What does “mercy not sacrifice” really mean?

“Sacrifice” in the Bible arguably always means “blood sacrifice” and clearly Jesus came to save us from repeatedly offering blood sacrifices.

The Old Testament, in the Hebrew language, makes a distinction between “blood sacrifices” (involving the killing of a creature with blood (and the “breath of life”) and offering a present not involving blood e.g. a grain offering.  The writer to the Hebrews, though writing in Greek, continues to make the same distinction between blood “sacrifice” and Jesus’ presenting of Himself as an “offering” to God.  He uses the latter to refer to Jesus’ willing participation in His death in absolute trust in God and obedience to the Father’s will.     Heb 10:5-8 reiterates repeatedly that God does not desire sacrifice but obedience.   And Jesus, we are told, came to abolish the Old Covenant – with its repeated blood sacrifice – and establish the New Covenant, which involves repeatedly obeying God’s law as written on our hearts.   Jesus abolished the first covenant – one of animal-only (i.e. not human) sacrifice in order to empower us to do the second – obedience to the Father in absolute trust (faith) in Him.

Jesus inaugurates the new covenant by demonstrating absolute obedience to our Heavenly Father – chosing to return to the Father (via death) rather than disobey and live on in some independent ‘survival mode’ without Him!  Jesus as our “second Adam” made a different choice from the original “prodigal son” – our forebear Adam.  That first Adam chose to distrust and disobey God and seek to avoid return to God (death) for as long as possible by living in an impoverished, semi-independent, survival mode, estranged from the Father.  Adam’s descendants have been raising their children to do likewise ever since!

Blood sacrifices are what disobedient human beings do to assuage their fear of a God they believe can be capricious and vengeful.  But in Christ we can, at last, get it right if we choose to!  We can, in the power of Holy Spirit choose to love and obey God even where that hastens us to our own deaths  (which it well may).  The alternative is to be estranged from God and to continue in the worldly practice of sacrificing others (to save our own necks).      Rene Girard has uncovered the way  (blood) sacrifice is a necessity for any “civil society” made up of distrusting and estranged human beings.   Unfortunately, animal sacrifice of ancient Israel is the least of this sacrifice.  For example, all nations “sacrifice” their young men by the hundreds, thousands and even millions to maintain those “not-the Kingdom of God-s.”  Also the Rich Western nations sacrifice the poor of their own nations and in the Majority World to make their economic system work with its fabled “trickle down economics and unfair (& poorly-named) “free” trade systems (in which, for example, only capital (investment), not labour (people) is unrestricted/free to move.

I have come to see God’s plan regarding sacrifice as Jesus and His followers quenching (“propitiating”) the sinful wrath of the unbelieving.  How?  By their submission to unjust execution.  I see Calvary as Jesus both revealing who God is and how believers are to live in the light of that revelation.  Hence, Jesus calls His disciples to pick up their crosses; and those who refuse are unworthy of Him (Matt 10:38).   Hence the Book of Revelation talks of those who belong to the Lamb who also “loved not their own lives even unto death” – these Christian martyrs & pacifists are, I suggest, who we believers are called to be!  I believe that when Paul exhorts us “to present our bodies as living sacrifices” – he does not mean present them to God, but to present them to those around us – just as Jesus did.  If God desires mercy, not sacrifice, He doesn’t desire sacrifice itself for Himself.  He does however recognise the relative lessening of vengeful violence that can be gain by those who willingly allow themselves to be sacrifice so that the love and mercy of God may be seen!  I submit that God wants us to submit in peaceful faith to others’ sinful sacrifice of  us, as an act of mercy to them & as an act of love, faith & obedience to the Father.  Such is not possible without God, so if it ever happens anywhere it can only be through God.  And just as the power behind people who can let go of their lives in this way turned the world upside down two thousand years ago, it will do so again, so I believe!  Those who witness, and even consent to, Christian’s pacifist deaths in the Third Millennium, will eventually come to repent of their angry, individualistic ways, as the Apostle Paul repented of his.  Thus by the blood of Christ and by the blood of His saints, the sin of the world will be cleansed-removed-extinguished.  We may wish there was a way to the Kingdom of God on Earth that didn’t involve such brutal sacrifice – but I don’t believe there is.  I think the writer to the Hebrews confirms this in the words, “For without the shedding of blood there is no cleansing of sin.”