Sacrifice as Transformation

When we think about the meaning of sacrifice, we often conceive of giving up something precious. A person “sacrifices” themselves by giving themselves up, they “sacrifice” their possessions by forsaking them, or at least placing them at risk of being lost. However, in the Bible the concept of “sacrifice” is far richer than the mere notion of losing something or of something dying. In scripture, the concept of “sacrifice” includes both losing something and gaining something else, both death and resurrection.

Levitical Sacrifice

Sacrifice doesn’t begin in the book of Leviticus, but it is the book of the Bible which deals most extensively with the topic. Taking the description of the burnt offering in Leviticus 1 as our guide, we can break down the stages involved in an animal sacrifice into the following steps:

  1. The worshipper brings the animal and lays his hand upon its head (v3-4)
  2. He kills the animal and the priests apply its blood to the sides of the altar (v5)
  3. The animal is cut into pieces, washed and laid out upon the altar piece by piece (v6-9a)
  4. The animal is burnt upon the altar as a fragrant offering with a pleasing aroma to God (v9b)

What do each of these steps signify? The laying on of hands in the Bible is often used to ordain a person for a specific task. In this instance, an unblemished (qualified) animal is being ordained as a representative of the person making the offering. What does the killing of the animal then represent? It is essentially a confession of unworthiness: by this action the worshipper is declaring that he does not deserve to live in the presence of God.

But a sacrifice doesn’t end with death, with the giving up of something. It ends in transformation. The animal, now dead, is cut into pieces, washed and placed upon the altar. Then it is transformed into smoke and becomes a fragrant offering to the Lord. This is the meaning of sacrifice. Not only losing something, but also gaining something. Not only death, but also resurrection and vindication.

Sacrifice in the New Testament

This understanding of sacrifice affects how we think about the sacrificial offering of Jesus. The sacrifice of Jesus incorporates not merely his death, but also his resurrection and ascension into heaven. In his death on the cross as a blameless representative, he dies on our behalf, dying the death that we deserved. Yet in his resurrection, he is transformed and ascends into heaven as a fragrant aroma to God the Father. Just as the worshipper offered up the animal sacrifice to draw near to God through it, so too do we draw near to God through Jesus Christ and his perfect offering for us.

Under the new covenant, the very notion of sacrifice itself is transformed through Christ. Because of what Jesus has done for us, we no longer offer up bulls or goats in sacrifice (Hebrews 10:1-18). Yet as a general concept applied to believers, the notion of sacrifice still includes both loss and gain, both death and resurrection.

Take for example the language of Paul in Romans 12:1-2. He applies the language of sacrifice to believers by exhorting them to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God”[1] (v1). However, in unpacking what he means by “sacrifice” in the verse which follows he explains the concept in the language of transformation: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (v2). Just as the animal was transformed into smoke and become a fragrant offering to God, so too are believers in the new covenant to be transformed, becoming wise in discerning what is right.

Another example can be found in the Gospels. In Mark 10:34-38, Jesus teaches a crowd that whoever wishes to follow him must “deny himself and take up his cross” (v34). This sounds like the first aspect of sacrifice discussed above, namely giving something up. However, Jesus doesn’t end there, but continues by speaking of believers gaining new life through losing their old one (v35). Those who wish to have a greater inheritance, life in the age to come, must be willing to forfeit life in the present age. Loss and death in the present age, resurrection and transformation in the age to come.

One final example will suffice. The apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 2:14-17 includes the following expression of praise:

“But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.” (2 Corinthians 2:14-16)

When reflecting on this passage, commentators sometimes speak in terms of a perfume giving off a pleasing odour. Yet the language used by Paul here makes most sense as an allusion to old covenant sacrifice. For Paul, the “knowledge of God” is like a fitting offering in the sight of God, pleasing and acceptable to the Lord. Believers are a living sacrifice, ever offering themselves up to God as faithful, Spirit-anointed witnesses. Wherever the believer goes, there the sacrificial aroma of Christ is present in all of its glory.

Sacrifice as Transformation

In summary then, sacrifice is a transforming act. In it, one passes through a kind of death and into a new kind of life on the other side. For the Christian, this sacrificial process is at work in us by the Spirit, who renews us day by day, conforming us to the death and resurrection of Christ.  Just as Jesus died and rose to new life, so too are our sins put to death that we might be transformed by the glory of God.

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

[1] Note the language of blamelessness and also of something being presented before God, both important themes pertaining to Levitical sacrifice.

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