What is a pleasing sacrifice to God?
By Pastor Thomas Starkjohn, Harvest Community Church, Winsted
I think it’s a pretty safe guess to assume the book of Leviticus is not high on your list of interesting books to read. We know it’s important because it’s in the Bible, but let’s face it the book reads a bit like tax laws, and so it isn’t the most interesting reading out there.
So why read and study Leviticus? The short answer is because it helps us understand how we as a sinful people can live by grace with our holy God. Believe it or not, all those laws and sacrifices help us understand God better and how we are to relate to him.
As you might know, there are a lot of different sacrifices in the Bible, and God, in his love, designed them for different purposes. The sacrifices that might first come to your mind are those that deal with sin (like in Leviticus 4 and 5).
But there are other sacrifices that were designed to help the worshipper deepen his or her intimacy with God (like the peace offerings i.e., Leviticus 3) and still other sacrifices designed to express devotion and sincerity to God. It’s this last kind of sacrifice that I’d like to look at with you today.
Please note that all of these sacrifices were gracious means God gave to his people so that they could live in the presence of their holy God.
One of the offerings that expressed sincerity unto God was called the “burnt offering.” This was the most basic offering in the Old Testament, and this is the offering written about in Leviticus chapter 1.
In this chapter, verses 1-9 deal with a burnt offering of a bull, verses 10-13 deal with a burnt offering of sheep or goats, and verses 14-17 deal with burnt offerings of pigeons or turtledoves.
Why three different animals? Because God desired that people of all different financial means be able to sacrifice a burnt offering. So if you were rich, you would offer a bull, but if you were poor, you would offer pigeons. God is not partial to the rich or poor, but in his love he provides a way for all people to show their devotion to him.
So how did a worshipper offer a burnt offering? It is assumed that the worshipper had the right motives and loved the Lord that’s why in later times, the Old Testament prophets said sacrifice was only of value when the heart was right (see passages like Psalms 51:16-17 and Hosea 6:6).
According to Leviticus 1:1, first the worshipper had to pick out for himself the animal he wanted to offer and that animal had to be perfect, with no defects. In other words, it had to be the kind of animal he would want to keep for his very own herd; a very valuable animal.
Second, he would bring it to the tabernacle, the place where the glory of God dwelled with his people. He would lay his hand on the animal’s head, showing everyone that this was his sacrifice.
Third, he would slay the animal. I used to think the priest would slay the animal, but the Bible is very clear that the worshipper was the one who slaughtered the animal.
Fourth, while the priest sprinkled the blood around the altar, the worshipper would cut up the animal and wash any unclean parts.
Finally, the priests would arrange the entire animal on the altar to be burned up. All of this was pleasing to the Lord.
We have to ask the question, “Why was it pleasing to the Lord? And what does this mean for me? I don’t sacrifice animals!” There are at least three reasons this was pleasing to the Lord.
First, God had told the Israelites how they were to worship him. Again, remember that the sacrifice was only of value when the heart of the worshipper was right before God. And when their heart was right, and they obeyed him, he was pleased! But when they tried to worship God they way they wanted to and ignored his commandments, God was angry with them.
Second, the burnt offering was a very costly sacrifice. Unlike today’s affluent culture, meat was a rare luxury back then. One usually only ate meat during a holiday or festival, so to sacrifice the whole animal was very costly.
Imagine you have worked for months to buy a new piece of furniture or buy some expensive travel tickets or something of great value to you. Then imagine you burn it all up to show your sincere love for God. To our eyes it seems like a waste, but that’s a big reason why it pleased God because it cost the worshipper greatly.
Third, this sacrifice was pleasing to God because the worshipper was actively involved. Did you notice how much the worshipper did? He selected, killed, cut up, and washed the animal. It was a messy, very involved process. The worshipper didn’t let the priest do the work he did much of the work himself. This pleased God.
Thus, we learn that a burnt offering had exact instructions, was very costly to the worshipper, and that the worshipper had to be intimately involved in the whole process. So what does that mean for you?
We no longer sacrifice animals today, but we are still supposed to offer sacrifices. But the sacrifices have changed in many ways.
In Romans 12:1 the Apostle Paul writes, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God this is your spiritual act of worship.”
Did you notice that key word “sacrifice”? The ancient readers of Paul’s letter would have known exactly what sacrifices were. But Paul changes the sacrifice: notice that the sacrifice isn’t an animal it is you! The sacrifice isn’t dead it is living!
But the sacrifice is still an act of worship, still is holy, and still is pleasing to God. The way we sacrifice has changed, but the principles of sacrifice still apply. Note this as well: Paul is using sacrificial language, and he intends of us to see how the principles of sacrifice in the Old Testament still apply in a transformed way in the New Testament.
What does this sacrifice look like for us? Romans, chapters 12-16 lists very specific commands on how to live a “life of sacrifice” to God. Here are a few verses from Romans 12 to show you what I mean:
Verse 9: Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Verse 10: Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Verse 11: Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Verse 12: Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Verse 13: Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Verse 14: Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Verse 15: Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Verse 16: Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Verse 17: Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. Verse 18: If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
In these few verses there are at least 20 commands God gives us on how we are to live. Just like in the instructions on Old Testament sacrifices, God doesn’t leave us in the dark as to how we are to offer “sacrifices” to him. He is very specific when it comes to what pleases him.
Just like offering a burnt offering, offering our bodies as living sacrifices is not an easy thing for us to do, and at times, it can be quite costly. Blessing those who persecute you, honoring one another, and being patient in affliction are extremely difficult to do. Furthermore, they are only possible when God gives us the grace to live this way. And God is very pleased when we honor him by giving of these costly sacrifices.
Finally, did you notice how involved the worshipper is in these “sacrifices” Paul mentions? Just like the worshipper in the Old Testament, the New Testament worshipper must be intimately involved in the sacrifice. One can’t, for example only give some money to the church to care for poor, lonely, or sick people.
We, ourselves, must be hospitable toward others, rejoice with others, mourn with others, and be faithful in prayer. There is no substitution for our personal involvement.
It is sometimes very easy to conclude that since God loves us, he doesn’t care how we worship him as long as we worship him in some way or another. Nothing could be further from the truth! God has given us detailed and explicit instructions on how we can live a life that is pleasing to him.
Likewise, it is easy to think that our “worship” is what we do on a Sunday morning with the words we say and the songs we sing. While that is part of it, worship is much more holistic than that. Like we saw in the passage from Romans, our worship includes how we relate to each other and that is costly and quite involved sometimes.
These are some of the reasons why Leviticus is one of my favorite books in the Bible. Once we understand who God is in the Old Testament, we can understand who God is in the New Testament because God is the same yesterday and today.
And once we understand how vitally important sacrifice was in the Old Testament, we better understand what sacrifice looks like for us today.
May the Lord give us grace to live the life of a living sacrifice holy, pleasing and acceptable to him.