"Lay your hand on his head and kill him...""Flay him and cut him in pieces..."
"Bring the blood and throw it against the wall..."
"Wring off his head..."
"Tear open his chest..."
"Stack his head on top of his fat..."
"Wash the entrails and stack them with the rest..."
"Burn it all...It is a pleasing aroma."
After reading the instructions on how to offer a sacrifice in the first few chapters of Leviticus, I wonder if an Israelite would have been grossed out in the slightest by watching even our most gruesome horror movies. This is macabre stuff! It becomes even more horrifying when you try to put all the images, sounds, smells, and details together in your head to create a decent picture of what it must have been like to be there.
Well before you were able to walk your spotless lamb anywhere near the place of sacrifice, you would have seen the column of greasy smoke reflecting the hellish light of a large bonfire somewhere below. The screams of dying and frightened animals would no doubt fill the air. Somewhere, you probably had to jump over or slog through a little stream of blood and gore flowing from the place. Then you catch a glimpse of it through the gate: fire! In the flames you can see heads with eyeballs melting in their sockets, burning lumps of slimy fat, kidneys and intestines hanging half over the side of the altar. And there are priests with blood-stained clothes (so much blood!) slinging buckets of the stuff against the walls of the grill. Another one snatches a bull close to him as he slashes its throat and one more spray of blood erupts over the scene.
This is hell. There is no other word for it and there is no other concept in the human imagination that better fits the description of what is going on here. Just inside the court of the Jewish temple and tabernacle stood a gate to hell.
What was this awful place doing there? Why in the world did God demand that such a thing ever be a part of His holy worship? To answer those questions, it is necessary to also imagine what laid beyond the altar of sacrifice.
On the other side of the court stood the Holy Place - the tabernacle or temple itself (depending on where we are in our imagination: the desert or the city of Jerusalem). This was a palace of heart-stopping beauty. Literally no expense was spared on the construction of either place. They were buildings so full of gold and light that our eyes would be quite possibly completely overwhelmed at the sight. And in there in the midst was the Holy of Holies - the very place where God set His presence and met with His people. This was heaven. No more beautiful or holy a place has ever existed in the history of the world.
And yet to draw near to heaven meant that one must first deal with hell. The burning altar stood between you and the golden palace, and someone or something had to go into that fire before you could proceed. This was because of a breach of God's Law. The One who created the universe (including you) gave instructions for how His creatures were to behave and you disobeyed those instructions. That horrible fire speaks of what you deserve: the end that God has appointed for His enemies. But He has also made a gracious provision for you. Another can go into the flames in your place! Bring a lamb without blemish. It will go into that hell that you see instead of you, allowing you to pass on by on your way to the glory beyond.
This is the gospel - written with bold bloody letters right at the start of one of the most unread books in the Old Testament. It is possible for a spotless Lamb to suffer the holy wrath of God so that the wicked sinner can enter His presence. "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" That was the way that John the Baptist introduced his crowd to Jesus in John 1:29. Ultimately, none of those bloody animal sacrifices actually removed the guilt of sin from those who offered them (Hebrews 10:4). Their purpose was to teach people the horrible price of sin and to prepare us to understand what it was that Jesus was doing when He died - the spotless for the blemished - on the cross.