The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: A

Previous Index Next

Animal sacrifice in the Kingdom?

It is proposed, first of all, to consider the main issue: the fitness of animal sacrifice in the millennial kingdom; then, secondly, to outline an alternative view to the traditional interpretation of Ezekiel's temple vision (Eze 40-48); and, finally, to scan briefly the other Old Testament "sacrificial" prophecies.

A. The Main Issue

1. There should be no need for animal sacrifices after the perfect and once-for-all sacrifice of Christ: Heb 9:9,12,28; 10:4,11,12,14,18; Eph 2:15; Col 2:14; Rom 10:4.

Let us consider one passage from the Letter to the Hebrews:

"The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming -- not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: 'Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, "Here I am -- it is written about me in the scroll -- I have come to do your will, O God." ' [Quotation from Psalm 40:6-8]. First he said, 'Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them' (although the law required them to be made). Then he said, 'Here I am, I have come to do your will.' He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all."
"Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy" (Heb 10:1-14).
Although this statement was in the first instance about the Law of Moses, it seems clear that certain basic principles about any sacrifice are being articulated here:

  1. Once "perfection" comes, then sacrifices should stop being offered!
  2. Sacrifices are by their very nature (because they require death, over and over?) a continual reminder of sin (the wages of which is death!), not a true cleansing from that sin. How appropriate will this be in the Kingdom? Will even the more "positive" sacrifices like burnt offerings and peace offerings (which are plainly included in Psa 40/Heb 10, as being fulfilled in Christ) be appropriate there? Would not their repetition still be a reminder of sin (which necessitated them in the first place), when what observers should be reminded of is the ultimate remedy for that sin, the Man who himself is physically present there?
  3. Jesus is the One who came to do the will of God, and as such he IS sin offering, burnt offering, and peace offering... all rolled into one!
  4. Through Jesus, God "set aside" the first covenant so that he might establish the "second". The second covenant is "the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus" (Rom 8:2), "the new covenant" (Heb 8:8-13; Jer 31:31-34) -- under which the only true sacrifice is the Lord himself, once and for all time and for all men. So we must ask the question: Will there finally be, in the Kingdom Age, a "third" covenant, reinstituting other animal sacrifices (similar to the Law of Moses), which were presumably done away with by the "second" covenant?
  5. The one sacrifice of Christ has made faithful men and women "perfect forever". That perfect sacrifice has been enough for numerous generations of men and women, both Jews and Gentiles, who have lived and died from that day to this. Need there be some other sacrifice for future generations who live (and possibly die) during the Kingdom Age?
The Hebrews passages cited -- in fact, the whole of the Letter -- seems to be arguing for the imminent cessation of all Temple ritual (which happened in 70 AD) as God's corroborating proof that the sacrifice of His Son had become, once and for all time, the only true, real, eternal Divine remedy for the human condition. (The same sort of divine proof was provided initially in the tearing of the veil to the Most Holy, from top to bottom, at the time of Christ's crucifixion: Mat 27:51; Heb 10:20.) And, as Hebrews puts it, having offered that one perfect sacrifice at one time and one time only, Christ "sat down" (Heb 10:12) -- ie, he ceased his priestly labors -- at least in the particular of offering sacrifice. It seems that, whatever else we make of other passages, the Hebrews passages should be conclusive: all Temple sacrifice, and all animal sacrifice, has ceased to have any efficacy with the death and resurrection of Christ.

2. But perhaps the Kingdom sacrifices will not be effective for sin, but only commemorative? Or merely a "demonstration"?

If so, then they will not be necessary, because Christ will be there, in the Kingdom, bearing in his own body the marks of his crucifixion (Zec 13:6; Joh 20:25-27; Rev 5:6). What better commemoration, what better demonstration, of God's work of salvation could be imagined?
Bread and wine are a sufficient and proper memorial (remembrance) of the sacrifice of Christ (Luk 22:16-19; 1Co 11:23-25). Surely, also, the "marriage supper of the Lamb" (or something very much like it, kept on an ongoing basis) will be a reasonable approximation of this feast in the Kingdom (Rev 19:7-9; Mat 22:2-4; Luk 14:15,16).
If "commemorative" (ie, "look-back") sacrifices will be acceptable (or even commanded?) in the Kingdom, then why were they not still the standard for believers in 30-70 AD? And why does the writer to the Hebrews go to such lengths to make his case for a "waxed old/ready to vanish away" Temple (Heb 8:13), along with all its services?

There is a great incongruity in seeing animal sacrifices in the Kingdom as "demonstrations" of how God deals with "sin". On the one hand, there will already be all the evidence anyone could wish... in the tangible, physical, visible body of the glorified Lord Jesus Christ... for the one perfect, complete, final "sacrifice-to-end-all-sacrifices". On the other hand, (it is alleged) there will be a continuous procession of merely "demonstration" animal sacrifices which can never effectively accomplish anything (not even, as in the Law of Moses, to point to the Messiah who is yet to come, because... he is already there!)

Secondly, if these Kingdom "sacrifices" are really only "demonstration", then what we seem to have, in Eze 40-48, is a strange disproportion of emphasis:

a great deal of detail about buildings, priests, altars, and rituals -- with elaborate measurements -- all to sustain what is merely "demonstration", but...

practically no detail about Christ's throne or city or administration, about the role the immortal "priests" (as opposed to mortal Jewish priests?) will play in that Kingdom, about the "Marriage supper of the Lamb" -- which will all be real, significant, and efficacious for all who participate!
Gal 3:19: "The Law was added (only) until the Seed comes" -- implying that, afterward, it would cease. There is a world of difference between words and laws and practices which are anticipatory (like the Law in OT times), and words and laws and practices which are retrospective (like the Breaking of Bread since then). The anticipatory ones are a "schoolmaster" (KJV) to lead to Christ: "So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law" (Gal 3:24,25). But is there really such a thing as a "schoolmaster" to lead us, or anyone, BACKWARD to the Law of Moses, and from thence -- through that Law -- forward to Christ again? If so, why would Paul in Galatians have some rather critical things to say about those who would lead Christian believers backward to the Law again?

Is there, since we are on the subject, any difference between a "looking-forward" type and a "looking-backward" symbol?

It would seem that "looking-forward" types -- like the sacrifices and rituals of the Law of Moses -- seem to have been designed by God to approximate as closely as possible the actual antitype, or fulfillment, when he/it comes. Also, the sacrifices of the Law were efficacious, in the sense that they were plainly stated to be for "sin" or for "cleansing". In other words, those who knowledgeably and in faith offered the sacrifices or followed the rituals were expressing their trust in God and their hope in the One He would send, who would then render all such types obsolete. But in the meanwhile the Mosaic sacrifice itself was real, and was the medium through which, in faith, sins might be forgiven.

But the "looking-backward" symbol (like the bread and wine of the memorial supper) seems to be designed by God only to recall or remember, but not to look like or imitate the actual deed -- i.e., the literal sacrifice of Christ. And the bread and wine are not themselves the means to achieve forgiveness of sins. They merely remind partakers of that means.

The reason for this distinction is logical and fairly obvious (in fact, it is the subtext of all the Letter to the Hebrews). Would not the killing of any animal and the pouring out of its blood and the consuming of its flesh -- by more closely reproducing what was literally done to and by and with Jesus -- appear to be an effective and sufficient substitute for the real thing?

So why should the literal animal sacrifices cease with the perfect sacrifice of Christ? Based on the Hebrews letter, continual blood-shedding in the context of approach to God would tend, in the minds of some, to mitigate or even nullify altogether the wondrous and wonderful and unique blessing of the blood of Christ.

Why is our commemoration of the body/blood of Christ done with bread/wine and not literal beef (steak, mutton, whatever) with its literal blood? Even if there is no direct Bible proof (is there?), it seems the answer is obvious: Because literal flesh and literal blood (of whatever animal, or human) would only tend to distract from, and lessen the appreciation of, HIS body/blood! Further, it might even look as though salvation were traceable, in whole or in part, to some source other than Christ.

We rightly disparage the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation not just because such a "priest" cannot turn literal bread into literal flesh, and literal wine into literal blood... but also because -- even if he could -- such a "priest" would be offering the body and blood of Christ again and again, and such a practice would undermine the essence of Christ's sacrifice, and transfer some of its merit to the practitioner/magician instead! Might not the idea of literal animal sacrifice in the Kingdom be open to similar criticisms?
Finally, Ezekiel says -- conclusively, it would seem -- that the animal sacrifices he describes are in fact "for sin" (Eze 43:19-26; 45:17,22), which would seem -- all by itself -- to rule out the so-called "looking-back-to-Christ" rationale for such sacrifices in the Kingdom.

B. What about Ezekiel's Temple?

The theory of animal sacrifice in the Kingdom rests primarily on Henry Sulley's interpretation of Ezekiel's vision in Eze 40-48. But, alternatively, it is now suggested that Ezekiel's Temple was -- in its primary fulfillment -- actually a plan for a temple to be built by the Jews returning from Babylon to Jerusalem, in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. Why is this so?

The "Prince" of Eze 45; 46 was a mortal prince/ruler of Israel. How do we know this? Because (a) he offers sacrifice for his own sins (Eze 45:22; 46:10-12); (b) he is subject to death (Eze 46:17,18); and (c) he has a wife and sons (Eze 46:16), and (d) those sons will succeed him (Eze 45:8; 46:18). None of this may reasonably apply to the glorified Lord!

As to point (a) above, how could it be that the glorified Messiah will be the "Prince"? This would mean that, in offering sacrifices, Jesus would be serving the altar, which would be a shadow of himself (Heb 13:10). "Shadow" and "substance" meet together, but the substance is made to serve the shadow? Surely this is the wrong way around! And surely the immortal Son of God would no longer need to offer sacrifice of any kind FOR HIMSELF!

The priests of this Temple are mortal because: (a) they sweat (Eze 44:18); (b) they are commanded to drink no wine (Eze 44:21; ct Mat 26:29); (c) they die (Eze 44:22); and (d) they have no inheritance (Eze 44:28).

This Temple has Levites who went/can go astray (Eze 44:10-14).

Ezekiel's temple vision is interspersed with exhortations to the house of Israel, not to Gentile believers: Eze 40:4; 44:6. In addition, the house of Israel is characterized as rebellious (?!): Eze 40:4; 44:6; 45:9. Contrast with Jer 31:31-34; 32:37-40; Eze 11:17-21; 36:24-28! (Will Israel in the Kingdom be "rebellious"?!)

Eze 43:10-12: The prophecy is conditional: "IF they are ashamed..." So these verses may explain why Ezekiel's vision was never brought to reality as intended in the days of Ezra. The whole vision of Eze 40-48 may be seen as one more unfulfilled promise of God to Israel -- not unfulfilled because God is in any way slack concerning His promises, but unfulfilled because Israel was not capable of receiving its blessing.

No uncircumcised person is allowed there (Eze 44:9). But what about Gentile saints, who are not necessarily circumcised? [If the point is that "circumcision" is that of the heart, and not of the flesh (i.e., not literal circumcision) -- then how does this impact the literal reading of the rest of Eze 40-48 in a future, or millennial, context?]

Ezekiel's vision refers to "strangers" who have settled in the Land (Eze 47:22,23). This is very easy to relate to the time of the return from Babylon, but not so easy to relate to the Kingdom Age -- since the land of Israel is supposed to be reserved for the twelve (mortal) tribes of Israel.

Eze 47:18 describes an eastern border at the Jordan River. Eze 47:19 speaks of the "river" on the south, which is wadi El Arish, not Nile. These borders are consistent with the post-exilic Israel of Ezra's day, but inconsistent with the extent of the Kingdom as described in Gen 15:18.

Is Jerusalem one huge Temple area only -- as Ezekiel seems to describe? Or is it a city without walls, and inhabited by children, as in Zec 2:4; 8:4,5?

Ezekiel envisions a large Temple area, but no real city (the people of Israel mostly living elsewhere). Likewise, this is what Nehemiah sought to build (Neh 4:22; 7:4; 12:29). It seems he understood Ezekiel's vision to be for his own day!

Will the east gate be shut six days out of seven (Eze 46:1), or will it be always open (Isa 60:11; Rev 21:25)?

Then there is the question: What is NOT described here? In this temple of Ezekiel's vision there is no lavish use of gold and silver. There are no High Priestly garments of glory and beauty. No golden lampstand. No table for Bread of the Presence... etc., etc...

Splendid and holy as Ezra and Nehemiah's new Temple would be, its limitations and omissions would only emphasize to the minds of those Jews who saw it the continuing need for a new and better order, with a Messiah who would be both Prince and Priest, and who would offer one sacrifice that would be all-sufficient, and not merely temporary and typical.

So Ezra and Nehemiah saw an initial fulfillment of Ezekiel's prophecy -- while it is possible that a future fulfillment yet awaits us. However, even IF that is so -- and given the examples of other latter-day fulfillments of previously-fulfilled prophecies (eg, see under C below)-- we may well ask: How much of the detail about animal sacrifices, etc., need be fulfilled literally in a second -- or millennial -- fulfillment?

It is not contended here that there cannot or will not be a physical temple structure in the Millennium; such a building might serve a useful function as a gathering center and place of worship. But it is suggested that the true "temple" of the Millennium will be the immortal saints of God. Anything else, such as a structure of wood and stone, may be desirable to keep the mortals from getting their heads wet when it rains ... but such a structure will never, in the eternal Scriptural sense, be the "temple of the living God" (see Acts 7:48, for example). (Many are the NT passages that show that "WE -- the Body of Christ -- are God's true temple": 1Co 3:16,17; 6:19; 2Co 6:16; Eph 2:19-22; Heb 3:6; 10:21,22; 1Pe 2:5; Rev 3:12; 21:22,23.)

C. Other prophecies of animal sacrifices in the Kingdom?

But what about those prophecies, other than Eze 40-48, that appear to describe animal sacrifice in the Kingdom (eg, Isa 19:19-25; 56:6,7; 60:6,7; Mal 3:1-4; Zec 14:16-19; and perhaps a couple of others)? What should we make of them?

First of all (and this is fundamental!), are there any... ANY... NEW TESTAMENT prophecies about animal sacrifice in the Kingdom? If not, then the key point is this: Every such prophecy that even suggests animal sacrifice in the Kingdom was written BEFORE Christ's sacrifice. Thus it is susceptible to interpretation and reorientation... now... in light of that final, absolute, "be-all-and-end-all" sacrifice. In the future fulfillment, therefore, what is merely ritual will understandably give way to the reality!

Christ is the end (goal, completion) of the Law (Rom 10:4; Gal 3:24) because he is the antitype, or fulfillment (Mat 5:17; 3:15; Rom 8:4), of all the salvational aspects of the Mosaic Law -- including the various animal sacrifices (Heb 10:3-12; 9:11-15).

Christ expressly said that his Memorial Feast was the (new) Passover (Luk 22:15). He kept his "Passover" with his disciples in the upper room, where there was no lamb -- because he was himself the Lamb (Joh 1:29,36; Act 8:32; 1Pe 1:19). So Paul exhorts NT believers to keep the "Passover" with Christ ("our passover lamb") and the "unleavened bread" of sincerity and truth (1Co 5:7,8). In summary, after Christ's crucifixion, Paul gives the OT Passover a NT spiritual application (the breaking of bread, memorializing believers' deliverance from the "Egypt" of sin and death). This "spiritual allegory" of the Passover, employed by Paul and other NT writers, becomes a pattern for viewing the other OT prophecies about various feasts and animal sacrifices in a NT context.

Moreover, there are other examples of OT prophecies which we easily interpret in a "modern" fashion. Consider, for example...

Isa 2:4 / Mic 4:3 / Joel 3:10: Does anyone today actually suppose that these prophecies are literally about 20th (or 21st)-century swords and spears and plowshares and pruning hooks? No, of course not. For a "modern" interpretation, we readily substitute "tanks" and "missiles" and "tractors" and "harvesters". But if that is what the prophecy is about, why didn't Isaiah and Micah and Joel use such terms in the first place? Simply because their original audiences/readers would not have understood them. And so we (almost intuitively) learn to "modernize" certain OT language to align with our own changed and changing circumstances.

Other examples...

Zec 14: A kingdom prophecy in a context that suggests actual animal sacrifice (v. 16: the feast of tabernacles). But are those really literal bells on literal horses (v 20)? And will most nations in the future be seriously concerned about plagues coming upon their camels and donkeys and mules (v 15)? Isn't some "allegorizing" required here?

Perhaps the seven-day Feast of Tabernacles for all the nations, described in Zec 14, will resemble a grand and glorious and continuous "Bible school" of the Kingdom? One where the sacrifices offered to the Father will no longer be slain animals, but a prayerful and praise-filled participation in the "marriage supper of the Lamb"?

Mic 4:4: Will everyone be required or expected to have his or her own vine and fig tree in the Kingdom? How literally should we read this verse?

Amo 9:13: Literal treading out of grapes in the Kingdom?

Isa 52:1: Will uncircumcised immortal saints be excluded from Zion? (Or do we give "circumcised" and "uncircumcised" symbolic meanings here? And if so, then what else may legitimately be given symbolic meanings?)

Zec 9:10: Battle bows? Are these literal?

The list could go on and on....

So why not see the "animal sacrifices" of Kingdom prophecies as signifying the continuing memorial -- through bread and wine, even in the Kingdom age -- of the one perfect and final offering for sin, the Lord Jesus Christ? "I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes" (Luk 22:18); and then our Lord will celebrate with us, and others, the "marriage supper of the Lamb"!

And why not see the other "offerings" of the Kingdom age as, among other things, the "sacrifice of praise -- the fruit of lips that confess his name" (Heb 13:15). The writer to the Hebrews is quoting Hos 14:2, where the phrase is, literally, the "calves of our lips"-- an interesting juxtaposition of ideas!

Such, it is suggested, will be -- for immortals and mortals alike -- the proper "sacrifices" offered to God in the Kingdom age.

"You do not delight (only?) in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings (only?). The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise" (Psa 51:16,17).

D. Who will be the priests of Christ's Millennial Temple?

Who will be the "priests" of Christ's Millennial Temple? WE -- the immortal saints -- will be the priests: Heb 13:15,16; 1Pe 2:5,9; Rev 1:6; 5:10 should be conclusive, and there are many similar passages.

And then there is Rom 15:15,16, which is properly -- and pointedly -- translated in the NIV: "I have written you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the PRIESTLY DUTY of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an OFFERING acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit." So by the New Covenant, Paul -- of Benjamin, not Levi! -- sees himself as a priest of God! And his "offering"? The Gentiles who believe through his preaching.

Even in OT times, it was always a significant part of the priests' duty to read and interpret the word of God, and to instruct, teach, and exhort others (Deu 33:10; Ezr 7:10; Neh 8:2-9; 2Ch 15:3; 17:7-9; 35:3; Mal 2:7). This great function will be taken over in the Kingdom by the immortal saints, who under the authority of their Lord will then be God's true "priests".

But what about Jer 33:18? "Neither shall the priests the Levites want (or, never shall they fail to have: NIV) a man before me to offer burnt offerings... continually."

The concept of "burnt offerings" in the Kingdom has been addressed already in section C above. The real question here is: will the Levites always have a man to serve God, on their behalf, even in the Kingdom Age?

To which three responses may be made, each in itself possible but not necessarily mutually exclusive of the others:

Exactly the same words (in Hebrew) are used in Jos 9:23: "You [the Gibeonites] are now under a curse: You will never cease to serve as woodcutters and water carriers for the house of my God." Does this mean an eternal curse on the Gibeonites, extending into the Millennium?

Will there be a "Levitical priesthood" in the future Kingdom, which will have to be composed only of literal descendants of Levi? No, no more than the "seed of Abraham" need be composed only of literal descendants of Abraham! So why not a "spiritual seed" of Levi as well?


How about this? Put as simply as possible, this verse might be paraphrased: 'The priests the Levites shall never fail to have a man to stand before me as their true mediator and High Priest, and that man is Jesus the son of David!' He is the Levites' "man" -- no matter from whom he is naturally descended -- just like he is our "man"-- no matter from whom WE are naturally descended!


The writer desires at this point to be a bit more personal...

For me, there is a significant issue here, which has deep roots in my personal feelings and attitudes.

Probably like many of you, I have meditated about what the Kingdom will be like. For me, what makes such meditation real is thinking about actually being in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, in a more tangible way than is possible now. 1Jo 1:1 comes to mind: "That which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at, and our hands have touched -- the Word of Life!" Will we -- like John and the other apostles -- actually see, hear, and even touch him then? The prospect of that fellowship makes the Kingdom real to me, real and inexpressibly beautiful.

But alongside this, I am asked to contemplate -- right next door, as it were -- herds of cattle and sheep and goats being slain, their blood flowing down and staining the ground... priests' robes soaked in blood... while here, with me, is the great Son of God, himself alone the one true and perfect sacrifice!?

I can picture attending the "Marriage supper of the Lamb", with candles, music, food and drink, the most exalted of fellowship and communion, conversation on the wonders and glories of God's recreated "world" all around us with others whose experiences are so much like our own. Even, perhaps, the breaking of bread and drinking of wine in the very presence of Jesus, the presider, our "Lord", our "Husband"... the actual marks and wounds in his hands and feet testifying who he is and where he came from, and what he has done... for us! "I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on UNTIL that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father's kingdom" (Mat 26:29). That... THAT... is our salvation!

But then, to step right outside the door of the "bridal chamber", as it were -- and to see, always, the processions of more and more animals, to hear the bleatings of more and more lambs, and the bellows of more and more cattle -- whose apparently endless streams of blood can never wash away sin -- all I can say is, What a jangling of dissonant chords!

Will the world really need "demonstrations" of the slaughter of countless animals at the hands of fallible, mortal Jews (or even immortal saints, for that matter)... when it can SEE the man who rendered such exercises essentially meaningless? The man who laid down his own life for all God's children -- past, present, and future -- and who is now alive forevermore, enjoying the company of the great host of redeemed ones, out of all nations, whom he cherishes and who cherish him?

Is that what worship in the Kingdom will really be like? Maybe it is... maybe it will be just like that... and the fault is mine for not understanding and appreciating it as I should. But something inside me keeps whispering, 'This just doesn't seem right!'

What do you think?

Previous Index Next