Jesus and the Sacrificial System

Dr Peter E. Lewis

The religious culture in which Jesus lived was the sacrificial culture centred on the temple in Jerusalem. It provided the background to his thinking and that of most other Jews including Paul, and the idea of sacrifice continued to influence the thinking of the first Christians. Paul spells this out in his first letter to the Corinthians: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” (1 Cor 15:3)

In the “Scriptures” the prophet Isaiah had written that an individual would be an offering for sin and bear the sin of many. (53:10-12). Jesus took on the role of this individual who became known as the Suffering Servant. In the gospels Jesus says that the son of man (meaning himself) must suffer and be killed. (Mark 8:31). He says he came to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:44) Accordingly Jesus and the first Christians thought of the Christ event in terms of sacrifice.

In the time of Jesus, animals of various kinds were sacrificed in the temple, which must have been more like an abattoir than a place of worship. Today the whole idea of making sacrifices to appease a wrathful god is abhorrent to modern Christians because it is not in keeping with the loving God that they encounter in Jesus Christ. Even the emphasis on sin seems out of keeping with their experience.

Sin is not all the naughty things that we do from time to time. It is everything that separates us from God. Paul said something similar in his letter to the Romans: “Everything that does not come from faith is sin.” (Rom 14:23b) So if sin is removed, we are with God. As Paul said, “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 6:11)

Being alive to God is what is meant by the Kingdom of God. It is not something that happens to good people when they die. By taking on the role of the Suffering Servant Jesus believed that he would bring in the Kingdom of God. According to Isaiah, the Suffering Servant “will justify many”. (Isaiah 53:11b) They will be acceptable to God: they will be with God.

It is important to understand that the sacrificial system was just the background to what needed to be revealed. It was a stepping stone that enabled a further important step to be made. It was the stage on which a drama of revelation could be performed.

In the Kingdom of God everyone is loved by God. With this love there is acceptance, forgiveness, and healing. The key idea is ‘love’ (Greek: agape), which in the New Testament means a self-giving concern for others. Jesus does more than talk about the Kingdom of God: he demonstrates what it is like by caring for others, and he does this in a self-giving way. Actually, he gives himself completely: as Isaiah says, “He poured out his life unto death.” (Isaiah 53:12)

As modern Christians we do not have to sacrifice animals or anything. We can abhor the old system because it is irrelevant today. What is essential is that we follow Jesus’s example and behave in a way that overcomes selfishness. We must not be self-centred but open to the world, and love as Jesus loved. The key idea in Buddhism is overcoming self, and this is also what Christianity is about. The Buddha was not interested in gods, but Jesus used the prevailing Jewish system to reveal the loving God that he believed in and which Christians believe was with him and in him.


5 thoughts on “Jesus and the Sacrificial System

  1. Tim O’Dwyer

    Long held the view that our “faith” should be more for living out – than talking about.

  2. Tim O’Dwyer

    I would like to think that, in essence, Jesus lived out the injunctions of Micah 6:8.

  3. George Stuart

    Thank you, Dr. Lewis, for your concise comment about the sacrifical system under which Jesus and Paul grew up. I found it very helpful. I think that it was the basis for the church’s embrassing of the Atonement theory of the cross. Thank goodness there seems to be a change in much of our thinking today. I have written a bit about this in my book ‘Starting all over again? Yes or No’ in my Area of questioning 4, ‘The Hebrew sacrifical system which is biblically said to faciliate reconcilliation between God and humans, and which helps create the basis of the church’s present Fall/Redemption theology.’ This is accessible on my website at Thank you for your insights.

  4. Lorraine Parkinson

    All of that concerning the church’s own sacrificial system – ironic in view of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and its system of relating to God via sacrifice – does not necessarily reveal Jesus’ adherence to a sacrificial system. Peter Lewis’ argument that Jesus went along with the Temple system misses several important markers in any records we have concerning what Jesus may have believed or thought. Jesus is called a carpenter once and multiple times, a teacher. His interpretive teaching method is Pharisaic, in particular along similar lines to that of the liberal school of the great Pharisee, Hillel. The Temple was run by the Sadducees, not the Pharisees. Jesus’ references to the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven (he would never have uttered the name of God) concern the change of heart in those who listened to him. When he went to the Temple it was to teach and to pray. There is no record of him going there to sacrifice animals. The one exception is the Passover lamb. To celebrate Passover everyone in Jerusalem went to the Temple, which operated like a butcher’s shop at that time. But the Passover lamb was not a sacrificial offering. Jesus was most likely taught by Pharisees, who became the leaders of the newly reformed postTemple Judaism. The leaders of a ‘Jesus for Messiah’ movement, including gospel writers, were in bitter conflict with the Pharisees for the leadership of the people. Hence their often negative view of Pharisees, particularly in the gospel of Matthew. Jesus’ robust interaction with Pharisees was and still is, perfectly normal for teachers of the Torah. I certainly respect the views of other scholars, but how can we say that Jesus’’ life was ultimately all about his death?

  5. Paul Inglis Post author

    Consequently congregations worshipping in the reformed tradition gather around the communion table rather than the (sacrificial) altar.

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