Sacrifice lies at the very heart of religion. Very early in the text of Sacred Scripture Abel’s offering of “the firstlings of his flock and the fat thereof” is mentioned (Gen. 4:4). Abel offered by faith (Heb. 11:4), but one cannot do something by faith unless a word from God has first been given to instruct (Rom. 10:17). Thus, we conclude that God must have originated the practice of sacrifices and instructed Cain and Abel to offer them. While Abel took God at his word, Cain did not (Gen. 4:5). The rejection of Cain’s offering only makes sense if he had refused to follow God’s previous instructions, not recorded for us in Holy Writ.
From the time of Genesis 3, when sin had entered into the world, sacrifice was necessary for man to have a restored relationship with God. God decreed the penalty of death for sin (Gen. 2:17). Because man sinned, he must suffer the penalty of sin; however, God devised a way that His law could be honored while at the same time He offered mercy to mankind, “to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).
Animals took man’s place in suffering the penalty of sin throughout the Old Testament. Blood had to be shed for the remission of sins (Heb. 9:22). After Cain and Abel, the Bible records Noah gathering the animals to be placed on the ark – the clean by sevens and the unclean by two (Gen. 7:2). The additional clean animals were gathered for sacrifice later when the flood waters were assuaged and the land was dry enough for them to exit (Gen. 8:20). Animal sacrifices were offered by the patriarchs (Gen. 22:13), detailed in the law of Moses (Leviticus), and were still practiced at the time when Jesus was on the earth preparing to die for the sins of the world (Luke 22:7-8).
All of these animals sacrifices could not take away sin (Heb. 10:4), but they looked forward to their fulfillment: Jesus Christ’s death and mediation, a better sacrifice that once and for all would pay for sin (Heb. 9:23-26). Jesus came as the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29), a plan God had from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). Perhaps because we live on this side of the cross, with the sacrifice already made, we are tempted to take for granted the sacrifice made for us. Whenever we sin, we do not have to see death right in front of our eyes for what we’ve done. Do we think of sin as no big deal? God has given us instructions to remember and cherish the sacrificial death of Christ every week when we come together (1 Cor. 11:17-29). Do we take the Lord’s Supper lightly? The more we grasp how monumental Jesus’ death was for us, the more we will be motivated to live for Him, “And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again” (2 Cor. 5:15).