Today as I sat in church and listened to the pastor go through the familiar practices of Communion, it hit me how unbelievably well Christ fit the mold of the perfect sacrifice. Not just in that he himself was perfect, but in accordance with Levitical law and how sacrifices were carried out. Allow me to explain.
I used to be so confused by the concept of the bread and the wine of communion representing the body and blood of Christ, and why he wanted his disciples to metaphorically eat his body and drink his blood. It seemed morbid and strange to me, and I’m not the only one. First century Rome was confused and disgusted by it as well, accusing early Christians of being cannibals. However, if you look at Leviticus, you’ll see just what Jesus meant, and it’s actually really beautiful.
The first way in which Jesus fulfills Levitical requirement for sacrifice is in his perfection. Animals to be sacrificed had to be without blemish (Leviticus 1:3, 1:10, 4:32, etc. it says it all over Leviticus).Christ was without blemish. Christ was free from sin, unblemished (Hebrews 9:14, 1 Peter 2:22, 2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 John 3:5, etc.).
Another way the crucifixion of christ mirrored Hebrew sacrificial law was in the release of Barabbas. Leviticus 16 details the requirements for atonement of the Hebrew people. Look how they match perfectly with the crucifixion of Christ:
The priest is to take two male goats for a sin offering (Leviticus 16:5) present them before the LORD at the entrance to the tent of meeting (Leviticus 16:7) cast lots for the two goats – one lot for the LORD and the other for the scapegoat. The goat whose lot falls to the LORD is to be sacrificed as a sin offering, and the scapegoat is to carry the sins of the people and be released. (This is paraphrased – see the quoted verses for the actual text).
The two goats are Jesus of Nazareth and Barabbas. The gospel of Matthew even gives Barabbas the first name Jesus (Matthew 27:16-17). Jesus of Nazareth was called innocent by Pontius Pilot’s wife (Matthew 27:19) and Pilot himself acknowledged he had committed no crime worthy of the death sentence. Barabbas however was called an insurrectionist and a murderer (Luke 23:19, Mark 15:17) and John 18:40 says he had taken part in an uprising, while Matthew calls Barabbas a “well-known prisoner”. These two men are the two goats. Jesus Christ was the one whose lot fell to the LORD, and Jesus Barabbas was the one who was to represent the guilt of the people and be released. Jesus of Nazareth had been falsely accused of insurrection, whereas Barabbas was actually guilty of it. There are people currently in prison in the US for their roles in the attempted uprising at our nation’s capital on January 6, 2021. People died in that insurrection. I can all too easily imagine the kind of man Barabbas was.
When I visited Israel last year, I went to the church where Barabbas was released, and I really felt the weight of it. We are all Barabbas. We are all the criminals set free by the sacrifice of the sinless Christ.
Okay back to Leviticus. Another misconception I had as a child was that the Hebrews were just out there in the desert simply burning up all these poor innocent animals, but upon actually, you know, reading the texts I learned that only some portions of the sacrifices were burnt offerings, and the rest was largely eaten (Leviticus 6:26). In fact, according to Dr. Richard Schwartz, the only time Hebrews were allowed to eat meat was as a sacrifice given in the tabernacle. So if you think about it, the religious celebrations of the ancient Hebrews would have been kind of like a modern day church picnic with barbecue included. The goat selected for the sin offering would be slaughtered, and its blood poured out behind the curtain in the tabernacle (Leviticus 16:15) to atone for sins committed by the people.
The last supper details the communion ritual still practiced in Christian churches the world over, and if you’ve ever participated in it then these words should be familiar to you: “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat, this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.'” Matthew 26:26-28. So just like the ancient Hebrews would have eaten of the sacrifice they brought to atone for their sins, Christ asked his disciples to eat the symbol of his body. Christ called himself “the bread of life” in John 6:35, so this wouldn’t have been an unfamiliar or confusing thing for him to have said to them. In John 15 Christ compares himself to a fruit-bearing vine, and since wine is the blood of grapes, the addition of wine in the communion rites is beautiful and fitting.
Jesus was the sacrifice, asking his disciples, who would carry his words to the world at large, to partake and eat of his “body” (the bread) by which he was fulfilling ancient Levitical law. When Christ’s blood (the wine) was poured out on the cross, it was the final blood sacrifice required to pay for the sins of all the world.
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