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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Nicodemus

Jesus answered and said to [Nicodemus], “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”  Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘you must be born again.’  The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes.  So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus answered and said to Him, ‘How can these things be?” John 3:3-9 (NKJV).

That question is as applicable now as it was for Nicodemus.

To answer it completely might take a book.  A rather long post will have to do.

To start with, have you ever wondered why it was Nicodemus and not the woman at the well in the next chapter, for instance, to whom Jesus gave this message?  There is no Gospel account of Jesus telling this to anyone else.  Furthermore, even though the NT is filled with allusions that can only be about the new birth, no preachers in the Book of Acts mentioned it.  If our Lord and the early church has followed some of our modern “evangelistic” methods, they would have mentioned it every time.

So.

Why Nicodemus, and no one else?

Consider the man.

Who was Nicodemus?  In the first place, he was a Jew, and so already shared with other Jews identity as the people of God, with the advantages that brought to them, Romans 3:1, 2 and 9:4, 5.  Further, among the Jews, he was a leader: a Pharisee and and a teacher, John 3:1, 10, and even a ruler of the Jews, 3:1.  To us, the word “Pharisee” has a bad connotation, but in their day, the Pharisees were looked on as examples of holiness and zeal.  No doubt, there were some, perhaps many, like the proud Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and publican in Luke 18:9-14, who were thankful that they were not like others, but I would rather believe he was a good man, one of those the Bible depicts as righteous before the Lord, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless, as the NT describes the parents of John the Baptist, Luke 1:6.  Still, even in our view, it was a “good” man to whom the Lord gave this message, and not some notorious sinner.

Even as a Jew, leaving aside all his accomplishments and his position, he would have believed that righteousness was something to be obtained by his keeping the Law.  His whole heritage would be centered around obedience to the divine commands.   Everything he desired and expected to receive was based on this obedience.  It was up to him.  True, he lived under a covenant – the Mosaic Covenant – in which obedience was required and disobedience was severely punished.  The whole history of his people was graphic evidence of this.  He lived in a society where almost the entire focus was on the individual and what he did.  Because of this, the Lord’s message astonished and confused him.

There is still a lot of confusion about it.

Consider the message. 

There are many things that could be said about this, but we’ll limit it to two.

1. Nicodemus needed something he didn’t have.

We’ve already seen many things that Nicodemus had:  he was a member of God’s OT covenant community, in which he was a leader and teacher, knowledgeable in the Scriptures, a man of importance, influence and, no doubt, wealth.  Yet he was without the one necessary thing.  What was it?  Think for a moment….

You’ve probably figured it out, but just in case, what is birth?  It is the beginning of life.  More accurately, and without getting into the abortion debate, about which there should be no debate, it is the evidence of life.  “Birth” does not happen without “life.”  “Birth” implies “life.”  A “dead birth” is a contradiction in terms.

What the Lord was telling Nicodemus was that he needed “life,” life begotten, not by human parents, but by the Spirit.

Have you ever heard preachers say, “If you miss salvation, you miss one of the great things in life?”  That’s not true.  Salvation isn’t just one of a number of “great things in life.”  It IS life!

2. Nicodemus needed something he couldn’t do.

Here is the important lesson and here is where the most misunderstanding and confusion are.  Nicodemus himself had it.  His first question was, “How can I do that?” or words to that effect.  The answer to the opening question of this post is found here:  “Why Nicodemus?”

No doubt, Nicodemus thought he was already headed for the kingdom.  He was already among the people of God and, we believe, like Simeon before him, he was waiting for the Consolation of Israel, Luke 2:25.  Among all the recorded encounters of our Lord, Nicodemus was one of the ones most likely to believe that his heritage, his position, his righteousness from the Law, what he did and who he was, was enough for him to “enter the kingdom.”  In this, he is probably representative of Pharisees in general.

Very likely, he was confident of his acceptance before God.  After all, he was a member of the family of Israel.  Our Lord said, “Nicodemus, that’s not enough.  You must be born into the family of God.”  Nicodemus was, and had done, this and this and this.  Yet the Lord in effect said, “Nicodemus, all that is not enough.  You need something you can’t do.  Even if you could return to your mother’s womb, it would do no good.  All the flesh can bring forth is ‘flesh’.  You need something the flesh cannot do.  You need to be born spiritually, to be born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus was so astonished and confused about this because he had no idea of any such thing as a “new birth,” or that he needed it himself.

How many there are today, just like him, trusting in what they have or are or have done.  They are content with their religion or church.  They have walked an aisle, prayed a prayer, had a drop or two of water on their forehead when they were infants.  They’re not like so-and-so, they pay their bills, love their spouse, their children, their neighbors.  Their father or mother or grandmother was a Christian.  They have been baptized.  Confirmed.  Seen a vision.  Belong to the church.  They believe God will take care of it when they stand before Him on their way to that “better place.”

They have no idea at all that they have no idea at all.  They are secure in their belief that God will welcome them into heaven, but have no understanding that they are under His condemnation because their sins have never been dealt with and they have no righteousness that God will accept.  They are dead in trespasses and sins, Ephesians 2:1, and need a life they can neither generate nor originate.

The Lord rebuked Nicodemus because he, especially, as a “teacher in Israel,” should have known Old Testament references to “a clean heart,” “circumcision of the heart,” “a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone,” in verses like Psalm 51:10; Jeremiah 4:4; Ezekiel 18:31 and 36:36.  He should have recognized that the blessings promised to the nation of Israel in the prophecies of the New Covenant go far beyond anything sinful human nature is capable of.  Yet he had overlooked or missed the meaning of these Scriptures.  His whole focus was on himself, or at least on “man.”  It’s up to him.  In most preaching today, the focus is still on “man:”  “God has done all He can do, and now it’s up to you.”  Or another one:  “If it’s to be, then it’s up to me.”

Birth isn’t the only figure the Bible uses to describe salvation.  It is a new creation, 2 Corinthians 5:17; it is a “resurrection:” life from the dead, Romans 11:15; Ephesians 2:5-8.  These are not just figures of speech; they are realities we cannot overlook.

Birth.  How did you effect or contribute to your own birth?    You received life from your parents, not as an active participant, but passively, like a cup receives coffee or tea.  Resurrection.  What part will you play in your own eventual resurrection from the dead?  You will be dead.  In the same way, the lost person is dead in trespasses and sins.  Creation.  How did creation in Genesis 1 and 2 “cooperate” in its coming into existence?

These truths, taught to Nicodemus, are almost completely ignored in the “do-it-yourself,” self-help Christianity of today.  You must take the first step toward God before He can take a step toward you.  Even when “grace” is mentioned, it’s usually with the idea that salvation is a “cooperative” affair between God’s will and man’s will.

The problem with all this man-centered thinking is that it doesn’t have a Scriptural basis.  It takes more than just some sort of “wooing” by the Holy Spirit; it takes more than appealing to man’s desire to escape the consequences of his sin – “you don’t want to go to hell, do you?” – to get sinful men and women to drop the weapons of their rebellion against God and yield to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

Man-centered evangelism fails to take into account that, even though they wouldn’t put it this way, and don’t understand that this is what they are choosing, most people would rather go to hell than submit to the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus, Romans 10:3, 4.  They would rather be divorced from their spouse than their sin.  They think Christianity is simply some round of religious duties, joyless and thankless, or that their own religion, or lack of it, is quite good enough, thank you.  They think they would have to give up too much, that the devil is a better paymaster than the Lord Jesus.  Perhaps they are offended at the idea that they are not good enough for God, or that God can and does require more of them than they can do.  They scoff at the idea of blood sacrifice and sneer at the teaching of imputed righteousness.  Too many are like the lady who said in a conversation with me about some spiritual matter that if God didn’t like it, that was too bad.  Or like the lady who wrote to the editor of the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News in Denver that she would rather spend eternity in hell than with the God of the Bible.  Alas, she is likely to get her wish.

Boiled down to one sentence, the Lord was telling Nicodemus that he, Nicodemus, needed God to do something for him that he could not do himself.  Whatever Nicodemus was or had done or could do, was not enough.  It would never be, could never be, enough.  He needed to be “born again.”  He needed a second birth, a spiritual birth, something that was not and could never be the result of anything he could do.  He needed something that could not be done or initiated by “the flesh.”

Modern error has turned this exactly around.  Now it is commonly taught that God needs us to do something for Him that He cannot do Himself.  Take that first step.  Open your heart’s door.  Make your “decision.”

But, doesn’t the Scripture – even the later part of John 3 – tell us to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved?  Yes, it does.  There is no contradiction, as we have written about in “God’s Will, My Will, Whose Will?”  It isn’t necessary, as a brother preached, to say, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, but you can’t do that unless God enables you to do that.”  Or as another brother preached, “If you are elect, then you will be saved.”  He even inserted this in a proposed tract which was trying to get people to see the importance of being saved.  Both of those statements are doctrinally true, but the Scripture never approaches it that way.

It simply tells us that whoever believes in Him [the Lord Jesus] should not perish but have everlasting life, John 3:16.  Don’t mistake the word “should.”  It doesn’t speak of possibility, but of certainty:  “whoever believes in Him” will not “perish….”