In Matt 5:23-24 Jesus said that when an Israelite gave a sacrifice, they should apologize to and reconcile with anyone they have wronged. His point was that sacrifices shouldn’t have been given cold and ritualistically with no heart and that people should be mindful of their sins and repent when giving sacrifices. This is the actual purpose of sacrifices. The sacrifices of animals did not magically make a person holy, sacrificing was a part of the mechanism of repentance, (or thanksgiving) to God. Sacrificing was a way of showing God that you meant what you said and you weren’t just saying empty words when you repented. Killing an animal and burning its blood and fat on an altar is meaningless if we aren’t going to change our ways or learn from our mistakes. Our own sinfulness is a reminder of our humanity and fallibility, and sacrificing helps us empathize with those who have wronged us and reminds us that if things were the other way around we would want mercy and forgiveness. Jesus goes on about turning the other cheek instead of seeking revenge (verse 38-42) and says we need to forgive others and love even our enemies (verse 43-48). This is because God requires his people to live by a higher standard.
In Matt 9:13, and 12:7 Jesus quotes Hos 6:6, which says God wants us to walk in love more than he wants sacrifices. In Matt 9:13 Jesus is responding to the Sanhedrin council, who criticized him for eating with sinners. Jesus said that God wants people to show mercy and love more than he wants sacrifices. In Matt 12:7, Jesus is saying that putting restrictions on God’s good works of love and healing because it’s the Sabbath, was contrary to the point of the Sabbath and that Israel’s leaders had corrupted the meaning of the Sabbath. The main issue he was addressing here was that the Law was supposed to remind people that they needed God to transform them, and it was not to be abused by people to control other people.
In Psalms 4:4-5 David gives an example of sacrificing properly by letting go of anger and resentment. In Psalms 50:8-23 it says that animal sacrifices are somewhat given in vain because God owns all animals on the earth. Instead, God wants people’s hearts (repentance) and thankfulness (v14-15). In Psalms 51:16-19 it says, sacrifices are meaningless without a repentant heart. Heb 8:15-16 says that giving to those in need is the true sacrifice that pleases God.
The sacrifices of animals were a temporary measure that representationally covered moral sins and functionally allow the Israelites to be ritually pure so that they could be in God’s presence (at the Temple/Tabernacle). However, animals are not what God wanted because he already owned all animals (Ps 50:14-15), so they had to do it over and over because their hearts weren’t truly changing from a sinful hard-hearted state. This is why Jesus overturned the tables and chased the auctioneers out of the Temple in Matt 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, & John 2:13-17. They were bastardizing the sacrificial system by auctioning and gambling for animals at the Temple, and people weren’t actually sacrificing out of a repentant heart (giving the best of their assets). The Israelites were just doing like the Gentiles did and bought whatever last-minute animal they could get, so they could, “get it over with”. It became a religious chore, instead of being a true communion with God leading to the transformation of behavior.
Animals couldn’t take our sins permanently because humans are made in God’s image and are higher than animals. Since no average human could be sinless, so no human could qualify as a sacrifice, that is until the Messiah, Jesus. Jesus being sinless, qualified him to take our sins from us and free us from its stronghold (Isa 53:4-11, Matt 8:17, Rom 5:12-17, Heb 10:1-10). Jesus gave his life for us because he loved us the way we should love each other. His example shows us how to love all of God’s images (humanity). In response, we are to imitate him by loving our neighbors, including our enemies, and by doing so we are keeping God’s commands and loving God in the process. This is only possible through the holy spirit, and this was only available because of Jesus’ sacrifice.
In Deut 30:6 Moses says that the Israelites will never keep God’s commands until their hearts are circumcised, in other words, the hardness of their hearts is cut away. Jeremiah 4:3-4 God says that the people of Judah’s hearts need to be circumcised so that they can repent of their sins. Ezekiel 36:22-32 says that God will transform the human heart by pouring out his spirit on humanity. This is prophesied in Joel 2:28-32 and fulfilled in Acts chapter 2 for the Jews, Acts 8:4-25 for the Samaritans, and Acts 10:44-48 for the Gentiles. God’s spirit is what transforms people. His spirit dwells in the bodies of believers, just like he dwelled in the Temple and Tabernacle in the old testament. In the new covenant, the “temple” is a living temple and is the body of every person that has received God’s spirit in their hearts through their faith in Jesus, rather than a building in Israel. This is how we become people who are willing to submit to God’s teaching and give him the true sacrifices of the heart that he desires. These sacrifices cause us to reconcile with and love our neighbors, as well as repent for our failures to keep God’s command and then change our ways so that we do what is right in the future instead of continually living in sin.
I leave you with this. Hebrews 10:26 (NLT) Dear friends, if we deliberately continue sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there is no longer any sacrifice that will cover these sins. 27 There is only the terrible expectation of God’s judgment and the raging fire that will consume his enemies. 28 For anyone who refused to obey the law of Moses was put to death without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 Just think how much worse the punishment will be for those who have trampled on the Son of God, and have treated the blood of the covenant, which made us holy, as if it were common and unholy, and have insulted and disdained the Holy Spirit who brings God’s mercy to us. 30 For we know the one who said, “I will take revenge. I will pay them back.”[Deut 32:35] He also said, “The Lord will judge his own people.[Deut 32:36]” 31 It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Some reading on the subject:
Isa 29:13, Jer 31:31-34, Hos 6:6, Psalms 4:4-5, Ps 40:6-8, Psalms 50:8-23, Psalms 51:16-19, Matt 5:23-24. Matt 9:13, Matt 12:7, Heb 8:1-13, Heb 10:1-18