Because every word of Scripture was inspired as a divine testimony to
Jesus Christ, everything that God instituted — including animal
sacrifice — was intended to point people to Christ, and to the mercy
which is ours through His sacrificial death on the cross (John 5:39,
1John 5:13, Acts 4:12, John 20:31, 1Peter 1:21). Furthermore, the Bible
makes it clear that in every century, from the fall of Adam until now,
there has only been one way to be saved, and that is through faith in
God’s promise of forgiveness in Christ (Psalm 13:5, Galatians 3:6-22).
Why then, you may ask, was there animal sacrifice at all? What purpose
did it serve? How did it relate to salvation? And, what meaning does it
have for us today? The purpose of this essay is to answer such
Animal sacrifice predates the law, and was instituted by God’s prophet Abel, as a way of helping future generations to understand the spiritual significance of Christ’s death (Luke 11:50-51, John 5:39). That being the case, even though the law of Moses went on to require animal sacrifice, those sacrifices were not works of righteousness, because they were not something that people did to make themselves righteous. Instead, they were God’s way of teaching those under the law that they had to confess their sins and look to Him for mercy. At the same time, they made it clear that sin must be atoned for, and that forgiveness does not come just for the asking (Joshua 24:19). Thus, God intended for animal sacrifice to direct people away from their own works, while comforting those who might otherwise despair with assurance of His mercy (Hosea 6:6, Psalm 147:11).
Since forgiveness does not come through the law, it was faith in God’s promise of atonement, not the act of sacrificing, that brought forgiveness (Hosea 6:6, Galatians 3:6-22). Because God instituted the sacrifices to point forward to Christ’s sacrifice, all who placed their trust in God’s promise of forgiveness were placing their faith in Christ (Psalm 13:5). What’s more, because they were trusting in Christ, the Spirit bore witness with their spirit that forgiveness was in some way connected with the promised Messiah (Psalm 13:5, Isaiah 54:5, Romans 8:16). Therefore, the promise was of primary importance, and the act of sacrificing an animal was only intended to represent what the promise signified.
It is important to understand that because forgiveness does not come to anyone simply by going through a ritual, it was never the blood of bulls and goats that covered or removed sin (Hebrews 10:4). On the contrary, the third chapter of Galatians makes it clear that forgiveness came to those living under the law in the same way that it comes to us, namely, through faith in God's promise (Galatians 3:6,18, Psalm 147:11, Hosea 6:6). Salvation always has been, and only can be, received through faith in God’s promise of forgiveness in Christ (Galatians 3:18,22, 2Peter 1:4).
Under the law of Moses people were not allowed to offer up their own sacrifices, because God wanted to make it clear that they were not performing a work. Instead, they were to bring the sacrifice to an anointed priest who would offer it up on their behalf. That arrangement testified to the fact that atonement does not come through what we do, but through the sacrifice that God's anointed (Christ) made for us (Leviticus 4:20).
If the practice of animal sacrifice had been invented by man or copied from the heathen, it would have been just as worthless as the sacrifice Cain offered (Genesis 4:3-7). It is only because it was instituted by God (through Abel and later through Moses) as a testimony of Christ, that it was of any value whatsoever. At the same time, the great number of blood sacrifices made it clear that forgiveness did not come cheaply. God intended for animal sacrifice to stress the importance of seeking His mercy, while directing those who trusted in Him (through type and shadow) to Christ. [Hebrews 8:5, Hosea 6:6, Psalm 147:11, Hebrews 10:1,10, Acts 4:12, John 1:29, Psalm 32:1-2, Romans 4:6- 9.]
Unlike sacrifices, the ceremonies of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper convey a clear and direct promise of forgiveness in Christ. Nevertheless, like sacrifices, they were instituted as a way of pointing those who repent to Christ, while assuring them of God’s mercy. God’s promise to all who are baptized is “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved,” while His promise to all who partake of the Lord’s Supper is “my body… is given for you… my blood… is shed for you” (Mark 16:16, Luke 22:19-20). Therefore, even though God uses the ceremonies of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper to give us His promise of forgiveness in Christ, it is only through personal faith in Christ that we receive what is promised (Galatians 3:22, 2Peter 1:4).
Because Christ is the Lamb of God “slain form the foundation of the world”, the way of salvation has not changed and never will change, “for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Revelation 13:8, Acts 4:12). Therefore the blood of bulls and goats cannot cover sin, and never covered sin (Hebrews 10:4). Instead, God simply used animal sacrifice to point those living under the law to Christ (Hebrews 10:1). At the same time, He designed those sacrifices to help us understand the significance of Christ’s sacrifice, and the importance of that sacrifice to our salvation.