Atonement, sacrifices and blood


Isaiah 53 spoke of the Servant ‘sprinkling many nations’ and related this to the blood of atonement provided by Jesus. In the book of Hebrews the connection is made between the blood shed in the animal sacrifices as required in Leviticus and the blood Jesus shed as the Messiah.

However modern Judaism teaches that the blood of atonement is no longer required today.  When the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans, the Sanhedrin reconvened in Yavneh under the leadership of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who developed a theology based on some verses of the Bible which seem to point to sacrifices being unnecessary as a means of mediating between God and humanity.  For example:

‘To obey is better than sacrifice’.  1 Samuel 15.22

‘“To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to me?”  says the Lord.  “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle.  I do not delight in the blood of bulls or of lambs or goats.  … Bring no more futile sacrifices; incense is an abomination to me.”’  Isaiah 1.11-12

‘For I desire mercy not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.’ Hosea 6.6.

Based on these and other scriptures Judaism developed a theology which relegated the sacrificial system to ancient history.  The fact that the Temple no longer stood and therefore there was no access to the place appointed by God to offer the sacrifices seemed to confirm this view.  Therefore the Rabbis decreed that God was able to forgive sins through repentance, prayers, fasting and good deeds which replaced the blood of the animal sacrifices.  In this they were only developing ideas which had been around since the Babylonian exile and the development of the synagogue and the home as an alternative to Temple worship.  

‘As long as the Temple stood the altar atoned for Israel.  But now a man’s table atones for him.’ (1)

Sincere repentance is considered enough to cover sin:  ‘Whoever commits a transgression and is filled with shame thereby all his sins are forgiven him.’  (2)

Maimonides wrote that repentance atones for all sins:  ‘At this time when the Temple no longer exists, and we have no atonement altar, nothing is left but repentance. Repentance atones for all transgressions.  Even if a man was wicked throughout his life and repented at the end, we must not mention anything about his wickedness to him, as it is written,  “And as for the wickedness of the wicked he will not stumble because of it in the day when he turns from his wickedness.”  Ezekiel 33.12.  Yom Kippur itself atones for those who repent as it is written, “For it is on this day that atonement shall be made for you.”  Leviticus 16.30.  (3)

So does God say that sacrifices are not needed to cover sins?  Let us go back to the Bible verses from the Prophets quoted above and look at them in context.  The issue God has with His people is that they are offering sacrifices without sincerity and continuing in sin at the same time.  God is not actually saying, ‘You don’t need to offer any sacrifices.’ What He is saying is, ‘Your sacrifices are meaningless because you are just going through the outward motions of pleasing me while your hearts and your actions are far from me.’  He is calling on them to repent and to offer the sacrifices from a true heart, not to repent instead of offering the sacrifices.

If we look at the whole teaching of the Bible we find that almost everything involving a covenant between God and humanity is sanctified by an offering involving the shedding of blood.  Adam and Eve put on fig leaves to cover their nakedness, but God did not accept this covering and clothed them in animal skins, involving the death of the animal (Genesis 3.7, 21).  Cain offered the fruit of the ground and was not accepted, while Abel offered the ‘firstborn of his flock’ (i.e. a sacrifice involving the death of an animal) and was accepted (Genesis 4.3-4).  Noah offered a sacrifice of the clean animals that came out of the ark and this was a ‘soothing aroma’ to the Lord (Genesis 8.20-22).  God made the covenant with Abraham concerning his descendants and the Promised Land, after Abraham had made the sacrifice of animals which God required of him (Genesis 15).  After God gave the Torah, Moses read the commandments to the people and sprinkled the blood of the sacrificed animals on the people and on the altar to seal their covenant with God (Exodus 24.3-8).  

Was this because God was bloodthirsty or was it some primitive ritual which has now been done away with?  Or was God making a serious point which needed to be understood? According to the Bible death came into the world because of sin:  ‘Then to Adam He (God) said, “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’: Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat from it all the days of your life.  Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field.  In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are to dust you shall return.”’  Genesis 3.17-19.  In the prophet Ezekiel we read:  ‘The soul that sins shall die.’  Ezekiel 18.4.  

So in order to cover sin and escape from its penalty (death) there needs to be another who dies in our place.  Under the covenant with Moses this was the animal which sacrificed its blood (and therefore died) in accordance with the commandments given in the Torah. This was the only way in which the barrier between God and humanity, caused by sin, could be removed.  God is holy and we are not, and the only way we can relate to the Holy One is on His terms not ours.  The Lord makes it clear that He requires the shedding of blood in order to be able to come into relationship with His people. In Leviticus 17.11 we read:

‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that makes an atonement for your soul.’

We also read of the importance of the blood in connection with the night of the Passover when the people were instructed to sacrifice a lamb and place the blood of the lamb on the doorposts of their houses.  The Angel of death would then pass over them:

‘For the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians:  and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not allow the destroyer to enter your house to slay you.’ Exodus 12.23.

Could it be that the destroyer has so often entered the house of the Jewish people to slay them, because the blood is no longer on the doorposts?  Since the destruction of the Temple, there has been no blood sacrifice and modern Judaism no longer considers it necessary.  Yet according to the verse above from Leviticus it is vital.  I am not advocating however that Judaism returns to the sacrifice of animals, even if that were possible in the modern world, because the final sacrifice for sin has been made once and for all by Jesus the Messiah, ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ He shed His blood at the time of the Passover, for the forgiveness of the sins of all mankind:

‘But when Messiah appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come… He entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.’  Hebrews 9.11-14.

Under the old covenant the worshipper found forgiveness through repentance and faith in the blood of the sacrificed animal.  He recognised that he deserved to die, but God in His mercy accepted this sacrifice in his place. The blood of the animal itself only had value in that it pointed forward to the blood of the Messiah who was yet to come. Under the New Covenant the same principle applies. We find forgiveness through repentance and faith in the blood of the Messiah shed for our sins:

‘Messiah has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Messiah was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time apart from sin for salvation.’ Hebrews 9.26-28.

Under the New Covenant the same principle operates as under the Old Covenant: that those who come to God must repent of their sins and put their trust in the sacrifice He has appointed.  Under the Old Covenant it was the blood of the sacrificed animal. Under the New Covenant it is the much better sacrifice of the blood of Jesus the Messiah.  Through accepting this sacrifice we find our way back to a covenant relationship with God.

Just before He was taken away to be crucified Jesus celebrated the Passover with His disciples.  He then took the familiar symbols of matzo (unleavened) bread and wine which spoke of the Exodus from Egypt and reapplied them to Himself.  

‘Then He said to them, “With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”  Then He took the cup, and gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves.  For I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”  And He took the bread and broke it and gave it to them saying, “This is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for you.”’  Luke 22.15-20.

What He was saying was that there is now a greater Exodus on offer, not just bringing people out of physical slavery in Egypt, but bringing us out of slavery to sin and into the Promised Land of a relationship with God.  In Exodus God required the blood on the doorposts of the Israelite houses for the Angel of Death to pass over them and thus deliver them from death to life.  Today God requires the blood of the Messiah to be applied to our individual lives in order that we can pass from eternal death and separation from God into eternal life in the Kingdom of God.  In the Jewish Passover service the cup taken after supper, the cup Jesus related to the new covenant, is the third cup, which is known as the Cup of Redemption.

So God was replacing the animal sacrifices with the sacrifice of the Messiah as our atonement for sin, rather than replacing them with prayer, good deeds and fasting. As we shall see in the next chapter there is also a vital link between the sacrificial death of the Messiah and the destruction of the Temple which caused the end of the animal sacrifices.  

When Jesus died on the cross His last word was, ‘It is finished!’  (John 19.30). By this He did not mean that His life was finished, but that the work of redemption was finished and that there was nothing more that needed to be added to it.  This also meant that from that moment on the animal sacrifices in the Temple became redundant and instead of being an act of faith and obedience to God they became an act of unbelief and disobedience.   The letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament is written to show Jewish believers in Jesus that they should not take part in animal sacrifices in the Temple because that would be like trampling underfoot the blood of the covenant sealed by Jesus’ blood shed on the cross (Hebrews 10.26-39). 

There is also an exact parallel to the Prophets speaking against the offering of insincere sacrifices in the verses quoted at the beginning of this chapter to be found in the New Testament.  As we have seen the issue was not that God did not want sacrifices.  It was that the sacrifices offered without repentance and faith and without deeds of righteousness were meaningless and an offence to God.  

In 1 Corinthians 11.27-28 Paul writes:  ‘Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.  But let a man examine himself and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For he who eats in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself not discerning the Lord’s body.’  

This means that for people to take the bread and the wine in remembrance of the Lord Jesus ‘in an unworthy manner’ is not acceptable to God.  What God is looking for is genuine repentance and faith in Jesus as Saviour and Lord.  If that is lacking, then taking the bread and the wine is exactly the same as offering the sacrifices without repentance, the issue which the Lord was condemning Israel for in the passage from Isaiah quoted at the beginning of this chapter.  Far from doing us good, this practice actually brings us under the judgment of God.

Therefore the teaching of the New Testament is entirely consistent with the Tenach on this issue.  God requires the blood of atonement as well as repentance and faith to accept human beings.  Under the Tenach the blood of atonement was provided by the animal sacrifices.  Under the New Testament it is provided by the sacrifice of the Messiah, which is the better and eternal covenant by which God now puts Jews and Gentiles right with Himself.  

Back in Genesis 15.18-20 we read of a mysterious person who in some way prefigures all of this.  He is called Melchizedek (which means King of Righteousness) and is King of Salem (King of Peace).  He meets Abraham who was on his way back from the first war recorded in the Bible.  Coming back from a war is a good time to meet the King of Righteousness and Peace.  Melchizedek offered Abraham bread and wine, just as Jesus offered bread and wine to His disciples as a symbol of His body and blood sacrificed for the sins of the world (Luke 22.19-20).  

So who was Melchizedek?  An appearance of the Messiah to Abraham, or a type of the Messiah?  It is not clear from the text, but it is certain that he was a highly exalted person.  In Psalm 110 we have a prophecy of someone who will be ‘a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek’.  Who could this be?  To make this question even more intriguing, Psalm 110 begins with the words, ‘The Lord said to my Lord’.  So how can the Lord speak to the Lord?  Only if God is a plural unity, the issue we have looked at already in Chapter 5.

The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews describes Melchizedek as ‘Priest of the Most High God’ … ‘without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, remains a priest forever’ (Hebrews 7.1 –3).  It goes on to say how a better covenant is now in place, which replaces the sacrificial system mediated by the Levitical Priests, who needed to offer animal sacrifices over and over again.  This covenant is mediated once and for all through the sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah and never needs to be replaced. All who enter into it through repentance and faith in Him need no longer fear the judgement of God:  ‘And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgement, so Messiah was offered once to bear the sins of many.  To those who eagerly wait for Him, He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.’  Hebrews 9.27-8.


  1. Berachot 55a
  2. Berachot 12b
  3. Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, 1.3, 2.1, 9-10.