5. The Sin Offering (Leviticus 4:1-5:13; 6:24-30)
Too many years ago to admit, while I was a student in Seminary, Haddon Robinson gave the men in one of our classes a stirring appeal to be creative, and to avoid getting into a rut. He suggested that instead of driving home the same old route, that we take a different one, and take the time to “smell the roses.” All-in-all it was a great encouragement. A friend and I happened to be walking out of class together. It was almost lunch time and my friend had a sack lunch in his hand. Not to overlook the point of Dr. Robinson’s exhortation, I turned to my friend, Bob, and said, “Hey, Bob, why don’t you do something different today? Why don’t you eat your sack and throw away the lunch?”
If we had not been such good friends, my friend might eaten his lunch and fed me the sack. Most of the time it would be foolish to throw away your lunch and eat the sack. I did read of one study where rats were fed a certain breakfast cereal. A control group of rats were fed the box. In this instance, the rats which ate the box got more nutritive value from the box than the others got from the cereal. As we read the account of the Sin Offering in Leviticus, we come to the rather amazing realization that to our way of thinking God instructed the Israelites to “eat the sack and throw away the lunch.” That is, the Israelites were commanded to kill the sacrificial animal, make use of its blood and its fat, and then dispose of the rest. Of all the things which a slain animal provided, what was the least useful? I think I can say that it would be those very things which the Israelites offered up to God—the fat of the animal, and its blood. The most valuable portion of the animal, the meat and the hide (plus some other, not so useful, things), were burned and left on the ash heap or they were given to the priest to eat. Thus, they ate the sack and threw away the lunch.
I have to tell you that this would have been a very difficult sacrifice for me to offer, if I had been living in Israel in those days. I used to work for a company that made add-on automobile air conditioners. One of the greatest agonies I experienced was to look at all the “goodies” which were thrown on the scrap heap, to be sold for a few cents a pound. Can you imagine being required to offer one of your best animals, having its blood and fat offered to God, and then watch two sides of “prime” beef being hauled off outside the camp to be incinerated and thrown on the ash heap? We would have to say, like those who agonized over the “waste” of the expensive perfume on the feet of Jesus, “What a waste!” (John 12:3-5).
In the case of the use of the expensive perfume to anoint the feet of our Lord, we can understand that it was not waste to expend the finest on Him who is the most worthy object of our worship. But what was so valuable to the Israelite that he could be persuaded to offer up his finest livestock in a way that appeared to be utterly wasteful? The answer to this question will be found when we discover that which is of higher value than a prime animal. That answer will be the result of our study of the Sin Offering of Leviticus. Let us listen well to this inspired portion of the Word of God.
In this message we will seek to discover those things which made the Sin Offering distinctive, and to find the unique contribution of this offering to the Israelites’ walk with God. We will then identify the principles which underlie this offering and attempt to apply them to 20th century Christianity.
When we come to the fourth chapter of the Book of Leviticus we can sense a change from the first three chapters. By and large, the offerings in Leviticus 1-3 can be found earlier in the Pentateuch (e.g. the Burnt Offering is found in Genesis 8:20; 22:2), while those in chapters 4 and following cannot be found until the Israelites reach Mt. Sinai and are given the law (e.g. the Sin Offering is first mentioned in Exodus 29:36).52 The offerings in chapters 1-3 are organized according to the animal being sacrificed, and usually begin with an expression like, “If his offering is …”
In chapter 4 the material is organized in accordance with the social categories, from the high priest to the common Israelite. The introductory formula is, “If _____ sins …” The expression, “a soothing aroma,” frequently found in chapters 1-3 is but seldom found in chapters 4 and 5 (4:31). The term “atonement,” on the other hand, is found but once in the first 3 chapters of Leviticus (1:4), but 9 times in chapters 4 and 5. The terms “guilt” and “guilty” are not found in chapters 1-3, but are each found 9 times in chapters 4 and 5. Chapters 1-3 are more concerned with the process of the sacrifice, while chapters 4-6 have more emphasis on the product of the process—forgiveness (not found once in chapters 1-3, 8 times in chapters 4 & 5).
An Overview of Leviticus Chapter 4
The structure of the passage dealing with the Sin Offering is somewhat baffling to me. Almost all of the commentaries understand the Sin Offering to be described in 4:1–5:13. The division is not as neat as this in my opinion because there is a kind of merging of the Sin Offering with the Guilt Offering in 5:1-13. For example, we read, “‘He shall also bring his guilt offering to the LORD for his sin which he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement on his behalf for his sin’”(Lev. 5:6).
In the same sentence the terms “guilt offering” and “sin offering” are employed, seemingly with respect to the same offering.
The fourth chapter of the Book of Leviticus deals with the Sin Offering of four different categories of people: the high priest (vv. 3-12); the whole congregation of Israel (vv. 13-21); a leader (vv. 22-26); and a commoner (vv. 27-35). In the first 13 verses of chapter 5 the approach changes. In verses 1-6 the reader is given some examples, which serve to illustrate what sins are or are not included in the category of “unintentional.” In verse 1 we are given an example of a sin which is not unintentional. The one who gives false testimony and has done so under oath has done this in a premeditated fashion. Thus, the person must bear his sin. Verses 2 and 3 suggest how a person might inadvertently and unknowingly come into contact with something unclean, and thus become guilty and in need of a Sin Offering. Verse 4 includes a case of inadvertent sin in one’s speech.
Verses 7-13 of chapter 5 are gracious in providing an exception for those who are poor. The one who cannot afford to sacrifice a lamb or a goat is allowed to sacrifice two turtledoves or two pigeons. The one who is so poor as not to be able to afford two birds is allowed, in verses 11-13, to offer a small quantity of grain. Thus, while not everyone could afford a Peace Offering, everyone was afforded the opportunity to make a Sin Offering. How gracious.
In this lesson I will be focusing largely on chapter 4. In order to convey the overall organization of chapter 4 I have summarizing its four major sections in chart form below (see chart at end of lesson). From this chart we can better visualize certain characteristics of the Sin Offering, as outlined in chapter 4.
Note from the chart those items which are common to all four categories of the Sin Offering. First, there is the common element of sin and of guilt. Regardless of the category, whether the high priest, the whole congregation, a leader, or a common citizen, all are in a condition of guilt due to sin. In all categories, an animal is sacrificed and its blood is shed and applied for atonement. Further, the fat of the animal was burned on the altar of burnt offering and the offerer got none of the meat.
Also, note the unity of the first two categories, as well as that of the second two categories. In the first two divisions (vv. 3-12, 13-21) the whole nation is guilty, and a bull is required for the Sin Offering. The blood is likewise used in the same way in the first two categories. Some of the blood is taken into the tent of meeting, where it is sprinkled onto53 (or in front of) the veil. Finally, the bull in both instances is burned up outside the camp. Thus we see that the first two sections are quite similar in scope and function.
So, too, with the second two categories (vv. 22-26, 27-35). In the case of the leader of Israel (vv. 22-26) or of a common Israelite (vv. 27-35), the sacrifice could be either a goat or a sheep, of either sex. The blood of this animal was not taken inside the tent of meeting, but was placed on the horns of the brazen altar of burnt offering, and the remainder of the blood was poured out at the base of this altar. The meat of these sacrificial animals could be eaten in a holy place by the male priests (Lev. 6:24-30).
The Uniqueness of the Sin Offering
This is but one of the offerings of Leviticus. We will understand it best by focusing our attention on what is unique about it. Let us consider several of the features of this offering which set it apart from the others:
(1) The Sin Offering is an offering for a specific sin. All of the blood sacrifices are related to sin, but the Sin Offering of Leviticus 4 is an offering for a specific, defined sin. It is not an offering for sin in general, or for a general state of sinfulness (which I believe is the function of the Burnt Offering). While chapter 4 deals with guilt in a more general way, chapter 5 begins to get very specific about sin: “‘Now if a person sins, after he hears a public adjuration to testify, when he is a witness, …’” (Lev. 5:1a). Thus, the Sin Offering was required when a person was aware of a specific act of sin, which needed to be atoned for.
(2) The Sin Offering was an offering for a known sin. Especially in chapter 4 the sins which are dealt with are those which, for some reason, were not immediately apparent, but which, in the course of time, came to a conscious level. The impression which we get is that the Sin Offering was to be made immediately after the knowledge of sin was present.
(3) The Sin Offering was a sacrifice for those sins which were unintentional (cf. 4:2, 13, 22, 27). The term “unintentional” is more carefully defined by God elsewhere:
‘Also if one person sins unintentionally, then he should offer a one year old female goat for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement before the LORD for the person who goes astray when he sins unintentionally, making atonement for him that he may be forgiven. You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the sons of Israel and for the alien who sojourns among them. But the person who does anything defiantly, whether he is native or an alien, that one is blaspheming the LORD; and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely cut off; his guilt shall be on him’ (Num. 15:27-31).
In some cases, the “unintentional” sin is one which is not recognized at the time committed. We might call this a “sin of ignorance.” In the case of the one who has given false testimony under oath (Lev. 5:1), this person has knowingly and deliberately sinned, and thus his sin cannot be called unintentional, and the Sin Offering cannot be offered. Instead, this person must “bear his guilt” (5:1).
(4) The Sin Offering made a different use of the blood and the body of the animal which was offered. In the case of a sin which brought guilt on the entire congregation,54 some of the blood of the bull was to be taken into the tent and sprinkled on the veil and placed on the horn of the golden altar of incense. The rest was poured at the base of the altar of burnt offering. In previous blood sacrifices, the blood was to be “sprinkled around on” the altar (cf. 3:2). The fat of the animal offered for the Sin Offering was burned like the Peace Offering, but the body of the animal was either burned completely outside the camp (the bull, Lev. 4:11-12, 21), or it was eaten by the males of the priests (Lev. 6:29). The offerer received none of the meat.
Principles to Be Learned From the Sin Offering
It stands to reason that the Sin Offering should teach us something about sin. There are several important principles to learn which relate to sin which are evident in the texts pertaining to the sin offering.
(1) Sin is that which God defines as evil. Sin is that which is inconsistent with the righteousness of God. Thus, it is only God, who alone is righteous, who can define sin. Leviticus informs us that sin is that which is contrary to God’s revealed Word: “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘If a person sins unintentionally in any of the things which the LORD has commanded not to be done, and commits any of them” (Lev. 4:2, emphasis mine). Sin is whatever God declares to be evil. There are some “sins” which nearly any culture recognizes as sin, and which are thus forbidden. Stealing, lying, and murder, for example, are almost universally defined as evils. These “sins” are also “crimes.” But there are a number of sins which are not crimes. In fact there are a number of sins (by God’s definition) which are considered beneficial by society. Self-seeking, for example, is considered a positive thing. There are other attitudes or actions which, if not commended, are at least accepted with charity (homosexuality, for example).
It is evident that our culture is not particularly interested in what God calls sin. So long as it is legal, it is possible. Sometimes even what isn’t legal (e.g. smoking pot or cheating on income tax) is socially acceptable. Those who are incarcerated in prison are not necessarily more sinful, but have erred by offending society’s standard of what is acceptable (crimes involving the money of others are especially detested).
I find that a number of the “sins” which are enumerated in the Pentateuch are not really those things which men might consider evil. Eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for example, seemed wise. God’s prohibition seemed unduly harsh, as Satan portrayed it.
Some have tried to show a good reason for every prohibition. For example, they would try to demonstrate that the “unclean” foods of the Bible were those which would be detrimental to a society which had no refrigeration, or whatever. I think this misses the point. Sin is whatever God says is sin, whether or not we have a good explanation for why it is evil. Obedience is best evidenced by our willingness to do something which we would rather not do, for reasons we don’t understand, simply because God says so. Some sins of the Old Testament are arbitrary, in my opinion, and purposefully so, to teach the people of God to trust and to obey a God whose thoughts are higher than the thoughts of men.
(2) Sin may be either ignorant or willful; active or passive. The guilt which the Sin Offering atones for is that from a sin which was unintentional and unknown at the moment the sin was committed. This means that we can sin even when we don’t intend to. Our culture tends to condemn only those sins which are intentional. God condemns all sin. Indeed, there is no provision made in the law for intentional sin. The kind of sin for which the Sin Offering is applicable is that which was unintentional.
We may console ourselves that we are not guilty because we did not mean to hurt another. If, however, our negligence has caused injury to another, we are guilty. If we fail to do what we should have done, we have sinned. Though we may not have intended to hurt a loved one by a harsh word, we have nevertheless done them harm. Sins of inaction or of ignorance are sins. God says so.
Let me get very practical for a moment. We have made a great deal of the “strong-willed child.” To us, there is nothing more offensive than a child who bows his neck, looks us in the eye, and defies us. I agree, this is sin, and it is offensive to me. But we often fail to recognize that sin also has its passive form. Is the child who says, “No!” any more sinful than the child who says he will obey, only to fail to do so? Is the child who resists to get his way any more sinful than the child who gives in, only to get what he wants? God’s Word informs us that passive sin is sin, that sins of inaction are sins, too, that ignorance is no excuse for wrong-doing.
(3) Sin results in defilement. Repeatedly in the Old Testament we find that sin brings defilement, not only to the sinner, but to others, and this even includes places.55 After a list of prohibitions, God said to the Israelites,
‘Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. For the land has become defiled, therefore I have spewed out its inhabitants … Thus you are to keep My charge, that you do not practice any of the abominable customs which have been practiced before you, so as not to defile yourselves with them; I am the LORD your God’ (Lev. 18:24-25, 30).
“And I brought you into the fruitful land, To eat its fruit and its good things. But you came and defiled My land, And My inheritance you made an abomination” (Jer. 2:7).
Furthermore, all the officials of the priests and the people were very unfaithful following all the abominations of the nations; and they defiled the house of the LORD which He had sanctified in Jerusalem (2 Chron. 36:14).
It is most enlightening to take note of those sins which Israel committed which were said to defile the people, the land, and even the dwelling place of God:
Sexual immorality (Lev. 18:24-30)
Bloodshed (Num. 35:29-34)
Occult practices (Lev. 19:31; 20:6)
Infant sacrifice (Lev. 20:1-5)
Divorce (Jer. 3:1)
False worship (Jer. 16:18)
Most of these defiling sins are summed up in the Book of Ezekiel:
“For they have committed adultery, and blood is on their hands. Thus they have committed adultery with their idols and even caused their sons, whom they bore to Me, to pass through the fire to them as food. Again, they have done this to Me: they have defiled My sanctuary on the same day and have profaned My sabbaths” (Ezek. 23:37-38).
(4) Sin is exceedingly costly. A number of years ago our family went to Six Flags with another family from the church. As we sat there watching the rides I turned to my friend and said, “Now here is a beautiful illustration of sin: the price is high and the ride is short.” That is just how it is with sin. When you think of what it would cost an Israelite who wished to maintain his walk with God, it would have been a religion almost too costly to be able to afford. No wonder God promised to prosper this people greatly!
(5) The only solution for the guilt of sin is blood atonement. In chapter 4 there is a sequence of terms which are repeated. In essence, the sequence is as follows:
There is sin, resulting in guilt.
There is a blood sacrifice, resulting in atonement and forgiveness.
If sin defiles, blood that is shed in accordance with God’s commandments purifies and sanctifies. Thus, it was through the sprinkling of shed blood that the tabernacle, all of its furnishings, and the priests were purified (cf. Lev. 8). The Sin Offering was holy, and what it touched was also made holy: “‘Anyone who touches its flesh shall become consecrated; and when any of its blood splashes on a garment, in a holy place you shall wash what was splashed on’” (Lev. 6:27).
I agree with those who hold that the principle function of the Sin Offering was to purify those people and things which were defiled by sin.56 Only by the shedding of innocent blood, in accordance with the instructions of God, could one’s sins be atoned for.
This explains why only the blood and the fat of the Sin Offering were used, while the rest was disposed of. By using the blood and throwing away the rest of the animal, God was demonstrating in a very dramatic fashion that it was only the blood that atoned for Israel’s sin; only the blood cleansed the tabernacle, the priests, the people, and the land from the defilement caused by the sin of the people. In the words of the writer to the Hebrews, “… without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22).
(6) The death of Christ, who died once and for all, has made atonement for man’s sin, and assures him of forgiveness. The Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah in chapter 53 spoke of the Messiah, whose shed blood would atone for men’s sins:
Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him (Isa. 53:4-6, cf. also vv. 7-8, 10-12).
And so it was that when John the Baptist saw our Lord he proclaimed to the nation Israel, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The Book of Hebrews demonstrates that the Lord Jesus Christ was the sinless Lamb of God, whose death was vastly superior to that of bulls and goats, thus making atonement for men, once for all:
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Heb. 9:11-14).
With these words the apostle Peter agrees (cf. 1 Pet. 1:13-21). Jesus Christ is the Sin-bearer, who died once for all, that the wrath of a holy God might be appeased and that the defilement of sin might be cleansed. In the words of the hymn writer, “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
From these principles there are several immediate levels of application. The first pertains to the matter of your personal salvation.
Do you see the value which God has assigned to the blood of an innocent victim, which is shed in place of the sinner? Have you come to personally accept the shed blood of Christ as God’s provision for your sins? The terms “salvation” and “born again” are all too frequently misunderstood because we use unbiblical terminology to define what they mean. We talk, for example, about “asking Jesus into your heart,” a totally unbiblical phrase, and one which completely ignores the shed blood of Christ.
Liberal theologians, along with countless Americans, who are lost in their sins, want to retain certain things about Jesus, but choose to reject the most important part of His person and work. They want to honor Him as a humanitarian, a healer, a teacher and philosopher, a great example, but they do not want anything to do with His sacrificial death, His shed blood. By God’s definition this is taking the sack, but throwing out the lunch. The essence of Christ’s work for sinful man is the shedding of His blood. I urge you to trust in His blood for your salvation, for the cleansing from your sins.
The teaching of Leviticus on the Sin Offering has something very important to say to the Christian about personal sanctification. Whenever we sin, we need to remember that it is the shed blood of Christ which God has provided for our forgiveness. Repentance and confession is the means for experiencing that forgiveness and cleansing on a daily basis.
Knowing the high price which Christ has paid for our forgiveness should also cause us to take sin very seriously. Every sin, no matter how insignificant it may seem, required the blood of Christ to be shed. Let us never forget that while forgiveness is free, it was not obtained cheaply. Here is a motivation for godly living.
Then, too, let us be reminded of the seriousness of sin. God takes sin very seriously. God takes unintentional sin more seriously than we take willful sin. And God takes willful sin even more seriously than we wish to think about:
For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? (Heb. 10:26-29).
I am not for a moment suggesting that Christians are not eternally saved and secure, but I am suggesting that the willful sin of a wayward saint is a very sobering matter, and one which will not allow that wayward believer to sense any safety and security in what he or she is doing. Let us learn from both the Old and the New Testament how much God hates sin.
Finally, I must say to you that “ignorance is not bliss,” in spite of those who would have you think so. The Israelites were held accountable for the sins they committed ignorantly. Many contemporary Christians seem to think that if they don’t study their Bibles, if they don’t familiarize themselves with the standards and principles God has given in the Bible, they will not be responsible for their sins committed in ignorance. Not so! The Sin Offering strongly suggests that we had better become careful students of the revealed Word of God, for it is disobedience to His word that constitutes sin.
The Sin Offering in Leviticus 4
Anointed priest sins;
The whole congretation (v 13)
One of Israel’s leaders (v 22)
One of the common people (v 27)
Male Goat (v 23)
Female Goat or
Animal brought to the doorway of the tent of meeting.
Some of the blood is taken into the tent of meeting and sprinkled seven times in front of the veil.
Some blood put on horns of the altar of incense in the tent.
The rest of the blood poured out at the bse of the altar of burnt offering.
Some of the blood put on the horns of the altar of burnt offering.
The rest of the blood poured out at the base of the altar of burnt offering.
(vv 30, 34)
The fat of the sacrificial animal was burned on the altar to God.
(vv 31, 35)
The remainder of the bull burned in a clean place outside the camp.
The priest who offered the animal ate it in the court of the tent of meeting.
52 “The sacrifices treated in chap. i.-iii. are introduced by their names, as though already known, for the purpose of giving them a legal sanction. But in chap. iv. and v. sacrifices are appointed for different offences, which receive their names for the first time from the objects to which they apply … a clear proof that the sin and debt offerings were introduced at the same time as the Mosaic law.” C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. by James Martin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968 [reprint]), II, p. 302.
53 Wenham thinks that while the expression may refer to the blood being sprinkled before the curtain, it more likely suggests that the blood was sprinkled on “… the face (surface) of the curtain.” Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), p. 90, cf. fn. 7.
54 The sin of the “anointed priest,” apparently a synonym for the high priest, could bring guilt upon the whole congregation. The nature of the work of the priest (in and about the tent of meeting) would explain the way in which the tent could be defiled, and thus all the people pay the price. The high priest also serves as the representative of the people, and thus when he sins, he sins on the people’s behalf. This seems to be an illustration of the principle of federal headship (cp. Heb. 7:1-10). While the principle works to the detriment of the people in the case of the sinful high priests, it is to the benefit of believers in the perfect High Priest, Jesus Christ (cf. Hebrews 7).
55 In the Old Testament sin is said to defile: (1) the people (cf. Jer. 2:23; Ezek. 20:43; Hos. 5:3; 6:10); (2) the place (Lev. 18:24-30; 20:2; Num. 19:20*; Deut. 21:23; 2 Chron. 36:14*; Ps. 106:38; Isa. 24:5; Jer. 2:7*; 3:1, 2, 9); and, (3) the name of God (cf. Lev. 20:3; Ezek. 43:8).
56 “The word hatta’t comes from a verbal form meaning ‘purify,’ so that the noun signifies ‘a sacrifice procuring purification.’ The function of this offering is thus to purify the place of worship, making it holy to the Lord …, and enabling God to dwell once again amongst His people.” R. K. Harrison, Leviticus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), p. 61.
“Purification is the main element in the purification sacrifice. Sin not only angers God and deprives him of his due, it also makes his sanctuary unclean. A holy God cannot dwell amid uncleanness. The purification offering purifies the place of worship, so that God may be present among his people. This interpretation of the term seems to be compatible with its root meaning, and to explain the rituals of blood sprinkling peculiar to it.” Wenham, p. 89.