Did Jesus oppose the Jewish system of sacrificing animals? That’s one of several claims that a reader named Bobby English made recently: he claims that Christ’s cleansing of the Temple was about His desire to eliminate this bloody sacrificial system, and that it wasn’t even what was called for in the Old Covenant. It turns out he’s getting these claims from something called the Nazarene Way of Essenic Studies. Here are the relevant claims:
Undergirding the theory that it was the cheating moneychangers whom Jesus targeted as the culprits in the system of animal sacrifice, is the claim that the whole process had become “too commercial.” This is akin to claiming that the institution of slavery had to be dismantled because it had became too commercial. Although both Temple sacrifices and human slavery had a firm economic foundation, it was the inherent immorality of those systems that brought together the historical forces which finally led to their collapse.
Several hundred years after prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea had denounced the sacrificial slaughter of animals, Jesus carried out what is euphemistically called the Cleansing of the Temple. It was just before Passover and he disrupted the buying and selling of animals that were being purchased for slaughter. And because Christian scholars and religious leaders continue to ignore biblical denunciations of that bloody worship, they also try to obscure the reason for Christ’s assault on the system.
They have done this by focusing on the moneychangers, although they were only minor players in the drama that took place. It was the cult of sacrifice that Jesus tried to dismantle, not the system of monetary exchange. In all three gospel accounts of the event, those who provided the animals for sacrifice are mentioned first: they were the primary focus of Christ’s outrage.[….]
And in biblical times, most people were illiterate and dependant on what their religious leaders taught them concerning the scriptures. But it is not easy to understand why contemporary Christians uphold the validity of the cult of animal sacrifice. In an age of widespread literacy, there is a choice to be made. The bible clearly presents an ongoing conflict between those forces that demanded sacrificial victims in the name of God, and those forces that opposed it as a man-made perversion. And Jesus demonstrated The Way of the Nazoreans.
And because there is a choice to be made, it is deeply disturbing to see Christian leaders joining hands across the centuries with their ancient counterparts, in order to validate a system of worship in which the house of God became a giant slaughterhouse, awash in the blood of its victims.
This is a baffling misreading of Sacred Scripture. Consider three major points: the God-Man Jesus Christ established the blood sacrificial system; He participated in it; and He became it.
I. Christ Established the Sacrificial System.
The sacrificial system English condemns is of divine origin. The animals being sold in the Temple in John 2:16 were “oxen and sheep and pigeons,” so let’s look specifically at those. Where did this system originate? With God Himself. He’s the one who specifically instructed the Israelites to offer oxen and sheep (Exodus 20:24): “An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you.” He’s also the one who called for the sacrifice of pigeons (Leviticus 5:5-10):
When a man is guilty in any of these, he shall confess the sin he has committed, and he shall bring his guilt offering to the Lord for the sin which he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat, for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin.
But if he cannot afford a lamb, then he shall bring, as his guilt offering to the Lord for the sin which he has committed, two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. He shall bring them to the priest, who shall offer first the one for the sin offering; he shall wring its head from its neck, but shall not sever it, and he shall sprinkle some of the blood of the sin offering on the side of the altar, while the rest of the blood shall be drained out at the base of the altar; it is a sin offering. Then he shall offer the second for a burnt offering according to the ordinance; and the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin which he has committed, and he shall be forgiven.
So the claim that God didn’t desire this system in the Old Covenant is just bizarrely wrong. And the claim that Christ hated this system that He, as part of the Triune Godhead, created, is only slightly less odd, and no less wrong.
So God created this system, but why? And did it work? Did this bloody sacrificial system do anything? The passage above speaks of the priest atoning for sins through these sacrifices, but Hebrews 10:11 says that “every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” So what’s going on here?
The simplest answer is twofold. First, these sacrifices are a foreshadowing of the Cross (more on that later). Second, they did work, but as acts of faith, not because the sacrifices themselves possessed some power. In other words, it wasn’t that a dead ox has the power to take away sins. It’s that, in participating in the sacrificial system, the Jews were acting upon their faith in God, and it is this active faith that saved them (and is the forebear of the faith that saves us, today).
If that distinction doesn’t make immediate sense, consider the more extreme case of Abraham’s would-be sacrifice of Isaac. St. James poses the rhetorical question, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?” (James 2:21). Yet obviously, James isn’t suggesting that human sacrifice is capable of bringing about justification. And God prevented Abraham from going through with the sacrifice, lest we take away the wrong lesson. Abraham is praised by God (and praised in the New Testament) for his faith: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son,” (Heb. 11:17).
But since this is the case,the Jewish sacrificial system had its efficacy entirely through faith, not through any merit inherent in animal sacrifice. And that’s why, when the Israelites repeatedly fall into a legalism that places the emphasis on the sacrifice (rather than faith, obedience, or love) that God reorders their priorities. This is perhaps clearest in Psalm 51:16-19,
For thou hast no delight in sacrifice;
were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
then wilt thou delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on thy altar.
So sacrifices are worthwhile only if done from the heart. Otherwise, they’re a waste of time. And so, when the Israelites stray, God tells them that they’re wasting their time offering rote sacrifices. Those passages, stripped of all of context (including the rest of Scripture) Bobby English and by Nazarene Way of Essenic Studies come away thinking that all sacrifices are a waste of time.
II. Christ Participated in the Sacrificial System
In Luke 2:22-32, Joseph and Mary bring the Christ Child up to Jerusalem for two reasons: to present Him to the Lord (according to the Law), and to participate in the bloody sacrificial system:
And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.”
You might recognize the passage that St. Luke is quoting, by the way: it’s Leviticus 5:5-10, quoted above. And it’s important to note here that nothing in this passage suggest that Jesus’ parents are sinning by participating in the sacrificial system. Quite the contrary: we seen that the Holy Spirit chose to act at this moment, when His parents were fulfilling the duties of the Law, to lead the prophet Simeon to encounter Christ.
Nor was this a one-time participation in the sacrificial system. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph went up every year at Passover to participate in the sacrifice of the Passover lamb. Luke 2:41-42 tells us that “his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover,” and that when Christ “was twelve years old, they went up according to custom.”
III. Christ Became a Bloody Sacrifice
Finally, I alluded earlier to the fact that the whole purpose of the sacrificial system was to point towards the Cross. We see references to this large and small: for example, St. Paul says to “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). That could hardly be more explicit, and it’s unthinkable that Paul would be suggesting Christ is the New Covenant version of something wicked.
St. Thomas Aquinas explains this succinctly, in a passage of the Summa Theologiae rich in Scriptural citations:
Now of all the gifts which God vouchsafed to mankind after they had fallen away by sin, the chief is that He gave His Son; wherefore it is written (John 3:16): “God so loved the world, as to give His only-begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in Him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting.” Consequently the chief sacrifice is that whereby Christ Himself “delivered Himself . . . to God for an odor of sweetness” (Ephesians 5:2). And for this reason all the other sacrifices of the Old Law were offered up in order to foreshadow this one individual and paramount sacrifice–the imperfect forecasting the perfect. Hence the Apostle says (Hebrews 10:11) that the priest of the Old Law “often” offered “the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: but” Christ offered “one sacrifice for sins, for ever.” And since the reason of the figure is taken from that which the figure represents, therefore the reasons of the figurative sacrifices of the Old Law should be taken from the true sacrifice of Christ.
With all of this out of the way, it should be eminently clear that Christ’s driving out the moneylenders was because they were treating the Temple as a marketplace. In other words, it wasn’t about what they were selling, but where they were selling. Sacred space matters, a concept lost on many modern megachurches. There’s a reason that Jesus doesn’t say, “stop hurting those animals!” He says, “Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade” (John 2:16). And it’s why He accuses them of turning the Temple into “a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17).