From “How to become a Christian”: Chapter 9 – God’s dilemma and the plan He made to solve it
Another important background fact to show the way that God established the nation of Israel to prepare for the coming of His Messiah is that He set up the Temple system of worship and sacrifices. King David had a son called Solomon who built the first Temple, within which goats, lambs and bulls were sacrificed.
This carried on the practice that was seen centuries before at the time of Abraham, and which Moses developed, even before the Temple was built. When God gave the Law to Israel through Moses, God set up a complicated system of sacrifices which had to be given to ‘cover’ for the sins of the people.
Every day animals were sacrificed. A priest would put his hand on the head of the animal such that the sins of himself, and also the sins of the people of Israel, would be symbolically passed on to that animal. This enabled the people to be made right with God, at least temporarily.
1The LORD called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting. He said, 2 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When any of you brings an offering to the LORD, bring as your offering an animal from either the herd or the flock. 3“‘If the offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he is to offer a male without defect. He must present it at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting so that it will be acceptable to the LORD. 4He is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him. 5He is to slaughter the young bull before the LORD, and then Aaron’s sons the priests shall bring the blood and sprinkle it against the altar on all sides at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.Leviticus 1:1-5 (NIV)
The animals that were sacrificed also symbolised the way in which Jesus Christ would later lay down His own life on the cross and shed His own blood as a sacrifice for our sins. They were a “type” or illustration of the greater sacrifice which Jesus was to make later. That would finally deal with our sin once and for all.
The Scapegoat – another practical illustration of Jesus taking our sins away
Another type, or illustration, of Jesus was the ‘scapegoat’. Each year one goat was taken and the High Priest would lay his hands on its head to transfer the sins of the people onto the goat. Then it was released into the wilderness, where it symbolically carried away the sins of the people.
20“When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the Tent of Meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. 21 He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. 22 The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert.Leviticus 16:20-22 (NIV)
In the same way, all the sin of the world was later put on the head of Jesus, the ultimate scapegoat. He bore it all upon Himself and took it away from us. We use the word scapegoat today to refer to a person who is blamed in place of others who are actually guilty. That is exactly what happened to Jesus.
The temple sacrifices and the scapegoat are a ‘type’ (an illustration) of God the Father’s ultimate sacrifice of Jesus to take away the guilt of our sin
So, prior to the first coming of Jesus, the people’s sins were placed on to the animal that was being sacrificed. It could be a lamb or a goat or a bull. This system was pointing forward symbolically to the coming of Jesus the Messiah. He was to be the ultimate and perfect sacrifice for sin. That is why John the Baptist referred to Him, at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, as the “Lamb of God”. Even as he said it, John the Baptist did not fully understand all the implications of his own words:
28These things took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing. 29The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!John 1:28-29 (NASB)
What it meant was that one day Jesus was going to become the ultimate substitutionary sacrifice, to die in our place as a sacrificial lamb. He would take our sins on His own shoulders and be punished for our sins instead of us. The whole Temple system and the animal sacrifices point us to Jesus and help us to understand why He had to die and what His death would achieve in paying for our sins. The animals that died were a ‘type’ of Jesus. They help us to see the pattern and principle and therefore to understand what Jesus would later do in dying in our place:
12He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. 13The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!Hebrews 9:12-14 (NIV)
In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.Hebrews 9:22 (NIV)
12And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. 13Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.Hebrews 13:12-13 (NIV)
Long before the Temple was ever built God provided an even more dramatic illustration of the sacrifice that God the Father would one day make of His Son, Jesus.