True Repentance for Believers

In the Book of Leviticus, the Lord speaks authoritatively to Moses, prescribing very precisely the order and manner of worship, and the sacrifices. They were not to devise services for themselves, and even in our day of greater liberty we are not to create expressions of worship not seen in the New Testament.

Moses is told: ‘If any man of you [note the individual is in view] bring an offering unto the Lord, ye shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd, and of the flock’ (Leviticus 1.2).

An individual is moved in his heart to repent before God, and to show his trust in God’s mercy by the symbolic sacrifice of an animal. Hopefully, he will have in his mind the great expectation of the Israelites, that the seed of Abraham, a great Descendant, the Messiah, will one day come and bring about the purchase of salvation for all who look to him. Messiah is always in the picture in the Book of Leviticus, and we see him constantly.

What are the sacrifices about? Are they similar to the cultic practices of the pagans? No, they are not. They speak volumes, being performed in the light of a coming Saviour. That, at least, is how it should have been for sincere and thoughtful Israelites.

Back in the Garden of Eden, immediately after the Fall of man, the seed of the woman had been promised, who would bruise or crush the serpent’s head. As time went by successive promises made it clearer still that the promised One would be divine.

This same great Descendant was then promised to Abraham, once then twice, then a third time, then a fourth time, the One through whom all families of the earth would be blessed. Then the promises were repeated to successive patriarchs, Jacob speaking of the longed-for coming of ‘Shiloh’ – meaning, the One who will be sent, or the Reconciler. Every rite and ceremony of the old era is symbolic, relating (in the mind of the faithful) to this expected Redeemer, who would deal with the problem of sin and guilt.

In the light of this, how do all the sacrifices contribute to our spiritual lives today? They are but symbols. They could not actually take away sin. The people would have realised that (as Hebrews 10.1-3 points out), because the same sacrifices were performed over and over again. The sin was still there, not yet being taken away. That waited for the great Descendant. But in the meantime, by trusting in the mercy of God and the principle of atonement, they could symbolically convey their sin to the sacrificed bullock or the sheep or goat, and trust that it would be forgiven. The symbols were assurances or promises, but the real and effective atoning work would be the mysterious work of Messiah.

Sincerity would be vital for the one who brought his oblation… God observes the heart.

Sincerity would be vital for the one who brought his oblation. ‘He shall offer it of his own voluntary will at the door of the tabernacle’ (Leviticus 1.3). He was not to rush in for he was a sinner, but would make his atonement offering at the door of the holy tent, ‘before the Lord’. The two components of this procedure were — offering outside because he was rejected by God until repentant and forgiven, and also ‘before the Lord’, reminding him of the necessity of sincerity. God observes the heart.

Then the offerer ‘shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt ­offering’, to identify with the beast that is taking his sin by symbolic transfer, ‘and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.’ The word ‘atonement’ means that the sin will be covered or removed, to be out of God’s sight and justice.

When we think of the usefulness of this picture, we could almost wish we had such a ceremony today. We dare not wish this, but you could almost do so, to make us think. To lay our hand on some representative object, and think our sin has to be transferred to the Son of the living God, may make us think more of the reality of our Saviour’s work for us, and the consequences of our sin.

Did the Jews of old have an advantage over us by having such a symbol? The answer is no, because they did not have a clear view of Christ. They had to work with a mere symbol. We have the clear light of the Gospel, and repent by faith alone, but we must think, and feel deeply what we have laid upon Christ by our sin.

‘My sin,’ the offerer realised, ‘must be laid on another. This animal must die in my place.’

A shock awaits us when we read (in verse five) — ‘And he shall kill the bullock before the Lord.’ We are ‘townies’, at least most of us are, in this place. Killing a bullock would have a tremendous effect upon us. To stand outside the holy place, and slaughter the animal ourselves, to make our symbolic atonement, would be an ordeal for us. It constitutes a dramatic act. For one who works as a butcher or a slaughterhouse employee, it may seem a normal thing to do, but for most of us it is a colossal thing to do. The offerer of those days did not hand over to the priests a living creature. They did later on when the crowds grew too large, but originally they killed the sacrificial animal themselves, and this stamped on the mind the seriousness of forgiveness. ‘My sin,’ the offerer realised, ‘must be laid on another. This animal must die in my place.’

We should never think that the ceremonies of old were superfluous for they carried a tremendous impact on the offerers. However, the offerer not only kills the animal, he also flays it or skins it, and the priest deals with it from that point on. It is all designed to bring home the fact that death is the inevitable punishment of sin. It speaks to us today by urging us to be much more serious in repentance, remembering always that our Saviour had all our guilt transferred to him, assuming the responsibility, pain and agony, and punishment that we, in effect, inflicted upon him. Formal worshippers under the law presumably hardened themselves to the ordeal, but where there was sincerity of heart, it was a harrowing experience. For our part today we should never repent lightly.

We read that the priests would bring the blood of the offering and ‘sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation’. This was not done in an obscure corner, but sprinkled ostentatiously around the altar to be accepted by God. It was a lot of blood, poured out in a protracted, obvious manner, reminding the offerer of the greatness of his sin. In that blood, sin became almost visible.

But why were the priests required to cut the carcasses and lay first the wood then the pieces in a precise order on the fire of the altar? Because all had to be done as God had prescribed, in a formal manner in a certain place by certain people. You could not devise your own way of repentance or worship. Your repentance must follow a sincere and serious form and order. There would only be one place in Israel where sacrifices for sin could be made, just as there would be only one place where Christ would come and suffer for his own; one place where sins may be forgiven — Calvary’s cross.

The prescribed offering continued (verse nine) — ‘but his inwards [intestines] and his legs shall he wash in water.’ That part of the body was to be regarded as unclean, and so were the legs, for they could be contaminated by discharge and were therefore not fit to be offered without first being washed. The offering must be clean, being an offering of perfect obedience on behalf of the sinner. Nothing of this evil world clung to Christ. Throughout his earthly walk he did not conform in any way to the sins and ways of this world, and even that is foreshadowed in these offerings here.

Then, with the burning of the offering we read an oft-repeated phrase — ‘of a sweet savour unto the Lord’. The offerer is made to think, ‘I have to be clean and pure, and I am not. I depend not only on a substitutionary atonement, but I depend upon the purity and holiness of another to be offered up on my behalf.’

In the second chapter of Leviticus we are introduced to the food offering: ‘And when any will offer a meat offering’, or a food offering, a meal offering. Some translate it grain offering. It is actually of refined white flour, from which bread or unleavened bread and cakes might be made. What is the meal offering? It is clearly an offering of obedience and righteousness, but particularly of a refined character. We are meant to bring forth such fruits of character and behaviour, but we fail to do so.

Flour is a refined product and also, in a sense, is the oil that was used in cooking. Frankincense was certainly refined, the ground tree resin that was used to add fragrance to the offering. The meal offering was not so much for atonement as for acceptance, hence the ‘sweet savour’. Much of this offering would go to the priests for their health and support, but some was offered on the altar. ‘It is a thing,’ says the Scripture, ‘most holy of the offerings of the Lord made by fire.’

The worshipper is to think – This is my holiness offered up for me. I have none of my own to make me acceptable to the Lord. This food offering, meat offering, meal offering represents the holiness and the refined character that I should have made — love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and self-control (all the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5.22-23). Acts of unselfishness, pure, edifying words, good works and godly disposition, refined products of character and life, are all offered for us by Christ the Lord.

In olden times, as the offering burned and the aroma spread, the sincere offerer would pledge himself afresh to be a better person, producing refined acts of love by the enabling help of the Lord.

We pledge ourselves today also, longing to be a sweet savour of Christ wherever the Lord places us: not testy people, difficult people, cold people, unhelpful people, unfriendly people, but a sweet savour of the presence of Christ.

        There are some very significant restrictions in the old rules of worship. We note that the eleventh verse of the chapter demands that — ‘No meat offering, which ye shall bring unto the Lord, shall be made with leaven.’ No leaven! ‘For ye shall burn no leaven, nor any honey.’

We think of honey as something good, but there is a reason why it must not go into any offering made by fire. We are told that honey, if it is burned in the mix, will soon take on fermenting properties. It will act like leaven, and there must be no fermentation, for that stands for corruption. It must not be there. It stands for novelty and influence which interferes with the original prescription in some way. There must be the refined products of flour, frankincense and pure olive oil, and nothing else – nothing that would dramatically change the structure of these products, and alter or corrupt them.

This refers to nothing other than the corruption of the world, and it was obvious to the worshipper of those days. Today, however, this principle is frequently abandoned even by Bible believers. Many claim complete liberty or freedom from biblical direction and example, bringing in the bands, contemporary entertainment music and even drama into Christian worship, and doing whatever they like. Innovation is ‘in’ — the quest to make an impression, to create an effect, to make things more interesting to the flesh. One of the most obvious messages to us from the orderliness of Old Testament proceedings is — do nothing to corrupt sincere worship; do nothing that is foreign to the prescription. Today we need to be taught all over again. It is as though believers need to be brought into a great classroom and made to learn (as one would teach little children the ancient ceremonies) the most basic principles of obedience to God. Here they are set out before us — no leaven, no tampering, no adding to worship things that do not belong.

A further rule with an abiding message is given in verse thirteen — ‘And every oblation of thy meat offering shalt thou season with salt; neither shalt thou suffer the salt of the covenant of thy God to be lacking from thy meat offering.’

Why with salt? Because, as a preservative, it reminds us of the covenant that God had made with them. In other words, as far as God is concerned, from his side of the relationship with his people, he will be absolutely faithful. If they confess their sins, those sins will stay forgiven. Salt keeps things. This is the meaning of the salt of the covenant. If God makes promises to his people, they will be kept.

From our side also there should be the ‘salt’ of lasting repentance of sin. If we are serious, we will not lightly repeat the same sin tomorrow. Salt indicates the faithfulness and preservation of the Spirit, and the durability of our repentance and commitment.

In those days, salt was precious. Perhaps an offerer may have thought it wasteful extravagance to use salt on an offering to be immediately burned up. But they must do it because the symbol of permanence and duration was so important. And if we come before God pleading for his forgiveness, and pleading the provided righteousness of Christ, we must intend to strive to maintain righteousness in ourselves. God gives security, and we must give faithfulness.

It is by the astonishing kindness of God that we go to him through Calvary; through the eternal Son of God.

       We cannot here reflect on the five different kinds of offering in the worship of the Old Covenant that reflect aspects of the atoning death of Christ. For the moment we may think of the immense amount of preparation that the people of old were required to make. It leads us to ask — how much preparation do we do for worship? For some on Sunday mornings it is a sprint from the bed to the back gallery of the church, in our case the very back row of the rear gallery, because that is all the space that is left, or even further back in the CCTV areas. Where is the preparation for worship? What if God had caused us to be born in the old era, when you had to carefully select your perfect animal, then get it to the place of worship, then execute it yourself, then skin it, and finally hand it to the priests as a token of your heartfelt repentance? We have the light of the Gospel, and the unencumbered simplicity of worship that it has brought, but this does not mean we should take advantage of it by not preparing our hearts and being ready for a mighty and privileged encounter with the living God. Surely we learn from the sacrifices of old that God requires a prepared and orderly approach, and a thoughtful approach. It is by the astonishing kindness of God that we go to him through Calvary; through the eternal Son of God. As you go, see him slain for you, and see in your mind his Calvary work rather as you would have seen the bullock, the sheep, the goat, the turtle dove, or the pigeon slain. Pray that the Lord may bring it home to your heart with fresh reality. Feel that you have done it to him. Reflect as Paul Gerhardt did in his hymn —

Extended on a cursèd tree,

   Besmeared with dust, and sweat, and blood,

See there, the King of glory see!

   Sinks and expires the Son of God.


Who, who, my Saviour, this has done?

   Who would Thy sacred body wound?

No guilt Thy spotless heart has known,

   No guile has in Thy lips been found.

I, I alone, have done the deed!

   ’Tis I Thy sacred flesh have torn;

My sins have caused Thee, Lord, to bleed,

   Pointed the nail, and fixed the thorn.

Too much to Thee I cannot give;

   Too much I cannot do for Thee;

Let all Thy love, and all Thy grief,

   Grav’n on my heart for ever be!

Still let Thy tears, Thy groans, Thy sighs,

   O’erflow my eyes, and move my breast,

Till loosed from flesh and earth I rise,

   And ever in Thy presence rest.
Reflect on the cost to Christ, the magnitude of his agonies and the necessity of his atoning death. Take a ‘meal offering’ by taking Christ for your perfect righteousness, and long to be worthy of him. And take up your priesthood because we are a kingdom of priests, and where the priest took the portions of the animal and put them on the altar to burn, we make known Christ. We present him to people, we pray for them, and we do the work of the priest in bringing them to Calvary.

Summon all sincerity. These were freewill voluntary acts even in ancient times. The offering was your own, from your own herd, purchased with your own money. Christ has done everything for us. But there is a sense in which worship must be costly. It must cost us our concentration and all our hearts. So this is why we have called this reflection, ‘true repentance for believers’.