The Animal Sacrifice of the Old Dispensation

Having set forth what we believe to be the right conception, let us now attend to a view of the animal sacrifice that, to our mind, must be set aside as in­correct. We have reference to the view of Patrick Fairbairn. It may be known from the following ex­cerpts from his pen (The Typology of the Scriptures page 54, Vol. 1): “That this (the rite of expiatory sacrifice) was typically or prophetically symbolical of the death of Christ, is testified with much plainness and frequency in the New Testament Scriptures. Yet, independent of this connection with the death of Christ, it had a meaning all of its own.”

Our author’s view is plain. The rite of expiatory sacrifice, in addition to its typifying the death of Christ, had a meaning of its own. In other words, the animal sacrifice symbolized an idea other than the one it typified. In addition to its typifying the idea of the death of Christ, it symbolized still another idea.

The question is, what idea? The answer is the fol­lowing statement from our author’s pen: “It (the ani­mal sacrifice—O) was in its own nature a symbolical transaction, embodying a threefold idea: first, that the worshipper having been guilty of sin, had forfeited his life to God; then that the life so forfeited must be surrendered to divine justice; and finally that being surrendered in the way appointed, it was given back to him by God, or he became re-established, as a justified person, in the divine favor and fellowship.”

But this, certainly, could not have been the mean­ing of the animal sacrifice, the additional idea it sym­bolized. For what the conception comes down to is this: that the guilty worshipper himself expiated his own sin and that of this action on his part the animal sacrifice was the symbol. Such is indeed the view we here encounter. Our author says, does he not, that the rite in question (the animal sacrifice) embodied, thus symbolized, first that the worshipper, guilty and thus condemnable, deserved to die; then that he must die (surrender his life to divine justice); and finally that, having died (surrendered his life in the way ap­pointed) , he again lived (it, this life, was given back to him by God) and he became re-established as a justified person in the favor of God.

Now this, certainly, is stating as plainly as words can that the guilty worshipper himself atoned his own sin by his dying and that this precisely is the addi­tional idea symbolized by the rite in question. Now there would be no fault to find with this view, if only that worshipper were Christ. But in the reasoning of our author that worshiper is one other than Christ. For, as we have just seen, his conception is that the animal sacrifice had a meaning of its own independent of its connection with Christ. But how impossible this view. For certainly the guilty worshipper did not actually die there at the altar and by his death expiate his sins. How then could the rite in question symbolize the worshipper’s death and his expiating his sins by his death? Impossible.

Now, certainly, our author, too, was well aware of this. It raises the question just what he meant to be telling us by the above-cited sentences.

The answer is contained in the following excerpts from his work. He writes (Typology Vol. 2, p. 290, 291): “Certain passages in the New Testament . . . appear to deny to these ancient sacrifices any validity as to the purifying of the soul. Thus it is said by Paul ‘that by Christ all who believe are justified from all things from which they could not be justified by the law of Moses.’ And still more strongly and ex­pressly in Hebrews it is declared that the gifts and sacrifices of the law ‘could not make him that did the service perfect as pertaining to the conscience’; that ‘it was not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could have taken away sins and that such blood as the ashes of the heifer sprinkling the unclean, could not avail to the purifying of the flesh, while the blood of Christ, and this alone, can purge the conscience from dead works to serve the living God. If such passages were to be taken absolutely, they would cer­tainly deny any spiritual benefits whatever to the Old Testament worshipper from his legal sacrifices. That they could not be so taken is evident alone from this, that even when viewed as offerings for such offenses as affected the outward and theocratical position of an Israelite, and satisfying for these, they did not “stand altogether apart from his conscience; to a certain ex­tent, at least, conscience had been aggrieved by what was done, and must have been purged by the atone­ment presented.” Thus far our author. Italics sup­plied.

But certainly all “such passages” must indeed be taken absolutely. To deny this, as does our author, is to involve ourselves in the view that to a certain ex­tent the blood of bulls and of goats could and actually did take away sin, that, in other words, sin to an ex­tent was truly being expiated by the animal sacrifices of the first covenant, and as a result the consciences of the believers purged.

That this was our author’s conception is plain from all his reasonings on the point under consideration. It is plain from the following sentences from his pen: “The matter stood thus: a certain visible relationship was established under the old economy between Israel and God—admitting of being re-established as often as it was interrupted by sin, through a system of ani­mal sacrifices and corporal ablutions. But it was, from the nature of the case imperfect. The sanctuary itself, in connection with which the relationship was maintained, was a worldly one—the mere image of the heavenly creature. And even that was in its inner glory veiled to the worshipper; God hid at the very time He revealed Himself—kept Himself at some dis­tance, even when He came nearest so that manifestly the root of the evil was not yet reached; the con­science was not in such a sense purged as to be made perfect, or capable of feeling thoroughly at its ease in the presence of the holy one; for that another and higher medium of purification was necessary, and should be looked for. At the same time there was such a purification administered as secured for those who experienced it a certain measure of access to God’s fellowship and experience of His favor, it sancti­fied their flesh (and to a certain extent, their con­science, our author should have added. For such is his view), so as to admit of their personal approach to the place where God recorded His name, and met with His people to bless them . . . and while atone­ment (that is, the animal sacrifice, our author means) mediated between the two, (that is, between the Lord and His people—O) removing from time to time the barrier which sin was ever tending to raise, yet it was by so imperfect a medium, and with results so transitory, that the conscience of the worshipper could not feel as if the proper and efficient remedy had yet been found. We read in the Scripture of the dif­ference between the Old and the New in God’s dis­pensation, that the ‘law came by Moses, but grace and truth by Jesus Christ’ or, ‘the darkness is past, the clear light now shineth’—not as if there had been no light, no grace and truth before, but merely none wor­thy to be compared with what now appeared. And in like manner in the passages under consideration (the passages in the Hebrews already quoted—O) the measure of relief and purification to guilty con­sciences which was afforded by the provisional insti­tutions of the tabernacle (particularly by the animal sacrifices—O) because of their inadequate character, and the imperfect means employed in their accomplishments, are for the occasion overlooked or placed out of sight, in order to bring prominently out the real, the ultimate, and perfect salvation that has been at length brought out by Christ.” Typology, Vol. 2, p. 241, 292.

The view that comes to the surface in the total of the above-cited excerpts is verily this: 1) that as often as the relationship between the Lord and His people was interrupted by sin, it was restored by a system of animal sacrifices; 2) that by these sacri­fices also the consciences of the ancient worshipper was to an extent purged; 3) that accordingly the blood of bulls and of goats did to an extent take away sin; 4) and that therefore all such statements as “it was not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats could take away sins”, and “the ashes of the heifer sprinkling the unclean could but avail as to the puri­fying of the flesh, while the blood of Christ, and this alone, can purge the conscience from dead works”,— that all such statements cannot be taken absolutely. What is this but saying that in a sense and to an ex­tent sin was indeed truly expiated by the animal sac­rifices of the first covenant. This was Fairbairn’s view. It is wholly in agreement with that other state­ment of his (already quoted) that the animal sacri­fices had a meaning all of their own independent of their reference to Christ, which, as had already been made plain, is impossible.

But the thing for us to do is to hold fast the teach­ings of the Hebrews on this point. Certainly, the blood of bulls and of goats did not to an extent take away sin. Sin was not to an extent expiated by the animal sacrifices. By these sacrifices conscience was not in a measure purged. These were the accom­plishments of Christ’s blood, and of His blood only. And the animal sacrifices had meaning only with re­ference to Him and not independent of Him. And for these reasons and these reasons alone did the animal sacrifices have meaning and great meaning for the believers of the first covenant. As has already been fully explained, they symbolized prophetically, and thus proclaimed unto the ancient worshippers, the work of Christ’s redeeming His people from all their sins by His suffering and death on the cross. And in addition they served the believers of the first cove­nant as the means for the expression of their faith in God through Christ and thus begot for them God’s testimony in their hearts that they were righteous. These were the meanings of the animal sacrifices for the Old Testament believers. Other meaning they had not. But all these matters have already been fully explained. We need therefore take ho further notice of them.

But the question is what it was that brought Fair­bairn to the above conceptions. The answer is this: his view that the Old Testament believers were not able to discry what he calls the “concealed reference” of the animal sacrifices to the sacrifice of Christ. He writes: “It was comparatively an easy thing for the Jewish worshipper to understand how, from time to time, he stood related to a visible sanctuary and an earthy inheritance, or to go through the process of an appointed purification by means of water and the blood of slain victims applied externally to the body,—much more easy than for the Christian to appre­hend distinctly his relation to the heavenly sanctuary, and realize the cleansing of his conscience from guilt by the inward application of the sacrifice of Christ and the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit. But for the Jewish worshipper to do both his own and the Christian part,—both to read the meaning of the sym­bol as expressive of what was already laid open to his view, and to discry its concealed reference to the yet undiscovered realities of a better dispensation,—would have required a reach of discernment and a strength of faith far beyond what is now needed in the Christian. For this would have been not like him to discern the heavenly, when the heavenly had come, but to do it amid the obscurities and imperfections of the earthy; not simply to look with open eye into the deeper mysteries of God’s kingdom, when these mys­teries are fully disclosed, but to do so while they were still buried amid the thick folds of a cumbrous and overshadowing drapery.”

Our author is entirely correct, of course, if what he means is that the Old Testament believers were not able, with the aid of the expiatory sacrifices, to en­visage the Christ as the New Testament Scriptures reveal Him to us. Who would maintain such a thing? Not we certainly. But that is neither the question. The question is whether the Old Testament believers were actually allowed to imagine that at least to a certain extent their sins were actually expiated and thereby blotted out by their animal sacrifices, whether, in other words, they were not made to realize that those sacrifices were but symbols and types, and whe­ther, accordingly, they were not pinning their hope upon the true sacrifice that the Lord in His good time would bring in. This is a question that our author answered in the negative. He says, does he not, “But for the Jewish worshipper both to read the meaning of the symbol as expressive of what was already laid open to his view, and to discry its concealed reference to the yet undiscovered realities of a better dispensa­tion would have required a reach of discernment and a strength of faith far beyond what is now needed in the Christian.

Such being the view, he found it necessary to take the position that for the Old Testament believers the animal sacrifice in particular had a meaning of its own apart from the death of Christ.

Yet our author was certainly mistaken. And he himself also really admits that he was mistaken. For he continues on that same page (Typology Vol. 1, page 58) as follows:

“Yet let us not be mistaken. We speak merely of what was strictly required, and what might ordinar­ily be expected of the ancient worshippers in connec­tion with the institutions and services of his symbol­ical religion, taken simply by themselves. We do not say that there never was (italics—F), much less that there could not be (italics—F), any proper insight ob­tained by the children of the Old Testament into the future mysteries of the Gospel. There were special gifts of grace then, as well as now, occasionally im­parted unto the more spiritual members of the cov­enant, which enabled them to rise to unusual degrees of knowledge; and it is a distinctive property of the spiritual mind generally to be dissatisfied with the imperfect, to seek and long for the perfect. Even now, when the comparatively perfect has come. What spiritual mind is not often conscious to itself of a feel­ing akin to melancholy, when he thinks of the yet a­biding darkness and disorders of the present, or does not fondly cling to every hopeful indication of a brighter future? But even the best things of the Old Covenant bore on them the stamp of imperfection. The temple itself, which was the peculiar glory and ornament of Israel, still in a very partial and defec­tive manner realized its own grand idea of a people dwelling with God, and God dwelling with them: and hence, because of that inherent imperfection, it was distinctly intimated, a higher and better mode of ac­complishing the object should one day take its place. So, too, the palpable disproportion already noticed in the right of expiatory sacrifice between the rational life forfeited through sin, and the merely animal life substituted in its room, seemed to proclaim the nec­essity of a more adequate atonement for human guilt, and could not but dispose intelligent worshippers to give more earnest heed to the announcements of pro­phecy regarding the coming purpose of Heaven.”

Let it be repeated, here our author really pro­nounces his whole view wrong, the view that Old Tes­tament believers rested in the shadows of the Old Cov­enant and failed to realize as enlightened by the Spi­rit of God and by prophecy that those shadows were but prophetic symbols of heavenly realities.

Let us take notice of some of the statements con­tained in the above excerpts. First, this statement: “We do not say that there never was, much less that there could not be, any proper insight obtained by the children of the old covenant into the future myster­ies of the gospel.” Here our author admits that there could be and actually was proper insight obtained by the children of the Old Covenant into the future mys­teries of the gospel. But he limits this insight to a few believers with sufficient intelligence and endowed with special gifts of grace and sufficiently spiritual to be dissatisfied with the imperfect and accordingly seeking and longing for the perfect. But may this in­sight be thus limited? True, one believer is more in­telligent than another, and one believer is more spir­itual than another. And accordingly one believer has more insight than another. And so it is also true that the desire to be with Christ is stronger in one believer than in another. But is it so that only the most in­telligent of the believers and the most holy of the be­lievers have insight? Why should the Lord have bestowed this gift only upon some of his saints—and I speak of saints and not of carnal, unbelieving Jews—and not upon all of them? Why should the Lord have lifted up the hearts only of some of His saints to the heavenly Christ of whom their animal sacrifice was the prophetic symbol and allowed the rest of His saints to go on imagining that their sins were actually being expiated by those animal sacrifices? Why should those animal sacrifices have proclaimed only to the most in­telligent worshippers the necessity of a more adequate atonement for human guilt? Certainly, what those sacrifices proclaimed to one it proclaimed to all. So it always is. What God through the teaching minis­try proclaims on the meetings for public worship to one hearer, he proclaims to all, namely that Christ died for His people only and that the man who believes is saved. But is it so that only some of the believers hear this proclamation, have understanding of it, and receive it by faith and that thus the Lord does not speak His gospel in the hearts of all the believers? Why should Abraham and only a few more highly gifted saints have been seeking a heavenly country and not all the saints of that dispensation? Why should only Abraham and a few more highly gifted believers have seen the day of Christ and rejoiced and not all the believers of that day?

This reasoning of Fairbairn simply won’t do. It is not correct. Yet such was his view. Only some believers were thus favored but not all. That is his conclusion. He writes: “But yet when we have ad­mitted all this, it by no means follows that the people of God generally, under the Old Covenant, could at­tain to very definite views of the realities of the gospel; nor does it furnish us with any reason for asser­ting that such views must ever of necessity have min­gled with the service of an acceptable worshipper.

The Typology of Fairbairn has one defect. It attaches for Old Testament believers a wrong signi­ficance to the animal sacrifices, which is but another way of saying that it fails to explain just how these sacrifices served the saints of that day. But aside from this, a production of no small merit.

G.M. Ophoff