Offerings and worship
Let us look first at the opening seven chapters, which deal with the rules for offerings. There are five offerings, of two different types.
The first three offerings were the right way to say ‘thank you’ to God for blessing. They were not offerings for sin but offerings of gratitude. If we feel grateful to God he wants us to say ‘thank you’.
For the burnt offering, an animal was brought, slaughtered and then burnt so that God could smell it. The sacrifice was said to be a sweet-smelling savor to him.
In a burnt offering the whole thing was burnt, but for a meal offering some was kept back so that the worshipper could have a meal with God. Part of the offering would be given to God and part would be eaten by the person making the offering.
The third gratitude offering was a peace offering, in which all the fat was burned.
The other two offerings were not to express gratitude but to deal with guilt. There was the sin offering and the trespass offering and these did two things.
First, they made atonement for sin. They offered God compensation for what the person had done wrong. The word ‘atonement’ does not mean ‘at-one-ment’ – that is a modern idea. It actually means ‘compensation’, so if you atone for something, you offer something as compensation. Both the sin offering and trespass offering are compensation offerings to God involving blood: as a compensation for the bad life the offerer has lived, they offer to God a good life that has not sinned.
Second, they only work for unintentional sins; they do not work for deliberate sins. In other words, nobody is perfect, we all make mistakes, we all fall into sin unintentionally. Even though we do not intend to do wrong, we do it. God provided offerings for unintentional sin, but there is no offering on this list for deliberate sin.
This is an important point which is picked up in the New Testament. The New Testament distinguishes between accidental and deliberate, wilful sin in Christians. Like the Old Testament, it says that if we deliberately sin after being forgiven, there is no more sacrifice for sin. Deliberate sin in those who have been forgiven is very serious, which is why Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery, ‘Go and sin no more’. For accidental sin, however, there is full provision, because God knows we are weak, knows we fall, and knows we do not always intend to do what we do. As Paul says in Romans: ‘The evil I would not, that I do.’ This distinction between deliberate sin and accidental sin in God’s people runs right through the New Testament as it does through the Old.
As well as bringing offerings to God, the Jews had a calendar of worship to observe. There is no corresponding Christian calendar in the New Testament, no instructions about observing Christmas or Easter, but for the Jewish people a calendar was a vital part of their walk with God. They were being treated as children: adults do not need a calendar but children do, to remind them of things they would otherwise forget. Various types of feast are mentioned in Leviticus, and all had to be kept.
The calendar began in the first month of the year, which is roughly our March/April, with Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This took place on the fifteenth day of the first month, to remember how God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. On the day before the Passover began, a lamb had to be killed at 3.00 p.m.
Three days later (i.e. three days after the slaughter of the lamb) they had to offer the Firstfruits of the harvest to God. It is not difficult to discern the similarities in pattern with Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Fifty days after that they were to hold the Feast of Pentecost (pente meaning ‘50’), or the Feast of Weeks. This was the day that the law was given on Sinai. They were to remember this and give thanks for it. When the law was given at Sinai on the very first Pentecost, 3,000 people were put to death because of their sin. Centuries later, when the Spirit was given at Pentecost, 3,000 were saved.
Next come the feasts towards the end of the year (the ‘seventh month’, or our September/October). At the Feast of Trumpets, the shofar, the old ram’s horn, was blown. This signalled a whole new round of feasts.
Then came the Day of Atonement, the crucial day when the scapegoat was pushed out of the camp with all the sins of the people on its head.
The Feast of Tabernacles (also known as the Feast of Succoth) came after that, lasting eight days. For this feast they moved out of their houses and lived in shelters. They had to be able to see the stars through the roof to remind them of their 40 years of foolish wandering in the wilderness when they could have reached the Promised Land in just 11 days.
All these feasts will be fulfilled in a Christian way. The first three have already been fulfilled in the first coming of Jesus. The second three will be fulfilled at his second coming. We cannot know the year that Jesus will return, but we do know that it will be around September/October, because he always does things on time. Indeed, this was the time when he was born: the evidence in Luke’s Gospel points to the seventh month of the year, which corresponds to the Feast of Tabernacles. This is when the Jews expect the Messiah. Every time a trumpet is mentioned in the New Testament it is to announce his coming. When that happens, the last three feasts will be fulfilled, and on that Day of Atonement redemption will come to the whole nation of Israel.
WEEKLY HOLY DAY
In addition to the annual festivals, there was also to be a weekly rest, a particular blessing for people who had been slaves in Egypt. There is no trace of the Sabbath in the Bible before Moses. Both Adam and Abraham, for example, had no Sabbath day: they worked seven days a week. Moses introduced this weekly day of rest. It was not to be a holiday or a family day but a day for God, a holy day, and this was part of their calendar.
But there were not only annual and weekly festivals – there was also to be a festival every 50 years, known as the Jubilee. Every 50 years everybody’s bank balance was levelled up, debts were cancelled and all the property reverted to the family who originally owned it. So the leases would get cheaper the closer you came to the fiftieth year. Slaves were also set free in the jubilee year. Thus people looked forward to the jubilee, known also as ‘the acceptable year of the Lord’. It was good news for the poor because they would be rich again, and it was a time when captives would be set at liberty.
Jesus proclaimed in Nazareth: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me … to preach good news to the poor … to proclaim freedom for the prisoners … to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ In other words, Jesus began the real jubilee to which every one of these people had been looking forward. Once again the Old Testament is needed to understand the New.