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Illustration of a Stone Altar
In the ancient world altars were raised platforms usually made of dirt, stones, carved rocks, or elaborate articles of furniture. In the Bible the people of Israel received forgiveness of sins by offering a sacrifice on the day of atonement.
The sacrifice was made in the outer court on the bronze altar, and the blood was brought into the holy place, and even the holy of holies, and sprinkled upon the mercy seat.
The Bible reveals that Cain and Abel brought offerings to the Lord, Cain brought the best of his good works, while Abel brought a sacrifice to receive atonement for his sins. The lesson is well learned that Cain's sacrifice was rejected while Abel's sacrifice of blood was accepted. But the Bible never mentions the use of an altar, in fact the first mention of an altar was with Noah after the flood.
The word altar in the Hebrew means "a place of slaughter", and was to be thought of as a fearful place because the one offering the sacrifice is the one who deserved to die, yet the substitute being offered would receive the punishment. The killing of an animal was an object lesson that would make one's skin crawl, because death is a horrible sight. This was God's purpose, that the sinner would realize that he was the one who deserve to die, and yet a merciful God provided a sacrifice, a substitute, to stand in and receive the punishment of death on behalf of the sinner. The wages of sin is death, and the sinner would temporarily receive forgiveness, year after year until the final debt was paid, when the son of God died on the altar of the cross as a substitute for every sinner who called upon the name of the Lord.
In ancient times animals were not always sacrificed upon the altar, but in a nearby place. The sacrifice was cut in pieces and the fire upon the altar would consume each piece of the sacrifice.
Throughout Israel's history offerings were made in the tabernacle, and in the Temple. It was always in the outer court, upon the bronze altar, the fire being lit by the Lord himself, that the sacrifices were continually made. Israelite families came with their offerings throughout the history of Israel, day after day, until the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.
In the Old Testament the bronze altar stood outside of the tabernacle in the outer court. In fact every article of furniture in the holy place was made of gold, yet in the outer court the articles were made up of bronze, symbolizing the world, and that the world is under the judgment of God. The Bronze Altar was actually made of wood overlaid with Bronze, it was 7 1/2 feet square and over 4 feet high. It contained a bronze grating at the top of the altar, and next to the altar were the utensils, bronze pots, shovels to remove the ashes.
Illustration of the 4 horned Bronze Altar in the Tabernacle of Moses
The altar in the outer courtyard of the Temple of Solomon was three times the size of the tabernacle altar, being 15 feet high and 30 feet square.
When Jesus died as the final sacrifice on the altar of the Cross, sacrifices and offerings became obsolete, and even the altar was done away with once and for all. The Bible says "we have an altar... let us then go to him" (Hebrews 13:10, 13).
When the Jewish Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., 40 years after the crucifixion, as predicted by Jesus, the altar became obsolete for the Jews as well. How could any Jew make a sacrifice without an altar, and without a Temple. In fact the Temple has not been rebuilt to this day, and many Jews do not believe in the idea of receiving forgiveness without the shedding of blood. Therefore it is necessary to believe in the writings of the ancient prophets, who proclaimed that God would ultimately bring forgiveness even to the Jews, by believing in their God who sacrifice his son on the altar of the cross, once and for all.
Illustration of a 4 Horned Altar
As a place of sacrifice or memorial, the altar represents the sacred encounter with the living God. When we're in a difficult situation as Jacob was when fleeing from his brother Esau in Genesis 28, he encountered God and received a promise of deliverance. He poured oil on a stone and prayed for protection devoting himself to God. In Genesis 35, upon the fulfillment of God's promise, God called Jacob to return to Bethel, this time now with flocks and herds and his wives and children and all that God had given him. Jacob was called back to that very place to remember and ponder the deliverance of God. Jacob received another encounter where God gave him a new name and a new set of promises to walk in.
The altar as a memorial -
When God split the Jordan river and Israel miraculously crossed into the promised land to fight for their inheritance, the Lord had them bring twelve stones from the middle of the river and pile them up on the other side. This was a memorial to future generations as the Lord said,
We too can build memorials to God. In a tough time you can dedicate a place to seek God and build an altar to mark that time that you rededicated yourself, asked for mercy, sought out deliverance from an impossible situation. Or it might simply be an entry in your journal where desperate cries were lifted to God. In the years to come you can return to that place and thank God for what He has done and be refreshed with new faith to move into the next season of challenges with a new name and new promises.
The altar as a place of sacrifice -
As born again believers we now have two natures, our reborn spirit and our old sinful nature. Paul tells us that these two are at war within us.
Now that Christ has sacrificed Himself on the altar of the cross, he calls us to deny ourselves and pick up our cross daily to follow Him. (Luke 9:23) The problem of legalism arises when we are taught that a complete transformation has taken place on the day we are born again. As that sinful nature manifests we are tempted to hide it and join the costume party at church where we all pretend, rather than all confess. Scripture tells us that sanctification is a process. We are being transformed into His image from glory to glory. (2 Cor. 3:18) In other words from season to season, faith to faith and one grace after the other, we are being changed as the flesh dies on the altar and we rise into newness of life. The altar for us then, though an instrument of sacrifice, is actually an instrument of freedom. It is where we offer the portion of our old nature that God is calling to die, that we might be free to live in the new nature.
Perhaps it's an old offense that we place on the altar, where we ask for God's grace and spirit to forgive. Perhaps it's a desire for a person we are determined to marry or control, whom God has told us to let go. Perhaps it could even be a covetous desire for grandiose ministry that people might look upon us with awe for all we have accomplished! As we become a living sacrifice on the altar of God in that area, we become free and are able to serve with a childlike spirit, enjoying our daily life with Him, rather than striving to satisfy an insatiable remnant of the fallen nature, that will never say, "I'm satisfied, it is enough." The altar allows us to go free from our sin and fallen desires to mark a place of intimacy with God where he delivered us from the old to the next season of life. As those memorials begin to pile up in various places of your history, you'll look back at what seemed like a horrible sacrifice, realizing it was God willing and working for His good pleasure.
The Bible mentions the "Altar"
2 Kings 16:11 - And Urijah the priest built an altar according to all that king Ahaz had sent from Damascus: so Urijah the priest made [it] against king Ahaz came from Damascus.
1 Kings 8:64 - The same day did the king hallow the middle of the court that [was] before the house of the LORD: for there he offered burnt offerings, and meat offerings, and the fat of the peace offerings: because the brasen altar that [was] before the LORD [was] too little to receive the burnt offerings, and meat offerings, and the fat of the peace offerings.
Leviticus 8:30 - And Moses took of the anointing oil, and of the blood which [was] upon the altar, and sprinkled [it] upon Aaron, [and] upon his garments, and upon his sons, and upon his sons' garments with him; and sanctified Aaron, [and] his garments, and his sons, and his sons' garments with him.
Leviticus 9:7 - And Moses said unto Aaron, Go unto the altar, and offer thy sin offering, and thy burnt offering, and make an atonement for thyself, and for the people: and offer the offering of the people, and make an atonement for them; as the LORD commanded.
Ezekiel 41:22 - The altar of wood [was] three cubits high, and the length thereof two cubits; and the corners thereof, and the length thereof, and the walls thereof, [were] of wood: and he said unto me, This [is] the table that [is] before the LORD.
Leviticus 16:33 - And he shall make an atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make an atonement for the tabernacle of the congregation, and for the altar, and he shall make an atonement for the priests, and for all the people of the congregation.
2 Chronicles 4:1 - Moreover he made an altar of brass, twenty cubits the length thereof, and twenty cubits the breadth thereof, and ten cubits the height thereof.
1 Kings 6:22 - And the whole house he overlaid with gold, until he had finished all the house: also the whole altar that [was] by the oracle he overlaid with gold.
Exodus 29:36 - And thou shalt offer every day a bullock [for] a sin offering for atonement: and thou shalt cleanse the altar, when thou hast made an atonement for it, and thou shalt anoint it, to sanctify it.
Exodus 29:21 - And thou shalt take of the blood that [is] upon the altar, and of the anointing oil, and sprinkle [it] upon Aaron, and upon his garments, and upon his sons, and upon the garments of his sons with him: and he shall be hallowed, and his garments, and his sons, and his sons' garments with him.
Exodus 30:18 - Thou shalt also make a laver [of] brass, and his foot [also of] brass, to wash [withal]: and thou shalt put it between the tabernacle of the congregation and the altar, and thou shalt put water therein.
Joshua 22:23 - That we have built us an altar to turn from following the LORD, or if to offer thereon burnt offering or meat offering, or if to offer peace offerings thereon, let the LORD himself require [it];
Numbers 18:17 - But the firstling of a cow, or the firstling of a sheep, or the firstling of a goat, thou shalt not redeem; they [are] holy: thou shalt sprinkle their blood upon the altar, and shalt burn their fat [for] an offering made by fire, for a sweet savour unto the LORD.
2 Chronicles 7:7 - Moreover Solomon hallowed the middle of the court that [was] before the house of the LORD: for there he offered burnt offerings, and the fat of the peace offerings, because the brasen altar which Solomon had made was not able to receive the burnt offerings, and the meat offerings, and the fat.
Ezekiel 47:1 - Afterward he brought me again unto the door of the house; and, behold, waters issued out from under the threshold of the house eastward: for the forefront of the house [stood toward] the east, and the waters came down from under from the right side of the house, at the south [side] of the altar.
1 Kings 12:32 - And Jeroboam ordained a feast in the eighth month, on the fifteenth day of the month, like unto the feast that [is] in Judah, and he offered upon the altar. So did he in Bethel, sacrificing unto the calves that he had made: and he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places which he had made.
Exodus 30:1 - And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon: [of] shittim wood shalt thou make it.
Isaiah 56:7 - Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices [shall be] accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.
Deuteronomy 16:21 - Thou shalt not plant thee a grove of any trees near unto the altar of the LORD thy God, which thou shalt make thee.
1 Kings 1:53 - So king Solomon sent, and they brought him down from the altar. And he came and bowed himself to king Solomon: and Solomon said unto him, Go to thine house.
Joshua 8:31 - As Moses the servant of the LORD commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of whole stones, over which no man hath lift up [any] iron: and they offered thereon burnt offerings unto the LORD, and sacrificed peace offerings.
Numbers 7:1 - And it came to pass on the day that Moses had fully set up the tabernacle, and had anointed it, and sanctified it, and all the instruments thereof, both the altar and all the vessels thereof, and had anointed them, and sanctified them;
Deuteronomy 27:6 - Thou shalt build the altar of the LORD thy God of whole stones: and thou shalt offer burnt offerings thereon unto the LORD thy God:
Exodus 38:1 - And he made the altar of burnt offering [of] shittim wood: five cubits [was] the length thereof, and five cubits the breadth thereof; [it was] foursquare; and three cubits the height thereof.
1 Kings 6:20 - And the oracle in the forepart [was] twenty cubits in length, and twenty cubits in breadth, and twenty cubits in the height thereof: and he overlaid it with pure gold; and [so] covered the altar [which was of] cedar.
Exodus 20:24 - An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen: in all places where I record my name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee.
Genesis 12:8 - And he removed from thence unto a mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, [having] Bethel on the west, and Hai on the east: and there he builded an altar unto the LORD, and called upon the name of the LORD.
Exodus 20:25 - And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.
Leviticus 8:21 - And he washed the inwards and the legs in water; and Moses burnt the whole ram upon the altar: it [was] a burnt sacrifice for a sweet savour, [and] an offering made by fire unto the LORD; as the LORD commanded Moses.
Joshua 22:11 - And the children of Israel heard say, Behold, the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh have built an altar over against the land of Canaan, in the borders of Jordan, at the passage of the children of Israel.