The Institution of Animal Sacrifice

 •  12 min. read  •  grade level: 8
The institution of sacrifice is not shrouded in mystery. It is true that there is only one book which furnishes us with authentic information about it, and there is only one historian who has given us any account of what took place on that occasion. But that book is the Bible—God’s inspired Word; and the historian is Moses, a prophet mighty in words and in deeds. (Acts 7:2222And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds. (Acts 7:22)) No eyewitness then, as men would speak of one, has transmitted any record of it; yet it is from one who was present that we learn anything about it. He to whom acceptable sacrifice was that day offered has caused the history of it to be related, and has furnished us in His grace with the suited instruction which flows from it.
As long then as the Bible remains extant upon earth, so long will that history be preserved amongst men. Forever and ever we know will the remembrance of that sacrifice abide before God. It was late however in the world’s history, and towards the close of that period during which a written revelation was being provided, that the full teaching about Abel’s offering was set forth in God’s book. The Lord caused Moses to write the history as a bystander might have narrated it. God, by the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews, has placed on record the secret history connected with it, but only when that secret history could be made available for the instruction of mankind. For Israel under law the history of Abel’s sacrifice would be instructive; for saints who are called to walk by faith, the principle on which righteous Abel acted, it is of all-importance for them to know.
Before the fall, and until after the flood, animal food was not given to man. The life of the animal was not therefore to be taken to nourish man’s bodily frame. Whence then came the thought of animal sacrifice? Adam and Eve, in the garden just after the fall, learning that they were naked, sewed fig leaves together to make themselves aprons, or girdles—a vain attempt at covering their nakedness, as they quickly discovered, for the girdle of fig leaves was found to be insufficient the moment that they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. Naked they both were, that was too true; but the attempt to cover their nakedness with the fig leaves was an admitted failure. The attempt however proved two things; first, that they had no idea of procuring a covering by killing any animal; and second, that man’s own thought of that which is sufficient to cover his nakedness falls short of what is needed, as well as of God’s gracious provision on his behalf. The guilty pair formed girdles of fig leaves; the Lord God made coats of skin, and clothed them. A coat is more than a girdle, and it clothed them; but the coats were of skin. The life of an animal which was not needed for their bodily sustainment had to be taken that the nakedness of the transgressors should be covered; but this thought was wholly of God.
Again, when Cain and Abel approached the Lord with an offering, they each came with a present or gift (minghah) as an acknowledgment of whose creatures they were, but without, it would seem, the offering being called forth by anything wrong that they had done. Cain, we may believe from the order of the narrative, approached first, and brought of the fruit of the ground. Abel brought of the firstlings of the flock and their fat. Each brought of that which they had an offering unto the Lord. Now, bearing in mind that the ground was then cursed in a way it is not now, nor has been since the flood (Gen. 5:2929And he called his name Noah, saying, This same shall comfort us concerning our work and toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord hath cursed. (Genesis 5:29)), Cain’s offering must have cost him a great deal of toil. Wherein then consisted the difference between the sacrifice of the brothers? What made the one acceptable and the other not? The epistle to the Hebrews tells us, as it recounts, that “by faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain.” It was not then from mere intuition on his part, nor from convenience either, that his selection of a sacrifice proceeded. He offered of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat by faith, understanding in some way, unrevealed to us, that such would be acceptable to God. For creatures born in sin can only approach a holy God on the ground of the death of the sacrifice.
From that day this truth has never been allowed to die out. But such a truth was foreign to man’s thoughts till God disclosed it; for just as Adam and Eve resorted to the fig leaves, so Cain sought to approach God with the fruits of the ground. Adam and Eve learned the inutility of the girdles; Cain was taught the impossibility of one born in sin approaching God with acceptance through offering of the fruits of the ground. The voice of the Lord God made Adam and Eve conscious of their mistake. The Lord, looking on Abel’s sacrifice with acceptance, demonstrated to Cain the insufficiency of the ground on which he was attempting to stand before God. In both cases the teaching that was lacking came from God. Cain might have said that he had done his best, and that his fruit had cost him a great deal of labor; but all that weighed nothing in the balance, for the simple question to be answered was not what he would bring, but what would be acceptable to God. For this the mind of God had to be made known; and henceforth it was patent that death was needful, if the offering and the offerer were to be accepted before the throne.
This truth then made known, was taken up by man after the flood in his ignorance and dread of God’s wrath, and sadly perverted; for, not content with bringing animals in sacrifice to God, the heathen, and Israel too in their apostasy, resorted to human sacrifices to appease an offended deity. How the devil, if he cannot hide from a man a truth, will endeavor to pervert it, that, whilst appearing to do right, man may in reality do wrong! For man is blind indeed, and a ready prey to the devil, unless subject to divine teaching.
That life must be surrendered on man’s behalf is a cardinal doctrine of Scripture; and that no life, but that of one who is man, will really avail before God, is also plainly taught us in the Word (Heb. 9:2222And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission. (Hebrews 9:22)), and this was God’s purpose before the foundation of the world; but that God would accept on behalf of a sinner the fruit of his body for the sin of his soul, would be either a denial of the fall and of the sinfulness of man, or of the holiness of the Being whom man thus attempted to propitiate. Thus, whether we think of the need of death in sacrifice, or of the One by whose death all was accomplished for those who believe on Him, this is clear, that man of his own thoughts, or as led of the enemy, would never have understood what God could accept on behalf of the sinner; for, apart from divine teaching, man knows not the depth of his need, nor the holy nature of his God; and nothing more is wanted to demonstrate this than to leave man to act in such a matter after the counsel of his own will. Adam and Eve, and Cain, and men after the flood, are solemn witnesses to the truth of this allegation; but Scripture, which tells us of this, instructs us as to all that is needful for the vilest and the lost to have a perfect and everlasting standing before God; and the earliest teaching about it is provided in the history of the two brothers, Cain and Abel.
So early in the world’s history was the question raised, and when raised settled forever by the Lord Himself-How shall one born in sin be accepted before Him Adam and Eve were transgressors who had thereby fallen from innocence. As such they must always stand out apart from their descendants. Cain and Abel were the two earliest born in sin — the condition in which we all were by nature. Hence God’s ways with them, and the ground on which He could accept them, is full of instruction for us. Cain brought what he thought would do. Abel offered what he understood would be acceptable to God. By faith he did it. And the Lord, we read, settled the question speedily, simply, properly, and that forever. Speedily, for it was settled at once; simply, “for the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering, but unto Cain and to his offering He had not respect;” properly, for it is the prerogative of God to determine as He will, on what grounds He can allow a fallen creature such as man is to be at home forever before Him. This was made clear to both the brothers.
Abel understood it; Cain was fully aware of it, and his countenance fell. Both learned it from God, and we are to learn it from God likewise. The action of God determined the question for them; the Word of God settles the matter for us. But as they, so we, are taught it by God, and from the principles then established God has never departed, nor ever will; and three important ones are established for us by the history of Abel’s sacrifice.
First. It is God’s prerogative to declare on what terms He will accept one ruined by the fall. And He does that, never allowing a creature to act in this matter after the counsel of its own will. For what creature that has sinned has a just estimate of God’s character, and a due understanding of His holiness? For all this we are cast upon revelation. So to approach Him acceptably we need divine instruction.
Second. If death is required ere we can stand in acceptance before Him, we are thereby indebted to another, and are proved to be helpless as regards ourselves; for it is a cardinal and self-evident truth, that no one can die to make atonement for himself, and no one by his own death can deal effectively with the question of his sinful nature. Needing then the death of the sacrifice, all our toil, all our efforts to establish by life-service a standing before God, must, like Cain’s, be labor in vain. We shall be going on a wrong line, and one which can never by any circuitous course, however long, lead us to God. Hence we need that which God tells us He has provided, and has also accepted-the death of His own Son on behalf of those who shall believe on Him. Truth about His person, establishing His fitness to be the sinner’s substitute, is brought out in succeeding revelations, which we need not here anticipate. The deep necessity of death is the point this history of Cain and Abel illustrates. Christ has died, and has also been raised from the dead—the token that God has accepted Him as the substitute and sin-offering in all its fullness, and that nothing is wanted to make His atonement of full avail before God (Heb. 9:1414How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:14)). The importance of this truth is immense, and is especially needful in these days to be remembered, when sacrifice on the altar has ceased, as far as we are concerned, forever; for the principle, that death must come in on behalf of the sinner, has not been altered, nor ever will. Nay, it has been established on more solid ground than ever since the death of the Son of God has been set forth in the Word, and the danger to man if he rejects that truth stands out more distinctly than ever. “No man,” says the Lord, “cometh unto the Father but by Me” (John 14:66Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. (John 14:6)). Through the veil, that is to say His flesh, a new and living way, we have boldness to enter the holiest by His blood (Heb. 10:19-2019Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, 20By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; (Hebrews 10:19‑20)).
Third. The offerer, as we learn from Abel’s sacrifice, is associated inseparably with the offering. “The Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: but unto Cain and to his offering He had not respect.” (Gen. 4:4,54And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: 5But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. (Genesis 4:4‑5)) Abel was not accepted apart from the firstlings of his flock; and, as we learn from Hebrews 11:44By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh. (Hebrews 11:4), the bringing of his offering testified that he was righteous. The value of the offering was known only to God, and Abel stood before Him accepted according to all its value in His eyes. And Cain could see, and did see, that an accepted sacrifice had been that day presented to God. How close to the accepted worshipper was Cain! Yet how far off was he spiritually from God! He knew his brother was accepted, as the Lord looked to his offering, but that acceptance availed not for him. The fact of a sacrifice having been accepted avails nothing for anyone who is not identified with it. Identified with it, as Abel was, the knowledge of its acceptance is of great importance. Hence the question becomes an individual one. Since God has accepted the sacrifice of His Son (proved to us by raising Him from the dead, and the sending of the Holy Ghost to teach us about it), is each one standing before God on the ground of that sacrifice, or is he not? If the former, each one is accepted according to all its value; if the latter, though, like Cain, such an one may know of its acceptance, he has no part in the benefits which result from it.
From this short history connected with these two brothers; who by birth after the flesh stood originally on precisely the same ground, these different principles are clearly to be deduced. But early as they were established, how many have still need to learn about them! Blessed is that man for whom this history has not been written in vain.
C. E. S.