"As has been done today, the LORD has commanded to be done to make atonement for you" (Leviticus 8:34).
God commands all this bloody slaughter not because He is greedy or bloodthirsty, and not merely because He is testing us. He commands it because "without the shedding of blood there is no forgivness of sins" (Hebrews 9:22). Sin is heinous, and someone has to pay its consequences. It can't just be overlooked or forgiven simply. Tim Keller illustrates this concept in his book King's Cross (recently released in paperback as Jesus the King):
When someone really wrongs you, a debt is established that has to be paid by someone. It can happen at an economic level. What if a friend of yours accidentally smashes a lamp in your apartment? One of two things can happen as a result. Either you can make him pay--'That will be $100, please'--or you can say, 'I forgive you, that's okay.' But in the latter case what happens to that $100? You have to pay it yourself, or you have to lose $100 worth of light and get used to a darker room. Either your friend pays the cost for what was done or you absorb the cost.We have violated the laws of a holy God; we have ignored and despised the One we were created to worship and instead have declared ourselves sovereign. For us to receive forgiveness, a price must be paid. Here in Leviticus, bull after bull, ram after ram, dove after dove will pile up to atone. And as the blood runs down the altar perpetually, we are to see in the mess what our sin costs.
This works at levels beyond the economic, too. When someone robs you of an opportunity, robs you of happiness, of reputation, or takes away something else that you'll never get back, that creates a sense of debt. Justice has been violated--this person owes you. Once you sense that debt, again there are only two things you can do.
One thing you can do is to try to make that person pay: You can try to destroy their opportunities or ruin their reputation... But there's a big problem with that. As you're making them pay off the debt, as you're making them suffer because of what they did to you, you're becoming like them. You're becoming harder, colder; you're becoming like the perpetrator. Evil wins.
What else can you do? The alternative is to forgive. But there's nothing easy about real forgiveness. When you want to harbor vengeful thoughts, when you want so much to carry out vengeful actions but you refuse them in an effort to forgive, it hurts. When you refrain, when you forgive, it's agony. Why? Instead of making the other person suffer, you're absorbing the cost yourself. ...You are forgiving them and it is costing you. That's what forgiveness is. True forgiveness always entails suffering.
...If we know that forgiveness always entails suffering...and that the only hope of rectifying and righting wrongs comes by paying the cost of suffering, then it should not surprise us when God says, 'The only way I can forgive the sins of the human race is to suffer--either you will have to pay the penalty for sin or I will.' Sin always entails a penalty. Guilt can't be dealt with unless someone pays. The only way God can pardon us and not judge us is to go to the cross and absorb it into himself. 'I must suffer,' Jesus said.
Our holy, holy, holy God cannot simply overlook our sin. In the sacrificial system He gives us a tiny, dim glimpse of what our sin deserves, the death it brings. And then, finally, He brings His own sacrifice to the altar--Only Beloved Son, infinitely more precious than a million spotless lambs.
And God did not say, "What a waste. Think how much My Son could accomplish if I didn't allow Him to be killed in the prime of His life! His life is too valuable to be thrown away even to purchase a billion wretched sinners." No--He counted the cost and He poured out His love; He paid an unfathomable price in order to demonstrate love for wicked men and women and draw them to Himself.
What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul
What wondrous love is this, O my soul
What wondrous love is this, that caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul...
So as I read about these sacrifices, let them sober me. Let them penetrate my hard heart, awaken me to the gravity of my sin. And then may they direct my attention to worship Jesus, who paid in full the cost of my grievous, countless sins.