So far we’ve read about the burnt offering, the grain offering, and the fellowship offering. The burnt offering was brought to the Lord as a ransom to pay for the deliverance of God’s people; and it points forward to Christ who laid down his life in our place as a ransom to deliver us from our sin and misery. The grain offering was brought to the Lord as a gift or tribute to express gratitude to him for his grace and mercy; and it points forward to how believers today are to offer God a sacrifice of praise. The fellowship offering was brought to the Lord and part of it was offered to the Lord as a sacrifice, while part of it was eaten by the priests and the people in the presence of the Lord as a fellowship meal; and it points forward to the marriage supper of the Lamb which all of God’s glorified people will enjoy for ever and for ever in the presence of the Lord in the new creation; it also points forward to the Lord’s Supper, when the Lord’s people gather around the table of the Lord to enjoy fellowship with him and with one another.
Today we come to the next offering, which is referred to by most English translations as ‘the sin offering’, but which should really be referred to as ‘the purification offering’. You see, calling this offering ‘the sin offering’ is misleading, because it suggests that this is the only sacrifice to do with our sin. And that’s not the case, because every sacrifice is connected in some way to our sin. So, it’s better to call this one ‘the purification offering’, because this offering is a sacrifice which was for purification. Sin is like a stain which needs to be rubbed out. And just as we take our dirty clothes and wash them, so the Israelites needed to offer this sacrifice to the Lord in order to wash away the stain of their sin.
The passage before us today can be divided into five parts. Firstly, in verses 3 to 12, there are instructions for what to do when the anointed priest sins. Some of the commentators think the expression ‘anointed priest’ was a way of designating the High Priest. So, while there were a number of priests, these instructions related to the High Priest only. You should notice as well that, according to verse 3, when the High Priest sins, he brings guilt on the people. In other words, since he represented the people before God, his sin affected their standing before the Lord. Well, one of the things which makes the Lord Jesus a better priest than all of these Old Testament priests is that he never once sinned. Whereas they needed to offer sacrifices for themselves as well as for the people, the Lord Jesus is holy, blameless and pure, perfect in every way, and far, far, far better than these priests who were themselves sinners who needed to be cleansed.
Let’s move on, because secondly, in verses 13 to 21, there are instructions for what to do when the whole congregation sins. Think of what happened when Moses was on Mount Sinai when the whole congregation rebelled against the Lord and made for themselves a golden calf. Normally only individuals sin; but on some occasions, the whole congregation goes astray. On those occasions, the elders of the people were to bring the purification offering to the Lord. Thirdly, in verses 22 to 26, there are instructions for what to do when one of the leaders of the people sins. The people of Israel were divided into tribes and clans and families; and presumably the leaders of the people were those men who were leaders of the tribes and clans and families. Fourthly, in verses 27 to 35 there are instructions for what to do when members of the community sins. In other words, these are instructions for the ordinary people. And fifthly, in verses 1 to 13 of chapter 5 there are some additional instructions in connection with the purification offering.
If you look now at verses 2, 13, 22 and 27 you’ll see that the text mentions ‘unintentional sins’. So, when the priest, or the whole congregation, or a leader or an individual sins unintentionally, this is the offering they’re to bring.
When we hear the words ‘unintentional sin’ we think of sins which the person committed by accident: so they didn’t intend to sin, or perhaps they weren’t aware that what they were doing was a sin. However, while that would be included in ‘unintentional sins’, more is meant than that. An ‘unintentional sin’ can be contrasted with what was known as a ‘high-handed sin’. A ‘high-handed sin’ is mentioned in Numbers 15:30 where it’s translated as a ‘defiant sin’ by the NIV and it denotes the kind of sin which a person commits deliberately and without remorse. By contrast, those who sin unintentionally are sorry for their sins. So, the person who sins unintentionally is the person who sins, but who, when he realises his guilt, when she realises her guilt, is filled with sorrow and shame and wants to confess it. And on those occasions, the sinner was to bring a purification offering to the Lord.
Look with me now at verses 3 to 12 for the instructions for what to do whenever the high priest sins. The priest was instructed to bring to the Lord a young bull without defect. We’ve seen this before: since the sacrifice symbolised the Lord Jesus, who offered himself as a perfect sacrifice for sins, then the animals they brought had to be perfect too. The priest presented the bull at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting in the Tabernacle. He then laid his hand on it. We’ve seen this before as well: by placing his hand on the animal, he was saying that this animal now represents me and it’s taking my place. He then slaughtered the bull before the Lord.
All of this is familiar to us from the previous offerings. However, what happened next was new: the priest took some of the blood of the bull and he carried it into the Tent of Meeting. He then dipped his finger in the blood and sprinkled the blood of the bull seven times before the Lord in front of the curtain of the sanctuary. This is the curtain which separated the Most Holy Place — containing the ark of the covenant — from the Holy Place. Then he put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of incense which was in the Holy Place. After that, he poured out the rest of the blood at the base of the altar of burnt offerings outside. The fat of the bull was then burned on the altar, while the rest of the animal — its skin and flesh — was taken out of the camp where it was burned on a wood fire on the ash heap.
That’s the ritual for the priest. The instructions for what to do when the whole congregation sins are identical. The ritual for what to do whenever a leader or an ordinary member of the congregation sins is slightly different. So, look with me now at verses 22 to 26. Whenever the leaders sins, he should bring, not a bull, but a male goat. It had to be without defect. Then he had to lay his hand on it and slaughter it. The blood of this offering was smeared, not on the altar of incense in the Holy Place, but on the horns of the altar of burnt offerings which was located out in the courtyard of the Tabernacle. Then the remainder of the blood was poured out at the base of the altar. The fat of the animal was then burned.
The ritual for an ordinary member of the congregation was similar, except that they were to bring either a female goat or a female lamb. not a male goat.
From verses 1 to 13 of chapter 5, we see that when the worshipper cannot afford a goat or lamb, he could bring two doves or two young pigeons to the Lord. Furthermore, if he couldn’t afford even two birds, he could bring some flour as a purification offering. So, for the purification offering, the priest and congregation were required to bring a bull; a leader had to bring a male goat; but a member of the congregation could bring either a female goat or a female lamb or two birds or some flour. All of these were acceptable to the Lord. And doesn’t it show the grace of the Lord: he didn’t want people to hesitate from coming with a purification offering because they couldn’t afford it. So, whether you were rich or poor, there was something you could bring to the Lord so that the stain of your sins could be washed away.
And according to verses 20, 26, 31, 35 of chapter 4 and verses 6 and 10 and 13 of chapter 5, the result of bringing the purification offering was that the priest was able to make atonement for the worshipper so that the worshipper was forgiven by God.
That’s the ritual. What did it mean? You might recall from when we were studying the burnt offering that I said that the phrase ‘make atonement’ can refer to two things: it can mean ‘to wipe clean’; or it can mean ‘to pay a ransom’. Now, when the worshipper brought a burnt offering to make atonement for his sins, he offered the sacrifice as a ransom to pay for his deliverance. However, the other meaning of atonement applies here. That is, the purification offering was brought to God to wipe clean the stain of their sin. When the priest sprinkled the blood before the Lord in the Holy Place, and when he smeared the blood of the sacrifice on the horns of the altar of incense and on the horns of the altar of the burnt offering, he was using the blood of the sacrifice to cleanse God’s house. God’s house, his tabernacle, had become unclean because of the sin of the people. In order to carry out his duties, the priest had to go into the Holy Place. And so, his presence there would defile God’s Holy Place. And in order to worship the Lord, the people had to go into the courtyard of the Tabernacle. And their presence there would defile the courtyard.
Whether it was the priest, or the whole congregation, or the leaders or the individual people who sinned, whoever it was, their sin defiled God’s house in one way or another. It polluted the place where God dwelt. And just as you and I don’t like to live in a dirty home, so the Lord God does not like to live in a dirty home. And so, just as we clean our homes, so the Lord provided instructions to his people so that his home could be cleansed. And the way to cleanse his home was by sprinkling: sprinkling the blood of the sacrifice before the Lord and by putting it on the horns of the altars. By applying the blood of the sacrifices, the Tabernacle was cleansed; and the Lord forgave the people for their sin which had so spoiled and defiled his home. That way, he was able to remain among them and they could remain in his presence.
Knowing about this sacrifice helps us to understand another aspect of the greater sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, because not only did he die as the ransom to pay for our deliverance, but he died to cleanse us from the guilt of our sin. In Old Testament times, the blood of an animal was sprinkled on the Tabernacle to cleanse it. But now, the blood of the Saviour is sprinkled on us in order to cleanse us and to make us holy in the sight of God.
And so, in 1 John 1 we’re promised that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and he will forgive us our sins and do what? He’ll purify us from all unrighteousness. And in Hebrews 1 we’re read about how the Son of God provided purification for sins. By his death on the cross, as the once-for-all sacrifice, he purified us from our guilt. And so, in Hebrews 10 we exhorted to draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience. Whenever we feel guilty, we’re reluctant to come before the Lord in worship. We hesitate to come into his presence. Like Adam and Eve, we want to flee from his presence. But when we realise how the blood of the Saviour makes us clean, then we can come before the Lord with full assurance, confident that we’re forgiven by God and acceptable in his sight. He will not send us away, but will welcome us for the sake of Christ whose blood makes us clean.
And then, remember how the remainder of the bull was burned outside the camp? The writer to the Hebrews applies this to the Lord Jesus who suffered outside the city gate in order to make his people holy through his own blood. He is the better, the perfect purification offering. Therefore, the writer tells us, let us go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace his bore. Our Saviour suffered and bore disgrace for our sake. He was mocked and ridiculed and rejected by the people. And so, we too should be prepared to suffer with him, and to endure the insults of those who don’t believe. We should be prepared to suffer with him, because there’s no other Saviour than Jesus Christ, the perfect Saviour, who has provided purification for our sins so that we may draw near to God and pray to him.