God’s Altar

“You shall make an altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits wide – the altar shall be square – and its height shall be three cubits.  You shall make its horns on its four corners; its horns shall be of one piece with it.  And you shall overlay it with bronze.  And you shall make its pans to receive its ashes, and its shovels and its basins and its forks and its firepans; you shall make all its utensils of bronze. You shall make a grate for it, a network of bronze; and on the network you shall make four bronze rings at its four corners.  You shall put it under the rim of the altar beneath, that the network may be midway up the altar.  And you shall make poles for the altar, poles pf acacia wood, and overlay them with bronze.  The poles shall be put in the rings,and the poles shall be on the two sides of the altar to bear it.  You shall make it hollow with boards; as it was shown you on the mountain so shall they make it, Exodus 27:1-8 (NKJV).

He made the altar of burnt offering of acacia wood; five cubits was its length and five cubits its width – it was square – and its height was three cubits.  He made its horns on its four corners; the horns were of one piece with it.  And he overlaid it with bronze.  He made all the utensils for the altar: the pans, the shovels, the basins, the forks, and the firepans; all its utensils he made of bronze.  And he made a grate of bronze network for the altar, under its rim, midway from the bottom.  He cast four rings for the four corners of the bronze grating, as holders for the poles.  And he made the poles of acacia wood, and overlaid them with bronze.  Then he put the poles into the rings on the sides of the altar, with which to bear it.  He made the altar hollow with boards, Exodus 38:1-7.

My early days as a believer were spent among fundamentalists.  The word has a bad connotation today because of its association with people who blow things up and murder other people, but it originally just meant those who believed the basic truths of Christianity as opposed to the “modernists” who denied them.  The practice at the end of the Sunday service with these folks was to urge people to “come forward to the altar” for salvation or any number of things.  Someone just the other day posted a picture of a group of people praying at such an altar.  It is still used by many groups. 

And there are some “fundamental” truths in Christianity.  If those truths aren’t there, then it’s not really Christianity no matter what it’s called.

The thing is, God has only ever had one altar and it wasn’t at the front of a building.  It was on a hill outside Jerusalem where the Lamb of God was sacrificed for the sins of the world.  It seems to me to say that there is another altar is to disrespect or even to disregard that one.

The current view of “an altar” at the front of an auditorium has only come into prominence over the last 150 years or so as a result of the shift in focus from the Scriptural understanding that God’s regenerating power is necessary before a sinner is even able to believe on the Lord Jesus, to the unScriptural idea now that the sinner can believe on his own, maybe with some help from the Holy Spirit, who “woos” him but can be rejected, and then, as a result of his faith, the sinner is regenerated, or “born again.”

In John 3, the Lord teaches the former viewpoint.

As the Israelite came to the entrance to the tabernacle courtyard, the altar was the first thing he saw, the first thing on the way in.  He couldn’t avoid it.  If he wanted access to God, he had to use it.  He couldn’t just admire its beauty or its architecture.  He had to bring a sacrifice.  Even though we quoted from Exodus at the beginning of this post, Leviticus is the book of instruction for the sacrifices to be made on the bronze altar.  In that book, there are nearly 60 references just to burnt offerings, to say nothing of the other sacrifices.

Some people are offended by what they call “a bloody religion.”  It may be, but the idea of sacrifice wasn’t introduced at Calvary.  It goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden, where God rejected the fig leaves with which the guilty couple had tried to cover their nakedness and gave them coats of skin for a covering.  Doing this, He taught them the only reason they lived was because an innocent substitute had died. Every single sacrifice after that taught that same truth – substitution and sacrifice – every single one.  Later, after the Flood the first thing Noah did was to build an altar, Genesis 8:20.  Job, who probably lived before the time of Moses, knew about altars and burnt offerings, Job 1:5. Abraham knew that “God would provide Himself a sacrifice,” Genesis 22:8-13, which He did for Abraham in the ram caught by its horns, and then, once and for all, in the death of the Lord Jesus.  The first murder, Cain killing his brother Abel, was ultimately over what was the right kind of sacrifice, Genesis 4:1-8.

The idea of sacrifice was nothing new to Moses here in the wilderness.

This altar served only one purpose:  to meet and satisfy the claims of God against guilty sinners, in this case the Israelites.  The thing is, it couldn’t.  It is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins, Hebrews 10:4.  Hebrews 10:3 tells us that the continual offering of these sacrifices served as a reminder, an object lesson.  The sin, though “forgiven,” wasn’t really “taken away;” it was only “covered:” the meaning of “kaphar,” the word translated “atone,” “atonement.”  It awaited the coming of the One who could take away sin.

The altar was made of acacia wood, a wood common to the area.  Likewise, our Lord didn’t come to this earth in His pre-incarnate form as the Word, or as an angel, but, as Hebrews 10:5 tells us, as a human being, in a body specifically designed and prepared for Him.  This brings us to the necessity of the virgin birth, because anyone conceived and born in the usual way would be a sinner, unable to atone for sin.  And He wasn’t born to privilege and rank.  He spent His life among ordinary folks, what some today would call, “the little people.”  He worked for a living.  Even after dying a criminal’s death, He was buried in a borrowed tomb.  But He didn’t stay there.

This one is the “altar” before which we must bow.  There is no “advancing” without it.  There is no salvation, no life, without it.  It’s for this reason that Peter preached on that long-ago day, “nor is there any other, for there is no other name under given among men by which we must be saved,” Acts 4:12.   What name is that?  The name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,” Acts 4:10.  See also vs. 7, 17, 18 and 30.

It mustn’t be assumed that the mere “saying” of the name of Jesus as some sort of “abracadabra” is all that’s meant in these verses.  As Peter and the others were facing the Sanhedrin, Peter accused these leaders of crucifying the Lord Jesus, “whom God raised up,” v. 10.  The Jesus who saves is the Jesus of Scripture, God incarnate in the flesh, who went about doing good, who was crucified, but rose from the dead, and who, one day, will return to this world to claim it as His own

Our Lord died because we couldn’t.

If we want access to God, or heaven, we have to come by way of His sacrifice, the Lord Jesus Christ.  There is no other way.

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