The Old Testament presents two major understandings about sin. Sin was primarily thought to be disobedience of the nation of Israel or transgression of God’s many detailed rules (legalism). The solution to taking away sin and guilt was participation in the temple rituals of offerings and animal sacrifice.
Essentially, sin was offense against God.
Sin as Offense Against God in Christian Thinking
Many believers today believe, as most Old Testament writers did, that sin is violation of God’s laws (legalism), so sin is still understood as offense against God. Many also believe that the solution to sin and guilt is blood sacrifice, though the sacrifice is not that of temple ritual but is the blood sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
It is often expressed something like this:
God is so holy he cannot even look at us because of our sin. And because we are guilty of sin against an infinite God, we must receive an infinite punishment. Therefore we are all on our way to eternal suffering in the fires of hell, and there is nothing we can do to avoid it.
However, God himself made a remarkable provision. He sent his own son to take our sin upon himself. At the crucifixion, God poured all his wrath from our sin upon Jesus, who was infinitely righteous; Jesus suffered the penalty of sin for all of us.
We will address this harmful and misguided perspective another time, but Jesus had a differing perspective on what sin is—it includes our alienation from an assumed angry God but with more emphasis on alienation from each other which leads to pain and suffering. Sin has to do with relationships, but it is no longer a case of offense against God—sin is expressed in the way we treat people. We will see that, to Jesus, sin is human offense against each other.
Jesus also differed on the remedy for sin: forgiveness was available to people directly and did not require temple sacrifices or any ritual whatsoever. Jesus abandoned the sacrificial system as a remedy for sin, but his attitude toward the sacrificial system was not a unique idea that started with him. Long before Jesus came, some of the Old Testament prophets begin to talk about sin in a new way.
The Prophets Introduce a Different Emphasis on Sin
While much of the Old Testament is taken with legalism, punishment for disobeying God, and solving sin through ritual temple sacrifice, some of the prophets take an entirely different view toward law, sin, and temple ritual. For example, the author of Isaiah 1 decries the condition of the state of Judah and includes these lines:
“The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.”
Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.
Amos 5 says this,
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!
Sin is still understood as relationship, but it is no longer primarily relationship between people and God. It is relationship among people.
The Old Testament is filled throughout with concern for the marginalized, such as Deuteronomy 27, Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge; or Proverbs 22, Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court.
This concern for the marginalized is pervasive, but Isaiah and Amos introduce a new orientation—justice for people INSTEAD OF ritual sacrifice.
And the poet of Psalm 40 chimes in:
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—but my ears you have opened—burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require. Then I said, “Here I am, I have come—it is written about me in the scroll. I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart.
Jesus Builds on the Old Testament Prophets
Jesus stands in continuity with these prophets. In Matthew 9, in defending against the accusation of the Pharisees that he fraternizes with sinners, he quotes Hosea 6 in saying, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” And he quotes these words again in Matthew 12 in regard to eating grain on the Sabbath:
I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.
And when Jesus announces his mission, he does so by reading from Isaiah 61. Luke 4 reports his words,
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
In doing this, Jesus declares his priorities: they are with the marginalized of society—and they do not include reliance on the inadequate ritualistic religious system.
In a final example, in Mark 12 Jesus approves the teacher who answers,
You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.
Jesus does not follow the Old Testament in seeing ‘sin’ as offense against God to be remedied by ritual sacrifice. Instead, Jesus is concerned about broken people and the way we treat each other. Next time we will look at what else Jesus says about sin.
Articles in this series: Sin and Forgiveness
The Story of Sin and Salvation—Common Baggage Version (CBV)
What is Sin but Pain and Alienation?
Addressing Sin in the Old Testament
The Prophets Begin to Talk about Sin in a New Way
What Does Jesus Say about Sin? Not Much!
The Misguided Concept of ‘Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin’
What Does Jesus’ Death on the Cross Do for Us?
How Substitutionary Atonement Fails
Why Did Jesus Die on the Cross?
Does Jesus Tell Us to Judge People in Matthew 18?
Are Sins Primarily Sins against God?
“If There’s No Hell then I Will Sin All I Want!”
Problems with the Sinner’s Prayer
What does the Story of Eden Tell Us? Is it about Sin?
We Do Not Inherit Original Sin from Adam
Original Sin or Original Self-Centeredness?
Who Does God Refuse to Forgive?