On the Altar

What does it mean to present a perfect offering to God?

Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice”—Paul’s advice to the church in Rome sounds good, but what does this really mean? When we hear the word offering at church, many of us think of the baskets or velvet bags passed along the pews to collect our money. But this language of “offering” and “sacrifice” actually has a rich Old Testament history with much broader application. It not only can help us know how to live today but also can help us understand who Jesus is and what He’s done on our behalf.


Bringing God Your Best

Three types of offerings (qorban) are outlined in the first three chapters of Leviticus, each with different significance. First, there is the “burnt offering” (olah): The worshipper would take one of his best animals (“a male without defect”), lay his hand on its head, and slaughter it. The priest would then dash the blood against the sides of the altar, arrange its pieces on top of the altar, and light the fire to cook it. Each act had significance.

When God smelled the soothing aroma of the offering, He vowed never again to destroy the earth by flood.

As the meat was grilling, Leviticus emphasizes that it was a “soothing aroma” in the nostrils of the Lord (Lev. 1:9; Lev. 1:13; Lev. 1:17). The offering itself was a way of bringing one’s best to God—to express gratitude for who God is and what He’s done, and calling on Him for needs. For example, Noah offered the first “burnt offering” in Genesis 8, after God had sustained his family through the flood and brought them into the new creation. When God smelled the “soothing aroma” of the offering, He vowed never again to destroy the earth by flood.

Why did the worshipper lay his hand on the animal? It was not to transfer sin to the animal, for only holy things could touch the altar. There is just one place in Leviticus where sin was transferred to the animal—the scapegoat, which was sent away from the altar into the wilderness (Lev. 16:21-22). Here, rather, the purpose of laying a hand on the burnt offering was to identity with it and consecrate it as a quality substitute to serve in the worshipper’s place.

Similarly, Jesus is our perfect substitute, “a male without defect,” sinless in obedience unto the Father. As He went to the cross, He laid His life “on the altar” and allowed His blood to be splashed against its sides. He gave Himself “as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2 NIV). When we “lay our hand” on Jesus, identifying our life with His by faith, we are bringing the best we’ve got to give—namely, the One who was given for us—in a posture of worship for who God is and what He’s done.


An Unwavering Commitment

Next, in Leviticus 2, comes the “grain offering,” which was often accompanied by a drink offering of wine (see Num. 15:1-5). The Hebrew word used for this grain offering, minchah, can also mean “a gift, tribute, or offering” and has the association of bringing thanks to God as King. As was the case with the previous offering, God’s people were to present the best they had—this time, their top-quality grain and finest flour.

“As the meat was grilling, Leviticus emphasizes that it was a ‘soothing aroma’ in the nostrils of the Lord.”

The worshipper would pour oil on this offering, put incense on it, and bring it to the priest. Why incense? Well, as with the burnt offering, there is an emphasis on this grain offering bringing a “soothing aroma” to the Lord (Lev. 2:2; Lev. 2:9; Lev. 2:12). Think of hot bread coming out of the oven to accompany the family meal.

Unlike modern bread, however, Israel was not to use leaven in the grain offering, but was required to use salt. Why? This stipulation can sound strange to us, but the best explanation is that in the ancient world, yeast was associated with decay and fermentation, whereas salt was associated with preservation. For example, the salt of this offering shows up two other times in the Old Testament, both associated with God’s faithful commitment to preserve His covenant: with the priesthood from the line of Aaron (Num. 18:19) and the kingship from the line of David (2 Chronicles 13:5). The salt represents God’s preservation of His people, whereas the lack of yeast speaks of His refusal to let the covenant decay.

Next comes the “peace offering” in Leviticus 3. Known as selamim, it had regulations similar to those of the burnt offering, but here the emphasis was on close communion with God. It was a sign that there was peace between the worshipper and God as they feasted in fellowship with one another. Following this, the next few chapters move to instructions for the sin and guilt offerings—which were ways of saying “I’m sorry” to God for sins committed—and for cleansing the impurity of the people. But how does all this point us to Jesus?


The One Who Was Our Offering

Like the “burnt offering,” Jesus is our invaluable substitute, through whom we give thanks to God. And like the “peace offering,” He establishes our restored communion with the Father. At the Last Supper, Jesus identifies Himself with the “grain offering,” the bread and wine of the sacrificial meal; He uses them to institute “the new covenant in My blood” (Luke 22:20)—echoing the offerings that marked the old covenant in Exodus 24:8 and the hope of the new covenant offered in Jeremiah 31:31.

In Christ, we too present our lives as an offering back to God. This means a lifestyle of worship that puts Him first.

God sent Jesus “to be a sin offering,” Paul tells us, so that He might be “a sacrifice of atonement … to be received by faith” (Rom. 8:3; Rom. 3:25 NIV). And Isaiah, the Old Testament prophet, looked forward to the coming Messiah, who would be received by God “as a guilt offering … like a lamb that is led to slaughter” to be crushed for our iniquities and bear our transgressions (Isa. 53:7; Isa. 53:10). Jesus fulfills all the offerings of the Old Testament.

In Christ, we too present our lives as an offering back to God. This means a lifestyle of worship that puts Him first, as we “continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name” (Heb. 13:15). It also means reflecting His character in the world as we display the One who calls us “not [to] neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Heb. 13:16). In light of our heavenly Father’s extravagant mercy in Christ, we devote all that we are and everything we have back to Him in unrestrained praise.

Paul saw his own life “poured out as a drink offering” in service to the gospel and hoped the fruit of his ministry to the Gentiles would be “an offering acceptable to God” (Phil. 2:17; Rom. 15:16 NIV). Likewise, we should embody Jesus’ self-giving love to our families, coworkers, and neighbors by presenting our bodies as “a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1). Without reservation, we must offer our life fully to the One who sacrificed Himself for us.


Illustration by Adam Cruft

Related Topics:  Worship

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9 Its entrails, however, and its legs he shall wash with water. And the priest shall offer up in smoke all of it on the altar for a burnt offering, an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to the LORD.

13 The entrails, however, and the legs he shall wash with water. And the priest shall offer all of it, and offer it up in smoke on the altar; it is a burnt offering, an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to the LORD.

17 Then he shall tear it by its wings, but shall not sever it. And the priest shall offer it up in smoke on the altar on the wood which is on the fire; it is a burnt offering, an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to the LORD.

21 Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness.

22 The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.

2 and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.

1 Now the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,

2 Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, `When you enter the land where you are to live, which I am giving you,

3 then make an offering by fire to the LORD, a burnt offering or a sacrifice to fulfill a special vow, or as a freewill offering or in your appointed times, to make a soothing aroma to the LORD, from the herd or from the flock.

4 The one who presents his offering shall present to the LORD a grain offering of one-tenth of an ephah of fine flour mixed with one-fourth of a hin of oil,

5 and you shall prepare wine for the drink offering, one-fourth of a hin, with the burnt offering or for the sacrifice, for each lamb.

2 He shall then bring it to Aaron's sons the priests; and shall take from it his handful of its fine flour and of its oil with all of its frankincense. And the priest shall offer it up in smoke as its memorial portion on the altar, an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to the LORD.

9 The priest then shall take up from the grain offering its memorial portion, and shall offer it up in smoke on the altar as an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to the LORD.

12 As an offering of first fruits you shall bring them to the LORD, but they shall not ascend for a soothing aroma on the altar.

19 All the offerings of the holy gifts, which the sons of Israel offer to the LORD, I have given to you and your sons and your daughters with you, as a perpetual allotment. It is an everlasting covenant of salt before the LORD to you and your descendants with you."

5 Do you not know that the LORD God of Israel gave the rule over Israel forever to David and his sons by a covenant of salt?

20 And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.

8 So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words."

31 Behold, days are coming," declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah,

3 For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh,

25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed;

7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth.

10 But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.

15 Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name.

16 And do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

17 But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all.

16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, so that my offering of the Gentiles may become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

1 Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.

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