On Sacrificial Worship

I mentioned the other day how I had some notes on Dunn’s Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? that weren’t going to make the review. The reason that I didn’t include a section on sacrificial worship was because it was treated in passing in Dunn’s book. He used it for his argument but he didn’t hang a lot on it. So devote all the thoughts I’m going to post below on this would seem disproportionate.

Some of the things I jotted down are reiterating things I said in response to James McGrath’s The Only True God. McGrath puts a lot more stock into the sacrificial worship thing than Dunn does so the space I devoted to the issue in my review of his book was warranted. Without further ado here’s my notes (keep in mind that they are unpolished and piecemeal):

There are a few things at issue when saying that “Christ was never understood as the one to whom sacrifice was offered, even when the imagery of sacrifice was used symbolically for Christian service.” (56)

First, if we understand the issue as one of sacrifice being offered to Christ in addition to God, as if he were a second God, then no, of course no sacrifice was offered to him.

Second, if we understand sacrifice in terms of animal sacrifice only, then again, no sacrifice was offered to Jesus, nor indeed could it have been since the offering of animal sacrifice  (without it being idolatrous) was integrally connected to the priesthood and the temple. Early followers of Jesus did not comprise the priesthood serving in the temple so no provision could have been made to accommodate Jesus in the sacrificial worship in the temple.

We should also consider the sacrificial theology of the early Christians, which Dunn does in fact highlight. Christ was seen as the once-for-all sacrifice to end all sacrifices. Not only was animal sacrifice not offered to Christ according to this understanding of Christ’s fulfillment of the sacrificial system; it was no longer offered to God by believers in Jesus!

Third, we can question the validity of limiting sacrifice to animal sacrifice. The OT equates prayer with sacrifice in multiple places (e.g., Hos. 14:2; Ps. 50:14, 23). Interestingly enough, God says that his house the temple will be called a house of prayer (Isa. 55:7). When Jesus cleanses the temple it’s not because they had failed to offer animal sacrifice; it’s because they had failed to make it a house of prayer. Throughout the prophets and the psalms we read that God did not desire or delight in sacrifice and offerings (Ps. 40:6; 51:16; Isa. 1:11, 13; et al.), but rather he wanted clean hearts (Ps. 51:17), or mercy (Hos. 6:6), or obedience (1 Sam. 15:22), etc. The point is that animal sacrifice might not have been the sine qua non that scholars like J. Lionel North or James McGrath (and Dunn by reference of these authors) suggest  it was.

Rabbinic Judaism has survived on the understanding that prayer is a more important form of sacrifice than animal sacrifice (see Maimonides’ The Guide for the Perplexed 3.32). Dunn has just spent the first part of chapter 2 rehearsing prayers offered to Christ reluctantly admitting that they are in fact offered to him, even if infrequently. So in this sense, i.e., the sense of prayer as a type of bloodless sacrifice, Christ is the recipient of such sacrifice, but not in and of himself, it’s always to the glory of God.

Fourth, also worth noting is Romans 16:5, which uses a sacrificial language metaphorically in saying that Epenetus is “firstfruits of Asia to Christ” (aparchē tēs Asias eis Christon). The firstfruits offering is a sacrificial offering to God and this metaphor is taken up in describing Epenetus as the first convert to Christ in Asia.

Finally, Dunn’s discussion of the Lord’s Supper (50-51) fails to take into account the sacrificial element inherent in Jesus presiding over the meal. Paul is contrasting Jesus with pagan deities to whom sacrifice is offered. Jesus functions in the same way as do the pagan deities, i.e., as the recipient of (some sort of) sacrificial worship. Dunn writes this off as being only apparent to “onlookers” (50).


5 thoughts on “On Sacrificial Worship

  1. Nick, don’t forget that Rev. 14:4 says the 144,000 are firstfruits to God and the Lamb, and that in 20:6 believers who reign with Christ during the thousand years are called priests of God and Christ. Moreover, Paul calls himself a leitourgon of Christ appointed to carry out the priestly duty of presenting the Gentiles as acceptable sacrifice. In context, with the reference to priestly duty and sacrifice, leitourgon must mean that Paul is a priest of Christ who offers the Gentiles as a pleasing sacrifice to him.

  2. Sam: Thanks. Like I said, these were just some unpolished notes. I mentioned the 144,000 in my review of McGrath’s book. Good catch on the priest material.

    James: Not surprised at all. In my defense, these were just notes, which accounts for some of the lack of clarity. The sine qua non I had in mind, that you didn’t find clear, was precisely the issue of animal sacrifice as the distinctive and defining characteristic of what exclusive worship was. With reference to early believers not worshiping God with animal sacrifice, I had in mind Gentile believers predominantly, as I stated in my review of your book.

  3. Wouldn’t offering our bodies as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1) even to the point of death to the Lord Jesus also constitute a sacrifice unto Him (Romans 14:7-8)?
    The same Greek word for “acceptable” in Romans 12:1 is also used in reference to the life of the believer in pleasing the Lord Jesus in view of being judged in what we have done with our bodies (2 Corinthians 5:9-10; cf. Philippians 1:20). This pleasing the Lord Jesus in connection with the bodies of the believers is also spoken of in 1 Corinthians 7:32, 34.

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