A sin offering was a sacrifice, made according to the Mosaic Law, which provided atonement for sin. The Hebrew phrase for “sin offering” literally means “fault offering.” The sin offering was made for sins committed in ignorance, or unintentional sins. The ritualistic method of the sin offering and the animal to be offered varied depending on the status of the sinner. For example, a high priest who sinned unintentionally would offer a young bull. A king or a prince would offer a young male goat. People in the private sector would sacrifice a young female goat or lamb, unless they were too poor, in which case they were only required to offer two turtledoves or pigeons. Full details of the sin offering and the requirements associated with it are enumerated in Leviticus 4 and Numbers 15.
Again, the sin offering was sacrificed when a person sinned unintentionally by breaking one of the Lord’s commandments and later realized his guilt (Leviticus 4:27). Sin offerings were also part of the ceremonies on the Day of Atonement, as the high priest made two sin offerings: a bull for himself and a young male goat for the congregation (Leviticus 16:11, 15). In a sin offering, the live animal was brought to the altar, and the sinner was required to lay his hand on the head of the animal (Leviticus 4:29). Then the animal was killed, at which point the priest would take some of the blood and put it on the horns of the altar (verse 30). In some cases, some of the blood was also sprinkled inside the tabernacle (verses 6 and 17). Then all the rest of the blood was poured at the base of the altar (verse 34). The fat of the sin offering was removed and burned on the altar. In some cases, the body of the animal was burned outside the camp (verse 12); in other cases, the meat of the sin offering could be eaten by the priests. “In this way the priest will make atonement for them for the sin they have committed, and they will be forgiven” (verse 35).
The sin offering was a poignant picture of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world. He was a “lamb without blemish” (1 Peter 1:19; cf. Leviticus 4:32) whose precious blood was spilled after being publicly slain. Jesus was crucified outside the city of Jerusalem, just as the sin offering was to be burnt outside the camp (Hebrews 13:12; cf. Leviticus 4:12). Just as the sacrificial lamb makes atonement for unintentional sins, Jesus’ blood made atonement for the sin of any person who realizes his guilt before God and asks for that atonement to be applied to him (John 3:16; Ephesians 1:7). “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).
Every person has broken the Law of God in one way or another, whether we realize it or not. Humanity is sinful, and we are all guilty before God (Romans 3:23). It must have been painful for sinners under the Mosaic Law to slaughter an innocent animal when they knew they were the ones who had done wrong. In the same way, it is painful for us to admit our guilt and to know that the innocent and holy Son of God took the punishment for our sin. But this salvation God has provided, and it is the only way. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Praise the Lord that sin offerings are no longer required, because we have been redeemed “with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:19).