Being a youth pastor offers me a front row seat to watch young saints be exposed to the Word of God for the first time. I get to see their amazement at its truths. I get to rejoice in their thankfulness for its message. I get to meet with them in their confusion about its content. It truly is a glorious job.
Among the points of confusion, I have found one that almost every new Christian struggles with: the purpose of the Old Testament sacrifices. They know, through the gospel teaching they have heard and believed, that Jesus Christ is the only one who can do away with their sin. They know that Jesus alone has paid the penalty for sin (1 Peter 3:18) and that people can only be saved by putting their confidence in Him and His work for us on the cross (see John 3:16-17; Romans 3:21-26). Knowing this, they have a hard time wrapping their minds around the sacrifices offered for sins in the Old Testament. Essentially, they ask, “If Jesus is the only one who can atone for our sins, then what was going on with all those bloody sacrifices in the Old Testament? What place do they have? What purpose do they serve? What did they actually do?”
Among the many good answers to that question (e.g. they prepare God’s people for Christ, they show the seriousness of sin and need for blood atonement, they offer some tangible expression of atonement), there is one illustration I find immensely helpful especially when talking about the relationship between the forgiveness received by the Old Testament sacrifices and the final forgiveness offered in the blood of Christ, the ultimate Sacrifice. Bruce Ware explains it well:
Suppose you are in the mall, and you find some shoes you like. You can take those shoes up to the register, charge them to your credit card, and walk out of that store with your new shoes, having paid absolutely nothing for them! Why is this not shoplifting? Why are you not stopped at the door by the security guard and charged with stealing? You are free to leave with the shoes because you have entered a legal transaction whereby you have obligated yourself to a future payment by which you (and others) may now consider those shoes as your own. Even though you have not yet paid a penny for them, you have tied yourself legally to an agreement…by which those shoes will be paid for by you at some agreed upon date in the future. So, while the shoes are legally yours, they are only paid for when the credit card statement comes and a payment is made from your bank account.
In a similar way, God forgave the sin of all Old Testament saints, as it were, on credit. He devised a system of sacrifices by which each of those animal sacrifices would signal his obligation, at some point in the future, to ensure that the payment for those sins would surely and truly be made. In other words, in order to forgive those Old Testament saints at that point in history, he had to put in place a plan by which their sin, pronounced forgiven by him then, would one future day actually and fully be paid for. Apart form that future payment, those animal sacrifices were totally useless. (Taken from The Man Christ Jesus, p. 120-121)
Old Testament sacrifices were forgiveness on credit. They didn’t actually pay for anything. They never atoned for one, single sin. Lamb’s blood cannot make up for Man’s sin (see Hebrews 10:3-4). But those sacrifices pointed forward to the day when God would finally pay for all sin. They looked forward to when God would bring the sin balance to zero.
As Paul taught, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement,through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith…” (Romans 3:25). Why did he do this? Paul explains, “He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus…” (Romans 3:25-26). Did you see that? God offered Jesus as the sacrifice for sin in order to demonstrate his righteousness in the face of all the sins that were formerly unpunished! He put those sins on the credit card of the sacrificial system and, through offering Jesus Christ, paid it all off!
Praise God that our debt has been paid; interest and all.