The Priesthood Ordinance of Sacrifice

After Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden, the Lord commanded them that “they should worship the Lord their God, and should offer the firstlings of their flocks, for an offering unto the Lord. …” (Moses 5:5.) Adam and Eve were obedient to the Lord’s injunction.

Some time later, an angel of the Lord appeared unto Adam and asked him why he offered sacrifices to the Lord. Adam replied, saying, “I know not save the Lord commanded me.” The angel then explained that “this thing is a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father … thou shalt do all that thou doest in the name of the Son, and thou shalt repent and call upon God in the name of the Son forevermore.” (Moses 5:6–8.)

The Prophet Joseph Smith, in commenting upon this ancient rite, said: “Certainly, the shedding of the blood of a beast could be beneficial to no man, except it was done in imitation, or as a type, or explanation of what was to be offered through the gift of God Himself; and this performance done with an eye looking forward in faith on the power of that great sacrifice for a remission of sins.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 58.)

The primary purpose of the ordinance of sacrifice was a remembrance and recommitment to the saving principles and ordinances of the gospel that had also been revealed to man. (Moses 5:58–59.) It was performed by the authorized priesthood—Abel (Gen. 4:4), Noah (Gen. 8:20), Abraham (Gen. 12:7–8), and others—during all dispensations until the first coming of Christ.

Abraham was given a special test involving the ordinances of sacrifice and his only son, Isaac. (Gen. 22:1–19; see also Jacob 4:4.) The patriarchs Isaac (Gen. 26:25) and Jacob or Israel (Gen. 31:54) also offered sacrifice unto the Lord.

While the Israelites were in bondage and in apostasy in Egypt, Moses declared to Pharoah that the practice of this ordinance was a necessary part of the Israelite’s worship of God. (Ex. 5:1–3, 8; Ex. 8:25–28.) After they obtained their freedom from the Egyptians, the children of Israel renewed the observance of offering sacrifice. (Ex. 20:24.) This holy institution was also practiced by Jethro (Ex. 18:12) who, as a guardian of the priesthood and its ordinances, bestowed the priesthood upon his son-in-law Moses (D&C 84:6).

When the children of Israel rebelled against the fulness of the gospel message, the higher priesthood and ordinances were taken from them. (D&C 84:23–25.) But “the lesser priesthood continued, which priesthood holdeth the key of the ministering of angels and the preparatory gospel; which gospel is the gospel of repentance and of baptism, and the remission of sins, and the law of carnal commandments, which the Lord in his wrath caused to continue with the house of Aaron. …” (D&C 84:26–27.)

The preparatory gospel, along with the additional ordinances and laws of the levitical priesthood, have become known as the Law of Moses. (See Josh. 8:31–32; Josh. 23:6.) Some have confused these additional ordinances of the Mosaic law with the earlier ordinance of sacrifice. While they are related in principle, additional offerings were given because of transgression (Gal. 3:19), as a “law of commandments … in ordinances” (Eph. 2:15), and a “law of … carnal commandment” (D&C 84:27; Heb. 7:16; Heb. 9:10), with the overall purpose of strengthening Israel in temporal and carnal matters of the flesh so they might be prepared for spiritual things.

The apostle Paul described the law as a “schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ.” (Gal. 3:24.)

For a brief explanation of these offerings see the accompanying chart, “Sacrifices and Offerings According to the Law of Moses.”

Out of the era of prophets in the Old Testament emerged the Book of Mormon people, who also kept the ordinances of sacrifice and burnt offerings. (1 Ne. 5:9; 1 Ne. 7:22; 2 Ne. 5:10; Jarom 1:5; Mosiah 2:3; Hel. 15:5.) The end of the law, not the practice, was important. (2 Ne. 25:23–25.) And as Abinadi taught: “… salvation doth not come by the law alone; and were it not for the atonement, which God himself shall make for the sins and iniquities of his people, that they must unavoidably perish, notwithstanding the law of Moses.” (Mosiah 13:28.)

The significance of sacrifice was emphasized by the prophets: it was done in remembrance of Christ (2 Ne. 11:4); it pointed “our souls to him” (Jacob 4:5); it caused them to “look forward unto the Messiah” (Jarom 1:11). When the people observed their covenants in the proper manner and spirit, this remembrance of the atonement of Christ served to “strengthen their faith in Christ.” (Alma 25:16.) When the law was kept only in its outward form, condemnation came upon the people (Isa. 1:11–14; Amos 5:21–23; Hosea 6:4–6; Micah 6:6–7); and many looked “beyond the mark” (Jacob 4:14).

Christ’s atonement is spoken of as the “great and last sacrifice” (Alma 34:10, 13–14), as the fulfillment of the law (Matt. 5:17–18; 3 Ne. 12:17–19, 46–47; 3 Ne. 15:4–5), and as the end of blood sacrifices and offerings (3 Ne. 9:17–19). While the ordinance of sacrifice served as a memorial in anticipation of the mission of Christ, the sacrament was instituted as a remembrance of an atonement already wrought. The symbolism of sacrifice was emblematic of the atonement. Always a firstborn male animal without blemish was sacrificed (Ex. 12:5; Lev. 1:3; Lev. 22:18–25; Num. 28:3–4; Deut. 17:1) to represent the firstborn of God spiritually and physically, a perfect or sinless offering.

The shedding of the blood of the animal represented the sacrifice and suffering of an innocent life for others. The offering of the whole animal, at times (Ex. 29:18), was an emblem of the complete and infinite sacrifice that Christ would make. (Alma 34:9–10, 12, 14.)

The consumption of the animal by fire, a symbol of purification, suggested the possibility of receiving the sanctifying influence of the Holy Ghost through the exercise of repentance and baptism. (Matt. 3:11; Acts 2:3–4; 2 Ne. 31:17.) Similarly, the ordinance of the sacrament consists of the administration of the “emblems of the flesh and blood of Christ” (D&C 20:40), in remembrance of his atoning sacrifice and suffering: “… this doth witness unto the Father that ye are willing to do that which I have commanded you.” (3 Ne. 18:10; see also Matt. 26:26–28; Luke 22:15–20; JST, Matt. 26:22–25; 3 Ne. 18:5–11; Moro. 4, Moro. 5; D&C 20:75–79.)

The people of ancient Israel were warned about offering sacrifices without sincere intent. Likewise, the Saints of the new covenant are not to partake unworthily of the sacrament: “For whoso eateth and drinketh my flesh and blood unworthily eateth and drinketh damnation to his soul. …” (3 Ne. 18:28–29; 1 Cor. 11:27–30.) The relationship and significance of these ordinances are illustrated in the derivative meanings of sacrifice and sacrament. The word sacrifice connotes an object being set apart as sacred or holy—such as a memorial to God. A sacrament is a token of a sacred oath, a holy covenant.

As the ordinance of sacrifice aided the covenant people in looking forward to Christ’s mission, so the ordinance of the sacrament assists the true Saints to look back, and remember the most important event in the history of mankind, the atonement of Jesus Christ.

The prophet Malachi prophesied that in the latter days the sons of Levi would offer an offering unto the Lord again. (Mal. 3:3.) John the Baptist reaffirmed this divine appointment at the time of the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood. (D&C 13.) The Lord also indicated that this ordinance would take place at the temple to be built in Jackson County, Missouri. (D&C 84:31, D&C 124:39, D&C 128:24.)

The brief practice of sacrifice in the latter days was explained by Joseph Smith as being an essential part of the restoration of all things of former gospel dispensations. He said:

“… it is generally supposed that sacrifice was entirely done away when the Great Sacrifice [i.e.,] the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus was offered up, and there will be no necessity for the ordinance of sacrifice in future; but those who assert this are certainly not acquainted with the duties, privileges and authority of the Priesthood, or with the Prophets.

“These sacrifices, as well as every ordinance belonging to the Priesthood, will, when the Temple of the Lord shall be built, and the sons of Levi be purified, be fully restored and attended to in all their powers, ramifications, and blessings. This ever did and ever will exist when the powers of the Melchizedek Priesthood are sufficiently manifest; else how can the restitution of all things spoken of by the Holy Prophets be brought to pass. It is not to be understood that the law of Moses will be established again with all its rites and variety of ceremonies; this has never been spoken of by the prophets; but those things which existed prior to Moses’ day, namely sacrifice, will be continued.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 172–73.)

For ancient Israel the offering of valuable life-sustaining objects as tokens of sacrifice was a test of their commitment to the covenants they had made, besides serving as emblems of Christ’s atonement. Modern Israel, too, has emblems of Christ and is charged to “observe their covenants by sacrifice—yea, every sacrifice which I, the Lord, shall command (D&C 97:8) … even sacrifices in obedience” (D&C 132:50).

Feasts or Holidays in Ancient Israel

For ancient Israel three major feasts were commanded to be celebrated. (Ex. 23:14, 17; Ex. 34:23; Deut. 16:16.) In connection with the third one, Tabernacles, there were two other important holidays or holy days—New Moon of the Seventh Month, which was fifteen days prior to the Feast of the Tabernacles; and the Day of Atonement held ten days later.

1. FEAST OF THE PASSOVER OR PESAH was held in commemoration of the freeing of Israel from bondage in Egypt. (Ex. 12:1–27, 39; Ex. 23:15; Lev. 23:10–14; Num. 28:16–25.) A special meal consisting in part of a male lamb “without blemish” suggests the sacred significance of the annual celebration. (Ex. 12:5–10.) This feast is celebrated in the month of Abib or Nisan of the Jews of the latter part of March and the first part of April on the Julian calendar. (Ex. 13:4; Ex. 23:15; Ex. 34:18.)

FEAST OF UNLEAVENED BREAD is observed during the week following Passover and is a part of that celebration. It is held in remembrance of the haste and preparation to leave Egypt (Ex. 12:15–20; Ex. 13:3–10; Lev. 23:6–8; Deut. 16:1–8.)

2. FEAST OF THE HARVEST or of the “firstfruits” (Ex. 23:16; Ex. 34:22; Lev. 2:12–16), also known as the Feast of Weeks (Deut. 16:9–12), came seven weeks or fifty days after Passover, at the time of the first harvest. (Lev. 23:16–21; Num. 28:26–31.) It is most commonly known by its Greek name, Pentecost, meaning the fiftieth [day]. This holiday came in Sivan, the third Jewish month (May–June).

3. FEAST OF THE TABERNACLES, “booths” or Sukkoth (Lev. 23:34–43; Num. 29:12–34; Deut. 16:13–15) is also known as the Feast of Ingathering; which is the time of the completion of the total harvest. (Ex. 23:16; Ex. 34:22.) Held the fifteenth of the seventh Jewish month, Tishsi (September–October), it was the major celebration of the autumn season. (Lev. 23:34.) More offerings were given at this feast than at any other.

NEW MOON OF THE SEVENTH MONTH was later known as the Festival of the Trumpets. (Lev. 23:23–35; Num. 29:1–6.) Even though it came at the beginning of Tishsi, the seventh Jewish month, it signified new beginnings, for it was in remembrance of the time when they first stopped after leaving Egypt. (Ex. 12:37; Ex. 13:20; Num. 33:5–6.) This holiday today is the Jewish New Year or Rosh Hashannah.

DAY OF ATONEMENT (Ex. 30:10; Lev. 16; Lev. 23:26–32; Num. 29:7–11) was celebrated on the tenth day of the seventh month. Tishri, when, by divine appointment, the high priest of the Levites entered the most holy place of the Tabernacle and symbolically effected, through the established ordinance, the atonement in behalf of the priesthood. The priesthood, in turn, performed ordinances to effect symbolically the atonement for the people. The sacred rites of this day represented the principle of vicarious suffering for the sins of all the people. Observed in part by the Jewish people today, the ancient name of Yom Kippur is still used to designate this holiday.

Sacrifices and Offerings of the Mosaic Law

“And now I say unto you that it was expedient that there should be a law given to the children of Israel, yea, even a very strict law; for they were a stiffnecked people, quick to do iniquity, and slow to remember the Lord their God;

“Therefore there was a law given them, yea, a law of performances and of ordinances, a law which they were to observe strictly from day to day, to keep them in remembrance of God and their duty towards him.” (Mosiah 13:29–30.)

Name of the Ordinance and Type of Offering

Emblematic Objects Used for the Ordinance

Purpose of the Ordinance

When Administered

BURNT OFFERING (Lev. 1; Lev. 6:9–13)

This is another name for the ordinance of sacrifice practiced by the patriarchs from Adam down to Israel. (See “The Priesthood Ordinance of Sacrifice,” p. 49.)

Male animal without blemish (Ex. 12:5; Lev. 1:3; Lev. 22:18–25; Num. 28:3–4; Deut. 15:21; Deut. 17:1).

Originally the animal was to be a firstborn (Gen. 4:4; Ex. 13:12; Lev. 27:26; Num. 3:41; Num. 18:17; Deut. 12:6; Deut. 15:19–21).

The animal used varied according to the position and personal possessions of the individual, as well as the occasion of the sacrifice: bull, ram, he-goat, turtledoves, or young pigeons (Lev. 1:5, 10, 14; Lev. 5:7; Gen. 15:9).

“… This thing is a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father. …” (Moses 5:7; see also Lev. 1:4, 9; Lev. 14:20; Heb. 9:14; 1 Pet. 1:19; 2 Ne. 11:4; 2 Ne. 25:24–27; Jacob 4:5; Jarom 1:11; Mosiah 3:15.)


Regularly appointed times: Daily—morning and evening (Ex. 29:38–42; Num. 28:3–4). Sabbath—double portion given (Num. 28:9–10). New Moon—monthly (Num. 28:11–15).

Seasonally appointed times: Feast of Passover and Unleavened Bread Feast of the Harvest, Feast of the Tabernacles New Year, and the Day of Atonement (See “Feasts or Holidays in Ancient Israel,” p. 49).


Given for family events—birth, marriage, reunions, etc., and at times of personal need. Most often, private or individual offerings were given during the times of appointed feasts.

PEACE OFFERING (Lev. 3; Lev. 7:11–38)

Male or female animal without blemish (Lev. 3:1, 12) and cattle, sheep, or goats, but no fowl or other substitutes (Lev. 22:27). The animal was to be meat for a sacrificial meal. The fat and inward portions were burned upon the altar (Lev. 3:3–5), a specified part was given to the priests (see Heave and Wave Offerings below), and the remainder was used for meat in the special dinner (Lev. 7:16).

The threefold purpose of peace offerings is suggested in the following titles or descriptions given.

THANK OFFERING is given to thank God for all blessings (Lev. 7:12–13, 15; Lev. 22:29).

VOW OFFERING (Lev. 7:16; Lev. 22:18, 21, 23; Num. 15:3, 8; Num. 29:39; Deut. 12:6) signifies the taking or renewing of a vow or covenant.

These were only private offerings or a personal sacrifice for family or individuals. (See Private Offerings under Burnt Offering above.)

FREE-WILL OFFERING (Lev. 7:16; Lev. 22:18, 21, 23; Num. 15:3; Num. 29:39; Deut. 12:6, 17; Deut. 16:10; Deut. 23:23) suggests voluntary receiving of covenants with attendant responsibilities and consequences.

An individual could seemingly give the offering for any of the above declared purposes separately or together.

SIN OFFERING (Lev. 4; Lev. 5:1–13; Lev. 6:25–30)

Male or female animal or fowl without blemish. The offering according to the position and circumstances of the offerer: the priest offered a bull (Lev. 4:3; Num. 8:8), the ruler among the people a he-goat (Lev. 4:22–23), the people in general a she-goat (Lev. 4:27–28), the poor two turtledoves or two young pigeons (Lev. 5:7), and those of extreme poverty an offering of fowl or meal (Lev. 5:11; Num. 15: 20–21). The offering is not consumed by fire, but is used by the Levitical priesthood as a sacrificial meal. The meat and hide are for their sustenance and use. (Lev. 5:25–30; Lev. 7:7–8; Lev. 14:13.)

Sin offerings were given for sins committed in ignorance (Lev. 4:2, 22, 27), sins not generally known about by the people (Num. 15:24), sins in violation of oaths and covenants (Lev. 5:1, 4–5), and ceremonial sins of defilement or uncleanness under the law of carnal commandments (Lev. 5:2–3; Lev. 12:1–8; Lev. 15:28–30). The purpose of sin offerings, after true repentance on the part of the parties involved, was to prepare them to receive forgiveness as a part of the renewal of their covenants. (Lev. 4:26, 35; Lev. 5:10; Lev. 10:17; Num. 15:24–29.) This same blessing is possible by partaking of the sacrament today. (JST, Matt. 26:24.)

A special sin-offering affecting all the people was offered on the Day of Atonement. (Ex. 30:10; Lev. 16:3, 6, 11, 15–19; see “Feasts or Holidays in Ancient Israel,” p. 49.)

All other sin offerings were private and personal offerings, most often given at the times of the appointed feasts.

TRESPASS OFFERING (Lev. 5:15–19; Lev. 6:1–7; Lev. 7:1–10)

Ram without blemish (Lev. 5:15, 18; Lev. 6:6; Lev. 19:21). A leper was to offer a lamb (Lev. 14:12), and a Nazarite was also to give a lamb (Num. 6:12).

Trespass offerings were given for offenses committed against others: i.e., false testimony (Lev. 6:2–3), forceful and unlawful possession of property (Lev. 6:4), disrespect for sacred things (Lev. 5:16–17), acts of passion (Lev. 19:20–22). The purpose of the trespass offering was to bring forgiveness. (Lev. 6:7.) This was possible after repentance (Lev. 26:40–45) and after fulfilling the law of restitution that required, where possible, that the guilty individual restore completely the wrong and an additional 20 percent (Lev. 5:16; Lev. 6:5–17; Lev. 27:13, 15, 19, 27, 31; Num. 5:6–10).

All trespass offerings were private and personal offerings, most commonly given at the times of the appointed feasts.

MEAL OR MEAT OFFERING GIFTS (Ex. 29:40–41; Lev. 2; Lev. 6:14–23; Lev. 7:9–10; Num. 15:4–24; Num. 28; Num. 29)

An unleavened bread. Few ingredients were permitted with the basic flour—salt (Lev. 2:13), oil (Lev. 2:5), even incense (Lev. 2:15), but no leavening or honey (Lev. 2:11). However, it could be baked or fried in various ways.

This offering completed the sacrificial meal of the burnt and peace offerings. It was then given to the priests for their service and sustenance. (Lev. 7:8–10.)

This offering was always given with the burnt offerings and peace offerings and could even substitute for a sin offering in the stress of poverty. (Num. 15:28; Num. 29.)

HEAVE OFFERING (Ex. 29:26–27; Lev. 7:14, 32–34; Num. 18:19)

The heave offering is the right shoulder and the wave offering the breast of the peace offering animal given in payment by the offerer for the services of the priest.

Whatever the Levites received for their priesthood service—heave or wave offering, meat offering, or tithe (Num. 18)—they were required to offer to the Lord in sacrifice a portion as a memorial offering (Lev. 2:2, 9, 16; Lev. 5:12; Lev. 6:15; Num. 5:26; Lev. 18:26–29).

“Heave” and “wave” refer to gestures of lifting the offerings up and extending them toward the priest who received them on behalf of the Lord.

[illustration] Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn

Brother Brandt is a teacher at the Salt Lake Institute of Religion, University of Utah.