Atoning sacrifice is one of the most basic tenets of biblical Judaism. Today, however, Jewish people by and large have disavowed it.
How did this happen? In a previous article, I discussed how misguided reverence for the Oral Law was developed and taught by the rabbinic leadership between 516 B.C.-A.D. 70. This view of Scripture interpreted through Oral Law ultimately contributed to Jewish rejection of Yeshua as Messiah.
Now we consider the next period of Jewish history, A.D. 70-135—from the fall of Jerusalem to the “Gentilization” of the church. What happened during this time inhibits my people even today from seeing Yeshua as their atoning sacrifice.
The faith of the Jewish people through their history was based on the sacrificial system centered in the tabernacle and later in the temple. One could only approach God by first offering a sacrifice. With that in mind, how could Jewish people today consider sacrificial atonement irrelevant to Judaism?
With the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, the Jewish religious leaders faced an enormous problem: How were they to maintain a people of faith without the prescribed sacrifices at the altar and the temple? Incredibly, the way the religious leaders reinterpreted the meaning of sacrifices 2,000 years ago affects Jewish thought and theology to this day.
Even before the temple was destroyed, sacrifices were seen as symbolic. Philo (20 B.C.-A.D. 40), a Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, Egypt, taught that Temple offerings were mainly symbolic in nature, and wrote that “the offering of domesticated animals [sheep, goats, bullocks] and gentle birds symbolized the submissive offerer.” Since these non-aggressive creatures were viewed as the ‘persecuted’ in the animal world, the rabbis went on to interpret that the offering spoke of the idea that “the one pursued is accepted by God“ (Leviticus Rabbah 27:5).
Since repentance or contrition has always been necessary along with a sacrifice (Lev. 23:27), the removal of the sacrifice merely enhanced repentance as the essential element for atonement. “Prayer,” therefore, was considered even “more efficacious than sacrifices” (Talmud Ber. 32b). The rabbis and writers of the Talmud made much of certain Scriptures such as Psalm 51:17—“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit.”
Along with prayer, other religious practices such as fasting came to be seen as equivalent substitutes for sacrifices. Even studying the verses of Scripture on sacrifice was regarded by the rabbis as one having offered the sacrifice: “Whoever occupies himself with the study of Torah needs neither burnt offering, nor meal offering, nor sin offering nor guilt offering” (Talmud Men. 110a). The reciting of the Shema (“Hear O Israel,“ Deut. 6:4) and the wearing of phylacteries were seen “as if he had built an altar and offered a sacrifice upon it” (Tal. Ber. 15a).
Maimonides (famous 12th-century rabbi, Moses ben Maimon) went so far as to declare that sacrifice was archaic religion from which God had weaned Israel. Thus modern Jewish writers such as Trude Weiss-Rosmarin, look upon faith in Yeshua and the doctrine of vicarious atonement as unreasonable: “The idea of ‘vicarious atonement,’ that is to say, the payment of the penalty not by the sinner but by a substitute, is irreconcilable with Jewish ethics”(Judaism & Christianity: The Differences, p. 52). What these scholars and rabbis have overlooked is that in the Scriptures, the Lord gave these truths regarding repentance and contrition in light of the need for blood sacrifice, and never apart from the offerings. God still considers sacrificial, substitutionary atonement to be of utmost importance, even when it isn’t convenient.
Why is God such a stickler about sacrifices? Because the Word of God and God’s priorities cannot be overlooked. God has told us how He wants to be approached. It is not up to man to determine these things. For instance, if someone broke your $400 window, but offered you only $25 to replace it, that would be sheer arrogance on their part.
Rather than offering you what they thought the window was worth, it would be up to you to determine its value. The doctrine of atonement (Is. 53) has been lost to my people. Thus in the eyes of many Jewish people, they see believers as making too much of sin, and Yeshua’s death seems to be an unnecessary sacrifice. Yet even a perusal of Scripture informs us that no one approaches God without a sacrifice: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement” (Lev. 17:11).
As It Is Written
Surprisingly, even Yeshua’s disciples had a hard time understanding the need for Messiah’s atoning death and the promise of His resurrection, so He taught them:“‘These are My Words … that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets, and in the Psalms must be fulfilled.’Then He opened their minds, that they might understand the Scriptures. He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day'” (Luke 24:44-46). As Yeshua taught His disciples then, the Jewish people need to be taught today: It is Scripture’s teaching that matters, not the traditions of men. Please pray that my people will come to understand not only the condemnation for sin, but their need for atonement, and that God allowed the temple to be destroyed because the ultimate and final atoning sacrifice has been made in Messiah’s death.
Dr. Sam Nadleris a Jewish believer in Jesus and has been in Messianic Jewish ministry for over 40 years. Sam is the president of Word of Messiah Ministries, which is bringing the Good News to the Jew first but not to the Jew only, and planting Messianic Congregations in Jewish communities worldwide. To encourage and equip the body of Messiah in our shared calling, Sam is invited to speak in churches across the country, and has written multiple books on Jewish evangelism, discipleship, and the Feasts of Israel. For more information and resources, or to invite Sam to speak at your church, visit:wordofmessiah.org.
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