What About the Temple Sacrifices?
How does the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, look at the Temple sacrifices? The answer might surprise you.
Christians sometimes object to the thought of the Jewish People controlling the Temple Mount because they are wary of Temple sacrifices being reinstituted. Christians who otherwise support Israel are often uneasy about this idea. “Aren’t sacrifices contrary to the New Testament and to Jesus’ atoning death once and for all?” they wonder. The whole issue of the sacrifices colors the topic of the Temple Mount.
How does the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, look at the Temple sacrifices? The answer might surprise you.
First off, Cry for Zion is focused squarely on Israel exercising its full, legal sovereignty and guaranteeing Jewish freedom on the Temple Mount. That said, how the Jewish people justly administer and develop the site—including rebuilding the Temple—is their choice.
Secondly, if you are not interested in a discussion on Christian theology about the biblical Temple, this is not for you. Otherwise, read on!
The topic of biblical sacrifices is a big issue to explore, as well as a sensitive one in Christianity, especially after centuries of replacement theology. It touches on deep Christian beliefs about salvation and atonement. Nonetheless, several points in the biblical text are fairly straightforward—if we approach them with an open mind.
To begin with, the whole issue of sacrifice is foreign to the modern, western mind. And yet, sacrifice is a God-given, universal human instinct. It has been with us since Adam, and Abraham, and on through the time of Jesus. Moreover, roughly one quarter of the world holds to faiths which still practice forms of literal sacrifice. Even Christians today believe in the sacrificial death of Jesus, firmly believing that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).
We are all often blind to our own worldview and Christians may be just as disturbed by the Hebrew Bible’s view of sacrificing sheep, as Jews may be disturbed by the Christian thought of the “human sacrifice” of Jesus. It’s high time to take a fresh look at this topic!
If the mere thought of animal slaughter is your gut-level objection to the biblical sacrifices, you may need to think again. Only a conscientious vegetarian has a real right to that objection, and it is clear that neither Jesus nor the other biblical heroes were vegetarian. Modern man is simply too far removed from his source of food to think much about the necessary carnage that precedes his steak dinner.
An honest reading of Scripture reveals that God is not disgusted by sacrifices. He was the one who commanded them, and the text repeatedly says he took pleasure in them. “A pleasing aroma to the LORD” is the constant refrain (Numbers 28, etc.). As D. Thomas Lancaster points out,
“We have so sanitised and whitewashed God that the demand for animal sacrifice seems to contradict everything we believe about him. … When the biblical text begins to teach us about priests throwing blood around and cutting out the fat surrounding the diaphragm and the two kidneys, we tend to become nauseous rather than blessed.”
God Actually Hated It?
Some would now ask, “But didn’t God say elsewhere that he hated the sacrifices and was not pleased with them?” King David’s great Psalm of repentance includes the famous words:
“For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:16–17).
Here is a passage that seems to indicate that God was never pleased with sacrifices. Replacement theologians throughout church history have used verses like these to champion that point.
And yet—lest we be too quick to misunderstand—the very next verses say: “Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar” (Psalm 51:18–19).
It would seem that it was the heart of the worshipper that made all of the difference, not whether he was bringing a bull to sacrifice or not. Using Scriptures, like Psalm 51, to suggest that God hated the very sacrifices he commanded, is clearly a misuse of the text.
Similar passages from Jeremiah, Hosea, and Malachi make the same point. Amos 5:21–25 is particularly noteworthy. To get a fresh perspective, it is helpful to imagine the Prophet Amos’ rebuke in a Christian context. If Amos addressed a church, it could have read something like this:
“I hate, I despise your Sunday services, and I take no delight in your Communion table. Even though you collect your tithes and offerings, I will not accept them; and the praise and worship team, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your drums; to the melody of your guitars I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Harsh, to be sure, but the cutting message is directed at the heart, not the liturgical forms in themselves.
What Every Christian Needs To Know
The primary thing Christians need to understand about the sacrifices is that, in the Bible, there is no conflict between the sacrifices and the Gospel. None at all. The Book of Hebrews (10:4) makes it clear that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” The sacrifices can never “make perfect those who draw near” (10:1). That was never their job to begin with. They had a different function (which we will explore later).
We sometimes labor under the mistaken impression that, before Jesus came, people gained eternal salvation through the sacrifices, but that, after Jesus came, we are saved through his sacrifice. But if that were really true, Jesus’ selfless death would just be a convenience for us. Without him, we would be just fine with animal sacrifices! To put it bluntly, if the popular idea were true, Jesus did not save anyone. He merely saved cows and sheep from being sacrificed, and he saved us the inconvenience of bringing them.
The biblical path to right standing with God has always been repentance and faith, not by animal sacrifices. According to Romans 4, long before Jesus came, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Abraham’s faith is the very proof Paul uses for the concept of salvation by faith (Romans 4). At the same time, Abraham certainly built altars and sacrificed sheep.
The Jewish people, the people who actually ran the Temple service, were not under any illusion that the sacrifices gave them personal justification for their eternal soul. The rabbis taught that someone who had not repented, or was not in the proper relationship with God, his sacrifice was useless.
As we shall see, in the New Testament, there is no conflict between the sacrifices and the Gospel. (Also, if you were not aware, God’s Law strictly prohibits offering sacrifices anywhere outside his Temple in Jerusalem which is currently destroyed. For this reason, you will not see anyone trying it in the backyard.)
Jesus' Followers & Roasted Lamb
The next thing we need to acknowledge are the facts as the New Testament presents them. Jesus seemed to have had no problem with the sacrifices. He taught about how to properly bring Temple sacrifices (Matthew 5:23) and said, for example, that he eagerly desired to eat the roasted lamb of the Passover sacrifice with his disciples (Luke 22:15). He also promised he would do so again in the coming kingdom of God (Luke 22:16).
After his ascension, his apostles and disciples also eagerly participated in the Temple services and made it their daily meeting place (Acts 2:46; Acts 3:1; Luke 24:53). The Holy Temple was not a place to merely loiter. Attendance meant participation. Many of the Levitical priests serving in the Temple even became disciples of Jesus (Acts 6:7), and we have no reason to believe that they stopped conducting the sacrifices.
But, let’s cut to the chase. For most Christians, the bottom line is: “What was Paul’s position?” The Book of Acts gives us the answer. Many years after his trip to Damascus, after penning many of his famous letters, and after several journeys ministering to the Gentiles, we read that Paul came to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices—yes, sacrifices (Acts 21).
Paul was finishing a Nazarite vow at the time. Together with four other Jewish disciples just like him, he went up to God’s Temple to complete the vow by purchasing sacrifices for all of them.
“Then Paul took the men, and the next day, purifying himself along with them, went into the Temple giving notice of the completion of the days of purification, until the sacrifice was offered for each one of them” (Acts 21:26 NASB).
Some have been tempted to explain away this passage by suggesting that Paul gave in to ignorant brothers in the heat of the moment. Others suggest that Paul practiced some kind of sanctified deception by pretending to live like a Jew while he was with Jews. Lest we misunderstand his intentions, or make him into a deceiver (God forbid), Paul offered court testimony before Governor Felix that it had always been his plan to offer sacrifices when he came to Jerusalem.
“Now after several years I came [to Jerusalem] to bring alms to my [Jewish] nation and to present offerings. While I was doing this, they [my accusers] found me purified in the Temple, without any crowd or tumult” (Acts 24:17–18, my comments in brackets).
The Book of Numbers tells us what Nazarite sacrifices the apostle Paul actually purchased for himself and his four companions. We are talking about fifteen sheep of various kinds, five baskets of unleavened bread, five loaves with oil, five wafers with oil, plus the appropriate grain offerings and wine libations—and that does not even include whatever bonuses he could afford! Five of the lambs were specifically “sin sacrifices” (Number 6:14).
These are the facts. It is abundantly clear from the text that Jesus’ apostles and followers, including Paul, saw no contradiction between the Temple sacrifices and faith in Jesus. In fact, quite the opposite seems true.
Where's the Problem?
If Jesus and his disciples had no problem with the Temple sacrifices, why have Christians historically been so negative toward them? The answer is the way replacement theologians (aka supersessionists) began interpreting primarily one, single book in the New Testament: The Epistle to the Hebrews.
Hebrews is one of the more complex books in the New Testament. If you take Hebrews alone, and do not bother with interpreting it in line with the rest of the biblical canon, you can come up with any number of contradictory ideas. And, as anti-Jewishness crept into the church, that is what ancient theologians did. Thankfully, there are a growing number of post-supersessionist scholars who read Hebrews differently, and in its historically Jewish setting.
There is no room here to delve deeply into Hebrews, so we will have to settle for a couple of points.
How Much More?
Firstly, there are two ways of reading Hebrews which lead to quite different conclusions. One is the “how-much-more” method—from the lesser to the greater. The other is the “either-or,” dualistic approach, contrasting and pitting one thing against another.
Hebrews relies heavily on the “how-much-more” argument. Jesus liked to use this approach, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11). It is true that even human parents are often generous to their kids. If that is true, how much more is it not true of God?
If you tried to interpret Jesus word as an “either-or,” dualistic statement, the meaning would become: “You are evil, terrible people who cannot be good to your children even if you tried, but God is good and wonderful to everyone who comes to him.” Sadly, theologians have historically tried to cram this dualistic interpretation onto the Epistle of Hebrews.
The author of Hebrews often uses wonderful truths about the earthly Temple/Tabernacle and makes comparisons with the heavenly Temple and the eternal World to Come. If this is interpreted dualistically, we can begin to understand why Christians have often seen a conflict between the Temple and the Cross, between Moses and Jesus.
I recommend a simple exercise. Try these two ways of reading Hebrews yourself. Read the contrast between Mt Sinai and Mt Zion in Hebrews 12:18–29. Read verses 18–21 in your deepest dramatic voice with Darth Vader’s “Imperial March” playing in your head. Then, imagine angels singing the glorious crescendo of Hendel’s “Messiah” as you read verses 22–24. This is the common, misleading way of reading Hebrews. Now try the entire passage without the dramatic contrast. (Hint: the key to the correct approach is in verse 25.)
The author of Hebrews describes the earthly Temple in Jerusalem as a copy of a mystical, heavenly Temple. They are not in conflict, they mirror each other. However, they do serve different functions. The earthly Sanctuary serves the purposes of this world and this creation. The other Sanctuary is heavenly and for the eternal World to Come. He repeatedly contrasts the two Temple services, showing that one cannot do what the other one does. It is in that context that we read things like,
“And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:11–14).
The Epistle of Hebrews actually endorses the legitimacy of the earthly Temple system several times. It states that the ashes of the red heifer sacrifice certainly continued to remove ritual impurity of the physical body (9:13). It points out that Jesus’ heavenly, priestly service is not the same as the one in Jerusalem since he would not even have been allowed to serve in the physical Temple. Jesus is not from the tribe of Levi and therefore not eligible to serve in the Temple (7:14). But the author of Hebrews says, “Don’t worry. I’m not even talking about that Temple service!” Hebrews presents two corresponding realities, an earthly and a heavenly one. One for approaching God on this earth in Jerusalem, the other as representing the World to Come and eternal salvation. There is no contradiction here.
The Backstory to Hebrews
As a second point, it is important to touch on the historical context. The Epistle to the Hebrews was a sermon written to Jewish disciples by someone in the Pauline circle of friends who knew Timothy. The descriptions of the Temple service strongly suggest it was written before the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The readers were clearly facing a difficult struggle and they seemed to lack access to the Temple. The epistle exhorts them to stand firm and persevere.
In the 60s CE, to the horror of all Jerusalem, the corrupt Sadduceean priesthood murdered Jacob (James) at the Temple Mount. It is quite possible that the disciples found themselves ostracised from the Temple after this event. Naturally, they would have been devastated that they had been expelled from the place that had been their home for decades. They could be readmitted, of course, provided they renounced their allegiance to Jesus. The author of Hebrews exhorted them to not lose hope. Even though they could not continue to worship in the Temple, the author encouraged them that they still had access to the Throne of God in the Holy of Holies in heaven (Hebrews 4:14–16).
Many have claimed that Hebrews teaches that if the disciples began to sacrifice in the Temple again, they would “then have fallen away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (Hebrews 6:6). Such a person would have “trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace” (10:29).
The strong exhortations in Hebrews are directed against rejected faith in Jesus in order to gain social acceptance or acceptance to the Temple. But sacrificing in the Temple—something that all the apostles and disciples in Jerusalem continued to do for decades after the death and resurrection of Messiah—would, by itself, in no way constitute a rejection of their faith in Jesus. (For more on Hebrews, see footnote 10.)
Before and after Golgotha
Most Christians would agree that the sacrifices pointed forward to Jesus atoning death. This is a biblically sound interpretation. (Strictly speaking, it is an oversimplification of the whole sacrificial system, but it is, nonetheless, a fundamental Christian truth.) That being the case, why wouldn’t the sacrifices point back to the cross after Jesus death just as much as they used to foreshadow it? There is no contradiction here. At least, the apostles did not act as if there was any problem.
The New Testament emphasizes that the sacrifices were never a means for eternal salvation (Hebrews 10). We must have this clear in our mind if we are to understand the relationship between Jesus and the Temple sacrifices.
Christians rely on Jesus’ atoning death today, two thousand years after the event. It is not that if someone would sin today, Jesus would die tomorrow to cover that sin. It is a timeless event before God, who is himself outside of time. Jesus’ death was a historical event, but the atonement is eternal.
Why then would the Temple sacrifices have a different, conflicting function after the death of Jesus than they did before the cross? The Bible is a progressive revelation, but repentance and faith remain the only way of salvation, from Genesis to our present day.
“Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3).
What, Then, Is the Point?
We can admit that we have often misunderstood the Temple sacrifices. But if so, what is their actual purpose? There is only space here to briefly point in the general direction of an answer. In biblical theology, the Temple is a symbol of (and perhaps even the reality of) at least two grand themes: The Garden of Eden and the Revelation at Sinai. In this article, we will have to be content with looking at paradise.
Think of the fellowship with God’s Divine Presence that man enjoyed physically, on this earth, in Eden. Heaven and Earth overlapped and met in that garden. That paradise was lost, and two cherubim sealed the way in.
But, imagine if there was a way to visit back into the garden where the cherubim stood, here on earth! It would be risky, but with the atoning covering of sacrifices, you could go for a visit to Heaven on Earth. You would lay your hands on an animal, investing your own identity in it. The life, the soul of that animal, with your identity, would be brought near to have table fellowship with God at his altar. God’s appointed priests would carefully help you. You would eat together from the resulting feast, one portion for you, and one for God on the altar. It was not a spiritual experience alone, not only a spiritual communion with God, but—if your heart was pure—it was literally a physical part of paradise restored on earth—in this age. Except, we no longer live in an era when the Temple stands. That is as good of a glimpse as I can imagine from the biblical description. For further study, I would recommend Rabbi Joshua Berman’s The Temple: Its Symbolism and Meaning Then and Now.
Epilogue: Bonus Bible Chapters
As a closing argument, the Prophet Ezekiel deserves honorable mention. Ezekiel vividly foresaw a time when the Temple would be much more significant in the world than it is now. Christian theology that still suggests the Temple sacrifices have been permanently superseded encounter big problems in the Book of Ezekiel. For nearly eight entire chapters (40–47), Ezekiel painstakingly describes a future Temple which has never been built.
Some theologians have attempted to explain away Ezekiel’s Temple as entirely symbolic. But it becomes hard to convince readers that Ezekiel’s detailed descriptions are completely allegorical. What exactly would be the symbolic interpretation of priestly garments that do not cause the priests to sweat (Ezekiel 44:18)?
More importantly, Ezekiel’s literary description of the sacrifices is very similar in language to the Torah’s instructions for the sacrifices. The sacrifices in Leviticus and elsewhere were certainly literal. If so, why would Ezekiel’s vision of future Temple sacrifices not be literal?
Ezekiel received his detailed Temple plans before the Second Temple was rebuilt, but the rebuilders did not use his plans (with the exception of some elements like the altar). The reason is that it requires someone with prophetic insight of the highest caliber to interpret the plans correctly. Apparently, the prophets Haggai and Zechariah were not meant to give the needed guidance, and perhaps they knew the Second Temple was destined for destruction (unlike the vision Ezekiel had seen). Thus, Ezekiel’s grand vision of the Temple has never yet been realized in history.
In view of all of the above, if the Temple and its service are forever done away with, as Christian supersessionism suggests, are Ezekiel 40–47 merely eight bonus chapters of Holy Scripture which will never be fulfilled?
John Enarson is the Christian Relations Director at Cry For Zion, helping Christians understand their history with the Temple Mount and how it relates to biblical theology and the Jewish people. John currently studies at the Scandinavian School of Theology.
The bibliography below includes a helpful list of commentaries on the Book of Hebrews offering post-supersessionist perspectives.
Allen & Williamson. Preaching the Letters without Dismissing the Law (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).
Bauckham, Driver, Hart, & MacDonald. The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Eerdmans, 2009).
Berman. Joshua. The Temple: Its Symbolism and Meaning Then and Now (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1995).
Clorfene, Chaim. The Messianic Temple: Understanding Ezekiel’s Prophecy (Jerusalem: Menorah Books, 2005).
Cockerill. The Epistle to the Hebrews – New International Commentary (Eerdmans, 2012).
Harrington. What Are They Saying about the Letter to the Hebrews? (Paulist Press, 2005).
Harrington. The Letter to the Hebrews: Vol. 11 – New Collegeville Bible Commentary (Liturgical Press, 2006).
Kim. Polemic in the Book of Hebrews (Wipf & Stock Pub, 2006).
Lancaster, D. Thomas. What About the Sacrifices? (Marshfield, MO: First Fruits of Zion, 2011).
Moffitt. Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Brill Academic Pub, 2013).
Rudolph, David, A Jew to the Jews: Jewish Contours of Pauline Flexibility in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. 2nd edition (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016).
 As of 2015, 22% of the world is Hindu or Buddhist and another 5.7% practice various folk religions which often include sacrificial rites (Hackett, Conrad and David McClendon, “Christians remain world’s largest religious group, but they are declining in Europe,” Pew Research Center April 5, 2017 (online posting http://pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe, July 15, 2018).
 A related objection is the apparent waste of offering food to God. This objection often assumes that sacrifices have no effect beyond the symbolic. Firstly, much—if not most—meat in the Temple was eaten by the priests and worshippers. The priests literally lived off of the sacrificial service. Ultimately, however, it comes down to our view of God and his ownership of creation. Is it not a bit presumptuous for a society that literally dumps tons of leftover food every day to object to the Creator of the universe claiming a sacrificial share of what already belongs to him?
 D. Thomas Lancaster, What About the Sacrifices? (Marshfield, MO: First Fruits of Zion, 2011). Much of this article is inspired from the above-mentioned book.
 Jeremiah 6:20; Hosea 6:6; Malachi 1:10.
 Compare Acts 18:18.
 This was the position of, for example, John Wesley (Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, 1755).
 For a deeper look at this misconception, see Rudolph, David, A Jew to the Jews: Jewish Contours of Pauline Flexibility in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. 2nd edition (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016).
 Numbers 6:13-21.
 Hebrews contains a massive number of quotes and allusions to the Hebrew Bible and it assumes that its Jewish readership was intimately familiar with vast amounts of Scripture and Jewish methods of interpretation. Moreover, even literal-leaning translators are fond of “helping out” the text of Hebrews, further compounding problems for modern readers.
 Post-supersessionist simply means belonging to a school of thought that does not believe the church has “superseded” Israel, or that everything “new” superseded everything “old,” etc. For some scholarship on the Book of Hebrews in this vein, see: Preaching the Letters without Dismissing the Law, Allen & Williamson (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006); The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology, Bauckham, Driver, Hart, & MacDonald (Eerdmans, 2009); The Epistle to the Hebrews – New International Commentary, Cockerill (Eerdmans, 2012); What Are They Saying about the Letter to the Hebrews? Harrington (Paulist Press, 2005); The Letter to the Hebrews: Vol. 11 – New Collegeville Bible Commentary, Harrington (Liturgical Press, 2006); Polemic in the Book of Hebrews, Kim (Wipf & Stock Pub, 2006); Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews, Moffitt (Brill Academic Pub, 2013).
 Jewish tradition also holds that there is a Temple above and a Temple below (Exodus Rabbah 35:6; Tanchuma Bechukotai 65).
 Josephus, Antiquities 20.197–201; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical Histories 2.23.4,10–18.
 Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1995.
 Traditionally, this role would be expected from the Messiah (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and Their Wars, 1:2,3). Ezekiel’s Temple is therefore associated with the Messianic Era and is even traditionally called the “Messianic Temple” (Chaim Clorfene, The Messianic Temple: Understanding Ezekiel’s Prophecy, Jerusalem: Menorah Books, 2005). Contemporary rebuilding plans among the Jewish people therefore follow the patterns of the Second Temple, not Ezekiel’s Temple.