What did the Old Testament Sacrifices Accomplish?

Sunday in our Old Testament Survey class we asked the question, “What did the Old Testament sacrifices really accomplish?” I gave a brief answer, but here is more information and a lot of relevant Scripture passages to explain and clarify the issues. This is taken from my teaching notes on the book of Leviticus, which I taught through on Sunday night a number of years ago.

First, we must note that prior to the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ at Calvary, BLOOD SACRIFICE was a necessary element of spiritual life for maintaining a harmonious relationship with God.  These sacrifices had fellowship with God as their chief object (see Exodus 29:42-43; 30:36). While it might be hard for us to imagine, the Old Testament saint truly saw giving an offering like this as an act of worship. When they did it humbly, reverently, and with faith toward God, it was received by Him as an act of worship.

Second, these sacrifices, when offered in conformity with the standards established by God (Heb. 9:13 – they sanctified for the purifying of the flesh), did accomplish real FORGIVENESS before God (see Lev. 4:20, 26, 31, 35, 5:10, 13, 16, 18, 6:7 — the phrase is repeated, “they shall be forgiven”). Hebrews 9:13 says that these sacrifices worked to “sanctify for the purifying of the flesh.” This forgiveness, however, was not granted apart from faith in God’s promises.  It wasn’t the sacrifice alone, but the offering of it by faith in the promises of God that made it efficacious. It was real , just not permanent, which was why it was needed year after year, and could not make the sinner perfect. Hebrews 10:1-4 says it could not take away ALL sin, fully and finally!  In contrast Christ obtained “eternal redemption” for man as Hebrews 9:11-15 teaches.

Hebrews 10:1-4 – For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. 2 For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshipers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins. 3 But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. 4 For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.

Hebrews 9:11-15 – But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. 12 Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, 14 how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? 15 And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.

While these sacrifices were real acts of worship, and accomplished real forgiveness, they were limited in a number of ways. The primary one, which we mentioned briefly above, was that they were only spiritually acceptable to God when accompanied by FAITH (Hebrews 11:4). This has always been the standard established by God, and we see this truth expressed in various ways in a number of different passages.

Hebrews 11:4 – By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks.

Psalm 40:6-8 –   Sacrifice and meal offering Thou hast not desired; My ears Thou hast opened; Burnt offering and sin offering Thou hast not required. 7 Then I said, “Behold, I come; In the scroll of the book it is written of me; 8 I delight to do Thy will, O my God; Thy law is within my heart.”

1 Sam. 15:22-23 – 22 And Samuel said, “Has the LORD as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices As in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams. 23 “For rebellion is as the sin of divination, And insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry.  Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He has also rejected you from being king.”

Hosea 6:6– For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

Isaiah 1:11-17 – 11 “What are your multiplied sacrifices to me?” says the LORD.  “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams, And the fat of fed cattle.  And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs, or goats.  12 “When you come to appear before Me, Who requires of you this trampling of my courts?  13 “Bring your worthless offerings no longer, Incense is an abomination to Me.  New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly.  14 “I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, They have become a burden to Me.  I am weary of bearing them.  15 “So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you, Yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen.  Your hands are covered with blood.  16 “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight.  Cease to do evil, 17 Learn to do good; Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless; Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow.

In addition to being limited by the necessity of faith, the chart in the MacArthur Study Bible (p. 160) shows us the other ways in which the OT sacrifices were limited.

Old Covenant (temporary)Heb 7:22; 8:6, 13; 10:20New Covenant (permanent)
Obsolete promisesHeb 8:6-13Better promises
A shadowHeb 8:5; 9:23, 24; 10:1The reality
Aaronic priesthood (many)Heb 6:19-7:25Melchizedekian priesthood (one)
Sinful priesthoodHeb 7:26, 27; 9:7Sinless priesthood
Limited-by-death priesthoodHeb 7:16, 17, 23, 24Forever priesthood
Daily sacrificesHeb 7:27; 9:12, 25, 26; 10:9, 10, 12Once-for-all sacrifice
Animal sacrificesHeb 9:11-15, 26; 10:4-10, 19Sacrifice of God’s Son
Ongoing sacrificesHeb 10:11-14, 18Sacrifices no longer needed
One year atonementHeb 7:25; 9:12, 15; 10:1-4, 12Eternal propitiation

The Old Testament sacrifices were also limited in that there were certain sins that could not be atoned for (Leviticus 24:10-23, Numbers 15:30). As well, in the priesthood of Aaron, in which there were many priests, we are reminded of the need for a mediator—there is no independent access to God apart from a priest.

Next, we need to recognize that the efficacy of the sacrifice was not inherent in the animals sacrificed or in the system of sacrifice as it was delivered to the people by God through Moses. As Hebrews 10:4 says, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” The blood of bulls and goats shed on the altar of God, without faith and a heart of worship, accomplished nothing. The blood alone was not some kind of “magic potion” to buy forgiveness.

So what did they accomplish, and how?

It seems from piecing together the elements above, that the Levitical sacrifices were validating in the mind of God, on the basis of the anticipated death of Christ, that the faithful worshipper was putting their trust in God’s promise, that one day a truly efficacious sacrifice for all sin for all time would be accomplished (see again Hebrews 10: 1-14). The Old Testament sacrifices were an atonement, or covering for sin, affirming in the mind of God that the offerer was trusting in the coming sacrifice of Christ. At the same time, it was foreshadowing for the man making the sacrifice, this same future, once-for-all, sacrifice. Here is how the New Testament expresses this “temporary covering” until the future, anticipated sacrifice of Christ.

Romans 3:21-25 – But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,  22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.  This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forebearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed;

1 Peter 1:17-21 – And if you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each man’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay upon earth; 18 knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, 19 but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.  20 For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you 21 who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

Hebrews 9:15 –  And for this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, in order that since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.

Revelation 13:8 – (NKJV) All who dwell on the earth will worship Him, whose names have not been written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

The Old Testament sacrifices accomplished forgiveness, but only because God saw the faith of the worshipper as they looked forward to the promise of God’s redemption through the coming Messiah. When Messiah came, He accomplished fully and finally through the sacrifice of Himself what the Old Testament sacrifices accomplished imperfectly and temporarily. At the same time, these sacrifices foreshadowed and symbolically represented this future sacrifice. And both worked together perfectly because God knew the end from the beginning.

The Old Testament sacrificial system is another beautiful picture of the reality that God’s plan of redemption is an eternal certainty. All of the historical elements of true worship of the Living God fit together in a way that point us undeniably to the glory and sufficiency of Christ our Savior.

I hope this is helpful. I welcome your questions and comments.


  1. Leann Bobbitt on February 1, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Thank you so much for the thorough explanation for what the OT sacrifices accomplished, it really helped me to understand. I still am unclear regarding the sacrifices for sin and punishment for sins. If there were sacrifices and atonement for sins, then why did God insist on explaining and implementing punishments for sins?

    Also, when it talks about being put to death for certain sins, was that literal?

    I look forward to your answers,

    Leann Bobbitt

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