Communion With God : Old Testament Sacrifices


Colossians 2:17 NIV “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

Over the next few weeks (possibly months), God willing, I’m going to be spending a fair amount of time looking at the many fore pictures that are and were given to us in the Old Testament about our walk with God. I’ve already done a series of posts on the Tabernacle that some of you may have read through. This series will all start with the title “Communion With God”, so you will be able to find all of the posts in this series by doing a search under “Post Categories” on my Home page. This post is the first of the series and there will be others.

There are so many aspects of the imagery, physical objects and practises followed, such as the Tabernacle, the Temple, the sacrifices, the Commandments, the Law, the festivals, the furniture, the priesthood etc that were available to the average Jewish believer that tie into our current Christian walk with God and most importantly, our communion with God, made possible by and through the sacrificial atonement for our personal sins, by Jesus Christ, the Messiah, on the cross of Calvary, that are far too often overlooked.  All of these fore pictures are there for a reason, to help us understand the Holiness of God, what separates us from Him and how of course, we can be at one with our Creator, again.

God wants us to seek His face and want to come to know Him and love Him.

God wants us to value, above all else, being in His presence, being in communion with Him because that is what He created us for. This series isn’t really about us, although indirectly it is, but directly it is all about Him and when you really stop to think about it, He is our Creator, and He has gone to extraordinary great lengths to enable us to see, understand and experience, the absolute value and worth, that communion with Him brings. Our God is a jealous God, and the word jealous is used in a ultimate realization kind of way. We are His Creation and He loves us and nothing, absolutely nothing, is of higher importance that getting our hearts, minds and souls in sync with His love and the one on one and collective communion of all believers with Him, that is possible.

I’m going to be using a wide range of sources and at the end of this series I shall endeavour to list the vast majority of my prime sources so that you will have them for future reference. Because of the depth of this subject, I’m going to have to limit myself to an introductory level type look but there will be additional resources indicated along the way, should you wish to look at what is presented more closely. It is my hope and prayer that this series will help all of us (myself included) better understand and love our gracious and loving Father God, His Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit of God.

1 John 4:19 NIVWe love because he first loved us.”


There are five main types of sacrifices, or offerings, in the Old Testament.

Each of these sacrifices involved certain elements, either animal or fruit of the field, and had a specific purpose.

Most were split into two or three portions—God’s portion, the portion for the Levites or priests, and, if there was a third, a portion kept by the person offering the sacrifice. The sacrifices can be broadly categorized as either voluntary or mandatory offerings.

Voluntary Sacrifices

There were three voluntary offerings.

  • The first was the burnt offering, a voluntary act of worship to express devotion or commitment to God. It was also used as an atonement for unintentional sin. The elements of the burnt offering were a bull, a bird, or a ram without blemish. The meat and bones and organs of the animal were to be totally burnt, and this was God’s portion. The animal’s hide was given to the Levites, who could later sell it to earn money for themselves.

The burnt offering is one of the oldest and most common offerings in history. It’s entirely possible that Abel’s offering in Genesis 4:4 was a burnt offering, although the first recorded instance is in Genesis 8:20 when Noah offers burnt offerings after the flood. God ordered Abraham to offer his son, Isaac, in a burnt offering in Genesis 22, and then provided a ram as a replacement. After suffering through nine of the ten plagues, Pharaoh decided to let the people go from bondage in Egypt, but his refusal to allow the Israelites to take their livestock with them in order to offer burnt offerings brought about the final plague that led to the Israelites’ delivery (Exodus 10:24-29).

The Hebrew word for “burnt offering” actually means to “ascend,“ literally to “go up in smoke.” The smoke from the sacrifice ascended to God, “a soothing aroma to the LORD” (Leviticus 1:9). Technically, any offering burned over an altar was a burnt offering, but in more specific terms, a burnt offering was the complete destruction of the animal (except for the hide) in an effort to renew the relationship between Holy God and sinful man. With the development of the law, God gave the Israelites specific instructions as to the types of burnt offerings and what they symbolized.

Leviticus 1 and 6:8-13 describe the traditional burnt offering. The Israelites brought a bull, sheep, or goat, a male with no defect, and killed it at the entrance to the tabernacle. The animal’s blood was drained, and the priest sprinkled blood around the altar. The animal was skinned and cut it into pieces, the intestines and legs washed, and the priest burned the pieces over the altar all night. The priest received the skin as a fee for his help. A turtledove or pigeon could also be sacrificed, although they weren’t skinned.

A person could give a burnt offering at any time. It was a sacrifice of general atonement—an acknowledgement of the sin nature and a request for renewed relationship with God. God also set times for the priests to give a burnt offering for the benefit of the Israelites as a whole, although the animals required for each sacrifice varied:

Every morning and evening (Exodus 29:38-42Numbers 28:2)
Each Sabbath (Numbers 28:9-10)
The beginning of each month (Numbers 28:11)
At Passover (Numbers 28:19)
With the new grain/firstfruits offering at the Feast of Weeks (Numbers 28:27)
At the Feast of Trumpets/Rosh Hashanah (Numbers 29:1)
At the new moon (Numbers 29:6)

The ultimate fulfillment of the burnt offering is in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. His physical life was completely consumed, He ascended to God, and His covering (that is, His garment) was distributed to those who officiated over His sacrifice (Matthew 27:35). But most importantly, His sacrifice, once for all time, atoned for our sins and restored our relationship with God.

  • The second voluntary offering was the grain offering, in which the fruit of the field was offered in the form of a cake or baked bread made of grain, fine flour, and oil and salt. The grain offering was one of the sacrifices accompanied by a drink offering (see below) of one-quarter hin (about a quart) of wine, which was poured into the fire on the altar (Numbers 15:4–5). The purpose of the grain offering was to express thanksgiving in recognition of God’s provision and unmerited goodwill toward the person making the sacrifice. The priests were given a portion of this offering, but it had to be eaten within the court of the tabernacle.

A grain offering is a type of sacrifice described in the Old Testament (Leviticus 2) that the Israelites offered to God. A grain offering would have most likely been one of wheat or barley, depending on what was available. While other sacrifices had very specific instructions from God as to how they were to be offered, the rules governing grain offerings had some flexibility.

A grain offering could be given to God either uncooked or cooked in an oven or pan (Leviticus 2:14—5). The requirements for the grain offering were that it had to be finely ground and have oil and salt in it (Leviticus 2:1413). It could not have any yeast (also called leaven) or honey in it (Leviticus 2:11). When a person brought a grain offering to the priests, a small portion of it was offered to God, with some frankincense, on the altar. The rest of the grain offering went to the priests (Leviticus 2:10). No specific amount of grain was required for an offering; people were free to give what they had.

The grain offering is described as “a most holy part of the food offerings presented to the Lord” (Leviticus 2:10b). Grain offerings would often be presented after a burnt offering, which was an animal sacrifice God required for the atonement of sin. Blood had to be shed for the remission of sins to take place, so a grain offering would not serve the same purpose as a burnt offering. Instead, the purpose of a grain offering was to worship God and acknowledge His provision. The burnt offering, which had strict regulations and could have nothing added to it, aptly represents the fact that we take no part in our atonement for sin. The grain offering, however, could be somewhat “personalized” in its presentation. It was to be given out of a person’s free will, just as our worship is our free will offering to God today.

It’s interesting to note that during the Israelites’ forty years of wilderness wandering grain would have been quite scarce. This made grain offerings more costly and precious for the people to offer to God. Giving a grain offering in those circumstances represented the Israelites’ complete dependence on God to provide for their needs each day. Jesus fulfilled the Law (Matthew 5:17), and we no longer have to do sacrifices as they did in the Old Testament. But, if the grain offering is similar to our offering of worship, it’s interesting to consider: how much does our worship today cost us?

Drink Offering

The first recorded occurrence of a drink offering was that given by Jacob in Genesis 35:14, right after God changed his name to Israel. Drink offerings were also included with burnt and grain offerings in God-ordained sacrifices, including the morning and evening sacrifices of Exodus 29:40. One-quarter hin, about one quart, of wine was poured out into the altar fire for each lamb sacrificed (Numbers 15:4-5). A ram sacrifice required one third of a hin (Numbers 15:6), and a bull required one half (Numbers 15:10).

It has been speculated that the offering of an animal, grain, oil, and wine—the smoke making a “soothing aroma to the LORD”—is a metaphor for providing food for God, an important cultural requirement in the Middle East. What we do know is that the pouring out of a drink offering is a metaphor for the blood Jesus spilled on the cross. Jesus spoke to this directly in Luke 22:20 when He instituted the New Covenant. He picked up a cup of wine and said, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.” Jesus’ sacrifice fulfilled the need of a drink offering, His blood literally pouring out when the soldier pierced His side with a spear (John 19:33).

Paul took the metaphor further, twice using the image of a drink offering to describe his own service. In Philippians 2:17, he challenged the church in Philippi to live a life worthy of his dedication to them. In 2 Timothy 4:6, he sensed the end of his ministry, again comparing his efforts to wine poured out of a vessel onto an altar.

  • The third voluntary offering was the peace offering, which consisted of any unblemished animal from the worshiper’s herd, and/or various grains or breads. This was a sacrifice of thanksgiving and fellowship followed by a shared meal. The high priest was given the breast of the animal; the officiating priest was given the right foreleg. These pieces of the offering were called the “wave offering” (see below) and the “heave offering” because they were waved or lifted over the altar during the ceremony. The fat, kidneys, and lobe of the liver were given to God (burnt), and the remainder of the animal was for the participants to eat, symbolizing God’s provision. The vow offering, thanksgiving offering, and freewill offering mentioned in the Old Testament were all peace offerings.

The modern idea of a peace offering is that of “a propitiatory or conciliatory gift.” A man who offends his wife will often visit a florist with the thought that bringing home flowers will help smooth things over—the bouquet will be a “peace offering” of sorts. Propitiate means “to make someone pleased or less angry by giving or saying something desired,” and conciliatory means “intended to placate or pacify.” These definitions are interesting because the phrase peace offering has come to mean something completely different—almost the exact opposite—of what it originally meant in the Bible.

A peace offering in the Old Testament Law is described in Leviticus 7:11–21. It was a voluntary sacrifice given to God in three specific instances. First, a peace offering could be given as a freewill offering, meaning that the worshiper was giving the peace offering as a way to say thank you for God’s unsought generosity. It was basically just a way to praise God for His goodness. The second way a peace offering could be given was alongside a fulfilled vow. A good example of this was when Hannah fulfilled her vow to God by bringing Samuel to the temple; on that occasion she also brought a peace offering to express the peace in her heart toward God concerning her sacrifice—it was a way to say, “I have no resentment; I am holding nothing back in the payment of my vow.” The third purpose of a peace offering was to give thanksgiving for God’s deliverance in an hour of dire need. None of these three reasons to sacrifice had anything to do with propitiation, with appeasing God, or with pacifying Him.

There were under the Old Covenant sacrifices intended to represent propitiation (Leviticus 1—24) but with the understanding that God has always been a God of grace (see Ephesians 2:8–9). He does not expect us to appease Him with our works but only to confess our need and dependence on Him. Under the Old Covenant, this relationship was expressed by the sacrificial system, which always looked forward to the sacrifice of the Messiah. Under the New Covenant, the Law has been written on our hearts (2 Corinthians 3:3), and the Holy Spirit of God gives us the power to live our lives accordingly (Romans 8:1–81 Thessalonians 1:5). The sacrifices we give now are spiritual (Hebrews 13:15) and living (Romans 12:1).

Wave Offering

The wave offering, part of the offerings of the Mosaic Law, was the symbolic act indicating that the offering was for the Lord. Portions of the things offered were literally waved in the air before the Lord. The wave offering is first seen in Exodus 29:19-28 in the description of the ordination ceremony of Aaron and his sons. This is the only instance where part of the wave offering was consumed by fire (Exodus 29:25). The remainder was “waved” to God but taken by Aaron, his sons, and Moses.

Other instances of wave offerings include the breast of a peace offering (Leviticus 7:28-34), a lamb from the cleansing sacrifice of a healed leper (Leviticus 14:12), and two loaves of bread and two lambs of the sacrifice affiliated with the Feast of Weeks (Leviticus 23:15-21). The largest wave offering was of an entire tribe. Because of their loyalty during the episode with the golden calf (Exodus 32), God accepted the Levites in the service of His temple in place of the firstborn male of each Israelite family (Numbers 3:12).

A wave offering was a portion of a sacrifice presented to God, then released by God for the use of those involved in the sacrifice. The meat fed the families of the priests. The Levites served first the tabernacle and then the temple, fulfilling the obligation of the rest of the Israelites. Both were God’s provision for those who sacrificed themselves in service to Him.

Most sacrifices in the Old Testament system were not eaten by worshipers, but the peace offering was meant to be eaten—only a portion of the animal or grain brought to the altar was burned; the rest was given back to the worshiper and to the poor and hungry. The beautiful picture here is of God’s provision for His people, both physically and spiritually. His grace and goodness are present throughout the offerings. In the peace offering, God was providing what we need: a way to thank Him for His goodness and physical sustenance.

Mandatory Sacrifices

There were two mandatory sacrifices in the Old Testament Law. The first was the sin offering. The purpose of the sin offering was to atone for sin and cleanse from defilement. There were five possible elements of a sin sacrifice—a young bull, a male goat, a female goat, a dove/pigeon, or 1/10 ephah of fine flour. The type of animal depended on the identity and financial situation of the giver. A female goat was the sin offering for the common person, fine flour was the sacrifice of the very poor, a young bull was offered for the high priest and the congregation as a whole, and so on. These sacrifices each had specific instructions for what to do with the blood of the animal during the ceremony. The fatty portions and lobe of the liver and kidneys were given to God (burnt); the rest of the animal was either totally burned on the altar and the ashes thrown outside the camp (in atoning for the high priest and congregation), or eaten within the tabernacle court.

The other mandatory sacrifice was the trespass offering, and this sacrifice was exclusively a ram. The trespass offering was given as atonement for unintentional sins that required reimbursement to an offended party, and also as a cleansing from defiling sins or physical maladies. Again, the fat portions, kidneys, and liver were offered to God, and the remainder of the ram had to be eaten inside the court of the tabernacle.

The sacrifices in the Old Testament pointed forward to the perfect and final sacrifice of Christ. As with the rest of the Law, the sacrifices were “are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Colossians 2:17). Christians today recognize Christ’s atoning death on the cross as the only needed sacrifice for sin, offered once for all (Hebrews 10:1–10). His death opened the “holy place” for us (Hebrews 10:19–22) so that we can freely enter God’s presence and offer our “sacrifice of praise” (Hebrews 13:15; cf. 9:11–284:14—5:10).

Worthy is the Lamb! Blessings!



  1. Well, I read the second part first! But the meaning of these sacrifices and how they relate to Christ is essential for us to understand. It would have been nice to take each sacrifice and show how Jesus fulfilled that particular one. Maybe a future post?

    Thanls Bruce!

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      • I must confess i skimmed over it because i have studied this out before. I didn’t remember seeing Christ’s fulfillment, so i went back and skimmed again! Missed it both times! Sorry, now that I looked closer it’s all there. Great post! Guess i shouldn’t skim so much!

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  2. This is going to be an amazing series, Bruce! Thank you for this! While I have studied a lot of this, it will be wonderful to review it and to have all of it compiled in one place… your blog which is, by the way, a fantastic resource for all those who wish to study Scripture in depth! Thank you; thank you.

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