Ritual sacrifice was central to most early religions. It took different forms, but it seems that from the beginning humans felt an impulse to appease the gods with burnt offerings and blood. It is interesting that the first recording of sacrifice in the Bible (Genesis 4) was not prompted by a divine command (that we know of). It is also interesting that, in this very first episode of sacrifice, the distinction between self-righteous religious activity and righteous living appears. After rejecting Cain’s sacrifice, God tells him, “Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted (vs 6-7)?”
The Israelite system of sacrifice was a near constant flow of blood, and the purpose was not simply to appease a distant god by offering it some small bit of property, but to make atonement for offenses against a righteous God. The concept of the “sin” or “guilt” offering is quite different from the offering of the first fruits or the tithe. An offering of first fruits (including our modern tithes and offerings) recognizes proactively God’s provision, sovereignty, and rightful claim to all we possess. A sin offering, however, is a reactive attempt to right a wrong, to gain back a relationship that has been lost, to display for the world the sinner’s horror of and abject humiliation by their sin, in the hopes that they can prove their repentance sincere. Unfortunately, the stream of blood on the temple altar was never enough to turn back the tide of evil that constantly flows from broken human hearts.
As Christians, we believe that Christ sacrificed himself on our behalf, and that his blood has the power to do what the blood of animals could not- reconcile us to God. This abolished the system of sin offerings by rendering them obsolete. ”Unlike other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself (Hebrews 7:27 NIV).” ”He has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself (Hebrews 9:26).”
In the act of Communion, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” We enter into the “new covenant in [Jesus'] blood, poured out for you.” Our act in the Lord’s Supper is one of remembrance and acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice once for all. At the point in our service where other religions, including the Israelites, would be compelled to slaughter an animal, we instead remember the slaughtering of God himself. This seems, at first, a much smaller burden than our religious ancestors bore. It is a bloodless action that seems primarily mental, with the assistance of the props of bread and wine.
There is, however, another aspect of Communion. We are not only remembering an ancient sacrifice, but we are partaking in it ourselves. We ingest the body and blood of Christ and it becomes a part of us. It draws us, physically, to his cross where we are crucified ourselves. ”For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with…(Romans 6:6).” Only through this crucifixion can we live. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).”
So, in one sense, our act of Communion is a remembrance and a light burden, but in another, it is a far greater act of sacrifice than any made in the tabernacle or the temple. We offer our entire selves, our whole lives. I no longer live. We are uniting ourselves with Christ at his death and proclaiming, “I die here also.” When we approach the altar, we don’t bring a goat or bull, we bring ourselves. ”Therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. This is your true and proper worship (Romans 12:1).” The enormity of Christ’s sacrifice leaves no more room for us. We take his death, and enjoy his life. ”Christ is all, and is in all (Colossians 3:11).”