The fourth offering prescribed in Leviticus is the sin offering. There are a few things that we need to consider about the sin offering before making observations from the text and connecting them to the New Testament. First, we need to take some care when speaking about the sin offering. The word translated “sin” does mean “to be mistaken, to miss the target, to lose the way, to miss the mark, to fail to reach, to wrong, offend” (HALOT). However, a woman after giving childbirth had to offer a sin offering (Leviticus 12:6-8). Obviously she has not sinned because she has given birth. She is ceremonially impure but has not committed a moral fault. Therefore, it is useful to think of the sin offering as a purification offering, either for moral faults (sins) or for ceremonial uncleanness. Second, we need to deal with the point made in verse 2, “If anyone sins unintentionally.” This typical conjures the wrong idea in the minds of readers today because in one sense all sins are intentional. You have to make the decision to commit the sin. The intended contrast is those who are acting in rebellion toward God, recklessly casting God and his law away. This offering for those who go astray into sin, who does wrong, who errors or makes a mistake. This offering was for people who recognize what they had done was a violation against God, not for those who know they are breaking God’s law but do not care.
Chapter 4 can be outlined as follows: Atonement for when the priest sins (4:3-12), atonement when the whole congregation sins (4:13-21), atonement when a leader sins (4:22-26), and atonement when a common Israelite sins (4:27-35).
When The Priest Sins
Notice that there are slight variations in the sin offering depending upon who commits the sin. In verses 3-12 God gives directions for when the priest sins. The seriousness of the priest committing sin is noticed by the different requirements for his offering. When the priest sinned, the blood from the animal was brought into the holy place and sprinkled in front of the veil. Notice that the blood was sprinkled seven times before the Lord in front of the veil in the holy place. The blood had to be from a bull. The offering could not be of any other animal, unlike if the offering was for one of the common people of Israel where a goat was acceptable. How many priests had to bring the blood from the sin sacrifice into the holy place and sprinkle blood seven times before the presence of the Lord? All the priests had to do this and they would have done this regularly as they committed sin.
The writer of Hebrews points out that Jesus is the only priest who had no need for this offering. “For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. 28 For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.” (Hebrews 7:26–28 ESV) The sinlessness of Christ stands as the amazing contrast to the high priests who held the office before him. Jesus was able to enter into the holy place not to make atonement for himself, but to make atonement for his people. Therefore his priesthood is superior to that of Aaron’s priesthood.
Forgiveness of Sins
One statement in this text gives Christians a lot of trouble and brings about much debate. When these sin offerings were made, God says that the sins were forgiven (4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:10, 13). Six times God says that sins are forgiven. The problem we have with this is what the writer of Hebrews teaches.
“For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:4 ESV)
So is there a problem? The thing we must not do is discard the clear teaching of Leviticus that God forgave sins when these sacrifices were made. How can we reconcile the teaching of Hebrews with the teaching of Leviticus? It is not the point of the writer of Hebrews to negate the teaching of Leviticus. The point he wants everyone to understand is that God could forgive sins in the Old Testament because of the foreknowledge the sufficient sacrifice for sins would be made. People were forgiven by God under the old covenant. But God could not have extended that forgiveness if Jesus had not sacrificed himself because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Without the sacrifice of Jesus forgiveness could not be offered. Since Christ was going to die for sins God could extend forgiveness to those who came to him in faith through these offerings. Let us not negate the clear teaching that God forgave. But that forgiveness could only come because before the foundation of the world God had planned to send his Son to die for sins. Perhaps we would understand this as a credit system when full payment would not be made until later at the cross.
Leviticus 5:1-13 reveals some of the sins that required a sin offering and the procedures required by the worshipers. I want to look closely at verse 5. The worshiper, once realizing one’s guilt, was required to confess the sin committed. Confession plays a very important role in the sin offering because it shows that the worshiper does not desire to conceal his sin.
“I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” (Psalm 32:5 ESV)
Confession is a sign of repentance. In fact, I think it can be reasonably asserted that confession is the act that changes deliberate sin to an inadvertent sin. Confession shows that we care about what we have done and we are not trying to hide our sins. I believe we need to rethink our attitude toward confession. It does not appear from this text that confession was merely saying, “I have sinned.” The sin was confessed. We need to be specific when we confess our sins to the Lord. Do not just ask for forgiveness. Tell the Lord exactly what you did and why you desire forgiveness. If we have sinned against our brother or sister in Christ, we do not say, “I am sorry.” Specify what you did and why you desire forgiveness. If we need to make a public confession because we have sinned against the whole congregation, then specify your sin and why you desire forgiveness. We must acknowledge our sins before whom we have sinned, which is always before God, and any person we have sinned against. God commanded confession in receiving forgiveness from the sin sacrifice.
Body Carried Outside The Camp
Notice also an interesting detail concerning the sin offering. Once the fat from the bull was removed along with the kidneys and liver, the skin of the bull along with its flesh, head, legs, and entrails (essentially, all the rest of the bull) was carried outside the camp and burned up on a fire of wood (4:11-12). The same was done with the whole congregation sinned (4:21). In this act, sin is portrayed as something like a contagion. The offering had to be taken outside of the camp and burned signifying the removal of sin from the people. Sin must be removed far from God and his people. There is a New Testament meaning to this part of the sin offering.
“We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. 11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. 12 So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. 13 Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. 15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. 16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (Hebrews 13:10–16 ESV)
The writer of Hebrews notes that we also have an altar. There is still a sacrifice for sin and it is seen in the offering of Jesus. Jesus was crucified outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem. The symbolism is powerful because this was required for the sin offering. Jesus suffered and died on the cross outside the city walls in order to purify us from our sins. The apostle Paul makes the same point concerning Jesus as the fulfillment of the sin offering for us.
“For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT)
God will restore the sinner who appeals to him for forgiveness on the basis of the purifying blood of the sacrifice. Jesus is that sacrifice of blood that we can make our appeal for forgiveness. Therefore, we must follow the directions of the writer of Hebrews. Let us go to Jesus outside the city and bear the reproach he endured. Let us never be ashamed of what Jesus did for us but be willing to bear any scorn or shame that may come from being his disciple. Let us not hide from Jesus but go to him. Let us make our sacrifice of praise to God with the fruit of our lips. By doing good and sharing what we have in the name of the Lord we are making sacrifices that are pleasing to God. Through the sacrifice of Christ we are made holy and must give our sacrifices of praise and righteous deeds in response to his great gift.