Sacrifice and the Ascension of the Incarnate Son in Hebrews
By: David M. Moffitt
If we know one thing about sacrifice, we know this: Sacrifice was about killing animals on altars. Artistic renderings and online videos depicting animals lying bound and/or slaughtered on an altar reinforce the point. With respect to Leviticus and the temple in Jerusalem, however, such images are completely wrong. No animals were slaughtered on the temple’s outer altar. Two facts show how non-sensical this idea is. First, the outer altar had a perpetual fire burning on it (Lev 6:12–13). Second, priests applied sacrificial blood to that altar, usually by dashing it around the sides (Lev 1:5; 3:2; 7:2; and so on). How could a priest place a living animal in the flames and then, in the midst of the conflagration, slaughter it and collect its blood in order to dash it on the altar? The altar was where sacrificial elements were burned, being turned to smoke that ascended into God’s presence (e.g., Lev 1:9; 2:1: 3:5; and so on), not where sacrifices were slaughtered.
We could reflect on other mistaken ideas (e.g., the notion that sacrificial blood symbolized death; the assumption that “shedding blood” in sacrificial contexts referred to killing the animal the reduction of the multi-step process of sacrifice to the act of slaughter). I engage these kinds of matters more fully in the essays in my forthcoming book, Rethinking the Atonement: New Perspectives on Jesus’ Death, Resurrection, and Ascension (Baker Academic, 2023). However, let’s focus here on another oft-missed point: the process of sacrifice had a directional component. A sacrifice moved from an offerer, to a priest, to an altar, and into God’s presence.
The directionality of sacrifice has the potential to throw new light on our understanding of the content and scope of Jesus’ sacrifice by suggesting that Jesus’ sacrifice is not limited to the cross. Notions of sacrifice that focus primarily on slaughter and death tend to conceive of Jesus’ sacrifice only in terms of his crucifixion. Recognizing that sacrifices moved into God’s presence raises another possibility—the return of the incarnate Son to the Father is part of the sacrificial act. The confession that Jesus rose and ascended into God’s heavenly presence correlates in important respects with the direction a priest and a sacrifice traveled in order to offer the sacrifice to God.
I have argued elsewhere that the Epistle to the Hebrews assumes Jesus’ bodily resurrection and identifies his ascension into the heavenly tabernacle as the time when and the place where he offers his sacrifice to God (esp. Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews [Brill, 2011]). I note here that the directional aspect of sacrifice described above correlates well with Hebrews’ claims that the risen Jesus “passed through the heavens” (4:14), went behind the veil of the heavenly tabernacle (6:19–20, 10:19–20), and appeared before God to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself (9:24–26). Hebrews describes the incarnate Son moving in exactly the right direction relative to the Father to offer his sacrifice.
In fact, when we also consider Hebrews’ incarnational presuppositions, it becomes difficult to see how the author could argue that the Son came into the world to offer his sacrifice merely on the cross. The Son clearly preexists creation, being the one who created and sustains all things (Heb 1:2–3). The Son also came “into the world” in order to offer himself to the Father (10:5–10). But if Hebrews imagines that this self-offering consisted only in Jesus’ crucifixion on earth, then the homily works with a confused and incoherent understanding of Jewish sacrifice. From an incarnational perspective, this account has the Son moving in the wrong direction. How does the Son offer himself to the Father when he is away from the Father’s heavenly presence? Moreover, if the author thought the cross alone was the time and place of Jesus’ sacrifice, it is strange that he then stresses the Son’s subsequent ascension into the heavenly tabernacle and appearance before the Father (9:24–26). The earthly high priest went into the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement in order to offer blood (Heb 9:7) for the sins of the people (Heb 13:11). If Hebrews imagines the Son offering the ultimate atoning sacrifice on earth and then entering the heavenly tabernacle to serve as high priest, the Son’s direction of travel is again wrong.
If, however, Hebrews thinks that Jesus’ sacrifice, like a sacrifice at the temple, was about conveying the offering into God’s presence, the homily’s emphasis on the return of the incarnate Son to the Father makes good sense. The Son was sent by the Father to become incarnate. He died as a sacrifice, yes, but even more, rose and returned to the Father as a sacrifice. There he was invited to sit at God’s right hand. There he now ministers as high priest and sacrifice interceding for his siblings. From there he will return to his people, not unlike the earthly high priest who left the temple to return to the people after concluding his sacrificial ministry in the holy of holies.
Some might object that an account of Jesus’ sacrifice that focuses so much attention on his ascension diminishes the cross. This objection begs important questions: not only does it tend to rest on false assumptions about how sacrifice worked, it also assumes already that Jesus’ salvific death is the only thing that matters for his people’s salvation. The latter assumption risks diminishing the significance of Jesus’ resurrection, ascension, and ongoing intercession—it risks diminishing the ongoing significance of the incarnation. But another point can also be made: if Jesus’ sacrifice involved a process that culminated in his return to the Father’s heavenly presence, then both the significance of Jesus’ death and of his ascension can be explored without collapsing either of these aspects of his saving work into the other (and certainly without needing to demythologize the resurrection and ascension, as if these were really ways of speaking about the significance of the crucifixion).
The New Testament’s reflection on Jesus’ salvific work reaches beyond the realm of Jewish sacrifice. Once, however, we recognize that such sacrifice involved more than killing an animal, we can begin to perceive afresh ways in which the New Testament’s use of sacrificial concepts extends the scope and content of the saving work of the incarnate Son beyond the cross and into heaven itself.
David M. Moffitt is Reader in New Testament Studies at the University of St Andrews. His book Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Brill, 2011) received a Manfred Lautenschläger Award for Theological Promise in 2013. He is coauthor with Stefan Alkier of New Testament Basics: A Guide for Reading and Interpreting the Text (Fortress, 2022). He is co-editor of Son, Sacrifice, and Great Shepherd: Studies on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Mohr Siebeck, 2020) and A Scribe Trained for the Kingdom of Heaven: Essays on Christology and Ethics in Honor of Richard B. Hays (Fortress Academic, 2021). He has also published numerous scholarly articles and essays.