handful of pigs, a horse, several hundred chickens, plus an assortment of dogs and cats. We didn’t have these animals around for fun. The cats caught mice. The dogs chased away the wild critters. The horse was used for riding. But, the rest of the animals were raised for food.
This menagerie of animals didn’t care for themselves. My younger sisters and I had a steady, unending list of chores we had to do each day. Fields to be plowed. Hay to be baled. Corn to be picked. Water to be put into tanks. Grain and hay to be put into troughs. Manure to be shoveled. I learned from a very early age that if you wanted to eat good, you had to work hard.
I also learned early on that when my father asked me to do the chores, he was only being polite. It wasn’t a suggestion. It was a command. A command that would have consequences if it wasn’t followed. Yelling, grounding, more chores, and more yelling accompanied any neglect of duties.
I would have thought that my dad had lost his mind if, to punish me for not watering the cows, he had grounded the cows instead of me. Of, if I had decided not to shovel the manure out of the horse pen, he had gone and spanked the butt of the horse. Or, if I had been too lazy to collect the eggs from the chicken coops that day, he had yelled at the chickens instead of me.
If there was a wrong done, I was the one doing it. (Although, it was probably more my sisters’ fault.) If it was my fault, I was the one who should have been punished. The animals were innocent of any wrongdoing.
Perhaps because of my upbringing on the farm, where we butchered our own chickens and turkeys or shipped the cows and pigs off to be made into steaks and pork chops, I was familiar with the death of animals. St. Paul speaks about death when he writes, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood” (Romans 3:25). When Paul speaks of a sacrifice of atonement, he is referring to the Old Testament principles of sacrificing animals for the sins of the Jewish people.
The book of Leviticus contains great detail about the various sacrifices the people were to make to God. Daily, doves would have their heads wrung off, lambs would have their throats slit, bulls would be slaughtered. All of them would then be placed onto the bloody altar for burning. All these animals were sacrificed because some sinner messed up. The birds and beasts had done nothing wrong. Yet, they were the ones who were killed. They were led to the slaughter as innocent victims.
On the Great Day of Atonement, celebrated annually on the tenth day of the seventh month, the high priest would cast lots between two male goats. One goat would be offered to the Lord as a sin offering. The other goat was chosen to be the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:10). The high priest placed his hands on the scapegoat and confessed Israel’s sins over it before sending it into the wilderness to die (Leviticus 16:21-22).
William Hunt began his painting of The Scapegoat while on the shore of the Dead Sea in 1954. The mountains in the background are those of Edom. The scapegoat is struggling to walk through the salt-encrusted shallows of the Dead Sea. Hunt portrays the desolation of the barren wilderness with the various skulls and bones from other dead animals. He portrays the desperation of the scapegoat, knowing that its fate will soon be the same as those dead animals.
Would it not have made more sense if God had devised a system of atonement where sinners suffered for their own commandment-breaking? Shouldn’t they earn forgiveness by paying with their own pain for the wrong they’ve done? You would confess your wrongdoing to the priest, turn around, put your hands on the altar, and take the whipping you deserve for whatever iniquity you committed. You would admit your guilt to the priest and be grounded from certain sanctified activities. You would spill your guts and receive a spanking.
Doesn’t that seem to make more sense?
But that’s not what happened. A guilty Israelite did not even get his finger pricked to put a drop of his own blood on the altar. Instead, the guilty Israelite would bring an innocent bull, sheep, or dove to the priest. The animal would be killed. Its blood would be spilled over the altar. Or the sins of the people were placed onto a scapegoat and then it was sent into the wilderness to did. And the sinner would go home with his sin atoned for.
It wasn’t until I was much older that the Holy Spirit opened my eyes to see the meaning of the slaughtered livestock in Leviticus. They were not only sacrifices, they were pictures of the perfect sacrifice that lay ahead. They were a mere shadow of the sacrifice to come.
Every dove that lost its head at the altar, foreshadowed the One on whose head the Spirit would land in the form of a dove. Every bull that died as a holy sacrifice was a proclamation of the One, who while being sacrificed on the cross, would pray from Psalm 22, “Many bulls have surrounded me, strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me.” Every lamb roasted atop the flames of the altar was a foretaste of the One who was led like a Lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7); the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29); the Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne (Revelation 5:6); the Lamb in whose blood our robes are washed to make them white in that cleansing, crimson flood (Revelation 7:14). Every scapegoat who had the iniquities of the people placed on his head pointed ahead to the Scapegoat of Christ who had the iniquities of humanity placed upon His perfect head.
These were all Old Testament sacrifices of atonement. They pointed ahead to the New Testament sacrifice of atonement of Jesus, the Christ.
A good way to remember the meaning of the word “atonement,” is to divide it into two words – “at onement.” We had been separated from God by our sins. We had hidden from God and no longer wished to walk with Him in the garden. We had buried our skeletons deep within our closet, hoping that God wouldn’t look there for them. We were enemies of God by nature, not wanting anything to do with Him – no praise, prayer, worship or will.
God provided a way for sinful humanity to be brought back into a harmonious relationship with Him. Atonement is always the action of God and never the action of humans.
God made us “at one” with Him through the sacrifice of atonement. But, it wasn’t through all these Old Testament sacrifices that this atonement happened. These bloody sacrifices did not really take away the guilt of the people. They emphasized their guilt! The Scriptures stress this: “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). So, if it was impossible for all this animal blood to actually take away sins, then why shed it?
Every time another innocent animal was killed because of the intentional or accidental sin of a person, that was a reminder that the innocent died for the guilt of someone else. All those sacrifices of atonement pointed ahead to real sacrifice of atonement – Jesus Christ. Jesus had no guilt, yet He was stricken, smitten, and afflicted for the sins of others.
When St. Paul says that “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood,” he’s not talking about the death of another animal. He’s talking about the death of the very Son of God!
Our rebellion against God’s will should draw God’s wrath down upon us. We should be punished for our sins. We should be spanked, and slapped, and whipped, and made to feel miserable every moment of every day. We should be grounded for an eternity in hell.
But that’s not what happens. Our sin and guilt and rebellion was laid on Jesus. He became the sacrifice of at-onement. He reconciled us to God by giving His perfection for our sins. He gave His righteousness to cover our rebellion. He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. By His wounds, we are healed. The Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted. He was no better than an animal for sacrifice. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. The Lord made His life an offering for our sin (Isaiah 53:5-10).
The book of Leviticus isn’t very fun to read. Perhaps if you read it understanding that it is the prelude of the salvation story and Good Friday is the conclusion, you will be able to understand it better. All of those laws and rules and sacrifices were pointing ahead to their final and ultimate fulfillment on Calvary’s cross.
We might think that it would have been better if the guilty people had been punished instead of all those innocent animals. But understand, if that was the case, then you would should be punished right now, too. You should have your mouth washed out with soap for every time you take God’s name in vain. You should have your hand slapped every time you reach for something that is harmful to your body. You should have your thoughts exposed for every time you whine or lust or covet. You should have the skeletons in your closet emptied and opened for all to see.
How much better is God’s way than our way; His thoughts than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).
God did not set up a system of atonement where sinners suffered for their own wrongdoing. They did not pay with their own blood for transgressions committed. Instead, Jesus Christ suffered for our wrongdoing. He paid for our transgressions with His holy precious blood, and His innocent suffering and death. The lambs and goats and bulls that were slain were the foundation of the forgiveness that Christ won for us on Good Friday. He suffered for sinners. He paid for transgressors.
Christ lived the life we could not live. He took the punishment we could not take. He now freely offers this salvation to us. Do not resist or reject it. Rather, St. Paul say, “Boast in it” (Romans 3:27). Repent that your sins caused the innocent Lamb of God to die in your place. Confess that your iniquities sent the Scapegoat of Christ to die in the wilderness. Receive the forgiveness Christ won for you on Good Friday’s bloody altar. Be assured that your iniquities are removed, never to return. And then boast of this sacrifice of atonement. Amen.