Peter Leithart, in his recently released theological magnum opus, Delivered from the Elements of the World, says at the beginning of his book that any theology of the cross must make sense or be connected to the Levitical cultic sacrifices (among other things of course. Leithart mentions 5 criteria for a proper theology of atonement: evangelical, Levitical, Pauline, inevitable or necessary, and fruitful).
Leithart says this about Levitical atonement theology: “a successful atonement theology treats Jesus’ death (at least) as a sacrifice, and it must be able to show that Jesus’ sacrifice fulfills Levitical ritual in historical events” (p 20).
The connection of the cross to sacrifice is of course apparent in NT letters such as Hebrews and the gospel narratives. But how exactly does the death of Christ “work” as a sacrifice? Peter Leithart takes up much of this book to bring to clarity the sacrificial death of Christ. First, he explains the purpose of the Levitical sacrifices:
[The] sacrificial system was designed to bring Israel near so that divine Husband and human Bride could feast together at the house of Yahweh. Yahweh accommodated himself to the post-Edenic, fleshly situation of Israel. Israelites themselves did not approach Yahweh but drew near through animal mediators, animals whose flesh was destroyed so that they could be transfigured and ascend, as the worshipper could not, in Yahweh’s presence. Israelite priests ate in the holy place but only under controlled conditions; Israelites could eat and drink and rejoice before the Lord, but only at a distance from his fiery presence. Israelites could not go past the cherubic swords and live. Israelites could not become fire to join themselves to Yahweh’s fire. But they could send animals past the cherubic swords, and Yahweh accepted the animals in place of the worshipers and Yahweh’s fire “consumed” the flesh of animals so that their flesh was turned to smoke and fire, “divinized” into union with Yahweh (p 138)
To make this explanation simple: the sacrifices were a sacramental means to accomplishing union with God. Israel offered these sacrifices, because they themselves were unable to ascend to God; they killed and burned the offerings as an act of repentance and vicarious self-giving, hoping the smoke could ascend to God and be accepted in their stead. This sacramental union was finalized when the priests ate the sacrifice “in the presence of the Lord”, which symbolized table fellowship with Yahweh.
Peter Leithart’s explanation of OT sacrificial theology represents a Thomistic sentiment. Sacrifices were seen by Aquinas as vicarious offerings of the self through the animal offerings for the purpose of creating union of God and man. The point of the sacrifices were “giving up” part of yourself to God; something valuable, something representative. This is why Israel offered animals, because they were comparable to income during those times. Even more, they gave the first born without spot and blemish. This was the most valuable animal. To give an animal like that was to give up part of your own income and wealth, and thus it was seen as a vicarious act of self-giving.
Moving on the cross, Leithart points out that the cross is seen by NT writers as fulfilling and finalizing OT sacrifices because while the OT sacrifices were vicarious, Christ’s was personal and actual. He didn’t offer to God a goat or bull, hoping that God would accept those in their place; rather, Christ offered himself in totality to God. Leithart says this:
[Christ] fulfilled the sacrificial system because he did what all sacrifices signified… Jesus did this in fact when he offered himself, passing through death into union with God like an animal sacrifice. (p 159)
So he fulfilled what all other sacrifices wished to fulfill: the offering of the total self to God. In fact, this is the point of the resurrection: it was simply smoke that rose to God; rather, God accepted Christ’s sacrifice and rose him up and seated him at his right hand. Sacramental union has been definitively accomplished in the person of Jesus.
But Leithar acknowledges: Jesus ” was not the first martyr to give his life to the God of Israel” (p 159). So what made his sacrifice different from all the other martyrs of the faith of Israel? Leithart answers:
The answer is, his identity and life. Jesus was the “son of God” in the Old Testament sense: he was Israel’s King, Israel embodied in a single person, and so his death, like the death of every king of Israel, was on behalf of his people. When he passed through death toward transfiguration, Israel went with him. More, Jesus was Israel’s king and Israel High King in one person, both David’s Son and David’s Lord. He poured out his blood, the life of his flesh, as Yahweh incarnate, and so his passage through death was Yahweh’s own passion, God’s own passage through human. Besides, Jesus’ entire life made his martyrdom unique. Heroic as they were, no other martyrs had lived a life of complete obedience to Torah. None had fully realized all that Torah required. Like every sacrificial animal, Jesus offered himself “without blemish to God” (Heb 9:14) (pp 159-160)
Jesus’ sacrifice was unique because Jesus was representative of Israel; and, borrowing from Saint Anselm, Jesus was man and God, which made his death utterly and infinitely more valuable than any other death of a human being. But even more than that, Jesus’ sacrifice was pure and without blemish. Because Jesus obeyed the Torah in full, he offered himself a pure oblation, innocent one, perfectly loving and just. God took delight in that and raised him up, and consequently, all Israel in him.
Aquinas said in his Summa Theologia that the value in Christ’s self-offering was not so much his suffering (although this doesn’t discount the need for vicarious suffering), but rather in the infinite perfect love with which he suffered. The entire point of the sacrifices was the give the self to God entirely: this is just what Christ did in the cross by dying in perfect love. And that infinite love was sufficient for the remission of all the world’s sin!