THE TRUE FUNCTION OF ANIMAL SACRIFICES
"And the priest shall make an atonement for all the congregation of the children of Israel, and it shall be forgiven them; for it is ignorance: and they shall bring their offering, a sacrifice made by fire unto the LORD, and their sin offering before the LORD, for their ignorance:Animal sacrifices could never remove spiritual guilt from the offerer or clear his conscience. The book of Hebrews is very clear about that (Heb. 10:4, 11). But it is equally erroneous to say 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.
26 And it shall be forgiven all the congregation of the children of Israel, and the stranger that sojourneth among them; seeing all the people were in ignorance." Num. 15:25-26
26 And it shall be forgiven all the congregation of the children of Israel, and the stranger that sojourneth among them; seeing all the people were in ignorance." Num. 15:25-26
The Scriptures tell us that something really did happen to the Israelite offerer when he came to the right altar with the appropriate sacrifice; and he was expected to know what would happen to him. What happened was temporal, finite, external, and legal - not external, infinite, internal, and soteriological. Nevertheless, what happened was personally and immediately significant, not simply symbolic and/or prophetic. When an Israelite "unwittingly failed" to observe a particular ordinance of the Mosaic Law (in the weakness of his sin nature [Num. 15:22-29], not "defiantly," in open rebellion against God Himself [Num. 15:30-36])," he was actually "forgiven" through an "atonement" (a ritual cleansing; cf. Heb. 9:10, 13) made by the priest (Num. 15:25-26).
But what was the precise nature of this "forgiveness" and this "atonement"? To say that it was exclusively a prophetic anticipation of Christ's atoning work does not do justice to the progress of revelation. There simply is no biblical evidence that the knowledge-content of Old Testament saving faith always and necessarily included a crucified Messiah. However, in God's eternal purpose, the death of His Son has always been and always will be the final basis of spiritual salvation (Rom. 3:25-26). Saving faith before the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) involved a heart response to whatever special revelation of God was available at that time in history (cf. Rom. 4; Gal. 3; Heb. 11). Such Spirit-initiated faith produced a "circumcised heart" (Lev. 26:41; Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; 9:25; Ezek. 44:7, 9). No one was ever spiritually regenerated by works, not even by fulfilling legally prescribed sacrifices, offerings, and other Mosaic requirements.
In the covenant at Sinai, God provided a highly complex and rigid structure for his "kingdom of priests." Within that structure, national/theocratic transgressions would receive national/theocratic forgiveness when appropriate sacrifices were offered to God through legitimate priests at the tabernacle/temple altar. This "forgiveness" was promised regardless of the spiritual state of either the offerer or the priest. For example, in anticipation of the Sinai covenant about to be revealed through Moses, God made this amazing promise to the entire nation of Israel in Egypt - both believers and unbelievers - at the time of the Exodus: "When I see the blood [on your two doorposts and on the lintel] I will pass over you" (Exod. 12:13; cf. 12:23). Note carefully that the Lord did not say, "I will forgive all your sins." Most of them continued to be unbelievers! The promise was to protect them from immediate destruction: "The Lord will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to come in to your houses to smite you" (Exod. 12:23).
Sacrificial blood could never cleanse the conscience or save the soul (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 (Psa. 50:7-15; Isa. 1:11-20; Amos 4:4-5; 5:21-27; Hos. 5:6; Mic. 6:6-8; Jer. 6:20; 7:21-23). It was not to be either faith or sacrifices; rather, it was to be both faith and sacrifices (cf. Psa. 51:19).
It was just as true then as it is today: "It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" (Heb. 10:4). But it was also true then, under the old covenant, that "the blood of goats and bulls ... sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh" (Heb. 9:13). In the words of F. F. Bruce,
The blood of slaughtered animals under the old order did possess a certain efficacy, but it was an outward efficacy for the removal of ceremonial pollution. ... They could restore [the worshipper] to formal communion with God and with fellow-worshippers. ... Just how the blood of sacrificed animals or the ashes of a red heifer effected a ceremonial cleansing our author does not explain; it was sufficient for him, and no doubt for his readers, that the Old Testament ascribed this efficacy to them.
This was the unique tension within the theocracy of Israel that many Christian theologians apparently do not comprehend.
Now what does all of this indicate with regard to animal sacrifices in the millennial temple for Israel under the new covenant? It indicates that future sacrifices will have nothing to do with eternal salvation, which comes only through true faith in God. It also indicates that future animal sacrifices will be "efficacious" and "expiatory" only in terms of the strict provision for ceremonial (and thus temporal) forgiveness within the theocracy of Israel. Thus, animal sacrifices during the coming kingdom age will not be primarily memorial, like the bread and the cup ("do this in remembrance of Me," 1 Cor. 11:24), in church Communion services, any more than sacrifices in the age of the old covenant were primarily prospective or prophetic in the understanding of the offerer.
It is at this point that premillennial theologians exhibit differences. A. C. Gaebelein expressed, perhaps, the majority opinion when he wrote: "While the sacrifices Israel brought once had a prospective meaning, the sacrifices brought in the millennial temple have a retrospective meaning." Ezekiel, however, does not say that animals will be offered for a "memorial" of Messiah's death. Rather, they will be for "atonement" (Ezek. 45:15, 17, 20; cf. 43:20, 26).
The Hebrew word used to describe the purpose of these sacrifices in Ezek. 45:15, 17, and 20 is the piel form of kaphar. ... But this is precisely the word used in the Pentateuchal description of the OT sacrifices to indicate their ... expiatory purpose (cf. Lev. 6:30; 8:15; 16:6, 11, 24, 30, 32, 33, 34; Num. 5:8; 15:28; 29:5). If the sacrifices mentioned in Ezekiel are to be understood literally, they must be expiatory, not memorial offerings.
The distinction between ceremonial and spiritual atonement is by no means a minor one, for it is at the heart of the basic difference between the theocracy of Israel and the Church, the body and bride of Christ. It also provides a more consistent hermeneutical approach for dispensational premillennialism.
In his analysis of atonement in the Old Testament, Richard E. Averbeck has shown that the Hebrew term kapar, used so frequently in Leviticus, does not mean "to cover" but rather "to appease or cleanse."
Only Christ's sacrifice was of the kind that could form the basis for eternal and spiritual salvation (Heb. 9:15). But this in no way refutes the ... efficacy (value) in the Old Testament atonement sacrifices. Those sacrifices had to do with the covenant relationship between God and the nation of Israel. Eternal or spiritual salvation was not the issue. Therefore, the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament and the sacrifice of Christ in the New Testament were effective at their own respective [and totally different] levels.
With respect to the Millennium, Averbeck concludes:
This accords well with the issue of the millennial sacrifices mentioned in Ezekiel. These rituals will not be memorials. They will atone ... in the same efficacious way as the ones in Aaronic times. Why will this be necessary? Because God will again be dwelling, in His glory, among [mortal] men. ... Christ did not shed His blood for the cleansing of any physical altar. Therefore, the special rite for the yearly cleansing of the millennial sanctuary will be required (Ezek. 45:18-20). Regular sacrifices will be reinstituted in the millennium.
In the light of these considerations, it is significant that Anthony A. Hoekema, an amillennial theologian, leveled one of his heaviest criticisms of premillennialism at this very point.
Extremely significant is the note on page 888 of the New Scofield Bible which suggests the following as a possible interpretation of the sacrifices mentioned in these chapters of Ezekiel's prophecy: "The reference to sacrifices is not to be taken literally, in view of the putting away of such offerings, but is rather to be regarded as a presentation of the worship of redeemed Israel, in her own land and in the millennial temple, using the terms with which the Jews were familiar in Ezekiel's day." These words convey a far-reaching concession on the part of dispensationalists. If the sacrifices are not to be taken literally, why should we take the temple literally? It would seem that the dispensational principle of the literal interpretation of Old Testament prophecy is here abandoned, and that a crucial foundation stone for the entire dispensational system has here been set aside!
Hoekema's objection is well taken. However, he assumes, along with many non-dispensational theologians, that animal sacrifices in the Millennium will involve a reinstitution of the Mosaic economy, just as if Christ had never died. Oswald T. Allis, another Reformed theologian, stated, for example: "Literally interpreted, this means the restoration of the Aaronic priesthood and the Mosaic ritual of sacrifices essentially unchanged." That this is not the case will be demonstrated next.
Israelite Worship under the Old and New Covenants Contrasted
Ezekiel's picture of millennial worship and the Mosaic system, which had been established nine hundred years earlier, exhibit fundamental differences. Old Testament scholars have often wrestled with the significance of these differences. Andrew W. Blackwood Jr. did not hesitate to call them "discrepancies," hastening to assure his readers that they concern matters that make no earthly difference to Christian faith, however they may have jarred the sensibilities of our Jewish forebears. There are twenty major discrepancies between Ezekiel and the Torah. Compare Ezek. 46:6ff. with Numbers 28:11, for example. Here are outright contradictions in the number of bullocks, lambs and rams and the amount of flour to be used at the new moon offering ceremonies. ... Long ago the rabbis were driven to say that Elijah, when he came, would explain away the difficulties. They said likewise that the entire prophecy would have been excluded from the canon were it not for the devoted labor of Rabbi Hanina ben Hezekiah, a scholar of the first century A.D., who must have written an extensive commentary on Ezekiel: "Three hundred barrels of oil were provided for him [for light], and he sat in an upper chamber where he reconciled all discrepancies" (Babylonian Talmud, Menahoth 45a).
It is the view of the present article that there are no discrepancies within Scripture and that God's servants today do not have to wait until Elijah appears to discover a theologically and hermeneutically satisfactory solution to this problem.
A century ago, Nathanael West listed some of the important differences between old covenant Israel and millennial Israel in order to show how appropriate Ezekiel's structure will be for the kingdom age.
If the similarities between [Ezekiel's] portrait of the "many days" of Israel in the Kingdom, and Israel's former Old Testament life, their ritual and laws, are remarkable, still more remarkable are the vast and important differences noted by Jews and Christians alike; differences so great as to make the [Jews], at one time, almost extrude the book from the sacred canon as uninspired. It is plain that these differences imply an entire revolution from the old order of things, and intimate strongly the "vanishing away" of the Law, to make room for the "new covenant" he has elsewhere, like Jeremiah, Hosea, and Isaiah, proclaimed with such spiritual force.
There are changes in the dimensions of the Temple so that it is neither the temple of Solomon, nor that of Zerubbabel, nor that of Herod; changes in the measures of the outer court, the gates, the walls, the grounds, and the locality of the temple itself, raised on a high mountain, and even separate from the City. The Holy Places have hardly anything like the furniture that stood in the Tabernacle of Moses or the Temple of Solomon.
There are subtractions also. There is no Ark of the Covenant [cf. Jer. 3:16], no Pot of Manna, no Aaron's Rod to bud, no Tables of the Law, no Cherubim, no Mercy-Seat, no Golden Candlestick, no Showbread, no Veil, no unapproachable Holy of Holies where the High Priest alone might enter, nor is there any High Priest. ... The priesthood is confined to the sons of Zadok, and only for a special purpose. There is no evening sacrifice. ... The social, moral, and civil prescriptions enforced by Moses with such emphasis are all wanting.
William Kelly was fascinated with the fact that there will be nothing in the Millennium answering to the Feast of Pentecost.
The omission seems to me to denote how completely it has been realized in the highest sense in the Church, which, as it were, has monopolized it. That heavenly body has come in between the true Passover, and before the verification of the Tabernacles [cf. Ezek. 45:25; Zech. 14:16-19], and has, so to speak, absorbed Pentecost to itself. ... Who but God Himself could have thought of such an omission as that of Pentecost six centuries before it was realized so unexpectedly after the ascension?
In addition to all of this, C. F. Keil, writing from a post-millennial perspective, discovered ceremonial and ritual adaptations in Ezekiel's vision of Israel's future service for God that he believed to be far more appropriate than the Mosaic structure for a post-Calvary eschatological program.
According to Ezekiel's order of feasts and sacrifices, Israel was to begin every new year of its life with a great sin-offering on the first, seventh, and fourteenth days of the first month ... before it renewed the covenant of grace with the Lord in the paschal meal ... and throughout the year consecrate its life to the Lord in the daily burnt-offering, through increased Sabbath-offerings ... in order to live before Him a blameless, righteous, and happy life.
Keil also concluded that the shift "of the chief atoning sacrifices" from the seventh month, at the end of the religious year, to the first month (for Ezekiel completely eliminates the Feast of Trumpets and the Day of Atonement, leaving only the Feast of Tabernacles in the seventh month) indicates that, for the Israel of the new covenant, this eternally-availing atoning sacrifice would form the foundation for all its acts of worship and keeping of feasts, as well as for the whole course of its life. It is in this that we find the Messianic feature of Ezekiel's order of sacrifices and feasts, by which it acquires a character more in accordance with the New Testament completion of the sacrificial service, which also presents itself to us in the other and still more deeply penetrating modifications of the Mosaic torah of sacrifice on the part of Ezekiel [which] indicates that the people offering these sacrifices will bring forth more of the fruit of sanctification in good works upon the ground of the reconciliation which it has received.
These are helpful insights, almost unique to a non-premillennial commentator, for understanding the religious structure of the millennial kingdom age as well as the function of animal sacrifices during that time period. Unfortunately, Keil's theological position forced him to abandon the literal fulfillment of these prophecies and to denounce M. Baumgarten, Auberlen, and other millenarians [who] express the opinion that this shadow-work will be restored after the eventual conversion of Israel to Christ, in support of which. Baumgarten even appeals to the authority of the apostle to the Gentiles [Romans 11].
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 another 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 indeed be under a new covenant program, not the old covenant given to Moses, which was not designed to guarantee salvation. Church Communion services will no longer be observed, for they have been designed only to "proclaim the Lord's death until He comes" (1 Cor. 11:26). But after He comes, animal sacrifices within a new covenant structure, endorsed (though not performed; cf. John 4:2) by the living Lamb of God, will constitute a gigantic step forward for Israel, not a reversion to "weak and worthless elements" (Gal. 4:9) that actually enslaved the nation because of its unregenerate misuse of the Law. The apostle Paul "did not see any contradiction between the finished work of Christ and the offering of animal sacrifice" (Acts 21:26).
John A. Sproule has pointed to the principle of progressive revelation as a guarantee that millennial Israel will have the entire New Testament available to them, including the book of Hebrews. The two witnesses (Rev. 11), the 144,000 (Rev. 7, 14), and the Zadokian teaching priests functioning in the millennial temple (Ezekiel 40-48) will therefore know considerably more than John the Baptist, Apollos, the apostle Paul (who probably never read the book of Revelation), and even the apostle John. They will know about the full and finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ. They will see no conflict between Ezekiel and Hebrews. They will realize that the omission of a high priest in Ezekiel 40-48 was not a mistake, just as it is now realized that the omission of a genealogy for Melchizedek in Genesis 14 was not a mistake (cf. Heb. 7). Rather, they will recognize this omission as God's way of opening the door to the Melchizedekian High Priest of Psalm 110:4 (cf. Zech. 6:13: "He will be a priest on His throne"), whose visible presence on earth during the coming kingdom age will be the ultimate answer to this dilemma of the ages.
Believing Jews will experience regeneration and sanctification (but not Spirit baptism), just as Christians do today, by the grace of God and through faith in the Lord Jesus. These future Jewish believers and their Gentile proselytes will not be glorified through seeing Jesus at His coming and in His kingdom any more than the disciples in the Upper Room were glorified when they saw their resurrected Lord. However, the concept of progressive revelation guarantees that the new covenant theocracy will begin with more knowledge than the Church had at Pentecost. Yet this theocracy will retain its distinctive Israelite characteristics - a Promised Land, a temple, appropriate animal sacrifices, and an earthly Zadokian priesthood (in that day visibly subordinate to Jesus Christ, the Melchizedekian High Priest).
These sacrifices, illumined by a vastly greater understanding of the true significance of the Lamb of God who has taken 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 throughout the world (e.g., Psa. 87; Isa. 60:1-14; Zech. 8:20-23), the continued presence of a sin nature will call for constant instruction and exhortation in revealed truth. Not even a perfect government will automatically solve this deep, universal problem.
Jerry M. Hullinger concludes:
The fundamental rationale of the Mosaic sacrificial system [was] the presence of the divine glory. The Mosaic system was instituted in Leviticus subsequent to the descent of the Shekinah in Exodus 40:34-38. Because of the communicability of uncleanness, the purity of God's presence needed to be protected. Fittingly, as Ezekiel envisioned a future temple in the millennial kingdom with the resident glory of God [Ezek. 43:2-7; 44:1-4], he saw the necessity of sacrificial blood once more because of the presence of non-glorified individuals who can be a source of communicable contamination.
In distinction from the perfection of the eternal state as described in Revelation 21-22, Christ will "rule all the nations with a rod of iron" (Rev. 12:5; cf. 2:27; 19:15) with strict controls, especially in religious practices (cf. Zech. 14:16-21). Even though outward submission to these religious forms will not necessarily demonstrate a regenerate heart (which has been true in every age of human history), it will guarantee protection from physical penalties and temporal judgments. Those who love the Christ will exhibit a genuine spirit of submission to His government. But those who do not truly love Him will follow Satan (even Judas Iscariot betrayed Christ after years of observing His perfect leadership) in global rebellion at the end of His righteous reign and will be destroyed in cosmic fire (Rev. 20:7-9).
How can vital spiritual instruction be accomplished for citizens of the millennial kingdom age through a system of animal sacrifices? If it is theoretically possible (though sadly rare) for the Church today to achieve a spiritual, symbolic, and pedagogic balance in the use of the bread and the cup in the Eucharist, then it will be all the more possible for regenerated Israel to attain the divinely intended balance between form and content, lip and heart, hand and soul, within the structures of the new covenant. It is not only possible, but prophetically certain, that millennial animal sacrifices will be used in a God-honoring way (e.g., Psa. 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. There would no longer be any need for a sacrificial system and the needed animals for John 4:23-24 states "But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." That hour has finally arrived in the eternal state and the need for the Temple and sacrifice and the animals has passed.
Before the heavens and the earth flee away from him who sits upon the Great White Throne (Rev. 20:11), 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, and far more successfully from a pedagogical standpoint, function on the level of purely temporal cleansing and forgiveness (cf. Heb. 9:13) within the strict limits of the national theocracy of Israel during the one thousand years of Christ's reign upon the earth in accordance with the terms of the new covenant.