Of the sacrifices, the burnt offering is mentioned first because it was the most important. Leviticus doesn’t tell us what it was for because the answer is obvious. All the sacrifices on the altar are for sin. The text focuses on how the animals are to be handled. Notice two matters about this. First, the worshiper was to lay his hand upon the head of the burnt offering that was going to be accepted on his behalf (see Lev. 4:1). That’s a very critical idea and it pertains to all of the sacrifices. When the worshiper put his hand upon the sacrifice, this was a way in which he symbolically transferred his sin or guilt to the sacrifice. It was a kind of confession of sin, such that in a symbolic way his sin was passed to the animal. And then when the animal was taken and killed, it was killed in the place of the worshiper.
The second thing follows on that. When the animal was killed, the blood of the sacrifice had to be sprinkled upon the altar. There were different ways this was done with different sacrifices. But in every case, when there was a sacrifice for sin the blood had to be sprinkled on the altar. Now the point of this is that the blood testified to the death of the substitute. This is also critical because, as we are told throughout the Bible, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22), and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Our sin requires death. The just God of the universe must punish our sins with death, and not just physical death, which we’re all going to experience, but spiritual death as well. The only way we can be saved from that is by an innocent substitute dying in our place. The blood of sheep and goats didn’t take away sin. It was only a type that pointed forward to Jesus Christ. When He came and died, those types were fulfilled in Him, and it is His shed blood that takes away our sin. If you don’t have faith in Jesus Christ, you don’t have salvation.
The second offering was the grain offering, also called a meal offering—which meant grain. This is the only one that wasn’t for sin. This offering was of finely ground flour that was mixed with oil, incense and salt—all of which had symbolic meanings. It was given to the priest, who then took a handful of it and offered it on the altar as a memorial, and the rest of it was kept in order to be eaten primarily, in this case, by the priest.
The grain offering was what we would call an offering of thanksgiving. It was a kind of gift to God, in the same way that we as Christians give our offerings. We don’t atone for sin in any way by anything we do or give, but we give because we’re thankful to God for what He has done, and we want to see His work go forward.
The third offering was the fellowship offering. Now, the Hebrew word for “fellowship” is a form of the word shalom. Shalom is a well-known Jewish greeting that means “peace.” For that reason, this offering is sometimes called the peace offering. The fellowship offering was for sin. The worshiper brought his offering, and several of the things associated with the burnt offering were done with this as well. He put his hand upon the animal, and the animal was killed. But in this case not all of the animal was burnt—only the interior portions of the animal. The rest of it was eaten as food, partly by the priests, since by it they were sustained, but mostly by the worshiper, as well as by his family and friends. That was why it was called a fellowship meal.
Sometimes the fellowship offering involved a great number of animals. For example, in 1 Kings 8, when Solomon dedicated the temple, he offered 22,000 cows and 120,000 sheep, which were used to feed the people. This was a celebration—a great outdoor barbecue that took place on the occasion of the dedication of the temple. But you see, it was presented to the Lord first of all as a fellowship offering.
Although it’s a sin offering, the emphasis of this particular offering is not the burning up of the sin or the passing of the sin to the animal. Rather, the emphasis is on the fellowship, or peace, that is reestablished between the worshiper and God. Having made peace through the offering, the worshiper can then sit down in peace, knowing that things are right between himself and God, and could then enjoy a time of fellowship with his family and friends.
We have to remember that this is one aspect of what Jesus Christ accomplished for us by His death. Colossians 1:19-20 says, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” So peace, or shalom, was one thing that was accomplished for us by our Lord.
The fourth of these offerings is the sin offering, discussed in 4:1-5:13 and also in 6:24-30. This offering receives the longest description of any of the five offerings, and that leads us to think that probably it was the kind of offering that was offered most often. It was for what we would call unintentional sin. Some examples are given in chapter 5. One such unintentional sin was failing to speak in another’s defense. If you heard somebody accused of something, and you knew something that could be said to excuse the one who had been wrongly accused, and you didn’t say anything, that was an offense. You didn’t intend to do it, but you let the opportunity slip. Another example was touching something ceremonially unclean. You didn’t intentionally touch it, but it happened. There were probably dozens, maybe hundreds, of unintentional sins like this, and the sin offering atoned for them.