In times long ago, God gave instruction to Moses to build a "traveling tabernacle", a sign of his presence with Israel as they journeyed through the wilderness and made their way into the Promised Land of Canaan. The tabernacle was made in a particular manner, with specific instructions for its dimensions, materials for construction, and furnishings. Each element of the instruction was with specific purpose and if you study this subject a little, you will see how each of the "things" which went into making up the tabernacle actually pointed to some aspect of God's character and/or what he would do through his Son's life given for many. One such furnishing was the altar - a place of some pretty "gruesome" offerings. I am kind of glad we don't offer the blood of bulls, turtle doves and the like today in our worship because this killing of the animals and consuming of their bodies on the altar is kind of gross at first glance. It wouldn't make me want to invite someone to church with me! In fact, I might just think they might get a little "put off" by the gruesomeness of it all! Yet, if we look at "where" and "to what" the altar was pointing God's people, we will understand its purpose. The altar pointed toward blood sacrifice - and that of a "perfect" lamb. The cross would become the ultimate "altar" and Christ would be the "perfect Lamb".
Listen, God! Please, pay attention! Can you make sense of these ramblings, my groans and cries? King-God, I need your help. Every morning you’ll hear me at it again. Every morning I lay out the pieces of my life on your altar and watch for fire to descend. (Psalm 5:1-3 MSG)
I have often said it is at the altar we are altered - for the altar never left anything untouched - it could not come away from the altar the same as it was when it was taken to the altar. The same is true of the cross - we cannot go to the cross and walk away unchanged - we are altered by it! When we look a little bit at the altar as a "type" of what God was foreshadowing by its use, we begin to see how much God really uses the altar to do more than just receive things on the altar - at the altar things are transformed!
- The altar is a place of sacrifice. In Old Testament times, the altar was a place for the sacrifice of animals - even grains were sacrificed. The one bringing the offering was instructed on the purpose of each offering - each sacrifice had a meaning. For example, the burnt offering could be cattle, sheep, goats, birds, etc. In bringing this offering, you were not only bringing part of what you "raised" and sacrificing it upon the altar, but you were bringing the best of your flock. If you know anything about raising animals, you know giving up the best to be slaughtered and consumed on the altar is just not something most would do. Maybe this is why God required it - because it was contrary to what most would do! He was showing the significance of Christ's death - it was contrary to what most would do and definitely contrary to what any COULD do!
- The altar is a place of bloodshed. One of the things done in bringing the animals was the "shedding" of their blood. This blood was then sprinkled upon the altar as part of the process of offering the animal. If we stop for a moment to consider the blood, we know how important it is to life - without it circulating through our veins and arteries, we die! Clearly, in the shedding of blood, God was pointing to the sacrificial death of his Son, Jesus. Yet, why was the blood so important as part of the burnt offering? The carcass of the animal was burnt upon the altar, so why sprinkle the blood there, too? Why separate it from the carcass? Anything "without life" is really just an object, isn't it? It has no animation, no capacity to live or breathe or produce life any longer. Maybe this is why God included the blood in the offering - as a means of reminding us of the life-giving blood of Christ - in giving of life, he produced the capacity for us to live again!
- The altar transformed everything placed upon it. This is the easiest part of us understanding the altar - for all placed upon it was either burnt, producing an aromatic savor such as we might experience whenever we place meat upon a spit over an open fire today. Even the grain offerings produced an aromatic scent which was "altered" a little by the incense added to it. Why add incense? Have you ever just burned grain by itself? It isn't all that aromatic - it is rather like burning charcoal - lots of smoke, but not a very pleasant aroma. Adding the incense insured the aroma remained pleasing to the nostrils of God. So, even the grain was transformed by the altar - adding sweetness and savor to what would otherwise be rather pungent and unpleasant. The altar altered all placed upon it - whether animal or grain. It had a way of transforming it from one thing to another. The cross of Christ is the ultimate means of transforming one thing to another - a sinner into a saint!
- The altar consumed what was placed upon it. Some of the various offerings were to be left upon the altar until everything there was totally consumed. Others which were offered provided an allowance for the priests, to give them a means of partaking in the offering. At first, this may not seem significant, as we may think it was just God's way of "feeding" the priests. I would like us to consider for a moment why some were to be offered and consumed in their entirety (no portion going to the priest), while others might be shared with the priests (to provide for their needs). Maybe the altar offerings which were totally consumed were pointing to the issue of meeting the requirements God demanded for the sinner to be made clean! In other words, God demanded a perfect Lamb - and the Lamb had to be totally consumed - blood shed, sprinkled, body sacrificed and totally consumed. The cross didn't leave room for "partial" sacrifice - it was all or nothing for Jesus. In being totally consumed, he met the demands of the need for a perfect sacrifice for sin. In so doing, he secured life for those who would forever come to the cross (God's altar).
- The altar provided a means for provision. As I mentioned, some sacrifices were actually a means by which the priests could have their needs met. Grains, animals, and the like could become a means for the priests to "partake" of the sacrifice brought. At the cross, we are invited to partake of what has been done on our behalf - nothing is required of us except for us to partake. The one bringing the offering actually did the work of preparing the offering (slaughtering it and preparing it for the altar). The altar did the work of preparing it for the priest to partake of it. Their part was to be present - to be at the place of provision. Our part is to partake - to be present at the cross - the place of provision.
In considering the altar, we might just see Christ's offering on our behalf in a different light. We did not stop to consider the lamb being brought to the altar, did we? I wonder what it thought when it was led to the slaughter? Do you think it knew? Not likely, but trust me on this one - Jesus knew full-well what awaited him at the cross, for all presented in our Old Testament altar sacrificial system was a foreshadowing of what he would accomplish on the cross on our behalf. Just sayin!