No doubt all of us have felt guilt or shame over something we’ve said or done. We see this in the Book of Genesis, that after eating the forbidden fruit Adam and Eve feel shame.
“So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:6-12)
This feeling of shame or guilt comes from our conscience. Atheists and secularists will tell us that what we call our conscience is nothing more than the rules of our family, church, school, society, etc. which we have internalized. We certainly cannot deny the influence of these external factors, but nevertheless the Church would insist that the conscience is an integral part of our humanity as creatures of God.
Of course, conscience is not limited to Christians but is shared by the whole of humanity. Because of this we see similarity with how people deal with guilt. One way of freeing oneself from a guilty conscience is sacrifice. People might sacrifice fruit, vegetables, small animals, large animals and even men and women as a way of being freed from guilt. The idea is that the sacrifice, being something important or valuable to ourselves, will satisfy the wrath of the Holy God who hates sin, but loves the sinner.
This common human response to sin is seen in great detail in the Old Testament. The third book of the Bible gives detailed instruction on how to do this. This is the origin of the word scapegoat. An unblemished valuable animal is selected, then the priest transfers the sin and guilt of the people to this animal which is then slaughtered. This is supposed to release people from sin.
This may seem barbaric and superstitious to us, but in Judaism before Christ and much of the non-Christian world today, sacrifice is an important element of human religion.
However, even in Old Testament times, people especially prophets, began to recognize the futility of animal sacrifice and longed for something more meaningful, more profound. Sensitive people realized that this never-ending road of sacrifice did not really do the job. The Old Testament sacrifices were a shadow of something more.
Of course, this something more is Jesus Christ. Throughout the New Testament Jesus is seen as the Lamb of God, the ultimate sacrifice offering. Jesus is the one pure and spotless lamb. And most importantly, He is truly human. As the Divine-Human Son of God, Jesus took on the burden of all of human sin and through His death, the effects of human sin and death was finally blotted out.
This idea of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of all the sacrifice of the Old Testament is the dominant theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews. This Epistle gives a detailed examination of how Christ fulfilled the Old Testament law of sacrifice.