When you read the Gospels, one of the ways Jesus is described most frequently is as a sacrifice. But what does it mean for Jesus to be a sacrifice? Well, to find the answer, we have to start by looking at the Old Testament.
Throughout the Old Testament, there are several signs, symbols, and pointers that foreshadowed Jesus’ work to save sinners. And key to that is the sacrificial system of the Israelites. Sacrifices were required for offerings of peace and thanksgiving and for the sins of the people (Lev. 4). Every time the people came to worship, their praise included the sacrifice of animals such as goats, lambs, and bulls free from any visible imperfection. These sacrifices were offered in conjunction with the people’s festivals but also in response to ongoing violations of God’s law.
The most important sacrifices were those offered on the Passover and the Day of Atonement. During the Passover, God’s people were called to remember the final plague sent upon Egypt, during which God spared the firstborn males of every family who painted their doorposts with the blood of a spotless lamb (Ex. 12:1-32,43- 51). During the Day of Atonement, two goats were used: one was sacrificed in the place of the people, and the other was released into the wilderness, metaphorically carrying away the sins of the people (Lev. 16).
The New Testament reveals that these sacrifices were only a shadow of something better. They pointed forward to a perfect sacrifice to come, one offered by Jesus. In His life, Jesus obeyed every point of God’s law. His record before God was spotless, perfect in every way. In His death on the cross, Jesus was sacrificed to provide forgiveness for the sin and disobedience of whoever believes in Him (John 3:16; Rom. 3:26), and take away God’s wrath and forever make peace between God and His people.
In Jesus, the perfect sacrifice that every other sacrifice foreshadowed was made. And nevermore would another sacrifice need to be made, as shadows gave way to substance.