Oftentimes the question is raised how the animal sacrifices of the Torah, particularly the sin offering and the sacrifice of Yom Kippur, are related to the personal sacrifice of Messiah Yeshua, and how definitive atonement and complete forgiveness of sins could be received by those living in Israel before Messiah’s personal appearance.
The problem of atonement and forgiveness during the times before the appearance of Yeshua centers around the question on the efficacy of animal sacrifice. Animal sacrifice is intimately related to the distinction between this world and the World to Come. In the World to Come, the world of resurrection life, there is no longer animal life. This seems to imply that the efficacy of atonement brought about by animal sacrifice is limited to this world. Atonement based on animal sacrifice thus allows those to whom it is applied to live on in this world, and to escape the death penalty of the Torah for sinning.
Yet it is clear that we all die. So ultimately there is no escape of death. The Apostle Paul says that our death is a punishment for the original sin of Adam. We are included in Adam, and as individuals in this world we are no more than extensions (or parts) of Adam. Although the expression is not used by Scripture, I think it is illuminating to see ourselves as Adam’s body, as an extension of his.
The atonement by means of animal sacrifice in the Torah can do no more but to let men escape from an immediate death penalty for particular sins. It cannot remove the source of sin, the inherited sinful nature of man — due to his being Adam’s extension — that ultimately always leads to death.
Animal sacrifice at first sight however is something very strange, and gives rise to deep questioning: How can an animal’s death atone for my sins? How can the slaughtering of an animal and the sprinkling of its blood on the altar by any means be related to the forgiveness of my sins? There are two big difficulties involved in animal sacrifice, that partly are difficulties in the idea of sacrifice itself: 1) If divine justice demands the death of the sinner, how can any other being except the sinner himself be accountable and (be able to) bear the punishment of sin? Is, in other words, justice not severely violated by the idea of substitutionary atonement? But even if it be granted that another being (by some unknown means) can make atonement for me, a new difficulty arises: 2) How can animal sacrifice in particular be a means of substitutionary atonement? An animal is a being wholly outside the human spheres of morality and justice.
These questions suggest that the only really sufficient means of atonement is the self-sacrifice of the sinner. We ourselves must pay for our sins, by receiving its punishment, death. The problem is, if this train of thought is followed, that it will lead to the end of the story altogether. No real forgiveness and restoration can be obtained by this procedure. We all will be killed for our sins, and that’s it.
What happens then in animal sacrifice for sin? How can we understand it? By the action of bringing an animal for our sins we identify ourselves with it. This identification must be seen as something real. It is founded in a real “overlap” between human and animal life. We as humans share many characteristics of animal life. By this act of identification we confess that we deserve the death penalty. And the penalty is exercised on that part of our being we identify with in the act of sacrifice, the animal. By means of this identification not simply an other being is killed, the animal outside us. We ourselves are killed in the slaughtering of the animal, because we have identified ourselves with it.
The identification with an animal however is always a partial identification. We can only partially identify ourselves with an animal. This means that in our acts of confession of sin and bringing the animal sacrifice our old sinful nature is only partially punished and killed. The animal I identified with dies and bears my sins, and by this means I myself — now considered in sofar as I’m not identified with the animal — am able to escape death (for the time being). That’s the clue of the matter, and that’s how animal sacrifice functions.
An important implication of this state of affairs is that by means of animal sacrifice my old sinful nature — i.e. the human being I am by being Adam’s descendant — is able to live on, and commit new sinful acts! Animal sacrifice for sins thus does not lead to a complete renewal of human nature. I may have confessed my sins in a sincere act of repentance. And I may even have received the gift of the holy spirit, to direct me towards a new way of living in the fear of HaShem. But this does still not guarantee that I will never fall back into sin. My sinful inclinations are not removed. My old sinful nature is not changed on a physical level so to say. The new direction of life I received has to struggle with the force of the old nature that is still part of myself.
To get totally rid of this old nature and its inclination towards sin, I myself must die. Partial identification with an animal’s death will be of no avail, ultimately. How can this death of myself occur in a meaningful way, that is, in a manner that brings about atonement and new life, not just punishment and condemnation? There has to be a being I can completely identify with, if substitutionary atonement is to be a sensible concept. The paradox is that the only being I’m seemingly able to identify with completely, is myself. It is clear that a complete identification must be with a human being, not with an animal. But it seems that it cannot be another human being, someone distinguishable from myself.
Remember however, that there is already “another” human being we in a way are completely identified with, namely Adam. We are identified with Adam by being included in him, by being nothing more than his extension, his body. Adam is the root of the human race. By our inclusion in him we share in his wrong decision to turn away from G’d. If we are to be saved from death, the consequence of sin, we need to be included in some other man that is entirely sinless. We need to become his extension, his body, instead of Adam’s. This man is Messiah Yeshua. We therefore need to be included in Messiah for the sake of ultimately escaping death. This raises a lot of questions. By what means can we be included in Messiah Yeshua? How can we identify with him and how can he be a sacrifice of sins for us?
The means of identification here is faith. This implies repentance and conversion of the heart to G’d, in essentially the same way as is the case in animal sacrifice. We must on G’d’s authority recognize Yeshua as the one righteous and sinless man, as the kind of being we should be ourselves. He is the measure or standard of human life: complete sinlessness. This is the beginning of our act of identification with him.
Now we know that Yeshua was killed and suffered a terrible and completely undeserved death on the Cross. Our act of identification requires that we recognize and confess that we deserved this death. Instead of him, we should be killed for our sins, and suffer the punishment of sin by the gruesome death penalty on the Cross. This is our identification with Yeshua’s death, our inclusion in it. By faith we can accept our own death — i.e. our physical death that will one day occur — in identification with his death. We can give ourselves to him, and subject ourselves to him and serve him in love, even to the consequence of death, or at least until death. By consciously accepting our own death as the punishment of our sins, we are able to include ourselves in Messiah, if this acceptance of our death is based on our recognition of Messiah’s sinlessness as the standard of human life.
Yeshua was not left in the state of death. He was resurrected to a new and incorruptible life. His death was completely undeserved. That’s why G’d couldn’t leave him in death. G’d was obligated to His own honour to resurrect Yeshua, to give him everlasting life, as the reward of his obedience under the most difficult circumstances. Everlasting, incorruptible life was first promised to Adam if he remained obedient to G’d. Adam failed, and lost life. Messiah succeeded, and gained life!
If we identify with Messiah we are not only included in his death, we are also included in his resurrection. Messiah is our place and means of atonement. If we recognize him and thus identify with him, the deepest kernel of our personality is included in him. We become part of him, members of his body, his extensions. He died substitutionary for our sins, because by turning to G’d and recognizing that Messiah died completely sinlessly, we confess that we are worthy of the death penalty he received. Our identification with him is not partial, as in the case of animal sacrifice. We are completely included in him, as we are completely included in Adam.
Now back to the original question of this paper: how is animal sacrifice related to the sacrifice of Messiah, and how can those who never explicitly knew Messiah be included in him by means of animal sacrifice?
As I said, the efficacy of animal sacrifice is limited to this world. Only Messiah’s sacrifice discloses the World the Come to us. Animal sacrifice however by and in itself points to Messiah’s sacrifice as to its completion and fulfilment, because the partial identification with the sacrificial animal is insufficient. Definitive atonement for sins requires the death of the sinner itself, not of the animal he identifies with. The animal is without sin simply by being altogether outside the moral and juridical order. A complete identification with an animal is therefore impossible for man. Man must sacrifice himself, which he does partially in animal sacrifice, but completely in Messiah, as the representative of mankind, as its Mediator with G’d. By inclusion in him the whole sphere of this world and of animal sacrifice is transcended. Messiah’s sacrifice is the bridge that brings us from the corruptible and perishable sphere of this world to the eternal and incorruptible sphere of the World to Come.