Animal Sacrifices in the Coming Messianic Kingdom—Really? (Part 2)

It is no secret that animal sacrifice in the future messianic (millennial) kingdom has been a thorny problem for many interpreters. In this second article, we will attempt to answer the main questions about the purposes for such sacrifices.

In the first article we dealt with several important matters which, hopefully, shed some light on this subject.  First, we noted that future animal sacrifice is a major interpretive issue in the O.T.  Ezekiel alone has some 50 verses on just the animal sacrifices; and that four other prophets speak of such sacrifices in Messiah’s kingdom.  Also, O.T. prophets, N.T. apostles and Jesus Himself make reference to a future temple (temples always have sacrifices connected with them).  Second, we said that these future sacrifices do not signal a return to the Mosaic covenant. The Mosaic covenant came to an end with Christ’s death and in Messiah’s kingdom, it is the New Covenant that is in force, not the “old”.  Although there are some similarities, there are many significant differences between the age of the Mosaic covenant and the coming kingdom age. These differences show that this is not a return to the Mosaic covenant.  Third, animal sacrifices in the O.T. never did take away sin and they will not take away sin in the coming kingdom.  Only the death of Jesus on the cross takes away sin.  People in all ages are saved the same way; they are justified by faith alone based solely on Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  Animal sacrifices did not and will not remove sin.  But while they do not take away sin, they did accomplish something in the Mosaic economy and will accomplish something in the future kingdom of Jesus.

Additional Clarifying Points

At this point in the study, there are two other matters that need to be mentioned.  First, who will need to sacrifice animals?  Logically, we would think that not everyone will need to sacrifice animals. It would seem that those of us in our resurrection bodies (ones like Jesus had at His resurrection) will not need animal sacrifices.  We will have been glorified (Rom. 8:30), thus bringing to us the final aspect of our salvation.  Not only do we have resurrected-glorified bodies, but the “flesh” (Gal. 5:13-21) no longer is a part of us.  We no longer can sin.  Therefore, we no longer are contaminated in any way by sin or a sin nature. As we will see, animal sacrifices are important to ritual purification but it would seem that glorified believers would not need such purification.  But it is possible (and here we speculate) that we, nevertheless, might need to fulfill all of God’s “righteous requirements” in the millennial age, just as Jesus did when He persuaded John the Baptist to baptize Him (cf. Matt. 4:13-15).  John’s baptism was one of repentance and Jesus did not need to repent.  But He believed He had to fulfill all of God’s righteous requirements, which at that time included Law observance and John’s baptism.

Believers who have made it through the tribulation alive (the “sheep” of Matt. 25) are in non-glorified/non-resurrected bodies.  Although Satan’s world system is gone, they will still have the capacity to sin and become unclean, since they still possess their “flesh”.  These will need a way to approach the holy God who is present in His glory.  They will need this temple in order to have fellowship with the glorified King Jesus. As an example, in Zechariah 14:16, the people specifically mentioned as needing to sacrifice at the Feast of Tabernacles were those gentiles who had previously been in nations that had attacked Jerusalem during the Tribulation. They were in need of purification in Jerusalem.  Also, as people are born in the millennial period, they (as every person has had to do throughout history) must personally respond in faith to Jesus. Though born in the glorious messianic age, they still have the “flesh” and can sin, and need to be justified, and will need offerings as they come to the place where the Shekinah dwells.  Amazingly, many will not believe and be saved, and yet, they will still need to make use of the animal sacrifices as they come to worship in Jerusalem.

It is worth noting that the Bible observes that there will be no temple (and thus no sacrifices) in the final, eternal kingdom of God (Rev. 21:22).  No temple will be needed because there is no threat of uncleanness or need for ritual purification in the eternal kingdom of God where only redeemed ones dwell.

This brings us to the second matter which is the presence of glory of God on earth.  The future kingdom age is very different from the present age.  In the gospel record, Jesus had restricted the use of some of His attributes of deity and veiled His glory. In the church age, we do not actually see Christ as He will appear in His glory (though three apostles did when He was transfigured before them).  But this is not so in the kingdom.  Ezekiel had seen the “Shekinah” (‘divine presence’, or ‘glory of God’) depart from Solomon’s temple (Ezek. 9-11).  Just as the Shekinah departed from the temple in the past, so the Shekinah will return permanently to the millennial temple (Ezek. 43:1-9).  It is the presence of the glory of God which will require a temple and the animal sacrifices. (We don’t need one today because Jesus is not present in His glory).  As we observed in the first article, the purpose of a temple was to provide a place for unclean man to approach a holy God.  And there will be many who are in that condition living on the earth in the millennial age.

The Purposes of Animal Sacrifices in the Coming Millennial Kingdom.   Animal sacrifices never took away sin under the Mosaic covenant. They did not back then and they will not in future. To understand the purposes of animal sacrifices in the future kingdom, one must understand their purposes in the Levitical/Mosaic system.

Animal Sacrifices in the O.T. Levitical System

The nation of Israel was a theocracy, and as such, was unique among all the peoples on the earth.  Israel was subject to the Mosaic covenant (law code).  There was blessing if an Israelite obeyed, but if he disobeyed he needed a way to handle the breaking of law.  This is where the animal sacrifices came in.  When an Israelite broke the law, two things happened. First, that one was no longer a member in good standing in the theocracy; and second, that one was out of fellowship with the Lord God (much like today when believers sin).  Animal sacrifice made restoration in both areas possible. First, he would return to an accepted position in the theocracy by bringing the appropriate offering. It was not a matter if he felt good about it or even had faith.  Reinstatement would be his, if he came with the appropriate offering. (This would be like paying a fine for a speeding ticket. You might not want to; you might hate the system; and you might not like the judge.  But if you want to be back in favor with the government and avoid any further negative actions, you pay the fine. At that point you become “forgiven” by the government).  So even an Israelite with a bad attitude or lack of faith benefitted from bringing the correct offering.  In the theocracy they experienced “forgiveness”.  Second, the sacrifice would bring a restoration of fellowship to the Lord.  However, the right heart attitude/faith was required.  Time and again in the OT, the prophets exhorted the people to come to the Lord with the proper heart attitude because God was not pleased with heartless offerings (e.g. Isaiah 1:10-20).  For the second aspect to be effective, the heart had to be right.  Now, it must be remembered that these sacrifices could not cleanse the conscience (Heb. 9:13-14) and they could not save the soul.  This is why people had to believe in the God who saves in order to be justified. But these sacrifices did do something.  They did effectively bring temporary, ritual cleansing (purification) for the worshipper. It was a means by which Israel could attain to their holy status as God’s chosen, covenant people.

These sacrifices dealt with legal obligations and external matters like blessing versus discipline. They were temporary, not eternal, in nature. But they did restore the Israelite to a positive relationship with other Israelites in the theocracy, and they did restore him back to fellowship with his God (if indeed faith was there).

Animal Sacrifices in the Millennial Kingdom

The same two functions of animal sacrifices will be true in the Millennium. First, it will be essential to experience full millennial blessings and to avoid disciplines from God for Jews and gentiles who are in their physical bodies.  It is clear that physical blessings will come to those who adhere to the ceremonial laws.

And we must remember that the Shekinah glory will be present and there can be no uncleanness.  Uncleanness is easily communicated, as was pointed out by the priests of Haggai’s day (Haggai 2:11-13).  Purity must be protected and the animal sacrifices will have that function in the coming kingdom.

And it is also clear that there are negatives to avoid.  Zechariah 14:16-21 informs us that non-conformity to kingdom laws will result in such things as drought and disease being experienced by lawbreakers.  Revelation 12:5 and 19:15 (Psa. 2:9), teach that Messiah will rule with a “rod of iron”, which speaks of absolute intolerance of sin, rebellion and law breaking.  To avoid these negatives, sacrifice must be employed. It is worth noting that many will conform externally but not really be believers. This is seen in the great, Satanic led rebellion at the end of the millennial kingdom (Rev. 20:7-10).  These individuals apparently will keep their legal status in the kingdom by means of sacrifice, but will not be in real fellowship with God. Only at the end of the age will their true colors be seen.

The Concept of “Atonement”

What does the word “atonement” (kipper) convey?  Commonly it is thought to mean “to cover”.  This is based on Genesis 6:14 where Noah was commanded to cover the ark with tar.  However, that (as recent conservative scholarship has shown) is not the identical root that is used in relationship in discussing the Levitical sacrifices nor the ones mentioned by Ezekiel. The ark account and the Levitical requirements are not speaking of the same thing.  Rather the word kipper has the idea of purging, cleansing or purifying. The animal sacrifices cleanse/purify/purge because there is uncleanness, defilement or contamination that exists. The blood of these animals eliminate (kipper) defilement and this brings ceremonial “atonement”.

These sacrifices will make it possible for people to move from uncleanness to holiness as they approach the Shekinah in the millennial temple.  How it does this is not explained, but there is no doubt that such purification and restoration takes place. They will ritually purify and cleanse just as they did in the Levitical system.

Animal Sacrifices As Memorials

Often it is thought that the animal sacrifices in the millennial age will be just like the Lord’ Supper (communion) in the church age; that is, they will point back to the cross.  But we fail to find such an idea taught by the prophets or the apostles.  The sacrifices clearly have a purpose and that is for ritual purification.  However, given the fact that the completed scriptures will be present in the millennial age, the great truths about Jesus work on the cross will be universally known.  In light of that, it would seem that the sacrifices (along with the nail scarred hands and feet of the Savior) would indeed call the cross work of Messiah Jesus to mind. It is hard to imagine that the sacrifices would not in some way be a constant reminder of The Sacrifice.  So while a memorial of Christ’s death is not the given purpose of these sacrifices, it is very likely that they will bring to mind that day in the first century when Jesus died for our sins, and provided the means of justification.

Concluding Thoughts

There are four points to review as we conclude.  First, there will be actual animal sacrifices in the future millennial kingdom. These are actual and not symbols of something.  Second, they will have the same function as the sacrifices in the Old Testament, which was not to bring about the justification of people.  The sacrifices never did take away sin and they will not in the future.  The sacrifices were for ritual purification, enabling a sinful man to approach a holy God. The presence of the Shekinah is a key element in the need for animal sacrifices.  Third, the sacrifices addressed two areas of life: (1) life in the theocratic nation of Israel, and (2) life in fellowship with God.  It was possible to maintain “fellowship” in the kingdom (without faith), keeping oneself in “good standing” in the nation.  But faith in God was needed for a person to have fellowship with God (just like cleansing today requires a proper heart attitude for the believer). There was, is and shall be a distinction between ceremonial cleansing and spiritual cleansing (justification).  And fourth, “atonement” does not mean “to cover” but rather communicates “purging” or “cleansing”.

Today, without the presence of the Shekinah, animal sacrifices are not needed.  But, as believers, we rejoice in the amazing power of the blood of Christ, which justifies, sanctifies and shall glorify.

(For additional reading on the animal sacrifices, the reader could consult: (1) “The Footsteps of the Messiah” [rev. ed.] by Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum, pp. 449-487, and (2) “The Coming Last Days Temple” by Dr. Randall Price, pp. 533-557.)