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The Altar of Sacrifice


“The altar of burnt offering emphasizes the need for sacrificial atonement and consecration, but in the Old Testament, animal sacrifices only gave access to a copy of the heavenly temple, and these sacrifices needed to be repeated daily. Jesus’ sacrificial death is a perfect, once-for-all time sacrifice. On the cross, Jesus Christ ransoms, cleanses, and sanctifies those who trust in Him alone by faith. Only those who have been made holy by Christ may approach God without fear.”[i]

The world prior to the entrance of sin was a world of peaceful fellowship and harmony between God and humankind, but alas, only two people enjoyed that paradise, and that only temporarily. The seventh-day rest following creation was soon disrupted, and immediately two animals were slain by God to reestablish the first couple’s relationship with Him. These animals were the first living things to experience death. They were a fitting demonstration of the mortality Adam and Eve brought upon their descendants, but also of the grace to be experienced through a substitutionary sacrifice. With all humanity now in exile from Eden, that paradisaical day of rest came to signify the state of perfection to which God would eventually bring his people (Gen 3:15). Scripture records a few instances of offerings, sacrifices, and altars in the lives of the patriarchs leading up to the Mosaic covenant (Gen 3:21 God; Gen 4:3-4 Cain/Abel; Gen 8:20 Noah; Gen 12:7; 13:18; 22:2, 13 Abraham/Isaac; Gen 31:54; 35:7 Jacob; Ex 10:25 Moses/Pharaoh; Ex 12 Passover; Ex 18:12 Jethro; Ex 20:22-26 personal). But the Mosaic covenant would amplify the predicament of sin by legislating a system of blood-letting sacrifices by a family of priests at a central temple according to the law and its calendar. Alexander points out the necessity of sacrificial atonement to ransom, cleanse, and sanctify the sinner. The bronze altar, as part of the temple complex, served to emphasize that blood atonement was key to approaching God who was distanced from His creation due to their sin. The bronze altar that witnessed the exertions of countless priests and the deaths of countless animals looked back to the garden sacrifices for Adam and Eve and it looked forward to the singular sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God. Its centrality to Jewish worship is evidenced by their query to Christians, “Where is your altar?”

The altar of sacrifice answers the question, “Who may (re)enter into God’s presence?” Only those who have been forgiven of sin via substitution, cleansed in sanctification, and consecrated through participation in the covenant meal. Moses was able to ascend to the top of Mount Sinai, the elders up its side, and the general population at its foot. Similarly, the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, priests could enter the Holy place and the people could gather in the courtyard containing the altar. The realities that these types looked forward to are in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, His priestly access to the Holy of Holies in heaven, and our participation in the new covenant “meal” by faith (Jn 6:53-58). Jesus has ascended to the right hand of God, but even though His work is “finished” we have not yet entered into heaven as these types adumbrate.

The message of Hebrews is certain: The sacrifice of Jesus’ life need not be repeated since He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified (Heb 10:14). His traumatic death provided complete redemption for sin, a result not possible by the thousands of animals previously sacrificed each year at the temple altar. Similarly, the temple structures are also unnecessary since Jesus, our High Priest, having completed the work of redemption, is seated at the right hand of God (Heb 9:11; 10:12). But may we not erect in our churches a model of the altar to remind us that by virtue of Christ’s sacrifice there remains a promise that we will forever dwell in His presence (Jn 17:24; 1 Cor 13:12; 2 Cor 5:6; 1 Jn 3:2)? Is not the altar fulfilled only in part since we are entreated to continue to make sacrifices and offerings to God (Rom 12:1; Phil 2:17; 4:18; Heb 13:5, 16; 1 Pet 2:5)?

The author of Hebrews answers these questions for us. “We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat” (Heb 13:10). This is not an altar of unhewn stones (Ex 20:24-26) erected in our churches for the sake of symbolism or ritual. Our altar is where the sacrifice of Jesus Christ took place—the cross on Golgotha—not ever to be employed again. This put wavering Jews to task to choose between the tangible altar of Judaism or the symbolical altar of Christ. Christ’s altar inspires His followers to take up their cross outside the camp and share in His sufferings (Heb 13:13-14). His altar dispenses with the rituals in the temple court and calls for sacrifices of praise to God and service to fellow believers (Heb 13:15-16).  “Christ is our altar,” say Turretin, “on the cross, by immolation; in heaven, by intercession; on the table, by commemoration.”[ii]

Commenting on the “altar” of Christ, Calvin states,

This is a beautiful adaptation of an old rite under the Law, to the present state of the Church. There was a kind of sacrifice appointed, mentioned in the sixteenth chapter of Leviticus, no part of which returned to the priests and Levites. This, as he now shows by a suitable allusion, was accomplished in Christ; for he was sacrificed on this condition, that they who serve the tabernacle should not feed on him. But by the ministers of the tabernacle he means all those who performed the ceremonies. Then that we may partake of Christ, he intimates that we must renounce the tabernacle; for as the word altar includes sacrificing and the victim; so tabernacle, all the external types connected with it. Then the meaning is, “No wonder if the rites of the Law have now ceased, for this is what was typified by the sacrifice which the Levites brought without the camp to be there burnt; for as the ministers of the tabernacle did eat nothing of it, so if we serve the tabernacle, that is, retain its ceremonies, we shall not be partakers of that sacrifice which Christ once offered, nor of the expiation which he once made by his own blood; for his own blood he brought into the heavenly sanctuary that he might atone for the sin of the world.”[iii]

Unphased by the perfection of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice and the imperfection of repeated ritual sacrifices, the Roman Catholic Church holds that “a church…[is] where the faithful assemble, and where is worshipped the presence of the Son of God our Savior, offered for us on the sacrificial altar…”[iv] In limited agreement with Protestants, Catholics declare that the altar of the NC is the cross of Jesus Christ. However, their man-made doctrines demand a physical altar for the sacrament of the eucharist, and to effect and apply Christ’s sacrifice as an unbloody sacrifice on a daily basis.[v] If you have a physical altar, there must be a physical Christ upon it. If Christ is physically present, there must be a physical place for Him to be offered again and again. However, based on the perfection of Christ’s sacrifice on the altar of the cross, Turretin questions the need for any ongoing propitiatory sacrifice, even if Catholics call it a “sacrifice of commemoration” or a “sacrifice of application.”

The perfection of this sacrifice being established, however, the necessity of the sacrifice of the Mass is taken away. For to what purpose should Christ be offered further for the propitiation of sin, if once by the offering of himself he most perfectly obtained it? Therefore, either the sacrifice of the cross must be convicted of insufficiency or the falsity of the sacrifice of the Mass be acknowledged as not only useless, but also injurious and derogatory to the sacrifice of the cross.[vi]

There is danger awaiting those who seek to emulate the cultus of Judaism. Christians are not encouraged to continue to practice Jewish rituals to keep before them what the rituals foreshadowed. The Lord gave the church a simple ritual—a meal of unity in Him and with each other—to serve as 1) a reminder of a past event, perfect in satisfying the wrath of God for our sins (Christ on the cross) and 2) a promise of its full and complete consummation (a bodily resurrection into His heavenly presence). We do not need an altar to observe this symbolic and commemorative meal because the true sacrifice of Christ’s blood fulfilled the purpose of Israel’s altar. Nor should Christians employ the artifacts of Jewish temple worship if what they foreshadowed has only been conveyed in part. Jesus was clear that whoever “eats his flesh and drinks his blood has eternal life” (Jn 6:54).[vii] When we enter into and share in His life by faith, we have eternal life as a present, continuous possession. However, there is more to be realized by Jesus’ death on the cross. He then promised that He will “raise him up at the last day” (Jn 6:39-40) which indicates a benefit of eternal life yet to come. Even the access that we have now to approach the throne of God in prayer and petition (Heb 10:19-22)—clearly a fulfillment of His priestly service at the altar—is but a taste of the eventual and final fellowship we will enjoy in His presence (Rev 21:3). So, whether a fulfilled ceremony—like the altar or the Sabbath—has an unaccomplished aspect or not, we are under no obligation to continue the ceremony for whatever emotional or intellectual benefit we can conceive.

The author of Hebrews is decisive: those who continue to give service to the tabernacle have no right to participate in Christian worship (Heb 13:11). Christ’s sacrifice was enough, not just for the sins that were committed prior to His death, but those in the future. His expiatory death eliminated the need for all animal sacrifices, but it also removed the need for a centralized temple in which the sacrifices took place, and the calendar that specified what sacrifices were to be offered on what days. Gone are the days of gifts, offerings, and sacrifices, assisted by a priesthood at a designated place on designated days. Instead, our “sacrifices” of praise and thanksgiving require no temple, no altar, no human priesthood, and no Sabbath. Retaining a Sabbatarian view of the week is tantamount to retaining the sacrificial altar, the temple complex, and the calendar. As Turretin uncompromisingly said, our employment of an altar, and by extension, Sabbatizing the Lord’s Day, is “injurious and derogatory to the sacrifice of the cross.” In consideration of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isa 56:7), Calvin illuminates,

“Here we have the manifest difference between the Law and the Gospel; for under the Law the true worship of God was observed by one nation only, for whose sake the temple was especially dedicated to him; but now all are freely admitted without distinction into the temple of God, that they may worship him purely in it, that is, everywhere. We must attend to the form of expression, which is customary and familiar to the Prophets, who employ, as we have already said, figures that correspond to their own age, and, under the name of “Sacrifices” and of “the Temple,” describe the pure worship of God. He paints the spiritual kingdom of Christ, under which we may everywhere “lift up pure hands,” (1 Tim 2:8) and call upon God; and, as Christ saith, God is not now to be adored in that temple, but “the true worshippers worship him in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:24)

We don’t need to infuse our first-day worship in spirit and in truth with any legalisms of OT worship. Those who argue that we must continue to observe the Sabbath because what it foreshadowed has only been fulfilled in part are no different than those who argue for an altar in our churches to continue what remains to be accomplished by the altar of Christ’s sacrifice.

[i] Alexander, T. Desmond. “The Altar of Burnt Offering” Tabletalk, December 2017 p. 15.

[ii] Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Vol 2, p. 156.

[iii] Calvin, John.  Commentary on the Bible Vol x p. x.

[iv] “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (Ligouri Pub: Ligouri, MO, undated), p.305.

[v] Ibid. p. 349.

[vi] Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Vol 3, p. 528.

[vii] This is not a reference to the Lord’s Supper, and certainly not to the Catholic belief that Christ is physically present in the Eucharist and therefore actually consumed during communion. Carson is blunt: “Any dullard could see that Jesus was not speaking literally: no-one would suppose Jesus was seriously advocating cannibalism and offering himself as the first meal” (Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. PNTC p. 295). Alluding to the manna that fed Israel for 40 years and kept them physically alive, Jesus asserts that if one eats the True Manna from heaven, i.e., believe that He alone is the Messiah who saves; that person will have eternal life, a spiritual life of complete rest in Him. Too, that the eternal life He grants is at the expense of shedding His only blood as a vicarious sacrifice for our sin. Believe this scandalous doctrine and follow Him. The Lord’s Supper uses real bread and wine which represent His broken body and sacrificial death. Participating in this sacramental “meal” does not bestow eternal life (otherwise, it would only need to be eaten only once).

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