A better sacrifice

You didn’t want a sacrifice or an offering,
    but you prepared a body for me;
you weren’t pleased with entirely burned offerings or a sin offering.
    So then I said,
    “Look, I’ve come to do your will, God.
    This has been written about me in the scroll.” (Heb 10:5-7, CEB)

These words from the book of Hebrews follow a long line of tradition dating back to the Psalms and prophets, critiquing the wooden way in which God’s people followed the rules of the sacrificial system. Famously, for example, the prophet Micah once wrote:

With what should I approach the Lord
        and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings,
        with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
        with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime;
        the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?
He has told you, human one, what is good and
        what the Lord requires from you:
            to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God
. (Micah 6:6-8)

Notice how the prophet ramps up the rhetoric. So, what counts as an acceptable sacrifice? A truly worthy sacrifice? Burnt offerings are so routine. A calf, a lamb… Been there, done that. How about whole herds of rams, whole rivers of oil? Maybe child sacrifice for a sin offering?

The reader is caught in the absurdity of the psalmist’s exaggeration. That’s when the psalmist makes his the point: No, of course not. God doesn’t care about the sacrifice itself. What matters is what kind of person you are. What he really wants is a people of justice, mercy, and humility. And if you really honored God, if you really cared about true righteousness and not rote religion, you’d know that already.

In Psalm 50, the psalmist makes a similar point, recording an oracle straight from the mouth of God. God’s people have fallen into a way of offering sacrifice that entirely misses the point. Again, the absurdity of empty ritual is followed by what God really wants from his people:

Do I eat bulls’ meat?
    Do I drink goats’ blood?
Offer God a sacrifice of thanksgiving!
    Fulfill the promises you made to the Most High!
(vss. 13-14)

Back to Hebrews. In the quote with which this post began, the writer of Hebrews takes the words of Psalm 40:6-8 and puts them in the mouth of Jesus. The ancient sacrificial system, the writer argues, was inadequate; sacrifices would have to be offered again and again, “because it’s impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin” (Heb 10:4). But Christ is both our perfect high priest and the perfect sacrifice; through his blood and his blood alone there is forgiveness of sin (Heb 10:8-18), making the old system of sacrifice obsolete.

In its place, the writer of Hebrews advises: “So let’s continually offer up a sacrifice of praise through him, which is the fruit from our lips that confess his name” (13:15, emphasis added). This is not, as the quotes from Micah 6 and Psalm 50 would suggest, a new idea. The purpose of sacrifice is not somehow to feed a hungry God or impress him with our generosity; it is to demonstrate our deep gratitude for all that God is and has done.

We can do this by bringing him our praise and confessing who he is to others.

. . .

Previously we noted how, in Psalm 40, the psalmist gushed that God’s wondrous deeds on behalf of his people were too numerous to count. Today, one might say, “Man, don’t get me started!”

But that doesn’t mean that the psalmist kept silent. Quite the contrary, it seems he can’t hold back:

I’ve told the good news of your righteousness
    in the great assembly.
    I didn’t hold anything back—
        as you well know, Lord!
I didn’t keep your righteousness only to myself.
    I declared your faithfulness and your salvation.
I didn’t hide your loyal love and trustworthiness
    from the great assembly
. (vss. 9-10)

Surely this could have been said in fewer words! The psalmist seems to say the same thing over and over. He seems to be telling God that he’s fulfilled his vow of praise (a theme that comes up repeatedly in the Psalms). On that basis, then, he offers his plea: “So now you, Lord—don’t hold back any of your compassion from me” (vs. 11).

We’ll look more closely at the psalmist’s plea in upcoming posts. But for now, consider the very idea of a “sacrifice of praise.” We sometimes think of praise as a spontaneous emotional response to good fortune. And that’s not wrong, as far as it goes. Hopefully, when we experience God’s goodness, we reflexively respond with praise and thanksgiving.

But the passages we’ve quoted here seem to suggest something other than a momentary experience of gratitude; they point to something more like a responsibility to bear witness to others, to give concrete expression to our gratitude by telling others what God has done.

We need, in other words, to tell our stories, just as we need to hear the stories of others. I’ll say more about this in coming posts.

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