The Age of Sacrifice

Modern Islamic animal sacrifice. Photo by Wikipedia user Ramzy Muliawan

Modern Islamic animal sacrifice. Photo by Wikipedia user Ramzy Muliawan

This is the fifth in a series of  articles on the topic of reconciliation. You will find links to the other articles at the bottom of this page.

What does it feel like to sacrifice the thing you love the most?  Mercifully, many of us can only imagine.  We have not yet been asked to bear such a burden.  For others, the moment has already come.  Whether it is a loved one, a fortune, or life itself, all of us may ultimately be forced to surrender that which we hold most dear.

When we speak of sacrifices and altars, we often think of the Old Testament and life under the Law.  They made sacrifices for sin.  They burned things on altars.  The blood flowed across the stone floor. The smell of charred flesh filled the very air. So the endless parade of death carried on year after year, for such was the ugliness of that era. Such is the ugliness of sin.

Then came the annual Day of Atonement – “Yom Kippur”, the holiest date in the Jewish calendar. As outlined in Leviticus 16, the high priest would first make an offering for his own sin. Then and only then would he enter into the Holy of Holies, the Most Holy Place, where he would enter the very presence of God. Here the high priest would make another offering on behalf of the entire nation – a sacrifice for forgiveness of sin. This was necessary in order to satisfy the wrath of a holy God, and to make atonement between God and man.

This word atonement is filled with layers of meaning. It comes from a Latin term, adunamentum, which means to be “at one” or in harmony. Atonement is the opposite of discord; it is the bringing about of a right relationship. It is the restoration of harmony. In spiritual terms, this means the removal of sin, for sin is what separates us, taking what ought to be one and cleaving it in two. For the ancient Israelites, atonement for a sinful people meant sacrificing, most notably by killing an animal. This allowed for the relationship to be restored.

That was the old way of doing things, but now we are under grace: the LORD does not delight in sacrifice.  The era of cost is over and the hour of freedom is here. =

Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, ‘sat down at the right hand of God’, waiting from that time onward ‘until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet’. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.

Hebrews 10:11-14

Christ died so we need not die.  Christ suffered so we need not suffer. One could continue like this forever and there would be a kind of truth to it, but there would also be a lurking misconception.  Consider that those ancient sacrifices were not actually opposed to grace: they were grace. They made it possible for people to receive forgiveness in anticipation of the perfect atonement that was to come. Christ may have fulfilled the Law (Matthew 5:17), but while we do not need to make sacrifices in order to be justified, He did not bring an end to sacrifice in all forms. If we allow ourselves to think differently we are on very dangerous ground. Indeed, when we deny the need for sacrifice, we remove any possibility of reconciliation.

Illustration of Noah offering a burnt offering by Gerard Hoet, circa 1728.

Illustration of Noah offering a burnt offering by Gerard Hoet, circa 1728.

Those two famous brothers, Jacob and Esau, had a broken relationship after the younger brother (Jacob) tricked the elder out of his birthright and the blessing of their father. Jacob fled the country and lived far away for many years, largely because he was afraid of Esau’s wrath. When it became necessary for Jacob to travel back to the area where Esau resided, he was once again fearful that Esau’s servants would attack his household. Instead, scripture tells us, “Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” (Genesis 33:4) Rather than seeking revenge, Esau showed great mercy to his brother.

This restoration between brothers required a great sacrifice on the part of Esau, though not one that involved anything material. Esau had to sacrifice something that we tend to count more precious than anything else. For some, it is worth more than their very life. Esau had to sacrifice his pride. The Apostle John lists this selfish pride as something that is from the world and not from God.

Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.

1 John 2:15-17

Consider also what the King Solomon had to say about pride. “When pride comes, then come dishonor, but with the humble is wisdom.” (Proverbs 11:2) “A man’s pride will bring him low, but a humble spirit will obtain honor.” (Proverbs 29:23) “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling.” (Proverbs 16:18) These verses are proof enough of the dangers of pride and the virtues of humility. We need to apply such principles to our relationships.

Pride is the downfall of humanity in so many ways, but nowhere more so than in our relationships. Think about what is required in order to have a restored relationship with Jesus Christ. If I am to accept the gift of salvation that he offers to me, I must first confess that I am steeped in sin. I must acknowledge that it is impossible for me to save myself. I must receive Him as my absolute Lord – the sovereign God to whose will I must submit myself daily. That demands an enormous sacrifice of pride. As Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24) Such a sacrifice is so difficult for a sinner that it is only possible under the power of the Spirit. (Titus 3:5) What many of the ancient Israelites missed is that their animal sacrifices were actually supposed to point them to this internal sacrifice of pride.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was never so right as when he wrote the words, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”[1] It is that denial of self, that death of pride, and that emptying of undue self-love that allows a person to be reconciled to God. And even as our relationships with others are linked to our standing before God, so we must similarly sacrifice our pride to restore harmony with our brothers and sisters.

Admitting that you have sinned is no easy task. If it were, the entire human race might be waltzing through the gates of heaven. Even for the believer who has been justified before God and regenerated by the power of the Spirit, the need for perpetual repentance and continual denial of pride can be overwhelming. Yet, if we are to have any hope of restoring those relationships, we must rely on the grace of God to bring about this greatest of miracles. Believe you me: it is easier to remove a mountain from the face of the earth than to remove that sinful pride from the heart of a human being.

It is simply not possible to live together as partially sanctified people without a healthy dose of humility. Consider the Apostle Paul’s words to the Christians in Galatia.

Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting in regard to himself alone, and not in regard to another. For each one will bear his own load.

Galatians 6:1-5

If no one is willing to sacrifice their pride, how can there ever be atonement? If no one is willing to examine the darkest corners of their heart and glimpse the pride which there resides, how can we ever be held truly accountable? Neither I nor anyone else can say just what sacrifice of pride might be necessary in each situation, but the Lord who searches the heart will reveal it to us if we have the courage to ask. We must declare war on pride and treat it like the enemy it is. Such undue self-regard and unwillingness to consider one’s faults has no place in the Body of Christ.

Photo of Andrew Murray – no, not the tennis player

The theologian Andrew Murray wrote that “there is nothing so natural to man, nothing so insidious and hidden from our sight, nothing so difficult and dangerous, as pride.”[1] He also looked at the positive side of the equation: humility. “Humility is the only soil in which the graces root; the lack of humility is the sufficient explanation of every defect and failure. Humility is not so much a grace or virtue along with others; it is the root of all, because it alone takes the right attitude before god, and allows Him as God to do all.”[2]

We need to practice humility in our relations with others if we are to have any hope of reconciliation. We need to lay everything at God’s feet and allow Him to be the judge. That means uprooting the pride from our own hearts.

This is the sacrifice that we are called to make today on behalf of reconciliation. Like Esau, we must be willing to forgive past slights and not resurrect them. Like Abraham, we must not hesitate to turn over to God what we hold most dear. Like Christ, who alone possessed rightful pride and yet “emptied Himself” on our behalf, (Philippians 2:7) we must be willing to empty ourselves that we might be made one with our brothers and sisters.

The age of sacrifice is not a thing of the past. Christ’s sacrifice did not bring it to an end. Rather, the sacrifice that God Himself made to restore His relationship with mankind ought to motivate us to be willing to sacrifice in order to continue that work of reconciliation. Do we have the God-given courage to lower ourselves on one another’s behalf? For if we can declare with Job, “I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes,” (Job 42:6) then perhaps we will receive the same divine blessing – the same restoration.

Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship, translated by R.H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth (New York: Touchstone, 1995) page 89.

[1] Murray, Andrew. Humility, Essential Christian Classics series (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014), page 5.

[2] Murray, page 4

Other articles in this series:

#1 – Wars and Rumors of Wars

#2 – Discord

#3 – A Scriptural Imperative

#4 – The Cross of Hate

#6 – The First Step

#7 – Impossible Questions

#8 – True Love

#9 – A New (Old) Commandment

#10 – Truth with a Capital ‘T’

#11 – Christ is All in All

#12 – Awaken!

#13 – Another Path to Reconciliation?

#14 – Humble Rebellion

#15 – Those Who Live by Faith are Just