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Sacrifice in the Law of Moses: Parallels in the Law of the Gospel

TitleSacrifice in the Law of Moses: Parallels in the Law of the Gospel
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1990
AuthorsMcMullin, Phillip W.
Issue Number3
Date PublishedMarch 1990
KeywordsBurnt Offerings; Law of Moses; Peace Offerings; Redemption; Sacrifice; Sin Offerings

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Sacrifice in the Law of Moses: Parallels in the Law of the Gospel

By Phillip W. McMullin

Many non-LDS Bible commentators suggest that the ancient Hebraic law of sacrifice was really a concession on the Lord’s part. The Lord supposedly gave in to peer pressure from Israel’s heathen neighbors, who all offered sacrifices to their idols. Maimonides, the great Jewish scholar of the Middle Ages, taught that sacrifice was a universal method of worship that needed to be raised to a spiritual plane. He wrote that, since Israel was accustomed to sacrifices, the Lord decided not to confuse the people by taking the practice away entirely, but chose to wean them away from the more idolatrous forms of sacrifice.1

But such is not the case. Modern revelation teaches us that the ancient law of sacrifice was revealed first to Adam to teach him and his posterity of the plan of salvation and testify of the Only Begotten. (See Moses 5:6–9.) It was later incorporated into the law of Moses for the same purpose. (See Alma 34:10, 13–15.)

Sacrifice and the Law of the Gospel

Sacrificial worship as practiced by the ancient Hebrews has many similarities and parallels with the restored gospel. This is not surprising. After all, the fundamental principles of the plan of salvation are the same. Only the methods of teaching them have, on occasion, changed. Abinadi explained why the Israelites needed the Mosaic law and its method of teaching:

“There should be a law given to the children of Israel, yea, even a very strict law; for they were a stiffnecked people, quick to do iniquity, and slow to remember the Lord their God;

“Therefore there was a law given them, yea, a law of performances and of ordinances, a law which they were to observe strictly from day to day, to keep them in remembrance of God and their duty towards him.” (Mosiah 13:29–30.)

We ought not, however, dismiss that old law as irrelevant to our day. As Abinadi explained, “All these things were types of things to come.” (Mosiah 13:31.)

For example, before offering sin and trespass sacrifices for the remission of sins, the ancient Israelite had to show sincerity, reverence, and the character trait referred to in scripture as holiness to the Lord. (See Topical Guide, s.v., “holiness.”) These traits also had to be complemented by the confession of sins (see Lev. 5:5) and restitution (see Lev. 5:16; Lev. 6:4) as part of the repentance process.

These criteria are analogous to the principles of faith and repentance as practiced under the law of the gospel. Under this law, we are to comply with two major principles—faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and repentance—before our sins can be remitted through baptism. (See A of F 1:4.) Clearly, remission of sins through the gospel and purification under the Mosaic law have identical prerequisites.

Enoch taught that the redemptive process has three parts:

“Inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye might be sanctified from all sin. …

“For by the water ye keep the commandment; by the Spirit ye are justified, and by the blood ye are sanctified. …

“This is the plan of salvation unto all men.” (Moses 6:59–60, 62.)

The ancient Mosaic law of sacrifice actually contained three kinds of sacrifices that served similar purposes: (1) sin and trespass offerings; (2) burnt offerings; (3) peace offerings.

Sin and Trespass Offerings

The sin and trespass offerings mended the relationship between Jehovah and the penitent, which sin had interrupted. Sin—the trespassing of a commandment—needed to be redressed before the cherished relationship with Jehovah could recommence.

In making a sin offering, for example, the penitent took his sacrifice, which could range from a turtle dove to a bullock, to the officiating priest. According to Jewish scholars, the Israelite laid his hands on the sacrifice, symbolically transferring his sins to the animal. “By means of this act the animal was designated as the representative or substitute of the man who brought the sacrifice.”2 The priest then killed the animal, sprinkled its blood on the altar, and cooked it. After the sacrifice, the cooked meat—in some cases the hide—became the property of the priest. The offering itself symbolized the individual’s repentance and payment through a personal sacrifice for the price of transgression.

Though the method was different from baptism, the meaning and purpose of the sin and trespass offerings paralleled those of baptism and the sacrament. In fact, these sacrifices, offered on holy days and at other times when repentance required them, may have served the same purpose under the law of Moses that baptism and the sacrament serve in our day. Baptism was practiced then, as it is now. (See D&C 84:26–27.)

During baptism, the disciple offers a sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit. (See Moro. 6:2.) He covenants by entering and being immersed in water, which Nephi said both shows to mankind that he humbles himself and witnesses to God that he will be obedient. (See 2 Ne. 31:7.) As Enoch said, “By the water ye keep the commandment.” After baptism, the disciple renews his baptismal covenant by partaking of the sacrament in the same repentant spirit and for the same purpose—to be forgiven of his sins and to recommit himself to keeping the commandments. (See D&C 20:77–79.) The power by which his sins are forgiven is Christ’s atonement—the sacrifice to which all sacrifices point.

Each year on Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—the high priest performed one special sin offering. The priest laid both hands on a bullock and transferred the accumulated sins of all Israel for that year by praying: “Ah, JEHOVAH! I have committed iniquity; I have transgressed; I have sinned—I and my house. Oh, then, JEHOVAH, I entreat Thee, cover over [atone for, let there be atonement for] the iniquities, the transgressions, and the sins which I have committed, transgressed, and sinned before Thee, I and my house—even as it is written in the law of Moses, Thy servant: ‘For, on that day will He cover over [atone] for you to make you clean; from all your transgressions before JEHOVAH ye shall be cleaned.’”3

The Israelite truly understood the warning that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), for when he sinned and repented, a sacrificial animal literally died in his place. Leviticus 19:22 states, “The priest shall make an atonement for him with the ram of the trespass offering before the Lord for his sin which he hath done.” [Lev. 19:22]

The Jewish scholar Mahmanides taught that “when observing the pouring out of the blood and the burning of sacrifice, the person should acknowledge that were it not for divine grace he should be the victim, expiating his sins with his own blood and limbs.”4

Blood played an important role in ancient sacrificial worship. “The life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.” (Lev. 17:11.) Hebrews 9:22 underscores this: “Without shedding of blood is no remission.” Thus the blood of the sin offerings was a pattern of the divine Atonement. (See Heb. 9:13–14, 23–28.)

Burnt Offerings

The second type of sacrificial offering was that of burnt offerings. In this sacrifice, the offering was placed on the altar and completely burned. The only thing left was the smoke ascending as a “sweet savour” to Jehovah. (Lev. 1:9.)

According to Jewish scholars, the offering symbolized complete self-surrender and devotion to God on behalf of the penitent.5 The purpose of burnt offerings parallels the process of justification through the Spirit, as Enoch identified: “By the Spirit ye are justified.”

When we think of the gift of the Holy Ghost, we may gloss over what must transpire between the laying on of hands for the gift and the actual receipt of the Holy Ghost. We can also easily forget how the gift continues to function in our lives after we receive it. The gift of the Holy Ghost involves, among others, the process of justification.

Strictly speaking, the term justify in Hebrew means to make right, in a moral sense, or to cleanse. In Greek, the term means to render innocent or righteous. Thus, when the Bible speaks of us as being justified, it means that our sins have been forgiven and that we are considered righteous in the sight of God. Justification requires that we exercise faith and repentance and submit to the ordinance of baptism, as discussed earlier. When we truly fulfill these requirements in the right spirit, the Holy Ghost ratifies, or seals, the ordinance—at which point we are forgiven of our sins. The Holy Ghost also actually cleanses us of sin in what the scriptures call a “baptism of fire.” (See 2 Ne. 31:13–14, 16–18.)

Many familiar phrases of the restored gospel remind us that if we are to remain justified—“retain a remission of [our] sins,” as Benjamin puts it (Mosiah 4:12)—we must work with our might, mind, and strength, having an eye single to the glory of God, being long-suffering, and enduring to the end. What God requires is a sacrifice—the total sacrifice of our self-interest and rebelliousness. Paul, for instance, in references to burnt offerings, wrote, “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God.” (Rom. 12:1.) He said that such a sacrifice is pleasing to God. (See Philip. 4:18.)

In the burnt sacrifice, the entire animal was consumed, symbolizing the disciple’s total dedication as well as the Savior’s total, infinite sacrifice in his behalf. In the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, the disciple dedicates himself entirely to the Lord’s work as a member of God’s kingdom.

Peace Offerings

The third type of offering, the peace offering, derives its name from the peace the penitent experiences when reunited with Jehovah. The officiating priest prepared the sacrificial animal in a carefully prescribed fashion. He received one portion; the Levites received another portion, and the priest returned the remainder to the sacrificer to eat in a sacred feast that symbolized the reestablishment of peace and open communication. “Just as a contract between men was sealed by their taking a meal together (Gen. 26:28–30; Gen. 31:44–54) so the covenant between the worshipper and his God was established or strengthened by this sacrificial meal.”6

In the Mosaic law, the peace offering represented the reopening of heavenly communication, or the lifting of the veil, whereby the sinner was sanctified. The sacrifice was a sacred feast shared symbolically with Jehovah. The penitent thus returned figuratively to God’s presence and could enjoy the peace of communion with God. Unlike the other two types of sacrifices, he also enjoyed the blessings of this sacrifice with his family and other worshippers. Returning to God’s presence—or sanctification—was done individually, as a family, and as a group of fellow believers.

Again, we find parallels in the restored gospel. Our own needs are those of the Hebrew sinner. Each of us was once in the presence of God the Father. Now on the earth, we are separated from him. We desire, though, to reestablish that lost communion we once enjoyed. Having received a remission of sins and being justified, we have been prepared to enter the Lord’s presence. Because of the sacrifice of our Savior, we may actually be purified and return to God as his children. Enoch appropriately taught, “By the blood ye are sanctified.”

For Latter-day Saints, the clearest representation of reentering God’s presence is the endowment, especially when we enter the temple’s celestial room. As with the peace offering, we can visualize the nature of sanctification as we enjoy a renewed communication with God and the peace of that communion. We can do so individually, as husband and wife, and as a group of disciples.

The Doctrine and Covenants says that the sanctified are able “to have the privilege of receiving the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, to have the heavens opened unto them, to commune with the general assembly and church of the Firstborn, and to enjoy the communion and presence of God the Father, and Jesus the mediator of the new covenant.” (D&C 107:19.)

The Process of Redemption

The remission of sins, justification, and sanctification are a process familiar to both the ancient Israelite and the Latter-day Saint. Moses helped Israel visualize the process by giving them “a law of performances and of ordinances,” operating under the Aaronic and Levitical priesthoods.

Unfortunately, the inspired system of performances and ordinances degenerated into abuses, and the Israelites lost an understanding of its purpose and symbolism, thereby becoming blind to the significance of the Savior’s sacrifice when, by his atonement, he fulfilled the Mosaic law.

Today, we offer a broken heart and a contrite spirit as a sacrifice. Perhaps some of us, after repenting of a sin, have difficulty accepting God’s forgiveness. Perhaps by remembering the purposes and meaning of sacrifice, under the law of Moses, in which an animal was killed on behalf of the sinner, we might better understand what our Savior did for us: He died—the Lamb of God, the ultimate sacrifice—that we might live. Through him, the true Atonement was wrought. Our duty is to understand and partake.

Phillip W. McMullin serves as a home teacher in the East Mill Creek Tenth Ward, Salt Lake Mt. Olympus North Stake. “Sacrifice in the Law of Moses” won second place in the 1989 Ensign Old Testament Article Contest.


  1. See J. H. Hertz, ed. and trans., The Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Leviticus (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1932), pp. 2, 48, 167–68.
  2. Ibid., p. 8.
  3. Alfred Edersheim, The Temple—Its Ministry and Services As They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1958), p. 310.
  4. Encyclopedia Judaica, 16 vols. (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1971), 14:614.
  5. See William Smith, Dictionary of the Bible, 4 vols., rev. and ed. H. B. Hackett (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1896), 3:2771–72.
  6. Roland DeVaux, Ancient Israel—Its Life and Institutions (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981), p. 453.