Hebrews 9:15 explains that the death of Jesus as a sacrifice had the purpose of providing “redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant,” in order that the people of God might “receive the promise of the eternal inheritance” (NASB).
In the ancient Near East, a covenant between two persons or nations was a serious matter. It involved an exchange of promises under oath. It implied the assumption that the gods would punish those who broke the oath. Often, these covenants were ratified through the sacrifice of an animal.
For example, when God made a covenant with Abraham, the ceremony involved cutting animals in half (Gen. 15:6–21). The parties would walk between the parts as an acknowledgment that those animals represented the fate of the party who broke the covenant. Significantly, only God walked between the animals, for the purpose of communicating to Abraham that He will not break His promise.
The covenant with God gave Israel access to the Promised Land as their inheritance. It involved, however, a set of commandments and the sprinkling of blood upon an altar. This sprinkling implied the destiny of the party who broke the covenant. This is why Hebrews says that “without the shedding of blood there is no remission [of sins]” (Heb. 9:22, literal translation).
When Israel broke the covenant, God faced a painful dilemma. The covenant demanded the death of the transgressors, but God loved His people. If God should simply look the other way or refuse to punish the transgressors, His commandments would never be enforceable, and this world would descend into chaos.
The Son of God, however, offered Himself as a Substitute. He died in our place so that we “may receive the promised eternal inheritance” (Heb. 9:15, 26, ESV; Rom. 3:21–26). That is, He was going to uphold the sanctity of His law while at the same time saving those who broke that law. And He could do this only through the cross.
Jesus’ death provided forgiveness, or remission, for our sins. The remission of our sins, however, involves much more than the cancellation of the penalty for our transgression of the covenant. It involves other elements just as important. That is why the Israelite sacrificial system had five different kinds of sacrifices. Each was necessary to express the richness of the meaning of the Cross of Christ.
The holocaust offering (or burnt offering) required that the whole animal be consumed on the altar (Leviticus 1). It represented Jesus, whose life was consumed for us. Expiation required Jesus’ total commitment to us. Even though He was equal with God, Jesus “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:5–8, ESV).
The grain offering was a gift of gratitude for God’s provision of sustenance for His people (Leviticus 2). It also represented Jesus, “the bread of life” (John 6:35, 48), through whom we have eternal life.
The peace or fellowship offering implied a communal meal with friends and family to celebrate the well-being provided by God (Leviticus 3). It represented Christ, whose sacrifice provided peace for us (Isa. 53:5; Rom. 5:1; Eph. 2:14). It also emphasizes that we need to participate in Jesus’ sacrifice by metaphorically eating of His flesh and drinking of His blood (John 6:51–56).
The sin or purification offering provided expiation for sins (Lev. 4:1–5:13). This sacrifice emphasized the role of the blood of the animal—which represented its life—to provide redemption from sins (Lev. 17:11) and pointed forward to the blood of Jesus who redeems us from our sins (Matt. 26:28; Rom. 3:25; Heb. 9:14).
The guilt or reparation offering (Lev. 5:14–6:7) provided forgiveness in cases where reparation or restitution was possible. It tells us that God’s forgiveness does not free us from the responsibility to provide reparation or restitution, where possible, to those whom we have wronged.
The sanctuary sacrifices teach us that experience of salvation is more than just accepting Jesus as our Substitute. We also need to “feed” on Him, share His benefits with others, and provide reparation to those whom we have wronged.