The Old Testament deals a lot with the idea of sacrifice. In fact, Old Testament law is mostly known for being a system of sacrifices. And it’s not the only faith that utilizes sacrifice. Most religions of the ancient world required sacrifice to appease their gods. Sacrifice was a messy business. A lot of blood and guts, not to mention the smell that went along with it. Even beyond religion, this idea of sacrifice permeates other cultures. Think about how many stories, movies, TV shows revolve around the idea of some main character having to make a choice and sacrifice something to win over their love, or save a loved one, or save the whole world. So what is it about this ideas of sacrifice that makes it so prevalent throughout seemingly every culture?
Today, I’m looking at the significance of sacrifice.
Leviticus is probably known for being one of the most boring books in the Bible, but there are several gems scattered throughout the book. The first several chapters of Leviticus spell out the sacrificial process, but let’s look at some of the common threads weaved throughout them.
Lev. 1:3 "If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer a male without blemish.”
Lev. 2:2,3“And he shall take from it a handful of the fine flour and oil, with all of its frankincense, and the priest shall burn this as its memorial portion on the altar, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the Lord. 3But the rest of the grain offering shall be for Aaron and his sons;”
Lev. 3:1 "If his offering is a sacrifice of peace offering, if he offers an animal from the herd, male or female, he shall offer it without blemish before the Lord.”
Lev. 4:2,3 “If anyone sins unintentionally in any of the Lord's commandments about things not to be done, and does any one of them... then he shall offer for the sin that he has committed a bull from the herd without blemish to the Lord for a sin offering.”
Lev. 5:15 “If anyone commits a breach of faith and sins unintentionally in any of the holy things of the Lord, he shall bring to the Lord as his compensation, a ram without blemish out of the flock”
Lev 23:10 “When you come into the land that I give you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest”
What ideas are common throughout those instructions?
The first and the best.
Sacrifice required the best an Israelite could offer. They didn’t just offer any animal up on the altar. They had to offer their best one. Sacrifice was costly in relation to the wealth of the Israelite. Whether rich or poor, the sacrifice cost them a lot. God required the highest quality possible the worshiper had.
There’s another part of the “best” that fits into all of this sacrifice, and that’s the idea that it’s the first of something. Whenever harvest time came around in Israel, they had what was called the Feast of Firstfruits and the Feast of Weeks, and that’s what’s referred to in Leviticus 23. When that first harvest comes in, they took the first of the harvest of the barley and offered it to God. Fifty days later, they held a feast to celebrate the completion of the grain harvest when they would harvest the wheat. This celebration was a reminder that God provides because the first day of the festival is the Passover, the day in which God delivered Israel.
This whole idea reminds me of a popular Foo Fighters song that came out several years ago called “Best of You”. The premise of the song was right there in the question asked in the chorus: Is someone getting the best of you? The closest relationships require sacrifice.
We constantly have to make sacrifices when it comes to relationships. I got a real opportunity this past week to practice this idea of sacrifice when my wife had the flu which then developed into a sinus infection. At the same time our two-year-old had the flu along with an ear infection. I definitely got to practice what it means to sacrifice. Most days when I get home from work, I want to take it easy: read a book, watch some TV, something like that. This week was not so much like that. This week was sacrificing a lot of that time to take care of a sick family. That's how you know love, though.
At the heart of it, isn’t that the problem with our relationship with God? We don’t want to sacrifice. Our problem is that we don’t have these tangible sacrifices to make anymore. Our sacrifices are abstract. It’s our time and our priorities that we miss. How often do we forget to offer the first and best of ourselves?
It’s not that I don’t think that reading my Bible isn’t important. The problem is that I don’t sacrifice my time in order to make it a priority. I wake up late and then I go to work. When I get home, I want to spend time with my wife and daughter and then there’s dinner, and before you know it, it’s time to go to bed, and I’ve completely forgotten about my Bible. It would be much easier to sacrifice the first 10 minutes of my day to make sure it happens
We aren’t offering up our best. We’re just offering up the rest. We’re offering up what’s left.
And when that’s the case, it’s a useless offering. It means nothing, both to the one giving it away and the one receiving it. It’s nothing more than something done out of convenience rather than love and sacrifice.
It’s the same problem that Achan had in the book of Joshua. Israel had just come off of a huge victory over the walled city of Jericho. The problem was what happened afterward. Israel was told to offer up all of the spoils of Jericho (their first victory after crossing over the Jordan) as qorban. This word means “that which is brought near”. It’s usually translated as “devoted things”. Yet Joshua 7:1 tells us that “the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things, for Achan the son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of the devoted things.”
The idea behind qorban is that of something that is placed on the altar to be completely consumed by God. It was the burnt offering mentioned in Leviticus. The priests didn’t get any of that offering. It was all God’s. It’s total dedication to God, holding nothing back. Achan’s problem, though, is that he did hold something back. The temptation was too much, and he couldn’t resist. He couldn’t sacrifice all of it. And because of that, Israel was defeated in their next battle.
Sacrifice has to cost something in order for it to mean something.
Outside of Jesus and the disciples, there probably aren’t many people who truly understand the meaning of sacrifice like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German preacher during the Nazi regime, and he spoke out against what Hitler was doing. Probably his most famous writing, The Cost of Discipleship, outlines perfectly what it means to sacrifice all for the sake of Christ.
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
“Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “you were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
That sentiment guided Bonhoeffer’s life. It led him to be imprisoned. It lead him to be put into a concentration camp. And it lead him to be hanged.
It takes a lot of courage and a lot of sacrifice to speak out against a government in the wrong, especially when it puts your life in danger. But that’s what sacrifice is about. It means something because it costs something. It’s what Paul was talking about in Romans when he talked about offering our bodies as living sacrifices. It’s what the prophet Samuel meant when he asked, “Has 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(44-45).”
True discipleship is offering up our entire lives to God up on the altar to be completely consumed by Him. Our lives become qorban.
Ash Wednesday is coming up. The whole purpose of Lent is to sacrifice. What do you need to sacrifice on the altar? What is keeping your life from being qorban?
Are you giving God the best of everything, or just what’s left over? What do you need to sacrifice as qorban and allow to be completely consumed by God?
Maybe it’s the first portion of your income. Maybe the first portion of your day. Maybe your job is getting in the way, and you need to sacrifice that time to him. Maybe entertainment is getting in the way, or hobbies. Maybe relationships. And then of course, there could be sin that needs to be sacrificed.
The altar is open.