I lived in Miami for more than twenty-two years. You get used to some strange things in Miami, but one thing still makes the news from time to time, and many people don’t seem to get used to it—Santeria blood sacrifices. Practitioners of Santeria (a mix of misunderstood Catholicism and Cuban and African folk religions) sacrifice chickens or goats and sometimes leave the gory remains in public places. Civilized urbanites tend to view this as senseless animal cruelty. Meanwhile, a number of ancient faiths either still offer animal sacrifices or used to do so. The question is, “Why?”
Back to the Garden
After the first man and woman sinned, they tried to cover their shame with aprons made of fig leaves. (Genesis 3:7) God didn’t leave them in their new and troubled state of confusion, guilt, and fear. He sought out Adam and Eve and addressed them directly. At the end of the conversation between God and the recently fallen man and woman, God provided animal skin coverings for them to replace the leaf aprons. (Genesis 3:21) While the text of Genesis does not specifically state the source of the animal skins, it makes sense to conclude that some animal had to die to provide a temporary covering for man’s guilt and shame. Thus began animal sacrifice as a provisional atonement for sin.
A Postponement of Sin’s Penalty
By the time Adam and Eve’s sons were adults, we find that animal sacrifice to postpone the penalty of sin was becoming ritualized. Genesis 4:4 says, “But Abel brought some of the firstborn of his flock – even the fattest of them. And the Lord was pleased with Abel and his offering.” Even at that early date, a truth had been revealed, namely that, because the penalty of sin is death, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Hebrews 9:22) In this era before there was any written Scripture or ceremonial law from God, the principle of covering the penalty of sin with blood from a dying substitute was clear. One of the oldest accounts in the Bible—that of Job—describes the regular sacrifice of animal substitutes. Job 1:5 says,
When the days of their feasting were finished, Job would send for them and sanctify them; he would get up early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all. For Job thought, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s customary practice.
Of course, the practice of animal sacrifice as a symbolic, yet real, substitutionary payment for the death penalty that sin requires continued and still exists today. The practice was codified in the Law of Moses as recorded in the biblical book of Leviticus. But other cultures whose roots still go back to Adam and Eve, even though separated and isolated geographically and spiritually, still sense the need to cover wrongdoing with blood sacrifice. They may have lost awareness of the original root of animal sacrifice, but the practice continues.
No Further Sacrifice Necessary
When Jesus Christ was accused of trying to do away with the laws and traditions of Judaism, He responded, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them.” Hebrews 10:4 explains, “For the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sins.”
Man sinned, and “… the payoff of sin is death …” (Romans 6:23) Man sinned, and man must die as the penalty for sin. But “…this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) God Himself provided a substitute—His perfect, sinless Son—to pay the penalty of death on our behalf.
That’s why, when he saw Jesus Christ walking by, John the Baptist said to the crowds,
Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29)
This is why Jesus Christ died on a cross—to pay with His own life and His own blood for our sins. God became man to pay the sin-penalty on behalf of man. Animal sacrifice could only postpone the payment in full of the sin-penalty. A perfect man, Jesus Christ, completed the payment on our behalf. As Hebrew 7:27 says,
He [Jesus] has no need to do every day what those priests do, to offer sacrifices first for their own sins and then for the sins of the people, since He did this in offering Himself once for all.
Blood sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary. The penalty has been paid in full by the Lamb of God who now offers the free gift of eternal life to everyone who believes. What amazing, good news!