How Jesus Changed Everyone’s Mind About Sacrifice

For thousands of years, every major culture saw blood sacrifice as an acceptable – even essential – means of worship. To appease the gods one must shed blood – human or animal – so that rain would fall, crops would grow and soldiers would be victorious in battle. This was the unquestionable center of all religious activity for cultures all over the world for centuries.

Today, however, the practice of blood sacrifice is almost universally regarded by everyone as barbaric, archaic and primitive. No one today would ever seriously consider animal sacrifices as a viable method of worship.

Image: Pixabay
Image: Pixabay

What happened to change all of this? Why has everyone completely changed their mind about blood sacrifice?

It’s Jesus.

See, just as the prophet Daniel was told in his vision, the Messiah to come would “put an end to sacrifice and offerings.” [Dan. 9:27]

This is exactly what Jesus did. As the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” Jesus was the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. He not only fulfilled the shadow of the Jewish sacrificial system – which remains dormant to this very day after nearly 2,000 years – Jesus also exposed the entire scapegoating mechanism. He disarmed it by bringing it out into the light and allowing everyone to see it for it really was: A broken system that punished one for the sins of many.

This is why, today, no one can take this sacrificial system seriously anymore.

Jesus brought an end to the daily sacrifice, not just for Jews, but for the entire world.

In short: Jesus changed our minds about animal sacrifices. The wisest of the Greeks and the Romans – Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Socrates, etc. – all widely accepted this blood sacrifice system as “normal” and acceptable worship. Not one of them challenged the status quo.

But Jesus said to the Pharisees: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” in Matthew 9:13, quoting from Hosea 6:6, which challenged the status quo of the entire human race on the question of worship by animal sacrifice.

Jesus questioned the sacrificial system and affirmed that the way to please God was to show mercy to others, not to offer blood sacrifices.

In other words: It’s not death that pleases God, it’s your life.

How we live, then, matters a great deal to God. Jesus gave us a radical pattern of mercy, love, and forgiveness to follow in His Sermon on the Mount, and then He invited us to walk in that same path as He did.

This is how we please God: We live lives of love and mercy in the here and now. We bless those who curse us. We do good to those who hate us. We overcome evil with good. We forgive as we have been forgiven. We love as He loved us, (which is to say, a whole lot).

Paul uses the term “living sacrifices” in Romans 12; something that must have been the ultimate oxymoron to anyone living at the time.

How can a “sacrifice” – which is all about knives and blood and burning flesh – ever be “living”?

But, if what Jesus says is true, then it is our life that pleases God; it is our life that makes the difference, not our death, our anyone else’s.

Today the concept of a sacrifice is still viable, even outside of religious context. But the idea now is more like when parents sacrifice their own comfort so their children can go to college or have a better life than they did. We understand now that a good sacrifice is when one person voluntarily gives up something valuable so that someone else can enjoy the blessing. (Kind of like what Jesus modelled for us).

No one today would ever see this as “appeasing the gods”, but the principle is still the same: Whenever we give up something of value in order to bless someone else, this is a very beautiful thing.

Also, when Jesus says: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” I believe He is letting us know what really matters in His Kingdom.

Instead of killing an animal, or shedding blood, to appease the Deity and receive blessings, we are expected to show mercy and love and forgiveness to one another. As Jesus said, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:17)

Please understand: It is not mere knowledge that unlocks the blessing for us, it is the act of putting this knowledge into practice. So, if we now understand that what God requires is not sacrifice but mercy, kindness, forgiveness, and love, then once we begin to live our lives this way, we will begin to experience the blessings, or the fruit, of that obedience. Not only us, but the entire world. Because the model that Jesus has passed on to us is that we are to bless others – even our enemies – with the same extravagance as He has shown to us.

This is the way we move forward as a society. This is how we make the world better: We love one another as He has loved us. We turn the other cheek. We bless those who curse us. We show mercy to the unmerciful. We feed our enemy if he is hungry and share a cold cup of water if they are thirsty. This is the ultimate expression of the new heaven and the new earth.

All that remains is for those who hear these words to put them into practice. When we do this, two things happen, according to Jesus: We are blessed and He is truly our Lord.

Now, go and learn what this means.

**

Keith Giles is the author of “Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics To Pledge Allegiance To The Lamb” and co-host of the Heretic Happy Hour Podcast which you can hear on iTunes and Podbean. He and his wife and their two boys live in Orange, CA where they are part of a house church where no one takes a salary, Jesus is the Senior Pastor and 100% of the offerings go to help the poor in the community.

 

 

 

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  • Thomas G. O’Brien III

    Dear Keith, I certainly agree with the trajectory of your post, but as a matter of history, certainly animal sacrifice continued at the Second Temple from 33 CE until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Blessings, Tom O’Brien

  • I think it is difficult to argue in the details that Jesus put an end to sacrificial worship. He is the focus himself of a religion of sacrificial worship, which regularly reenacts the sacrifice and claims to then ingest the actual flesh and blood of the one sacrificed, even to this day. We live in a land in which we hear almost daily the exultation of those who have “made the ultimate sacrifice” for our nation, i.e., died in battle – but let this not obscure that the real intention of these ‘heroes’ was always to kill, not to die, hence to sacrifice others for our benefit. And as often as not, this public exultation is implicitly and explicitly linked to American civil religion, which itself is of strongly ‘Christian’ flavor. I do think Jesus did some amazing things and is a clear model for living – on this we agree. But it seems to me that the claim that Jesus ‘put an end to sacrifice’ is more confusing than explanatory.

  • Tim Ellison

    The anti-sacrificial reading of the Jewish and Christian scriptures gets many people upset. I have suggested to others that Jesus gave his life sacrificially, but not as a sacrifice and I get accused of not believing the gospel. God is not sacrificial and God never wrote Leviticus according to the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah chapter 7 – NRSV). It seems evangelicals like a blood-thirsty god.

  • winmeer

    Furthermore, you may add that Jesus did not openly condemn temple sacrifices and throughout his life did participate in the sacrifices in the temple as did his parents when he was born. Sacrifices continued throughout the world, North/South America, Celtic/ Viking region, … Roman Empire. Catholic doctrine states that the bread and wine is changed into the body and blood of Christ which catholics believe they are eating and drinking: a case of human sacrifice, drinking blood, non Kosher meat, eating human flesh, all of which are forbidden by the OT rules. Sacrificially giving of one’s life in the service of others is an analogy of blood sacrifices of animals including humans. Jesus did not die on the cross as a sacrifice for his friends since his friends were not in danger since his mother and others were “at the foot” of the cross while other friends ran away and hid themselves.

  • I enjoyed this. The other thing that I realized about this passage is that mercy can only be learned in the context of community. I think it was why Jesus said to “go and learn what this means.” Mercy isn’t something that we can learn just in a vertical relationship with God. I’ll wrote more about it here if you are interested: dalainamay.com/the-thing-jesus-could-not-teach-us/

  • Dave Again

    ‘Every’? Generalisation? Yes.

  • trueatheist

    Animal sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem was abolished by the Jewish War, the Temple itself was destroyed, and the priests were scattered or killed. The Gospel of the Ebionites claimed that Jesus said, “I came to abolish the sacrifices, and if ye cease not from sacrifice, wrath will not cease from you.” Jesus rose from the dead theologically in 70 CE at the same time as the temple sacrifices ceased. “Therefore he [Jesus] had to become like his brothers in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.” (Hebrews 2:17) The mission of Jesus as atonement is detailed in the Epistle of Barnabas. Echoes of this theology are found in the Gospel of Matthew, for example the role of Barabbas as the “other” goat. The origins of Christianity are rooted in Jewish theology and in particular the Roman-Jewish War, when the Temple was destroyed and with it the only method of atonement for the Jewish people.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    Santiera and some Hindu sects still practice animal sacrifice. Buddhism and mainstream Hinduism scrapped animal sacrifice way before Christ. Islam, not Christianity, dispensed with animal sacrifice in the areas where it replaced earlier now extinct religions.
    The idea of a “system that punished one for the sins of many” is a purely Christian invention, concocted a millennium and a half after the Temple sacrifices ceased and then anachronistically read back into Temple practice by Calvin and others. There is no evidence animal (or even human) sacrifice operated that way.
    Perfume and grain were also sacrificed in the Temple: I struggle to see what “punishment” is borne by a bottle of scent. Besides which, the fate of all those poor suffering little fluffy baa-lambs being cruelly sacrificed in the Temple to appease a vengeful God was exactly the same as that of all the little fluffy baa-lambs not sacrificed in the Temple: they were food, and destined to be killed as such whatever happened.
    You say: “a good sacrifice is when one person voluntarily gives up something valuable so that someone else can enjoy the blessing.” but that’s what the Temple sacrifices (and pagan ones) actually were. The worshippers gave to God (or the gods) things they considered valuable in the hope that God / the gods would therefore look favourably on them. The Christian difference is that we recognise that God has no actual need or desire for these things for himself, and would rather they were given to others in need instead (although, actually, this is a far smaller difference than you suggest – only a small, symobolic part of most sacrifices was actually burned: the rest either went to support the priests or was distributed amongst the worshippers themselves as a valuable form of public charity).
    The idea that the OT in describing ancient Hebrew religious practice says the “scapegoat” took the punishment for sin on itself by suffering or dying I find incomprehensible. Even the most cursory reading should identity that the goat on which the sins were placed was not the goat sacrificed but the one set free. The point was that it literally took the sins away with it into the wilderness, not that it suffered any punishment.

  • Gnosissorrow

    Cannibalism and blood sacrifice still exist symbolically in Christianity today let’s not forget.
    God can not be both merciful and just. If he gives mercy he is not just. If he is just he can show no mercy. So the blood sacrifice of God sacrificing himself to protect us from himself is even more ridiculous if he did it for the sake of mercy.

  • Paula Thompson

    Your article made me thankful for science, because science shows us the cause and effect of the natural world. The God I worship is also the God of Science. The truth is, Jesus was not a sacrifice that was required by God. To say that God EVER required blood to satisfy a vendetta held against humanity is a truly repugnant, primitive and fearful view of our magnificent, benevolent and perfect creator. Such a teaching is an affront to God’s perfect loving nature. Humans evolve in our concepts of God but God remains changeless.

  • While I agree with the basic idea of this post, that Jesus put an end to animal sacrifice in religious practice, we in the United States still practice human sacrifice in a cultural context. The Sandy Hook massacre demonstrated that we will not even let the slaughter of children deter us from our civic right to guns. We as a people are as shocking as those Old Testament stories of pagans who offered their children up to the fires of Molech. The lives of the innocent are apparently a sufficient price to pay for out right to bear arms.

  • jekylldoc

    Ritual slaughter for a festival still goes on in some Islamic areas. Maybe it isn’t seen as a sacrifice to appease Allah, but the difference when it is seen as commanded is not a huge one.
    https://www.quora.com/Why-is-goat-slaughtered-on-the-festival-of-eid

  • Iain Lovejoy

    I think you are stretching it as a “sacrifice” since it is cooked as a meal, unless you consider a Thanksgiving turkey a “sacrifice”.

  • jekylldoc

    I am not a scholar, but this raised two questions in my mind from my cursory reading of scholarly results. First, I understand some scholars now see the sacrifice tradition as originally more a matter of sealing an agreement or blessing a gathering than as appeasing a god. We know the story of Iphigenia and the tradition of Moloch – the idea of appeasing deities is not far from the notions of sacrifice that came down to us from the ancients. But this meaning of “making sacred” should never be entirely cut off from our thoughts of what sacrifice was about.

    Second, I think it is getting to be common knowledge that the “ransom” language in the New Testament is not really about penal substitution. That interpretation took a thousand years to be formulated. Despite what the epistle to the Hebrews might imply, we have no strong reason to think Paul believed Jesus was a substitute victim for punishment due to us. If we work to understand Kingdom and forgiveness and Messiah and resurrection fitting together holistically, it appears that the early church struggled to understand the meaning of the Cross, and therefore a mechanical substitution is simply not a helpful lens to see it all through. If Jesus’ crucifixion was really all about paying a penalty due to others, it would be spelled out in the Gospels because Jesus would have explained it.

  • jekylldoc

    Well, if we all felt we were commanded to bring the turkey live to the slaughter, it might not seem so crazy to consider it a legacy of sacrifice practice.