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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:The Gospel of the Sin Offering
Text:Leviticus 4:1-35 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 103:1,4                                                                             

Ps 4:2,3                                                                                                          

Reading – Leviticus 4:1-35; Hebrews 9:16-28

Ps 51:1,2,3

Sermon – Leviticus 4:1-35

Ps 19:5,6

Hy 69:1,2,3

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in Christ, I’m sure that we’ve all said it many times, “I didn’t mean to!” A young brother accidentally hurts his sister, and he’s quick to cry out, “I didn’t mean to!” We miss a homework deadline, and our only defense is that we didn’t mean to. We’re driving 93 in an 80 zone, and what we really want to say to the policeman is, “I didn’t mean to.”

This is the nature of our life, with other people, and also before God. Because we’re weak, and sometimes forgetful, and sometimes careless, we do things that are wrong—even without meaning to, without intent. And if it’s unintentional, is it still sin? God says that it is. The LORD is a holy God, and his moral standard is immensely high, for his standard is perfect.

God says that it is sin not only when we transgress, when we step over the line and break one of his commandments by being cruel or by stealing. He says that we also sin when we fall short, when there is good that we should be doing, but we don’t: we don’t help our struggling neighbour, and we don’t pray like we should, or give generously. Maybe you’ve heard of sins being categorized as sins of commission, and sins of omission: the wrong that we do, and the good that we don’t do. In our chapter, God also speaks about unintentional sins. These are wrong things that we do out of ignorance, or by accident—when we don’t mean to go against God’s law, but we still have. In our life, there’s a lot of this kind of sin too.

It can actually be discouraging to think about all this sin: omission, commission, intentional, unintentional. When are we not sinning? This makes the laws that we find in Leviticus 4 so reassuring. Even though the people of God are so unholy, the LORD provides restoration. In his grace He makes cleansing possible for his people, so we can live with Him in a relationship that is right. Despite our countless sins of so many types and varieties, in Christ God opens the way for us to stay near Him. This is what we’ll consider in Leviticus 4 on this theme,

The LORD accepts the sin offering from his sinful people:

  1. the serious need
  2. the many sinners
  3. the purifying blood


1) the serious need: God gave Israel a beautiful privilege and high calling, for they were his holy people. God was going to dwell among them, and He showed this nearness at the tabernacle. Remember what the tabernacle is often called: the tent of meeting, a place to encounter the living God. And to have God right in your midst is a great blessing, but also a great danger.

What’s the danger? Sin! Our relationship with God is disrupted by sin. It poses a grave threat to fellowship with God, because our sin provokes his anger. This is why God says there’s a need for purification. If his people want to stay close to God, then they must be properly cleansed. Just think of what happens to Nadab and Abihu, a story that is told in Leviticus 10. These two sons of Aaron dared to draw near to God with incense that He had not allowed. They were bringing something unholy before the LORD, and the result was terrible. Without purification, they could not live—and fire devoured them.

And if the tabernacle was polluted by sinners, then it too must be cleansed. The two go closely together. When sinful people came to the tabernacle, then the tabernacle itself became unclean in God’s sight. For you could say that impurity is contagious—it spreads from person to person. Impurity also spreads from a person to the places that he goes, like when you have contamination spreading in a hospital. Sinners coming to the sanctuary made it necessary that the sanctuary be cleansed, otherwise God could no longer dwell among his people.

This then is the critical thing that the sin offering does: it purifies the people, and it purifies the sanctuary. This is why some English Bibles call this the “purification offering.” It’s now the fourth type of sacrifice that is revealed in Leviticus. And unlike the previous three, this one was never voluntary. This wasn’t a gift that could be brought freely, but there was an obligation—after a person came to realize he had committed a certain sin, then it was necessary that he bring a sin offering. Without it, he could die.

So when was it presented? Verse 2, “If a person sins unintentionally against any of the commandments of the LORD in anything which ought not to be done, and does any of them.” First, notice how this covers the whole of God’s law; it’s about sin against “any of the commandments of the LORD.” Here at Mt. Sinai God was in the process of revealing his law to the people of Israel, and it was a comprehensive law. It wasn’t just the Ten Commandments, but laws that touched on many aspects of life: God gave them laws about housing, food, clothing, health, family, business, debt, farming, going to war, resolving disputes, and much more.

Against any of these commandments a person could sin unintentionally. That’s a key word here—what does it mean? It’s when a person violates one of God’s laws without knowing it at the time. It is an accidental sin, or inadvertent, an “I didn’t mean to.”

For example, a person could be enjoying a stew, and he eats an unidentified portion of meat. He doesn’t know that it was actually from a pig, which God said was unclean. Later on, someone tells him, and he realizes his sin. Another example is when a person kills someone else accidently, maybe when they’re working together chopping down trees. The person who did it has still guilt on his head, but because it wasn’t intentional, he can go to a city of refuge, and be forgiven.

You can imagine other situations too, where a person sins without knowing it. I just said that God’s law addressed many different aspects of life, so a person might not always remember what the LORD required. What did He say again about finding your neighbour’s donkey? What was the exact law about cancelling debts? Or about sowing different kinds of seed? Because of a person’s forgetfulness or his lack of attention, he could sin unintentionally.

And we do the same thing. We’re weak, and forgetful. We hurt someone by our words without meaning to, unaware that we said something insensitive—that’s an unintentional sin. We take a tool that we think is ours, but it’s not—unintentional theft. Or we forget what belongs to a God-pleasing prayer; we still pray, but we’re not doing it in a fully Scriptural way. Our ignorance means that we sin. Or we’ve gotten into bad habits with our money, not out of greed or ingratitude, but a lack of awareness. Perhaps it’s been a while since we’ve looked at what the Bible says about money, so we’re not treating our income like we should—that’s sin. Point is, sin doesn’t take place only when we realize it, or only when we feel bad about it. We sin, whenever we go against what God has said, or whenever we fall short of his holy standard.

I think that it’s hard to always know if something is intentional or not. For example, anger can flare up in a person almost like a reflex; he fights against it at once, and he even controls it, but he was still angry. Was it intentional? The same thing happens with our quick bursts of pride, or our lust, or our impatience, or our worry and lack of faith. As God’s children we know these things are wrong. We try hard not to let them take root into our life. We don’t want to sin like this, and we pray for God’s help to be holy. But even without intent, our sinful thoughts and glances and words are still sin. Our neglect of good things is still sin.

Unintentional sins are different, of course, from ones that are deliberate. In the first part of chapter 6 we can read about a person sinning against his neighbour. These sins are intentional, and they need to be handled in a different way.

Another kind of sin that is different from the unintentional is the one described in Numbers 15. There, an unknowing sin is contrasted with a presumptuous sin, or a bold sin. This is when a person blatantly despises the LORD’s Word. Literally, such a sin is “high-handed,” because a person is defying God—he’s throwing his hand in the air to resist God and ignore him. Numbers 15 says that one who sins with a high hand needs to be cut off, and his guilt remains on him. That scenario is obviously different from what’s described in our chapter.

We’ve talked about our inability to be doers of God’s Word, and our forgetfulness of what He says. So we do sin without intending to. But there’s also times when we sin presumptuously—when we plunge ahead, knowing exactly what we’re doing. You know these words are going to hurt your sister, but you say them anyway. You know this money doesn’t belong to you, but you take it. You know very well that God wants you in church, but you choose to stay home. This is dangerous ground: we know what God’s Word says, and we ignore it. We’re going to do our own thing. If we’re sinning like this, may God the Spirit help us to repent of our willful ways.

Coming back to Leviticus, we see that the sin offering needed to be made in other situations too, aside from unintentional sins. For example, a woman would be impure for a time after giving birth. When that time was done, she’d bring a sin offering (12:6). Remember that the focus of this offering was purification. So it was not as if the woman had sinned by having a child, but she still needed to be cleansed before God. Another occasion was when someone had been unclean because of skin disease (14:19) or a bodily discharge (15:15). There was a need for purification, for a sin offering to be made.

As we said before, it’s discouraging to think about all our sin. It’s troubling that our unintentional sins are still sins, just as much as our deliberate wrongdoing is sin. All sin—great and small—makes us unholy, and puts us out of fellowship with God. Even when we’re not aware of it, we need a Saviour! But that’s the good news of Leviticus 4: our sins can be cleansed away. Purification is available. If you realize that you’ve gone against God’s commands in whatever way, and you confess your sins, He will forgive you. This is what John says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and He cleanses us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).


2) the many sinners: Leviticus 4 has four main sections, where God talks about people of various rank and position committing an unintentional sin. The four positions are the high priest, the whole congregation, a ruler of the people, and a common person.

First, it could happen that the “anointed priest” (v 3), or the high priest, sins unintentionally (vv 3-12). The high priest was the leader of worship at the sanctuary. He and all the priests were teachers of the people, and in their lives they had to set an example of faithfulness. The high priest in particular was the representative of the nation before God. If he was pure and holy, then he could enter the tabernacle and make atonement for sins. You understand then, that the high priest’s own holiness had to be a priority.

But say he had sinned, even by mistake. He forgot one step in the ritual of sacrifice, or he put on his priestly clothing in the wrong way. Even a sin like this put the whole community at risk. See how verse 3 puts it, that with an unintentional sin he might “[bring] guilt on the people.” Because the consequences of his sin were so severe, God required from him the most expensive sin offering, “a young bull without blemish” (v 3).

Today we don’t say that ministers and other office bearers are more important, but Scripture does highlight the high calling that leaders have. Think of Jesus’ words in Luke 12:48 about receiving responsibility, “Everyone to whom much is given, of him much will be demanded.” Also in the letter of James, the Spirit says, “Let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” So those who lead should be held closely to account; even their mistakes can cause harm to the rest of God’s people.

The second category in this chapter involves the entire congregation (vv 13-21): “If the whole congregation of Israel sins unintentionally…” (v 13). This shows us that there can be individual sin, but also corporate sin, where God’s people sin collectively. Perhaps the Israelites forgot what the LORD required of them when they went to war, or they unknowingly broke his commands about observing the feast days. At any rate, verse 14 says that “the sin which they have committed becomes known.” It’s brought to light—maybe through a closer reading of the law, or through a prophecy—and the people confess it. Like with the sin of the high priest, this was serious, a sin that affected everyone’s holiness, and they need purification. The importance is seen in the valuable type of sacrifice that God requires: “a young bull” (v 14).

We tend to focus a lot on our sins as individuals. But it’s also good to consider how as a congregation we might sin against God unknowingly. Maybe there are good things that we should be doing, but we’re not doing them. Perhaps we have a blind spot, and we’re missing something important about church life. It doesn’t mean we’re ignoring what God says. It could be that our knowledge is lacking, or our vision has been clouded. So how would that become known to a congregation, so that we can confess it, and improve it? The continued close study of Scripture will surely help. Also through self-examination as church, and through interaction with other faithful churches. Collectively we can also grow in obedience to God.

The third category of unintentional sin relates to the sin of a ruler (vv 22-26). This was a leader of a clan or a tribe. His unintentional sin was not as serious a threat to the nation’s holiness. That’s seen in how he’s only required to offer only a male goat, and the blood isn’t brought into the tabernacle.

Fourthly, one of “the common people” might sin unintentionally (vv 27-35). If he became aware of some accidental offense against God’s law like we described before, he too needed to offer a sacrifice. But for a regular Israelite, the sacrifice could be a female goat. Chapter 5 says that if a person was poor, they could also bring some birds or even grain as an offering.

In each of these four cases, sin had been committed. God’s law had been offended, even if it wasn’t on purpose, or it was done out of ignorance. This sin caused impurity and needed to be dealt with, otherwise God couldn’t dwell among his people. So let’s see what happens to the blood of the sin offering.


3) the purifying blood: At first, the sin offering looks a lot like the other sacrifices that are described in the earlier chapters of Leviticus. The sinner brings his animal to the entrance of the tent of meeting. Then he lays his hand on the head of the animal, probably declares why he’d brought it as an offering, and then the animal is killed. From that point on, the rest of the ritual is unique.

And the uniqueness is seen especially in the blood. Blood is always important in Leviticus—and throughout Scripture—as a symbol of life. If sin is committed, God demands life, or blood, as a payment. Hebrews 9:22 states the fundamental principle, “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission” (or no forgiveness).

What happens to the blood of the sin offering? In the burnt offering and the peace offering, the blood of the animal was thrown against the altar—it was being returned to God at once. But in the sin offering, some of the animal’s blood is collected in a bowl, because the  priest needs to do something with it.

That blood is going to be sprinkled. And notice that it gets sprinkled in different places, depending on who had sinned. In the last point we said that the sin of the high priest was most serious, because his sin impacted how everyone approached the LORD. So when the priest’s bull was killed, “The priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle some of the blood seven times before the LORD, in front of the veil of the sanctuary” (v 6).

What veil is meant here? It’s the curtain inside the tabernacle, the one that serves as door into the most holy place. Behind that curtain was the ark, and the very throne room of God. See how the blood had to be carried almost all the way into the LORD’s presence, and sprinkled just in front of that last barrier.

The only time that blood came any closer was on the Day of Atonement, described in chapter 16; this was that once-per-year occasion when the high priest actually went into the most holy place and he sprinkled blood on top of the ark.

The blood of the sin offering was obtaining purification from sin. Blood was the holy disinfectant for a dirty people, like a detergent that cleanses the priest and the sanctuary and the people from all their pollution. This blood was sprinkled in front of the veil, then also “on the horns of the altar of sweet incense before the LORD” (v 7). The altar of incense stood in front of that curtain leading into the most holy place. It had small horns, or points on each corner, and this is where blood was smeared. Blood had been presented to God horizontally, sprinkled towards his throne in the most holy place. Now on these horns blood was also being lifted up to God in heaven. This blood allowed God to forgive sin, and remain among his people.

After the blood-sprinkling inside the tabernacle, the choice parts of the priest’s animal are removed—the fat, and kidneys and liver—and they are burned on the altar. As for the rest of the animal (the hide, the flesh, the head and legs and intestines), it’s taken outside of the camp and consumed with fire. It won’t be food for the priests, and it won’t be a sacrifice to God. The animal being removed from the camp is probably symbolic for the total removal of sin. For the tabernacle to be purified, all sin had to be put far away and destroyed.

We don’t have time to look at the sin offering made for the congregation, the leaders or common people. But key parts of the ritual are the same: an animal is killed, its blood is presented to God, the choice parts are burned as a sacrifice, and the rest is consumed by fire outside the camp.

It’s striking, isn’t it? So much cost and effort every time the sin offering was made. And all this, to deal with sins that are unintentional! To deal with things that you and I might dismiss with a “I didn’t mean to,” things that we (or the Israelites) might have excused by pointing to our ignorance. It didn’t matter—God says sin must be atoned for, and pollution purified. Without the shedding of blood, there can be no forgiveness. This chapter shows us something about the high cost of our sin, and also the seriousness of our sin.

We say it so easily, “Father, forgive my sins, for they are many.” But do we grasp even a little of how many they are? There are the things we dare to do even when we know that God forbids them. Then there’s also the good things we often neglect to do. And there’s also the sins that are unintentional, when our weakness or lack of awareness means that we don’t lead the holy kind of life that God wants from us. “Forgive my sins, for they are many!”

A lot of sin needs a lot of grace. And that’s what our God gives! See the notice of forgiveness in verse 20, “So the priest shall make atonement for them, and it shall be forgiven them.” For God is willing to forgive the sinner, to purify his people, and restore the broken bond. No, it wasn’t easy. To forgive means you have to give something up, let go of it. Forgiveness had a high cost in the Old Testament, and even then, it wasn’t the full price.

The blood of no bull or sheep or goat would ever be enough, so God sent his Son. Jesus was a high priest, but not a priest who needed to make an offering for his own sins. He was perfect: He never did the evil that God had forbidden, He never sinned accidentally or out of ignorance, but He always did all the good that God commanded.

Then Jesus was sacrificed, not repeatedly, but just once, “to bear the sins of many” (Heb 9:28). The death of Christ could achieve a cleansing which animal sacrifices never could. For if God accepted animals, “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (9:14).

We are a sinful people, much more than we know. But God’s grace is sufficient. As John writes, “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). He cleanses us from all of it! We need cleansing every day, but it is freely available through Christ. So turn away from all your sin, and seek Him in the joy of faith!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was:

(c) Copyright 2017, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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