by Gideon Khoo, Malaysia
THE DETAILS OF THE ALTAR – Ex.27.1-8
A blood-stained altar stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, even before the Tabernacle was built, Ex.24.4; before God gave any instructions to build the ark of God, He first gave instructions to Israel on how to build an altar of earth or stones, Ex.20.24-26. The Divine importance of the altar cannot be overemphasised. It was the means by which God would draw near to man, and man to Him.
One of the most prominent themes in the Book of Exodus is God’s desire to be near a redeemed people by dwelling among them, Ex.25.8, but Exodus also tells us how Israel learned what it took to be near God. This mutual desire of the Divine and His mortals to be near was not a trivial matter. We see the difficulty amplified in Exodus chapters 19 and 24: the height of the mountain; the thunders, the lightnings, and the thick clouds upon Mount Sinai; the exceedingly loud trumpet; the prohibition for the Israelites to draw too close to the mountain, and the command to observe the border drawn; the sight of devouring fire on the top of Mount Sinai, 24.17. All these taught the redeemed Israelites that Jehovah was not to be trifled with, but to be feared. How could the Israelites experience fellowship with God, if God was characterised by thunder, lightnings, thick clouds, fire, and deafening trumpet sounds? Ironically, the two chapters that amplified the unavoidable need for distance between God and His people, 19.17,24; 24.1,2,14, also shed light on how that distance could be bridged. The answer lies in what stood at the foot of the mountain: an altar.
When God instructed Moses and the elders of Israel on how to approach Him at Mount Sinai, in Exodus chapters 19 and 24, He was revealing to them a blueprint for access into the Tabernacle. At Mount Sinai, firstly, there was the “nether part” at the foot of the mount, 19.17, where the congregation of Israel stood behind a set border. Secondly, there was a middle part up the hill, 24.1,2,14, where Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel stood. Then thirdly, there was the top of the mount, where the presence of God was, and where only Moses was allowed to enter, 24.18. These three areas mirrored the three areas of the Tabernacle: the court, where the Israelites were allowed; the holy place, where Aaron and his sons served; and the Holiest of all, where only Aaron was allowed, once a year. But one other common feature between Mount Sinai and the Tabernacle, and also one that is most relevant to our study, is this: the placement of an altar at the outer area. We are told that Moses built an altar at the foot of Mount Sinai, Ex.24.4. In conjunction with this, we also know that the brazen altar was in the court of the Tabernacle.
Therein lies this fundamental principle of the altar: it was the prerequisite before man could approach God. Before any Divine privilege or access could be granted, all must first meet at the altar. The Israelites learned this at the foot of Mount Sinai, and they implemented this in the Tabernacle. The importance of the altar was also seen in the fact that the blood of the covenant was also sprinkled upon it, in addition to the book and the people, Ex.24.6-8; Heb.9.19. The Lord Himself bore testimony to the significance of the altar when He said, “… for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift? Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon” Matt.23.19,20. The altar gave significance to everything that was offered upon it.
The lesson that we draw is that if any man wants to approach God, he must always be cognisant of the significance of Calvary. The sinner knew salvation at the Passover, but the believer longs for constant renewal of fellowship with God through the altar. Only redeemed Israel could approach the altar, for the Levitical offerings upon it could only be offered by the redeemed Israelite. And this is one of the lessons of the altar: it was not so much for the unredeemed outsider, but for a nation that experienced the saving power of the Passover Lamb; therefore, there is something special and precious for the believer as he appreciates the lessons of the brazen altar. However, it would be a pity if we dealt with the typological lessons of the altar exclusively from the believer’s perspective and missed out the salvific aspects of the brazen altar to the sinner. We will, therefore, also, whenever fitting, appreciate what Calvary is to the sinner.
We are warned that the altar can very quickly be displaced. Though we are familiar with the story of the golden calf in Exodus chapter 32, we might sometimes fail to notice that Aaron also built an altar of abomination: “… he built an altar before it” Ex.32.5. Despite the fact that Moses had already built the altar of God at the foot of Mount Sinai, that altar was very quickly displaced. Aaron would not be the only one to commit such a sin, for the history of the nation saw such repeated monstrosity, Judg.6.25; 1Kgs.12.32; 2Kgs.16.10. Any alternative altars that displace or reduce the importance of Calvary are only forms of idolatry.
In this day and age, Christianity has often been degraded into a cross-less religion, and many have erected alternative altars more palatable to the modern man. As we exposit the passages related to the brazen altar, the death of Christ must constantly be before us. May we appreciate afresh the death of Christ and know a rekindled sense of devotion as we re-echo these words in our hearts:
- I have been at the altar and witnessed the Lamb
- Burnt wholly to ashes for me;
- And watched its sweet savour ascending on high,
- Accepted, O Father, by Thee.
- (Amelia Hull)
THE DESIGNATIONS OF THE ALTAR
The word “altar”, or mizbêaḥ in Hebrew, literally means the ‘place of slaughter’, or the ‘place of sacrifice’. The English word “altar” came from the Latin altus, which means ‘elevated’ or ‘high’, and links us to one of the designations of the altar, namely “the altar of burnt offering”, or literally in Hebrew, the ‘altar of the ascending offering’. The altus was an elevated platform, where an ascending offering rose to God.
The altar has also been given other designations, and all of them bear certain contextual relevance in the texts where they are found. The significant designations are: the altar; the altar of burnt offering; the brasen altar; the altar of God; the altar … at the door of the tabernacle; the altar of the Lord; the table of the Lord, Mal.1.7,12. However, despite the variation, all of them present to us the features of the Person and death of Christ. Due to the limitation of space, we will only consider the first four of these designations in some measure of detail, and briefly bring some of the other titles to mind later.
The Altar – Ex.27.1; 29.36-44; 40.10; Lev.1.5; 8.11; 16.18,20,25; Num.4.13,141
- 1. The list here is not exhaustive, but these are examples of references to “the altar”. Regarding the Num.4.13,14 reference, see the section “The Details of the Altar”, where, under the exposition of Ex.27.6,7, we discuss Num.4.13,14 in relation to the covering of the altar.
Though there were two altars in the Tabernacle, the brazen altar was given the designation of “the altar”. The functional importance and strategic position of the brazen altar in the Tabernacle demanded such specificity. It was likely the busiest area in the Tabernacle, and the most familiar vessel to the common Israelite. “The altar” reminds us most intimately of the great significance of the death of Christ. There was, and there will be, nothing like it in history; it is uniquely “the altar”. Scripture records that Abraham built four altars in his pilgrim life, but only the fourth altar – the altar where Isaac was laid – was called “the altar”, with the definite article, Gen.22.9. Therefore, the title “the altar” not only reminds us that it was at the forefront relative to the altar of incense, but typologically it reminds us of the greatest event in human history, and the crux of the vast forever.
In Ex.29.37 and 40.10, not only was it given the title of “the altar”, but God added: “it shall be an altar most holy”. The brazen altar was the only vessel said to be most holy in Exodus chapter 29. It was cleansed and sanctified to become the “altar most holy”. In Exodus chapter 40 God commanded Moses to set up the Tabernacle on the first day of the first month, and to anoint the priests and the vessels, and to put all things in their designated place, but in those instructions only the altar was said to be “most holy”. This expression “most holy” (kodesh kadashim) is also associated with the innermost sanctuary of the Tabernacle, called the ‘Holy of holies’. However, before the innermost sanctuary was filled with the glory of the Lord, the altar was already said to be “most holy”. Our privilege in knowing and enjoying the presence of the Lord in the ‘Holy of holies’ of the New Testament sense in accordance with Matt.18:20 was founded upon another “most holy”: Calvary.
In Lev.16.20, the Holy of holies (called “holy place” in Leviticus chapter 16) was cleansed by the sprinkling of blood upon the mercy seat; the holy place (called the “tabernacle of the congregation” in Lev.16.20) was cleansed by the sprinkling of blood upon the horns of the altar of incense, Ex.30.10; and the outer court of the Tabernacle was cleansed by the sprinkling of blood upon the horns of the “the altar” Lev.16.18,19. Every compartment of God’s sanctuary was cleansed by the blood of the sin offering of the atonement, and “the altar” stood for all that was in the court. Although Ex.30.10 tells us that the horns of the altar of incense were also sprinkled with blood on that day, the account of Leviticus chapter 16 does not seem to bring that to the forefront. Instead, the altar of burnt offering becomes the prominent vessel. The atoning work of Christ is again the antitypical fulcrum of Leviticus chapter 16, alluded to primarily in the mercy seat and “the altar”.
Altar of Burnt Offering – Ex.30.28; 31.9; 35.16; 38.1; 40.10,29
In the passages where the brazen altar is designated as the altar of burnt offering, the altar of incense is also mentioned side by side with it. Hence its title as the altar of burnt offering primarily distinguishes itself from the altar of incense. The altar of burnt offering reminds us of the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, whereas the altar of incense, where the incense was lighted with the burning coals of the brazen altar, reminds us of the post-Calvary intercessory work of the Lord Jesus as our great High Priest in heaven.
The burnt offering was the most offered sacrifice on the Jewish altar, mainly due to the frequency with which the morning and evening sacrifices were offered. Therefore, the altar was most frequently linked with this Levitical offering. The word for “burnt offering” is literally the ‘ascending offering’ in Hebrew. Hence the brazen altar could also be called the altar of the ascending offering. Where did the ascending offering rise up to? We have no doubt that it ascended to God. This might be another reason why it was called the altar of burnt offering, and not the altar of peace offering, or the altar of sin offering. All sacrifices offered on the altar rose up to God; and the burnt offering was the offering most reflective of this purpose of the altar.
The altus (Latin), an elevated platform, was the elevated place on earth closest to heaven for an Israelite. The altar, with its sacrifices ascending to God, was the Israelite’s connection to the God of grace and mercy; it was the means by which he could approach God, enjoy fellowship, and know the joys of being accepted by Him. In Exodus chapters 19, 24 and 34, there is the sevenfold mention that “Moses went up” Ex.19.3,20; 24.9,13,15,18; 34.4; the word “went up” is âlâ, and is related to the word ôlâ, which is the word for “burnt offering”. It was a reminder that God could only be reached at a very high place, and that access was a special privilege given to Moses only. The common Israelites were never allowed to ascend to that height to meet God, but the altar of the ascending offering was the gateway for the common Israelite to have fellowship with God without climbing up that mount. It was provided by God, brought down to the level of the wilderness sand; upon it the sacrifices rose up to God.
Man attempted to build a tower that would reach up to heaven in Genesis chapter 11: an expensive project that could never have realised its objective; but the Israelites learned that God had graciously provided them an altar of burnt offering. Though much lower than the tower of Babel in physical height, it was higher than any place on earth, because now they could reach God through the altar and its sacrifices. Therefore, this designation of the “altar of burnt offering” reminds us that Christ came down from heaven, and through His sin-atoning death, typified by an ascending sweet savour offering, has satisfied the holy demands of a righteous God, so that we might be accepted by God, and rise spiritually higher than ever, and be near Him in a way that we have never known before.
The Brazen Altar – Ex.38.30; 39.39
When it was called the “brasen altar” in Ex.38.30, it was in relation to the other furnishings made of brass: the sockets for the door of the Tabernacle, the sockets supporting the court round about, the sockets of the court gate, and all the pins of the Tabernacle and the court. In Ex.39.33-43, all the items of the Tabernacle were listed in the order that began from the framework of the Tabernacle and ended with the items in the court. Among the items listed within the court, the brazen altar was first to be mentioned, Ex.39.39. Hence, of all the items in the court area, the brazen altar was the most important vessel.
Brass might speak of the necessity of God’s righteous judgment upon sin. The Son of man, in the garments of a judge, had feet like unto fine brass, as if they were burning in a furnace, Rev.1.15. A brass altar reminds man of his unworthiness, and that he is only worthy of God’s judgment; but, at the same time, the altar in totality speaks of the provision of God in grace and mercy through the death of Christ.
In contrast to the silver sockets of the pillars for the boards of the Tabernacle, Ex.26.19,21,25, the sockets of the five pillars at the door of the Tabernacle were made of brass, Ex.26.37. Therefore, before the priests entered into the holy place to perform their duties, they were reminded that the entrance into God’s presence had sockets that amplified the importance of the brazen altar. We have that principle laid out in Rom.12.1: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” A servant who labours in the sphere of God’s work must always be conscious that he must give himself unreservedly to the Lord as a living sacrifice, because two thousand years ago there was One at the altar Who gave Himself unreservedly.
The Altar of God – Ps.43.4
This is the only passage in the Bible that uses the expression “altar of God”, and the reference to the altar as belonging to God is certainly noteworthy. Psalms 42 and 43 were originally one song, divided into three sections, each beginning with a call to God, 42.1,6; 43.1. Each of these three sections ends with a call of hope in God, 42.5,11; 43.5. Furthermore, no one is more important to the Psalmist than God Himself, as 42.1 clearly indicates. Therefore, God to him was “the God of my life” 42.8, “God my rock” 42.9, “the God of my strength” 43.2, “God my exceeding joy” 43.4, and “God my God” 43.4. Therefore, we can certainly appreciate the desire of the Psalmist when he says, “Then will I go unto the altar of God” 43.4, for he longs to be near God. All sacrifices laid on the altar were dedicated to none other than God Himself, and the Psalmist looked forward to being at the altar, and to having fellowship with God, Whom he described as “God my exceeding joy”. But the title “altar of God” also brings to mind that the death of Christ was entirely of God, and nothing of the intervention and inventions of man. He was the Lamb of God Who was “foreordained before the foundation of the world” 1Pet.1.20.
THE DIMENSIONS OF THE ALTAR
Instead of working on the dimensions of the altar in the exposition of the verses of Exodus chapter 27 (later in this chapter), I have chosen to deal with this subject here, in order to give it some focus and space. The reason will become more apparent once we have covered some details.
One of the most interesting architectural facets of the Tabernacle was its design that primarily consisted of rectangular shapes (and squares), even though there were some other irregular shapes and a prominent circular laver in the court. There are no known triangular items in the Tabernacle: perhaps God would not want the Israelites to be reminded of the pyramids of Egypt, and the hard labour associated with constructing those mammoth structures.
The brazen altar was a square of five cubits in length and breadth. If we were allowed to walk past the entrance gate, into the court of the Tabernacle, then proceed into the holy place, and finally into the Holy of holies, we would have noticed many squares, notably:
The white linen wall of the court spanned one hundred cubits with twenty pillars on the longer sides, Ex.27.9-11, and fifty cubits with ten pillars on the shorter sides, Ex.27.12,13. That also means that the linen fabric suspended between each of these pillars was five cubits from one pillar to the other. We are told that the height of each of these fine twined linen hangings suspended between two pillars was five cubits, Ex.27.18. Therefore, the fabric which beautifully decorated the surroundings of the court of the Tabernacle consisted of square-shaped fine twined linen cloths suspended between two pillars, forming the walls of the court. In addition, these five cubits by five cubits linen pieces were of the exact same dimension as the brazen altar. Therefore, the court area of the Tabernacle had the most square-shaped items.
The door of the Tabernacle, where the five gold-overlaid pillars upon brazen sockets stood, was a square entrance.
The golden altar of incense was a square, one cubit by one cubit.
The overall shape of the Holy of holies was a cube, with a square on all sides. Therefore, the veil which separated the holy place from the Holy of holies was likely also a square.
The breastplate of the high priest’s garment was a square, Ex.28.16.
The brazen altar, the entrance into the holy place, the altar of incense, the veil, and finally the Holy of holies, all form a straight line of access into the Holiest, marked by squares. Square-shaped linens suspended on pillars round about surrounded the court of the Tabernacle, where the brazen altar and the brazen laver stood; and amidst this line of squares into the Holiest, and walls of squares surrounding the court, we see a high priest moving around in service, wearing a square breastplate upon his chest. Can you visualise this: squares all around; squares lining up the centre, from the court into the Holiest; and a square attached to the high priest, whose footsteps would have dotted the vicinity of the Tabernacle? Therefore, not only were there stationary squares, but the breastplate of the high priest was a moving square that touched most, if not all, the areas of the Tabernacle. God is making it very obvious to us that He wanted squares to be prominent in His house.
But what does the square speak of Scripturally? It is a shape with four equal sides, and therefore suggests to us the righteousness of God, and also the universal rule of God. The first square encountered by the Israelite as he entered into the court was the brazen altar. He was immediately reminded that God was a God of righteousness and holiness; but, at the same time, he knew that the righteous demands of God upon the sinner were met on the altar of burnt offering through the sacrifice offered. Calvary not only brings to mind the unyielding demands of the Law upon the sinner, but, more so, the finished work of Christ in meeting the need of the sinner. The foursquare altar answered to all the squares of the Tabernacle, and the priest who had been at the foursquare altar enjoyed the privilege of access to a court surrounded by squares, and subsequently into the sanctuary through the square entrance of the door of the Tabernacle, wherein he encountered the square altar of incense, and understood that his privilege of prayer and worship was derived from a bigger square altar outside. However, for the New Testament believer, he gets more: symbolically speaking, he now has full priestly access into the Holiest, which has a square on all sides. He is in the presence of God, and he knows imputed righteousness. He knows the truth of 2Cor.5.21: “For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.”
Yet it is also true to say that God came out to meet His people Israel, because they could not go into the sanctuary to meet God, except for Aaron once a year. This is clear when we make a careful examination of Ex.29.42,43, where it is said: “This shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the Lord: where I will meet you, to speak there unto thee. And there I will meet with the children of Israel, and the tabernacle shall be sanctified by My glory.” The continual burnt offering on the altar was nearer to the gate of the court than to the door of the Tabernacle, yet here it is said to be at the door of the Tabernacle of the congregation.2 The Lord further adds that He will meet them at the door of the Tabernacle. Hence, the altar is presented as being nearer to the door than it actually was physically, and God came out to as near as He could be to the altar. No wonder the five pillars at the door of the Tabernacle were overlaid with gold but sat on brazen sockets. The golden pillars answered to what was in the sanctuary, the dwelling presence of God; but the five brazen sockets answered to what was outside the sanctuary, and mainly answered to the five cubits by five cubits brazen altar, where the Israelites were.3 God came to the door where the five golden pillars stood on five brazen sockets; and where the Israelites met Him (at the five-cubits-square altar upon which was the continual burnt offering) is said to be “at the door of the congregation before the Lord”! Now, however, the gap has been completely removed: Paul says, “But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ” Eph.2.13. Although Paul is speaking about the Gentiles in this verse, he adds, “For through Him we both [Jews and Gentiles] have access by one Spirit unto the Father” Eph.2.18.
- 2. We see this emphasised in Lev.1.5 too, where the altar is also called “the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation”. This is not in relation to the distance, but to the position of the altar in front of the door of the Tabernacle.
- 3. This close connection between the five pillars and the brazen altar is further emphasised by the fact that the last verse of Exodus chapter 26 speaks of the five pillars overlaid with gold, sitting upon five sockets made of brass, Ex.26.37, then, immediately after having mentioned this, the Spirit of God brings us into Ex.27.1, with the description of the brazen altar.
We also note that the brazen altar was five cubits by five cubits. In fact, the number five is the most prominent number associated with the Tabernacle, because it is the most common denominator of the measurements of things in the Tabernacle. We already mentioned the five pillars, and also the five cubits by five cubits linen cloths suspended between two pillars of the court wall. Then there were also ten curtains consisting of two sets of five curtains each, and the two sets were coupled together by fifty golden taches through fifty loops on each set, Ex.26.1-6. There were also five bars steadying the boards of the Tabernacle on the north, south and west sides, Ex.26.26,27. The number five – the number of grace – is prominently stamped across many items in the Tabernacle, but the most conspicuous of them all was this large five cubits by five cubits brazen altar. Perhaps the thought is again this: that all the items stamped with this number of grace answered to the altar of burnt offering, which was the foundation of grace. Calvary was the greatest display of the grace of God to mankind, and is the basis of all our spiritual privileges and blessings.
We are reminded that the altar was three cubits high, Ex.27.1. Therefore, there was something of the height of the brazen altar that spoke of the Deity of Christ, for the number three would be the number of Deity. There was not a single instant in the life and death of the Lord Jesus when He was not co-equal with God. If not for His Deity, the death of Christ would have been nothing more than mere martyrdom, but because of the Deity of the One offered at Calvary (seen in the three cubits) and His atoning death, in which He underwent God’s judgment (seen in the brass), God is satisfied, and man receives full salvation.
THE DETAILS OF THE ALTAR – Ex.27.1-8
Exodus chapters 25 and 26 are primarily concerned with the framework of the Tabernacle and its internal furnishings. In chapter 27, we begin to read what is in the court of the Tabernacle. Then in chapters 28 and 29, we have the consecration of Aaron and his sons. The Lord said, “And I will sanctify the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar: I will sanctify also both Aaron and his sons, to minister to Me in the priest’s office” Ex.29.44. Therefore, the three main elements of the Tabernacle and its services were: the sanctuary, the altar, and the priesthood. Though the altar was mentioned alone, it stood for what was in and around the court of the Tabernacle; therefore, it was the first item in the court to be described in chapter 27.
In Ex.38.1-7, we have the actual work being carried out, but our expository focus will only be in the verses of chapter 27.
“And thou shalt make an altar of shittim wood, five cubits long, and five cubits broad; the altar shall be foursquare: and the height thereof shall be three cubits.”
God introduces the brazen altar of the Tabernacle for the first time here by calling it “the altar of shittim wood”. The rendering “an altar of shittim wood” A.V., is a little unfortunate, because it is “the altar of shittim wood” in the original text. When the Spirit of God introduces another altar, the altar of incense, in Ex.30.1, He describes it as “an altar to burn incense upon”. There it is without the definite article. Here, in Ex.27.1, it is “the altar of shittim wood”, from which an altar of
incense in the holy place took character. The burning of incense on the golden altar required the coals from the brazen altar. Without the altar of shittim wood, there would be no basis for the existence of an altar of incense.
Though altars of stones and earth had been built before this, Ex.20.24,25, this brass-overlaid altar was perhaps the most beautiful thus far. When we say that it was a brazen altar, we really mean that it was overlaid with the base metal copper. However, notice that it was first called the “altar of shittim wood”, before it was called the brazen altar in Exodus chapters 38 and 39. Just like the ark of God, the table of shewbread, and the altar of incense, God began with the fact that they were made of shittim wood before He spoke of the metal associated with them. Why was it first introduced as the altar of shittim wood, even though its metallic outlook was the prominent feature visually? Because God wants us to have a very clear and prominent view of the perfect and impeccable humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ. We see the shittim wood clearly on Calvary when He said, “I thirst” Jn.19.28. Why did the Lord say that? John tells us that it was for the fulfilling of Scripture; the Lord was referring to Ps.69.21. However, the Lord also wanted us to know that His suffering was real. Even though He possessed the Divine power to remove all His pain and thirst, He refrained from exercising that power, and suffered on the cross as Man fully. That was a display of the character of the shittim wood in the altar of burnt offering. The irony was that He, the Giver of living water, said, “I thirst.” He suffered thirst, so that He might bring satisfaction to all who believe in Him.
In Ex.20.24,25, God gave specific instructions about the building of an altar, though the Tabernacle had not come into the picture there. God gave instructions on how they could erect an altar of earth, or an altar of stones; there was no mention of wood and brass. There is no contradiction between the altar mentioned in Exodus chapter 20 and the brazen altar in Exodus chapter 27; an altar of earth or stone was for a more personal, rather than corporate exercise, and was also required during specific occasions when sacrifices were offered to God outside the Tabernacle, especially when the Tabernacle was not within immediate reach. Some of these were special occasions, for example, Josh.8.30; Judg.6.24; 1Sam.7.17; 2Sam.24.21. Furthermore, on the Day of Atonement when the carcass of the goat was incinerated outside the camp, it was likely upon an altar of stones or earth. I cannot envision the animal burnt on the wilderness floor without a temporary altar. However, God never allowed an altar for Israel to be erected to replace the altar at the Tabernacle or the Temple, just as the event of Joshua chapter 22 makes clear. But what we find instructive in Ex.20.24 is that the Lord associated the altar with the testimony of His name. Believers who gather to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ cannot do so without the prominence of the altar that is intricately linked to His name. Furthermore, if we dilute or remove the solemnity of the death of Christ in our ministry or gospel preaching, or in our prayers and worship, we will very soon lose sense of what it means to be gathered unto His name.
It is noteworthy that the word “foursquare” appears here for the first time in the Bible. The significance of the foursquare dimension of the altar has already been elaborated on in the previous section.
“And thou shalt make the horns of it upon the four corners thereof: his horns shall be of the same: and thou shalt overlay it with brass.”
This is the second time in the Bible where the word “horn” is mentioned; the first time being the horns of a ram caught in the thicket, Gen.22.13. The second mention (here) must, therefore, be understood in connection to the first mention. Horns speak of strength, and it is paradoxical that the symbol of strength for the ram was the thing that caused it to be caught. If not for the horns, Abraham would not have had a ram for the sacrifice, in the stead of Isaac. The strongest part of the ram caused the animal to become the victim. The fact that the Lord Jesus was not mere Man, but is also God Himself, made it possible for all events around Him to be lined up for Calvary. Commentators have often reminded us that the mathematical probability of prophecies fulfilled in the lifetime of the Lord Jesus on earth – the circumstances, and the timing by which they were fulfilled – was infinitesimally small, unless He was really, by His own power, in control of all events in His life. Nothing was an accident or coincidence for Him. His omniscience and omnipotence as the Son of God were the very reasons why no one could stop Him from going to Calvary. His power was the propelling means by which none could prevent Him from laying down His own life as a sacrifice to God. I suggest that the horns of the brazen altar remind us of this. The Lord said, “Therefore doth My Father love Me, because I lay down My life that I might take it again. No man taketh it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again …” Jn.10.17,18. But the horns also remind us of the unwillingness of the animal prepared for the sacrifice, as seen in Ps.118.27, as well as the ram in Genesis chapter 22, whose horns were caught. Furthermore, the horns bring to mind men who pleaded for mercy because of their own wrong doings, and they were afraid to face death; we see this in Adonijah, 1Kgs.1.50, and Joab, 1Kgs.2.28. However, Christ was not unwilling, and neither did He suffer for His own sins, for He had none; and that is where the horns as a type fail to bring out the perfect Antitype: the One Who said, “I lay it down of Myself”.
Interestingly, Ex.27.2 is the first time the word “corner” (p̱inâ) appears in the Bible. The horns were to be on the four corners of the altar. If the horns represent the resolve, the power and the authority of the Lord in moving towards the cross, then the horns at the four corners of the foursquare altar point us to the righteousness of the Lord in accomplishing His mission. Never once had the Lord used His power in an unrighteous way, even if an obstacle was placed between Him and His resolve to move to Calvary; never once, when exercising His power and authority, had He compromised His moral beauty, or employed His powers in disproportionate measures. This is typified by the four horns that were of the same shape and size.
The altar was to be overlaid with brass. It was the most prominent copper item in the whole Tabernacle court. The element was capable of withstanding and enduring the heat of the fire. In this respect, the writer to the Hebrews reminds us that Jesus, “for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” Heb.12.2. Copper also has great conductivity, and therefore was great for maintaining heat all around the altar frame. It was an element meant for the fire. The Lord was destined for the cross, just as the brass of the altar was meant for the fire, and He willingly submitted to the will of God in accomplishing that work. We hear His voice echoed to us by the Psalmist when the writer to the Hebrews quoted from Psalm 40: “Wherefore when He cometh into the world, He saith, ‘Sacrifice and offering Thou wouldest not, but a body hast Thou prepared Me: in burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin Thou hast had no pleasure. Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of Me,) to do Thy will, O God’” Heb.10.5-7. In this, we see the shittim wood and the brass.
“And thou shalt make his pans to receive his ashes, and his shovels, and his basons, and his fleshhooks, and his firepans: all the vessels thereof thou shalt make of brass.”
We mentioned earlier about the number five being prominently associated with the altar of five cubits by five cubits. Here is another evidence of that: there are five instruments of the altar listed. The pans were needed to receive the ash from the shovels; the basons were for handling the blood of the animal; the fleshhooks were needed to secure the animal in an optimal position on the altar; the firepans were needed to carry live coals from this altar to the altar of incense, perhaps by transferring the coals to golden censers of the holy place. These five instruments were for the appropriate handling of the sacrifices. Everything about the ministry and work of Christ was such that nothing was out of place. Every word, every deed, and every action was carried out with spiritual appropriateness and perfection. But we will also look at each of these instruments and find practical applications for the believer, since they were also instruments handled by the priests.
Pans and Shovels
The pans and shovels were needed to ensure that ashes were constantly removed, and were a reminder that the sacrifices were offered on a continual basis on the altar. There is a practical consideration therein for the believer: do we have ‘pans’ and ‘shovels’ for the ‘ashes’ in our daily devotion, and in our assembly testimony? In other words, is our appreciation of, and meditation upon, Christ and His work as rigorous as it ought to be? If the sacrifice had ceased, or if the burning had been lacklustre, there would hardly have been any need for the pans and shovels, but if the sacrifice was continual, and the burning complete, then pans and shovels would be needed to handle the ashes. Is our appreciation of Christ and His atoning work fresh and comprehensive? Do we constantly have a renewed exercise concerning the death of Christ? Is the assembly ‘altar’, or my personal ‘altar’, functioning before the Lord? If the answers are affirmative, then we would know the value of the pans and shovels.
The ashes remind us of the effectiveness of the fire, and the completeness of the burning. What God did to His Son on our behalf was severe and unsparing. Paul wrote, “He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” Rom.8.32. In Lev.6.10, with regards to the law of the burnt offering, it is said concerning the ashes from the burnt offering that the priest “shall put them beside the altar”. There was the need for a temporary place for the ashes, as if a careful consideration of what the burnt offering had become was required. We get a sense of this when Paul said, “That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death” Phil.3.10. If we fully comprehend the significance of the ashes, there would be a greater willingness in us to enter into the fellowship of His sufferings. Alas, creature comforts, technological conveniences and general worldliness have inundated our senses, causing us to shun from even the littlest measure of inconveniences for the sake of Christ. We may have lost that place beside the altar, and we need to restore it.
The basons were receptacle bowls for the blood of the slaughtered animal. Whenever the sprinkling of blood was performed, the basons were used. In fact, the word “bason” (mizrâq) comes from the verb “sprinkle” (zâraq), hence it was an instrument for sprinkling. The basons remind us that the blood was to be handled with priestly care. The preachers of the Word of God are entrusted with the Divine responsibility of preaching with the ‘basons’. There is the danger of presenting the Person and death of Christ with less than the required reverence or Scriptural accuracy demanded of the servants of God. The bloodless ‘prosperity gospel’ bandwagon has caught the world by storm, teaching that wealth is an evidence of one’s faith, and saying very little about the depravity of poor sinners and the need for salvation through the Christ Who shed His blood.
We also notice that the basons were used to pour out the blood of the sacrificial animal at the base of the altar, Ex.29.12; Lev.4.7,18,25,30,34. There is again the typological emphasis that the blood was foundational to the sacrifice and all that resulted from it. How precious to remind ourselves that the vicarious work of Christ must be the foundation of our doctrines and our preaching; we all need the ‘basons’.
The fleshhooks secured the sacrifice on the altar and they speak of that which is secured for God. We have the opposite in the story of Eli’s sons, for they utilised the fleshhooks for their own corrupt desires, 1Sam.2.12-17. They took what was supposed to be secured for God. The Lord Jesus, the perfect Servant, knew that He was exclusively for God. He said, “My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me” Jn.4.34. Paul reminds us that He “became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” Phil.2.8. He was secured for God, for the altar.
The firepans were for carrying the coals from the brazen altar to the altar of incense, possibly by transferring the coals to golden censers of the holy place. Without the firepans, no incense could rise as sweet savour to the Lord on the golden altar. The burning coals remind us of that which was the finished result of the sacrifice on the brazen altar: the finished work of Christ. Hence the firepans were the priestly instruments that speak to us of how all that was accomplished by the death of Christ is brought intelligently to mind, enabling us to appreciate and express something of the fulness of His efficacious work, in the form of praise and worship. The lesson from this article would achieve its objective at this point if we can stir up a brother’s priestly exercise, so that he would have a ‘firepan’ on the Lord’s Day morning, and rise up to give thanks in remembrance of the Lord, bringing the saints to an appreciation of the fulness of Christ and His finished work.
Yet the firepan, or the censer, also has a solemn warning against self-will and rebellion. We see this in Numbers chapter 16, in the rebellion of Korah and his company. Two hundred and fifty men stood with their brazen censers before the Lord in a showdown with Moses and Aaron. Jehovah’s consuming fire destroyed these two hundred and fifty prominent men; Korah, Dathan and Abiram, and their families were also swallowed up by the earth. Then God commanded Moses to speak to Eleazar so that the brazen censers of those two hundred and fifty men would be made into broad plates for the covering of the altar. These broad plates were to be a sign and a memorial of warning to all that the privilege of offering incense with the censer belonged exclusively to the house of Aaron. Though it is not clear how these broad plates were later applied to the brazen altar, I would suggest that they likely served as another layer of copper plates all around the altar. Some suggest that they became the top covering of the altar, likely to be used during transit. However, one thing is sure: they were prominently seen by every Israelite who approached the altar. They served like the warning signboards that we are so familiar with: ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’. The altar of burnt offering was as far as any common Israelite could go, and these broad plates were warning signs to him. They also warned the Israelites of the consequences of rebellion against God and His appointed servants. Paul warned the Corinthian believers: “If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are” 1Cor.3.17. The writer to the Hebrews speaks of serving God acceptably with reverence and godly fear, and he adds: “For our God is a consuming fire” Heb.12.28,29.
“And thou shalt make for it a grate of network of brass; and upon the net shalt thou make four brasen rings in the four corners thereof. And thou shalt put it under the compass of the altar beneath, that the net may be even to the midst of the altar.”
Many scholars and preachers have written and debated extensively on the actual placement of the network of brass, and how the rings were integrated. I will not add to the list of heavy debaters, but will simply state my view regarding this. The literal translation of v.5 is: ‘And thou shalt place it under the rim of the altar downwards, and the net shall be until the midst of the altar’. The word “compass”, or “rim”, most likely refers to the top edge of the altar. We read of the dimensions of the altar being five cubits by five cubits according to the measurement of its outer frame, and three cubits in height; but nothing is said about the thickness of the shittim wood overlaid with brass that formed the framework of the altar. Many pictures and drawings have often ignored this and assumed that it was just a thin frame all around the altar. However, if the thickness of the frame of the altar, made from shittim wood and overlaid with copper, was allowed to be around half a cubit or even one cubit, that is, approximately nine inches to one and a half feet, it would then result in a horizontal ledge at the top of the altar all around. This would have been useful for temporarily placing the instruments of the altar when they were in day-to-day use. Therefore, the text could be telling us that the brazen net is to be placed parallel to the prominent plane of the top rim, downwards to the middle of the hollow altar. This, therefore, allows for the sacrifices to be placed upon the brazen meshwork. The sketch on page 301, at the end of the book, illustrates this concept (in reading the next two paragraphs, please refer to this illustration).
The rings are attached to the brazen network structure extending out from the base of the altar. Notice that this would also create a little inlet at the base of the altar as a result of the altar frame sitting on the base of the brazen network, thereby allowing the inflow of air to optimise the combustion. There might be some who would object at this point and say that the fire on the altar was kindled supernaturally, Lev.6.13; 9.24, and therefore did not need any form of ventilation for the fire to continue burning. I agree that the fire was supernaturally kindled and could never go out, but nowhere in Scripture does it say that the fire could not benefit from the aid of additional fuel or air to optimise combustion. The fact that wood was still required for the burnt offering, Lev.6.12, makes it obvious that fuel was required for the sacrifice, to optimise the burning of such a large animal. Hence, air from the inlet underneath the altar would have served the same purpose.
The height of the brazen network, if placed midway down the altar, would have been one and a half cubits from the ground. The golden table in the holy place, and also the mercy seat of the ark, had this same height of one and a half cubits. The table speaks of fellowship, and above the mercy seat, between the cherubim, Jehovah’s presence dwelled. The cross of Christ (answering to the altar network) is the basis by which we have fellowship with God and with one another in the assembly (answering to the table) and enjoy the privilege of the Lord’s presence (answering to the mercy seat).
“And thou shalt make staves for the altar, staves of shittim wood, and overlay them with brass. And the staves shall be put into the rings, and the staves shall be upon the two sides of the altar, to bear it.”
The staves of the vessels in the Tabernacle were made of the same materials as the vessels they bore. The staves were for the purpose of lifting and carrying the vessels when they were in transit, and were the burden of the Levites, specifically the Kohathites. The Levites responsible for carrying the altar in the wilderness would know the burden and the weight of the vessel. It was likely the heaviest vessel, due to its size and the overlaying copper all around. Hence, it is the prerogative of every gospel preacher to know this wilderness exercise, and to feel the heavy burden of the work whenever he is given the privilege to proclaim the cross of Christ.
The rings and the staves remind us that the altar was purposed to be transported occasionally. In Numbers chapter 4 we read of the covering of the altar before it was transported. It is again called “the altar” in Num.4.13,14, to distinguish it from the altar of incense, and also to emphasise its importance. It is most interesting to notice some of the colour distinctions of the coverings across different vessels. Notice that:
- The ark of God was the only vessel that had a blue outer covering, Num.4.6, while the other vessels had badgers’ skins as the outer covering;
- The table of shewbread was the only vessel that had a cloth of scarlet as a middle covering, over the blue, Num.4.8;
- The altar of burnt offering was the only furniture in the tabernacle that had a purple cloth as an inner cover, Num.4.13.
The ark of God, being the innermost vessel, displayed a unique colour setting seen outwardly. The brazen altar, being the outermost vessel, had a unique colour setting in the inner covering. The common Israelites had never seen the ark of God, but whenever they saw it, they only saw the approximate shape of the ark and its beautiful blue spread. The brazen altar was a sight most familiar to the Israelites; but when the altar was in transit, they never saw the inner purple cloth. The common Israelites never had a close-up view of the table either, for only Aaron and his sons had access; neither had they any view of the scarlet cloth, because it was covered by badgers’ skins. We must consider ourselves of greatest privilege, because we have a clearer spiritual view of all these vessels and their cloth coverings fulfilled in Christ: the blue of His heavenly character; the scarlet of His perfect service as the Servant of Jehovah; the purple of His royal character. It is no coincidence that these colour settings were arranged evenly, in such a way that one was from the Holiest of all, another from the holy place, and another from the court of the Tabernacle. Every compartment of God’s sanctuary was touched with a colour that spoke distinctly of Christ.
What concerns us now is the purple covering of the brazen altar. The purple cloth was the inner spread of the altar. It was the only purple covering in the Tabernacle. Purple was the colour of royalty and wealth; only the rich could afford the colour purple, which was extracted from shellfish. The Israelites in the wilderness never saw the inner purple cloth; neither did their children many generations after see that of which it spoke, but cried, “Crucify Him, crucify Him”! The title “King of the Jews”, placed on top of His cross, was Pilate’s way of mocking the Jews. They gave Him a “purple robe” Jn.19.2,5, their way of humiliating Him as the so-called King of the Jews. The only man we read of who had a view of the ‘hidden purple’ on that fateful day was the ‘dying thief’. He said, “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom” Lk.23.42! He saw a King on the cross; he saw the inner purple cloth of the Altar of Sacrifice!
But the hidden purple also tells us of the current state of Israel. While the Church, in pilgrim character, acknowledges the Lordship of Christ, Israel is yet to acknowledge her Messiah King. Yet the day will come when the ‘purple cloth’ will be revealed, and it will be seen by Israel in relation to the altar; then they will know that the Christ Who died is the King of Israel!
“Hollow with boards shalt thou make it: as it was shewed thee in the mount, so shall they make it.”
Ornamentally, the brazen altar and the brazen laver were the simplest of all the main vessels in the Tabernacle. The brazen altar did not have features resembling the ornamental knobs and flowers of the golden lampstand; nor did it bear any profile of the beautifully formed golden cherubim of the ark, or the carefully crafted crowns around the golden table and the golden altar. It was a simple and humble looking brass vessel, albeit the largest one. The fact that it was “hollow with boards” was a testament to its simplicity. This typically speaks of the lowliness and humility of the Lord Jesus. Paul tells us that He “made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” Phil.2.7,8. The expression “made Himself of no reputation” is literally ‘He emptied Himself’. Christ never once emptied Himself of Godhood, for that was essentially and eternally His, but He emptied Himself by taking upon Him the form of a servant, and by becoming in the likeness of men. The stoop of the Saviour to become fully man, and eventually to submit Himself to the death of the cross, was the great act of emptying Himself. The unostentatious outlook of the altar, hollow with boards, suggests this truth.
God not only gave specific instructions on how to build the Tabernacle through the text of the Scriptures, but He must have shown visible blueprints of the Tabernacle to Moses as well. God showed Moses the pattern of the Tabernacle, and all the instruments thereof, Ex.25.9. This was needed for vessels that were too complex to describe in human language. For example, there is no mention of measurements and sizes for the making of the lampstand, or the cherubim on the mercy seat. The intricate curves and complex profiles of these beautiful items would have been best served by patterns shown to Moses, Ex.25.9,40; 26.30; Num.8.4. However, from the text of Ex.25.9, it would seem that God would have shown the pattern of all the instruments of the Tabernacle to Moses, including that of the brazen altar.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews spoke about God giving Moses the instructions to build the Tabernacle according to the pattern shown to him, Heb.8.5. The writer adds that these were the example and shadow of heavenly things; but Christ our great High Priest has “obtained a more excellent ministry” Heb.8.6. The fact that God showed Moses a pattern indicates that what was of the old economy was primarily material. However, now these types have all been fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ, and what we possess now is spiritual. We no longer need patterns of vessels in various shapes and sizes; what we have now in the New Testament are: the pattern of sound words, 2Tim.1.13; Rom.6.17; the pattern of saving faith, 1Thess.1.7; 1Tim.1.16; and the pattern of good works and godly living, Titus 2.7; Phil.3.17; 1Tim.4.12; 1Pet.5.3.
The pagan temples of the east, including many in Malaysia, have a very common and interesting layout. There is nearly always an altar at the gate, followed by some kind of water feature or pool surrounded by a garden environment, which eventually leads to a covered building which houses the idols. There is always the smell of incense; in some pagan temples there would be food offered on an altar. Nearly all of these pagan temples will have oil lamps burning. The devil is the greatest liar, and a genius of imitations, Ex.7.11; 2Cor.11.14.
Many Christians in Malaysia originated from a pagan background and are familiar with temple environs as described above. Usually, what immediately captured their attention upon conversion was this: the absence of material items associated with the Christian gathering. Pagan worshippers often associate their religion intimately with the altar. Hence it is common for someone who has turned from idols to serve the living and true God, 1Thess.1.9, to ask this question: “Do not we Christians have an altar of some kind?” We might be quick to respond definitively and firmly with a ‘No!’ But we do have an altar, albeit not a physical one. The writer to the Hebrews says, “We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle” Heb.13.10. Whether it is Judaism, or pagan religions, they call for their worshippers to “‘touch not; taste not; handle not;’ which all are to perish with the using …” Col.2.21,22. How liberating to know that the only text in the Bible that speaks directly of the New Testament Christians having an altar, is not even speaking of a physical altar! So, what is this altar to which the writer to the Hebrews was referring?
I suggest that he was referring to the cross, the death of Christ, symbolised here as an altar. There are many views on what exactly this altar in Heb.13.10 is, and the debate has a very long history. I will state the reasons why I believe the altar is firstly a reference to Calvary, and secondarily an application to the spiritual privileges of Christians. To quote F.F. Bruce on the exposition of this passage, “The Christian altar was the sacrifice of Christ, the benefits of which were eternally accessible to them.” 4
- 4. Bruce, F.F. “The Epistle to the Hebrews” in “New International Commentary on the New Testament”. Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, U.S.A.
The altar was where the sacrifice was laid. The writer uses this as a starting point to lead us to the truth that this altar is a metonymy for the place where Jesus suffered, on a cross outside the city gate of Jerusalem. Hence, this altar was outside the camp, just as the Lord died outside of Jerusalem’s gates. The writer later states, “Let us go forth therefore unto Him without the camp, bearing His reproach” Heb.13.13. He is asking his readers to go to the place of the altar, outside the camp, because it is there that “we have an altar”. The difficulty is this: if Jesus suffered without the gate, and this is typologically seen in the sin offering burnt outside the camp on the Day of Atonement (which is the historical context of much of Hebrews), then what altar was this, seeing that there was no altar outside the camp on the Day of Atonement? I would like to suggest, though I cannot be dogmatic, that there was indeed an altar outside the camp where the carcasses of the sin offering were burnt on the Day of Atonement. I cannot imagine that the sin offering carcasses of the bullock and the goat were cast on the wilderness floor on sticks of wood and burnt to ashes. I suggest that there was an altar erected by the man who brought the carcasses out to be incinerated; he must have built an altar of stones, based on the provisions of Ex.20.24-26. The writer to the Hebrews thereby intentionally surprises his readers by bringing out an altar about which Leviticus chapter 4 (the sin offering) and Leviticus chapter 16 (the Day of Atonement) are silent. The absence of any specific mention of this altar outside the camp of Israel by the Spirit of God in the Old Testament was deliberate, so that it might not be perceived as competing with the altar of burnt offering in the court of the Tabernacle. But the writer to the Hebrews implies that the time has come that this altar outside the camp be brought out of obscurity to strengthen his point, because it has become a more suitable picture of the rejection and the death of Christ, outside the camp – more so in this present context – than the familiar altar of burnt offering under Judaism. This altar, which was never mentioned in the Law, though obscurely there, but necessary for the burning of the carcasses, has now become by application the altar of the New Testament believer, and symbolically in the context of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Calvary where Christ died, outside the gate.
Throughout the Epistle to the Hebrews, the writer warned the saints about going back to the Law; they simply could not mix the old with the new. They could not claim an allegiance to Christ, and yet wallow in the mire of Law-keeping. Under the Law, they could have no portion in Christ, Who suffered without the gate, because the Law prohibits the partaking of the sin offering, the blood of which was brought into the Holiest, Lev.6.30. And this Christ did: “He entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” Heb.9.12. It had to be exclusively Christ, and nothing more or less! They had to completely leave Judaism. They had to go outside, where He suffered, and be identified with Him there.
The writer to the Hebrews further adds that this altar which was a metonymy for the place of suffering for the Saviour has now become a place of spiritual offering and fellowship for us. Hence, he says, “By Him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name” Heb.13.15. The offerer in the old economy (as well as pagan religions) required the assistance of the officiating priest to handle the sacrifice, and on the Day of Atonement it was the high priest who officiated the ceremonial procedures; but now that access and privilege are opened to all who are in Christ: “let us offer …” The sacrifices were animals in the old economy, but now the sacrifices are spiritual and rise up to God in the form of praise, which is the fruit of our lips. Then it was once a year, during the Day of Atonement, when the relevant sacrifices were offered; but now, “continually”. One who came out from Judaism, or even Gentile paganism, would have appreciated the impact of this statement, “We have an altar”, and realise that all that is the result of the grace of God in this present dispensation is no longer physical but spiritual. What a change! For the Jew, who knew that altar of burnt offering, or the pagan Gentile, who had idolatrous altars, this was something altogether different.
But what does it mean to the believer to have an altar? The writer to the Hebrews says, “Let us go forth therefore unto Him without the camp, bearing His reproach” Heb.13.13. The Lord also said, “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” Lk.9.23. When Moses “esteem[ed] the reproach [the same word as in Heb.13.13] of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt” Heb.11.26, that was in relation to separation from the world; but I believe in Heb.13.13 the writer is saying that association with this altar demands separation from religion through suffering reproach with the Lord. Local assemblies in many parts of this world are facing this great danger of compromise, and a very glaring unwillingness to bear the reproach of Christ. Modernism and casualism, mingled with a form of religion, are eroding assembly testimonies. Many gatherings are craving for the welcome of the modern society and the acceptance of an upcoming generation. Servants of God are heading in the direction of getting the numbers and pleasing the masses at the expense of Scriptural convictions they once held dear. The altar necessitates reproach, because it is the feature of pilgrims, who are seeking for a city to come, Heb.13.14.
Paul exhorted Timothy to partake “of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God” 2Tim.1.8. Paul further exhorted Timothy to “hold fast the form of sound words” 2Tim.1.13, which many were unwilling to do: Paul stated, “all they which are in Asia be turned away from me” 2Tim.1.15. The current state of decline in assembly testimonies is likely due to an unwillingness to separate and to suffer reproach with Him.
The brazen altar points us back to Calvary and we appreciate afresh the richness of the death of Christ; but the altar of Hebrews chapter 13 reminds us of our present privileges and responsibilities, and the need to go unto Him without the camp; furthermore, it points us to the future of a coming city, for here we have no continuing city. Paul said, “If we suffer, we shall also reign with Him” 2Tim.2.12.
We acquiesce with the hymnwriter when we sing:
- No blood, no altar now,
- The sacrifice is o’er!
- No flame, no smoke ascends on high,
- The lamb is slain no more,
- But richer blood has flowed from nobler veins,
- To purge the soul from guilt, and cleanse the reddest stains.
- (Horatius Bonar)
But how great to be able to say with the writer to the Hebrews as well: “We have an altar”!