“Lay your hand on it’s head so the Lord will accept it as your substitute, thus making atonement for you. Then slaughter the animal in the Lord’s presence…Then the priests will burn the entire offering made by fire, very pleasing to the Lord” Lev 1:4-5
Some religions practice animal sacrifice today, and many more in ancient days. The idea of it came from God and the first few humans on earth practiced it (remember Cain and Abel?). God instituted animal sacrifice as a means of atonement and also as a means of worship.
In the above passage we are talking about atonement, so lets get to that: What does atonement mean?
To atone means ‘to cover.’ As a matter of fact, the same word is used when talking about Noah building the ark when God tells him to cover the ark with pitch (tar). So another way to say the above verse would be: “…so the Lord will accept it as your substitute, thus making a covering for you.”
So why did they need a covering? And why is there need for an animal sacrifice as a covering?
Unless you have a revelation of the Holiness of God this is hard to understand. God sees things differently than carnal man. Things that don’t seem so bad to man might be an abhorrence in the eyes of God. Over time and without intervention, man’s heart grows hard and callused, and feels no regret for evil and no compassion for those affected by evil. Eventually evil becomes good and good becomes evil to them. This is why prayer is the only answer for these people, because, unless their heart and softened and they get a revelation of the holiness of God (which comes only by revelation and not words of man), they can never understand their sinful state and therefore never receive the Gift of God.
With all that said, unsaved man is sinful by choice. Their flesh is predisposed to sin and they choose to follow that easy path. And since judgment comes to those who sin, they can only escape the judgment of God if their sins are covered; their sin must be atoned for. This is where the animal sacrifice comes in.
But why an animal death?
I believe that God made animals for specific purposes. One of those purposes is for animal sacrifice until the arrival of the Great Sacrifice. Animals are creatures with emotion and feeling, and this, I believe, is for a reason.
When the guilty man prepares his sacrifice, God says that he has to lay his hand on the animal’s head. Maybe this is so he can look into the animal’s eyes, to see it’s pain, as he plunges his knife into the creature. Here, this innocent animal is bearing this man’s judgment for him.
As the animal groans to it’s death, the man is freed from the penalty of his sin.
Here God wants us to see the seriousness of our sin. But, despite the seriousness of our sin, God wants to save us, so he provides a way. In the old testament He provided the system of animal sacrifices to temporarily cover sins. In the New He provided His own Son to be a permanent sacrifice for sins once and for all, not to cover, but to take away our sins
For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins. Heb 10:4.
But this Man (Jesus), after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God. Heb 10:12
And you know that He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin. 1 John 3:5
So Christ is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices for sin. Hebrews 10:12 says that his sacrifice was offered once for sins forever. This gruesome death on a cross was necessary so we can look at the groaning and suffering of our Lord and see the seriousness of our sin.
But despite our sin, He did all this so we could be close to God and be reunited into fellowship with Him. And that because He loves us.