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What is a peace offering?

A peace offering, also known as a fellowship offering, is defined as "a propitiatory or conciliatory gift" in modern parlance. A man who has offended his wife will frequently go to a florist in the hope that bringing home flowers will help smooth things over—the bouquet will be a sort of "peace offering." Propitiate means "to make someone happy or less angry by giving or saying something desired," whereas conciliatory means "to appease or pacify." These definitions are intriguing because the phrase "peace offering" has come to mean something entirely different—almost the polar opposite of what it originally meant in the Bible.

Leviticus 7:11-21 describes a peace offering in the Old Testament Law. In three instances, it was a voluntary sacrifice made to God. First, a peace offering could be given as a freewill offering, which means that the worshipper was giving the peace offering to express gratitude for God's unexpected generosity. It was essentially just a way of thanking God for His goodness. A peace offering could also be given in conjunction with a fulfilled vow. Hannah fulfilled her vow to God by bringing Samuel to the temple; on that occasion, she also brought a peace offering to express her peace toward God regarding her sacrifice—it was a way of saying, "I have no resentment; I am holding nothing back in the payment of my vow." The third purpose of a peace offering was to express gratitude for God's deliverance in a time of great need. None of these three reasons for sacrifice had anything to do with propitiation, appeasement, or pacification of God.

Under the Old Covenant, there were sacrifices meant to represent propitiation (Leviticus 1—2; 4), but with the understanding that God has always been a God of grace (see Ephesians 2:8-9). He does not expect us to appease Him with our works, but only to acknowledge our need for Him and our reliance on Him. The sacrificial system of the Old Covenant expressed this relationship, which always looked forward to the sacrifice of the Messiah. The Law has been written on our hearts under the New Covenant (2 Corinthians 3:3), and the Holy Spirit of God gives us the power to live our lives accordingly (Romans 8:1-8; 1 Thessalonians 1:5). We now make spiritual (Hebrews 13:15) and living sacrifices (Romans 12:1).

Most Old Testament sacrifices were not meant to be eaten by worshipers, but the peace offering was—only a portion of the animal or grain brought to the altar was burned; the rest was given back to the worshipper as well as the poor and hungry. God's provision for His people, both physically and spiritually, is beautifully depicted here. His grace and goodness are evident in all of the offerings. God provided what we needed in the peace offering: a way to thank Him for His goodness as well as physical sustenance.

God is not interested in taking anything away from us. That is not at all His heart. But the lie we so often believe is that our good actions bring about His goodness, while our sinful actions necessitate personal sacrifice. The peace offering demonstrates that Old Testament worshipers were no more responsible for their salvation than New Testament worshipers. People have been tempted throughout history to believe that making sacrifices earns God's favour. Our modern understanding of a peace offering as a propitiation for wrongdoing reflects this belief. However, only Christ's sacrifice brings God's favour and covers wrongdoing, and the Old Testament sacrifices foreshadowed that future provision.


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