If a downed American airman is captured, the United States will try to gain his release. But it is not likely that the enemy will simply let him go. They will want something in return, just as a kidnapper demands a ransom. The price may be high.

What if you are captured and the price for your release is too high for yourself, your family, your friends, or even your government to pay? To make matters worse, if nobody pays the price, you will die.

Delete "What if." You are captured and the price is too high and you will die unless someone pays the price. If you are old enough to read this book, you have sinned. That goes for everyone: "...all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23). The "wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:23). Not just death, but eternal death, from which there is no return. You can run from it, but you can't hide. There is no escaping it. Unless...

The Israelite sin offering (Lev 4-5:13; 6:24-30) points to a way out of our dilemma. There is Someone who can pay the price to ransom our lives.

As in a burnt offering or well-being offering, the offerer of a sin offering laid one hand on the head of an animal before slaughtering it. Some sin offerings for sin also required spoken confession (Lev 5:5) in addition to the silent confession expressed by actions involved in transferring sacrifices to the Lord. However, whereas the blood of a burnt or well-being offering was merely tossed on the sides of the altar in the courtyard, the blood of a sin offering was daubed on the horns of either the outer altar or the altar of incense. As in a well-being offering, only the fat of the animal was burned on the outer altar. But unlike the well-being offering, only the priest could eat the meat of a sin offering.

Notice that the sin offering animal for an ordinary individual was a female goat or sheep (Lev 4:28, 32; 5:6; Num 15:27). I suppose you could call that equal opportunity representation of Christ.

The following aspects of sin offerings are important for comprehending their meaning:

Blood emphasized

Sin offerings emphasized blood. Putting blood on the horns, which were the highest parts of an altar, highlighted the significance of the blood.

The physical elevation of the blood corresponded to its elevation in atoning power: The more prominent the blood, the more powerful the atonement. We see this clearly in the two basic kinds of sin offerings outlined in Leviticus 4. In the first kind the blood was taken into the "holy place," the outer room of the sanctuary. In the second kind, the blood was put on the horns of the outer altar.

When the high priest or the whole congregation sinned, the high priest took the blood of a sin offering into the "holy place." There he sprinkled blood seven times "before the veil" and then daubed blood on the horns of the incense altar. When he had finished applying blood to the sanctuary, the high priest disposed of the blood that remained by pouring it out on the ground at the base of the outer altar in the courtyard (Lev 4:6-7, 17-18).

When a ruler or common layperson sinned, a priest put blood on the horns of the outer altar and then poured out the remaining blood at the base of the altar (Lev 4:25, 30, 34).

The kind of sin offering that was required depended upon the status of the sinner. If the sinner was the high priest, who represented all Israelites before God, or if the "sinner" was the community of all Israelites, the situation was more serious than other cases. So the sacrifice involved not only putting blood on the highest points of the incense altar, it also required that blood be applied inside the sacred tent. The blood was extended toward God in two directions: vertically toward His heavenly dwelling and horizontally toward His Presence enthroned above the ark in the most holy place.

The more serious the sin in terms of the prominence of the sinner, the more emphasis was placed on blood. In other words, the prominence of blood in the ritual was proportional to the need for atonement.

Payment of ransom debt

A sin offering emphasized blood, which represented ransom for life (Lev 17:11). Ransom is required. It is not voluntary. People don't choose to pay ransom if they don't have to.

Unlike the burnt, grain, and well-being offerings prescribed in Leviticus 1-3, which were voluntary food gifts, sin offerings were required when a person's sin or serious ritual impurity (see below) brought him/her under obligation to the Lord (Lev 4-5, 12, 15). A sin offering was not a token food gift; it was a token payment of an obligation or debt. But this does not mean that a sin offering bought atonement. As we saw earlier, God already owns the animals and He does not need human food (Ps 50:10-13). So sin offerings were only tokens that expressed faith in the Lord's free gift of atonement. They did not buy anything. However, they were required tokens, as when a parent requires a child who has misbehaved to give up his/her money "allowance" in order to impress on the child the seriousness of wrong-doing and the value of forgiveness. The forfeited allowance does not buy forgiveness.

Here is more evidence that a sin offering was a token debt payment. The fat of a sin offering was never called a "food gift." Contrast the fat of a well-being offering, which constituted the "food gift" portion for the Lord (Lev 3:3-5). This difference is explained by the fact that the well-being offering was a voluntary gift to the Lord, but the sin offering was a required token payment of "debt."

A person who brought a well-being offering could eat part of his/her offering, but a person who brought a sin offering could not. Only the priest was permitted to eat his portion as an "agent's commission" (Lev 6:26, 29). If the sacrifice was for sin (rather than ritual impurity), he bore the "iniquity" that the offerer had carried (10:17; compare 5:1) as part of his priestly mediation. The Hebrew word usually translated "iniquity" means here "liability to punishment" or punishability. However, if a priest performed a sin offering on his own behalf or on behalf of the entire community, which included himself, he could not eat any of the offering. In such a case the remainder of the animal was incinerated outside the camp after the fat was offered to the Lord (4:11-12, 21; 6:30; 9:11). The fact that a person could not benefit from his/her own sin offering can be explained by the principle that a debtor cannot pay and then take back part of his/her payment.

When a sin offering and a burnt offering were performed together as a pair, the sin offering was performed first (see Lev 9:8-14, 15-16). Why? A debt (sin offering) must be paid before a gift (burnt offering) is accepted. If you owe someone $100 and you give that person $100, it is not a gift. It is payment of your debt. But if you then give another $100, it is a gift.

Sin offerings pointed to Christ's sacrifice as the means by which God can answer our prayer: "... forgive us our debts" (Matt 6:12). But the fact that the debt is paid by blood shows that it is not just any debt. It is debt for life, that is, ransom debt.

Christ is the only one who can pay the price to ransom our lives, a price we can never pay. His blood is lifted up, not on the highest points of a ritual altar, but on the cross. The cross is His altar.

Ritual sacrifices could not provide automatic forgiveness of sins. Leviticus 4:26 summarizes the result of a sin offering: "Thus the priest shall make atonement on his behalf for his sin, and he shall be forgiven" (compare verses 31, 35). The priest made atonement by performing the ritual, but the verse does not state that the priest forgave the sinner. It says of the sinner: "and he shall be forgiven."

Who forgave the sinner? If the priest could not forgive, who could? Exodus 34:6-7 answers this question. The Lord proclaimed to Moses: "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin..."

We are to forgive other people for what they have done to us, just as God forgives us (Matt 6:12). But we cannot wipe out their sins the way God can. Only God can forgive sins and He has always done His forgiving directly. No human being has ever had the right to forgive sins. That would be blasphemy, as the people of Jesus' day recognized (Mk 2:7).

An Israelite priest carried out a sacrificial ritual that was prerequisite to forgiveness by the Lord. God made the decision. He could refuse to give forgiveness even if the ritual was performed correctly. The ritual did not provide forgiveness automatically the way a vending machine spits out a candy bar when you insert coins in a slot.

Under what circumstances would God refuse to give forgiveness when a proper sacrifice was performed? When the sinner was a hypocrite who persisted in disobedience to God even though he/she brought a sacrifice (Isa 1:11-20; 66:3; compare 58:1-5). As Samuel told King Saul, the Lord values obedience even more than sacrifice (1 Sam 15:22).

Hypocritical ritual without heartfelt devotion or obedience to the Lord was not simply worthless; it constituted sin. God hates hypocritical ritual (see Isa 1:10-17). This applies to flippant or hypocritical participation in Christian rituals such as Communion (1 Cor 11:17-34).

Our essential transactions with God are carried out directly with Him. Ritual does not by itself accomplish spiritual transactions. But ritual is important insofar as it expresses our spiritual interactions with God.

A college student told me that she did not need to be baptized because baptism is symbolic and what is symbolic is not real and what is not real is not important. That seemed logical to her, but I suggested that she think about a parallel situation: an engaged couple discussing their marriage. He says to her: "I love you and want to spend my life with you, but as for a wedding ceremony, that is symbolic and therefore unreal and unimportant. Why don't we just skip it?" How will that go over? If he doesn't want to publicly affirm his commitment through the marriage ceremony, how will she feel about his love for her?

A ceremony or ritual is symbolic, but the symbolism is real and important, expressing a change in relationship that is highly significant even though it is intangible. When it comes to our marriage to Christ, we need not only the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, we need to express our new relationship with God through the symbolic water of baptism. Jesus said to Nicodemus: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit" (Jn 3:5).

Sin offerings for ritual purification

English translations of the Bible use the term "sin offering." Burnt offerings and guilt offerings also atoned for sin. The "sin offering" gets its name from the fact that the Hebrew word from which it is translated is the same as one of the Hebrew words for "sin" (compare Lev 4:3, 14, 23, 26, 28, 35). The offering atoned for certain kinds of sins, which were usually unintentional/inadvertent violations of divine commands (Lev 4:2, 13, 22, 27; 5:1-4; Num 15:22-23). However, the same sacrifice also atoned for serious ritual impurities, which were not sins (Lev 12:6-8; 14:19, 22, 31, 15:30).

An example of atonement for serious ritual impurity is the case of a woman who had just given birth to a baby. She was required to offer a sin offering (Lev 12:6-8). The translation "sin offering" implies that she had sinned. But she had not sinned by having a baby. She had only fulfilled God's blessing: "Be fruitful and multiply" (Gen 1:28). The purpose of the sacrifice in her case was to remove ritual impurity resulting from her flow of blood following childbirth. This impurity was not a moral fault. It came from a natural physical process of a mortal human being. We are all mortal, subject to death, because of sin. Mortality is our state of being that results from sin (Rom 6:23; compare Gen 3).

We will examine the nature of rituals impurities further in a later chapter, but here we should point out the fundamental distinction between sins and ritual impurities. Sinning could be deliberate (Lev 19:20-21) or unintentional (Lev 4:2). Becoming ritually impure could also be deliberate (Lev 11:40) or unintentional (Num 6:9). But only violations of divine commands were sins.

Unintentional violation of one of the Lord's commandments was sin even though the sinner did not become responsible until he/she knew that the action had broken God's law (Lev 4:27-28). Such an unintentional sin was not involuntary in the sense that physical functions, such as blinking an eye, occur without any thought. In fact, the sinner probably intended to do the action as such. But there was an element of ignorance in that the sinner did not realize that the action was a violation of a divine command. The sin was unintentional because the person did not intend to sin. For example, suppose an Israelite was working and then remembered or was reminded that it was Sabbath. He had meant to work and he knew that God had commanded His people to rest on the Sabbath (Exod 20:8-11; 31:12-17), but he had forgotten that it was Sabbath. He would not have worked if he had known which day it was. He had not sinned flagrantly (as in Num 15:30-36), but unwittingly, without meaning to do so.

Ritual impurities are another matter. Becoming ritually impure could be totally involuntary, without any thought at all, as in cases of menstruation (Lev 15:19) and nocturnal emission (Deut 23:10-11). So becoming impure could not be regarded as disobedience to God's law in any sense. Even deliberately becoming impure was permitted, as in cases of sexual intercourse (Lev 15:18) and coming in contact with dead persons (Num 19:11-12), unless God forbade such defilement (Lev 18:19; 21:1-4, 11). Contracting a forbidden defilement or neglecting purification for a ritual impurity (Num 19:13, 20) was sin, not because ritual impurity was sin but because God's command with regard to ritual impurity was violated.

It is true that the Hebrew term rendered "sin offering" looks the same as a word for "sin." However, the translation "sin offering" is misleading in cases involving ritual impurity, implying that impure persons had sinned when they had not. Therefore, some scholars now refer to the sacrifice as the "purification offering." This term covers both purification from sins and purification from ritual impurity. Another possibility would be to call it the "imperfection offering." Because imperfection covers both ritual impurity and moral faults, this idea adequately represents the scope of the sacrifice. However, throughout the present book I have used the term "sin offering" so that readers will not become confused when they compare my explanations with their Bible translations.

We have sinned and we are mortal, in a state leading to death because of sin. But Christ's sacrifice ransoms us from our sin and our mortality. Romans 6:23 begins: "For the wages of sin is death..." Thanks be to God that the verse continues: "but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."

The price of our ransom is too high for us to pay. But God has paid the price for us through Christ's sacrifice.


Back to Table of Contents