Some people view sacrifice as an inherently good thing because God instituted animal sacrifices in the Law or because of the sacrificial death of Jesus. The general concept is carried over into the New Covenant by claiming that we are to live sacrificial lives for God, giving up the things of this world for the things of God (Romans 12:1 is cited often to make this point).
Methinks this is a misconception.
Let’s take a look at the role of sacrifice in human history.
The concepts of sacrifice (or scapegoating) existed in every known culture and society. A historical study (see the works of René Girard) reveals that there were generally two reasons why communities practiced sacrifice – because the gods required it and to keep social order. People viewed sacrifice as necessary because otherwise the gods would unleash their anger on them, and also because it was an outlet for their (the people’s) violence. People didn’t know how to deal with their anger and frustration, so they decided to systematically take it out on something else. Thus, social order is maintained because instead of civil war breaking out, one person (the scapegoat) died for the rest. This mindset can even be seen in the scriptures, where the high priest Caiaphas advises the Pharisees that it is better for one man to die for the people (referring to Jesus) than for the whole nation to be destroyed (John 11:50). Of course, this never gets to the root problem, which is losing sight of who God really is, and thus losing sight of every person’s true desire, which is God himself (Haggai 2:7). Sacrifice emerged from not understanding God’s heart toward people.
The question, then, is why did God command animal sacrifices to be performed under the Law?
The Israelites wanted to be like the nations around them. They wanted laws, not relationship. They wanted human kings, not a heavenly Father. And they wanted sacrificial systems, not unmerited forgiveness. They couldn’t conceive of any other way of dealing with guilt and violence, and, in their minds, that was the only way to satisfy their angry God, Jehovah. But God isn’t like every other ancient god that required sacrifice in order to be nice to people.The truth, the mystery that had been kept hidden for ages, was that God was never angry with them and had forgiven them even before they had asked to be forgiven!
God never wanted our sacrifices, even under the Old Covenant. “Sacrifice and meal offering You have not desired…Burnt offering and sin offering You have not required” (Psalm 40:6). “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; And the knowledge of God, more than burnt offering” (Hosea 6:6). (Also see Micah 6:6-8, Isaiah 1:11-14, and Jeremiah 7:21-23.)
God instituted the Old Covenant sacrificial system for people, not for himself. It is no different than how Jesus explained that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” Its introduction in the Law wasn’t to alleviate God’s anger or satisfy a need to punish sin, both of which God has no need for. Rather, it was a concession to man’s guilt and bloodlust (in fact, the entire system of Law was a concession to Israel since it refused to relate intimately with God; see Exodus 20:18-21). Sacrifice under the Old Covenant was to provide an outlet for human violence and to fulfill the human need to feel free of guilt and have a clear conscience (although according to Hebrews 10:4 it never permanently fixed anything – “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”).
God never wanted to use violence, but mankind did; so God worked within mankind’s violence to achieve His purposes, and to slowly wean His people off of the need for blood punishment. – Christian Erickson
This is why even though the Law contained retributive ordinances with concepts such as equal retaliation (someone who causes harm is repaid with the same harm to themselves), Jesus pointed to a better way. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matthew 5:38-39). Indeed, Jesus demonstrated this principle himself as he did not retaliate against his accusers and executioners.
The Law is good (Romans 7:12), but it is not good in the sense that it would be good for us to try and follow it. It is good because it served its purpose, which was to reveal our sinfulness and bring us to our senses (Romans 7:7). When we try our best to follow the Law, we find that our efforts are futile. Thus God administrates his grace to us through the Law because it reveals our need for a savior. God imposed an impossibility on us to make evident the insufficiency of our independent selves (which is only an illusion, because we are never separated from God). It sheds light on the fundamental error made at the fall – thinking that we could do life alone if only we had the knowledge of good and evil.
Thus, just because something is in the Law doesn’t automatically make it good. Sacrifice is a case in point.
The cross didn’t deal with God’s sin consciousness, as if he was hindered from relating with us because of sin. It dealt with our sin consciousness (Hebrews 10:1-3). It doesn’t free God from a need to punish; it frees us from a guilty conscience.
The cross reveals that even when humanity is at its worst, united against God to murder him, God’s love for humanity and how he relates to them does not change. Even when God seems most justified in violently retaliating against humanity (and had the power to do so), he chooses not to. The heart of the Father is revealed.
The cross unmasks the practice of sacrifice (and more generally the concept of retributive punishment) for what it is and rescues humanity from its insanity.
It is simply human violence.
Let me get back to how this relates to sacrifice in our New Covenant lives.
God doesn’t want sacrifice unless he’s providing the sacrifice (think Abraham and Isaac). But from our perspective this isn’t sacrifice at all! Jesus meant it when he said it is more blessed (happy) to give than to receive (Acts 20:35), and he applies it in his dealings with us. God’s not looking for us to do something for him; God derives the greatest pleasure from continually providing for us all that we need. He doesn’t need our help. His joy is rooted in our enjoyment of his provision, not our provision for his non-existent needs.
Missionary to China Hudson Taylor, at the end of a life full of suffering and trial, said, “I never made a sacrifice.” When the motivating factor of service to Christ is love, it doesn’t feel like you’re working at all. It is effortless. There is no sacrifice.
And that’s just the kind of life that Jesus has made available to all.
Glimpses Into a Mystery (Andre Rabe)