Early in the Book of Mormon, the concept of sacrifice appears. Lehi and his family had certainly given up much to follow the Lord’s command, abandoning their comfortable living in Jerusalem to travel in the wilderness. But Lehi’s son Nephi saves the word “sacrifice” for a more specific usage. When he and his brothers return from a dangerous mission, to retrieve the spiritual record contained on the brass plates, his relieved and grateful parents “did offer sacrifice and burnt offerings unto the Lord” (1 Nephi 5:9). Later, when he and his brothers returned again with the family of Ishmael, his parents again “did give thanks unto the Lord their God; and they did offer sacrifice and burnt offerings unto him” (1 Nephi 7:22).
Nephi’s family followed the law of Moses, and so animal sacrifice was part of their religious observance. But they also saw in this practice a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of the Son of God. At the end of his life, Lehi explained to his son Jacob that the Holy Messiah would one day offer Himself as “a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit” (2 Nephi 2:7). The ultimate sacrifice, the one that would matter in the end, was the suffering and death which the Savior would willingly endure on our behalf.
About 450 years later, King Benjamin called his people together to announce his abdication from the throne, with his son as his successor, but also to urge his people to take upon themselves the name of Jesus Christ. They gathered at the temple, and the people brought animals, “the firstlings of their flocks,” so that they could “offer sacrifices and burnt offerings according to the law of Moses” (Mosiah 2:3). This collective religious observance was an important element of their gathering, and it laid a tangible foundation for the words of the king.
When Benjamin explained the atoning sacrifice of the Savior, he directly connected it to the sacrifices which they had just performed:
He shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people….
The law of Moses availeth nothing except it were through the atonement of his blood….
Salvation was, and is, and is to come, in and through the atoning blood of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent (Mosiah 3:7, 15, 18).
The message resonated with the people, and they pleaded with God to “apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may be forgiven of our sins, and our hearts may be purified” (Mosiah 4:2).
The word “sacrifice” in English descends from two Latin words:
- sacer – sacred
- facere – to make
So an appropriate definition of the term would be “to make something sacred.” As we see in the example of King Benjamin’s people, their sacrifice enabled them to open their hearts to receive the blessings of the Savior’s sacrifice.
Amulek called the Savior’s sacrifice “a great and last sacrifice” and “an infinite and eternal sacrifice.” Speaking to the Zoramites, he explained the folly of taking too literally the sacrifices prescribed by the Law of Moses. “There is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another,” he said. If a man commits a crime, he must suffer the punishment. No one else can suffer it on his behalf. “Therefore,” he concludes, “there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world” (Alma 34:10-13).
He went on to tell them that the law of Moses would be fulfilled when the Savior made that infinite sacrifice, and the practice of animal sacrifice would end:
And behold, this is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal (Alma 34:14).
After the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ, some of the inhabitants of the American continent, who had just experienced a series of natural disasters, heard the Savior’s voice inviting them to repent and turn their hearts to Him. He would later visit them in person, but He chose this moment, before His physical arrival, to convey a significant change in religious practice, the same change which had been foretold by Amulek:
And ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings.
And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost (3 Nephi 9:19-20).
The purpose of the animal sacrifices specified in the Law of Moses was to symbolize a future event—the most important event in the history of the earth—the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Once that event had occurred, the practice was discontinued, but the law of sacrifice was not abolished. Instead, the Savior introduced a higher and holier way to observe that law: by coming unto Him with humility and contrition, the same way the people of King Benjamin received His sanctifying power.
As Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught, this change in religious practice didn’t alter the underlying principle at all:
Real, personal sacrifice never was placing an animal on the altar. Instead, it is a willingness to put the animal in us upon the altar and letting it be consumed! (“Deny Yourselves of All Ungodliness,” General Conference, April 1995).
Today, I will be grateful for the understanding the Book of Mormon provides about sacrifice. I will remember the universal and personal sacrifice of the Savior, which can make us holy if we will receive it. I will remember that the way to receive that gift is offering the Savior our whole selves, to come to Him with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, willing to submit our will to the will of God and to let go of anything that might hold us back.