Priesthood and sacrifice is a biblical theme that runs throughout the pages of Scripture. It, as with so many of these great Bible themes, has its ultimate expression in the person of Christ Jesus. He is what all the priesthood and sacrifice in the Bible points to and extends from. He is the High Priest that will never be replaced by another (Heb. 4:14-15; 7:23-25). His was the sacrifice of His own blood for the sins of the world (Heb. 9:12). Studying about priesthood and sacrifice in the Bible is a study on the person and purpose of Jesus.
The very first indication of sacrifice in the Bible is directly connected with sin coming into the world. It was in the Garden that God created tunics of skin to cloth Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:21). Unless God miraculously created animal skins, such tunics would have required the death of the animals from which the skin was taken. Also, in the very next chapter, Genesis 4, we find Cain and Abel offering sacrifices to God. When did man learn how to make such offerings? It had to have been taught to Adam and Eve by God. Genesis 3:21 is the most natural place for such teaching to have taken place.
From that first animal sacrifice when sin first entered the world, we find the principle of substitutionary sacrifice being developed throughout the entirety of Scripture. The first prophecy of the coming Messiah was given in Genesis 3:15 and then just a few verses later we have the beginning of substitutionary sacrifice pointing the way to that Messiah. All the substitutionary sacrifice through the Patriarchal Period (Genesis – Exodus 19), and through the Law of Moses (Exodus 20-Malachi), pointed toward the ultimate fulfillment of all substitutionary sacrifice, Christ’s death for the sins of the world on the Cross of Calvary.
God had told Adam that if they disobeyed His command then they would surely die (Gen. 2:17). It is clear that Adam, as the priest for his family, taught Eve God’s command because she knew of it when tempted by Satan to break it (Gen. 3:2, 3). However, when the command was broken God allowed for a substitution in place of the life of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:21). It may be that God taught Adam how to make that sacrifice and then used the skins to cloth them. Under the Patriarchal system, the male head of the family was the priest. That one was responsible for offering sacrifices for the family. Job, for example, was a patriarch and served as a priest offering sacrifices for his family (Job 1:5). There were also high priests during patriarchy, like Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18-20).
One of the greatest illustrations of substitutionary sacrifice in the Bible is found in Genesis 22. God told Abraham, as the priest for his family, to offer his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. However, before Isaac could be offered on the altar, God provided a substitutionary ram to take Isaac’s place. That is what Christ was for the sins of mankind. We were the ones deserving of death (Rom. 3:23; 6:23). But God provided a sacrifice to pay the death penalty in our place so that we could have life (1 Jn. 2:1, 2).
When the Law of Moses came about, God established a priesthood from the family of Aaron to serve as the priests for all the children of Israel. The primary function of the priests was to offer to God the substitutionary animal sacrifices on behalf of the people. The book of Leviticus is named for the Levitical priesthood. It is the book giving detailed instructions for how the priests were to carry out their duties, especially offering up sacrifices for the people. The book of Leviticus says repeatedly that through the priesthood offering sacrifices for one that had sinned, that “the sin which he has committed shall be forgiven him” (i.e. Lev. 4:20, 26, 35; 5:10, 13; 19:22). Instead of God requiring the life of the one who committed the sin, He accepted a substitution in the form of an animal sacrifice.
In the New Testament, under the Law of Christ (Gal. 6:2), we have come to the High Priest of a priesthood of believers (Heb. 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:5). Jesus is the High Priest that offered His own blood for the sins of the world (Heb. 9:11-12). When the Hebrews writer says that the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sin (Heb. 10:4), he was referring to the reliance of all prior substitutionary sacrifices on the blood of Christ to make any of them effective. Without the sacrifice of Christ there could have been no forgiveness of sins under any sacrificial system by any priesthood. It all pointed to and relied on the once for all sacrifice of Christ.
Now, those who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8; Jn. 1:29; 1 Pet. 1:18-20), are a priesthood of believers (1 Pet. 2:5; Rev. 1:5), offering up spiritual sacrifices to God. Christians are living sacrifices in a life of service to God (Rom. 12:1, 2).
Without priesthood and sacrifice there could be no redemption. Without priesthood and sacrifice there could be no acceptable service to God. We must be faithful priests of God under our High Priest, Christ Jesus.