Reading No. 2 – Sabbath, December 6, 2003

By Antonino Di Franca, Italy

What thoughts come to mind, when a picture of an altar is shown us? What do we feel when we think that we can find ourselves before such a place? Do we think about prayer or an act of faith? Perhaps our thoughts are directed to a particular solemn location or to a sacrificial act? For the psalmist, it was above all the place where one could commune with God, approaching the altar, which was in the Lord’s house. The psalmist would be filled with great joy and exclaim: “Then will I go unto the altar of God, unto God my exceeding joy: yea, upon the harp will I praise Thee, O God my God.” Psalm 43:4. We read in the Scriptures that one of the Lord’s requirements for the sanctuary was that it have an altar of burnt offering, and from the moment the tabernacle was completed, different sacrifices were to be placed on that altar. Why? What was the meaning of the altar in ancient times? What is the spiritual message for us today?

The court
Conscience-stricken and carrying the weight of his own sins, man has always had the need of someone to lighten his burden and bring him peace. Where can this be found? What must be done in order to have serenity and peace with God and with our neighbor? In times past, this was achieved through the means of sacrifices offered on an altar, whether it was in patriarchal times, when there was no tabernacle, or in the time of Moses, or during the monarchy when the altar was located in the courtyard of the sanctuary and later on in the temple. Throughout all those years, the purpose of the altar was to draw man into a closer relationship with God and direct his mind from temporal sacrifices to the greatest sacrifice of all-the one on the cross. From the time of Moses onwards, the need of erecting private altars came to an end; there was to be one sole altar and all sacrifices were to be placed on the altar in the sanctuary. Why? The reason for this was to prevent these places of worship from becoming centers of idolatry (Leviticus 17:1-9) and to unite the people in worship and faith. The court was rectangular in shape and covered an area of about 1,300 square meters; its sides were 50 by 25 metres and the entrance faced the east. “Hangings, or screens of fine linen, suspended by pillars of brass,” surrounded it; the white linen was a symbol of purity. It is important to mention that the court was of great importance for the penitents, because it was here that the altar ofburnt offering was located, and no other place was available for the penitents to come to present their offerings. Furthermore, the laver was also located in the court, allowing access to the holy place.

The altar of burnt offering was located in the court, between the entrance of the court and the holy place. This was the first holy vessel an Israelite saw when entering the sanctuary. Square shaped, it was two metres and a half long and wide, and a metre and a half high. In contrast to all the other objects found within the sanctuary, the altar of burnt offering was not made out of pure gold nor was it laminated, but it was made of acacia wood overlaid with brass – a metal that has come to be a “symbol of the victory that can be obtained through pain.” -M. L. Andreasen, Der Heiligstumsdienst, p. 289. A more detailed description can be found in Exodus 27:1-8; 38:1-7. Altars have been mentioned since patriarchal times. Isaac himself was placed on an altar when he was to be sacrificed. Genesis 22:9. In the sanctuary, the altar was the place where the fire was constantly kept burning from the evening to the morning and from the morning until the evening. It was here that the slain, innocent victims were daily consumed as a burnt offering. In addition to these daily sacrifices offered for the entire nation of Israel, it was necessary to add special sacrificial offerings on particular days, different feasts, private offerings and offerings for personal sins, thereby expressing gratitude towards God. All of the sacrifices offeredby the penitents were offered here. The sinner who was offering the sacrifice took the animal into the court, placed his hands on the animal’s head to confess his sins, and afterwards sacrificed it with his own hands. Certain parts of the slain victim were placed on the wood that had been arranged on the altar, and these parts were completely consumed by fire until only ashes remained. What was the reason for all this? How long was this system to last?

The place where a high price is paid
To consider the altar, especially in the past, means to reflect on the sacrifice itself. Perhaps we become sad when we consider the great number of sacrifices that were specifically offered on special days in those times, when the life of poor animals had to come to an end in such a violent manner. Actually, many people have difficulty understanding the need for so much suffering. Nevertheless, the altar and its ceremonies, including the death of so many animals, have a profound meaning for us as they contain great lessons. Animals were sacrificed so that man would be able to intimately understand what are the terrible consequences of sin, as well as to understand the Messiah’s life of sorrow and suffering. Furthermore, the sinner was to appreciate that the highest price in the universe was paid to redeem him from his fallen state. The altar is for us a symbol of the cross. The death of the Lord on the cross is the fulfilment of that symbol and teaching.

The altar of reconciliation and of life
Sorrow for the victims sacrificed would multiply if we would compare the burnt offerings and sacrifices of that time, a direct result of sin, with what is happening now, daily, as a consequence of evil and corruption. Undoubtedly, the actual number of victims today is greater in number than all those of the Old Testament. Today we are not speaking about the death of animals, but about people dying as a result of vices and corruption, and as a consequence of alcohol, drug consumption, smoking, and acts of violence. Each year the number of deaths increases to hundreds of millions, if not billions. All of these are victims of sin, dying an eternal death, without hope. Although, in ancient times, the animals sacrificed did not really take away sin or bring salvation to the sinner, the penitent soul was solemnly impressed by the offering he brought. The slaying of the animal gave him hope of a future redemption, and prepared him to receive the blessing. Hebrews 10:4; 7: 19;Galatians3:23,24. Oh, of what great importance is Christ’s sacrifice on the new altar on which he was put to death! His death on the cross is a token of liberty and hope, the proof that justice and love exist; it is the chord of peace and reconciliation between heaven and earth, and between one man and another. It speaks to us in the sweetest language of divine love, and it preaches a message that conquers even the most wayward hearts. The altar is a symbol of Jesus’ triumph, His suffering, which brought hope, His sacrifice which resulted in victory, and His death which imparted life to all. His agony brought peace to all; His death, reconciliation and salvation to the world. Therefore, we can read with joy: “For it pleased the Father … to reconcile all things unto Himself … having made peace through the blood of His cross.” Colossians 1:19, 20. And speaking about the hope that Christ has given us, the Scriptures add: “That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens with the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For He is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us … And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby.” Ephesians 2: 12-14,16.

The psalmist of the Old Testament rejoiced as he thought of approaching the altar of God, to worship Him in His house. Should we not also do the same with the altar of Christ that speaks to us of pardon, love, hope, victory, and a present and future life? For this reason the servant of God in the New Testament affirms: “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto theworld.”Galatians6:14. Here is where life begins anew, and not only for a short, transitory period, but for eternity, a time that shall have no end. This does not just refer to the life of one person, whether it be yours or mine, but to the lives of millions and millions of people. The lives of all the redeemed depend upon the one great sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Dear brothers and sisters all around the world, what great joy is ours! Let us think of the altar, the sacrifices, the cross, the wilderness where He faced so many temptations, Gethsemane, the suffering, the agony and, finally, the death of Jesus. What else do we want to see? All this and even more is what Jesus has done for us. What have we done for Him? How much longer will He have to wait for us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice on the altar of burnt offering? What shall we give Him? What shall we sacrifice? How much of our time and our money? What sweet perfume ascends from our lips and our lives? And from our family altar? What does our daily sacrifice consist of? Have we consecrated ourselves to Him in this year that is about to come to an end? What will we offer Him this year?

Saved thanks to a lamb
To further illustrate this great truth of Christ’s sacrifice, I would like to relate an episode that happened years ago. In front of a church in England is a sculpture of a lamb, and there is a true story behind the sculpture. Many years ago, when the church was still under construction, a carpenter who was working high on the steeple took a step back to assess the progress of his work and, unfortunately, stepped too far and fell from the tower. His companions saw him falling from such a height and thought he wouldn’t survive. Surprisingly though, they soon saw him get up and walk away, apparently unharmed. One of his companions ran to accompany him home.

‘Tell me, Thomas, what saved your life?” asked his friend immediately. “It was that lamb,” replied the man. And so it was. Some sheep had been grazing with their lambs, near the church, and this man had fallen upon one of them. The lamb died immediately but the man was saved.
“Thomas,” said his friend, “if you hadn’t fallen upon that lamb, you would have broken your bones, and then what would have become of your life?”

“Ah!” exclaimed Thomas, “what happened today has opened my eyes. I can see that I don’t deserve anything but divine punishment.” “Certainly,” answered his friend, ” but you can thank God that there is another lamb that has freed you from eternal death. All the punishment that you and your sins deserve fall upon Jesus, the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world, who suffered death on the cross. He paid the greatest price that we might live.”

In memory of what happened that day, a sculpture of a lamb was carved on a rock near the church; and for many years after this, whenever the man saw the sculpture, he would remember that day when he had been just one step away from death, and yet had been saved. From that day on, he put his trust in Christ, the true Lamb of God and his Savior. He was able to say: “He loved me, and gave Himself for me.” The manner in which he was saved is an example of the only way in which he could be saved from eternal death, and it is an example of how we too can be saved.

A symbol of prayer and intercession
The altar of ancient times was also a place of prayer. The patriarchs built altars for this purpose too. Do we feel the same joy when we approach the Lord in prayer? When we go to the house of the Lord, do we feel the same desire and rejoice like the psalmist did? Is communion with God a source of joy? And what can we say about personal prayer that ascends into the heavens? How often do we pray? The ancient altar embraces this message; it brings to mind all these things. How deeply do we understand this and apply it to ourselves, to our family, and to the church? All are invited. “It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.” Romans 8: 34. “Wherefore He is able to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them.” Hebrews 7:25. Isn’t it wonderful to know that we have someone who is continually praying for us, and is always willing to hear our supplications?

Let us approach the throne of grace
When the penitent sinner entered the court to confess his sins and sacrifice the animal, he was wearing dirty clothes. By doing this he testified that he wanted to change his life. There he was, surrounded by white hangings of fine linen, all of which directed his thoughts to pardon, forgiveness and the true, spotless robe of the character of Jesus. This symbol applies today. Justification is within our reach which means this is how the Lord embraces and covers us with His robe of righteousness. In this way we can be forgiven, be at peace with God and our neighbor, be happy, free, and fit to receive the gift of sanctification. That is the reason why the invitation that includes a wonderful promise extended to us: “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.” Hebrews 4:16.

Dear brothers and sisters, the Lord loves us. He has forgiven us and still wants to continue forgiving us. He grants us yet another year so that we can come closer to Him and be sanctified. How far have we taken Him up on His offer? How often have you thought about Gethsemane, where He pleaded for us with groans of anguish and tears in His eyes, and about His altar, the place where He suffered and agonized for you, where He bled to atone for our guilt? How often have you thought about the cross, where he breathed His last in the midst of suffering and darkness? If you have done this sporadically in the past, from now on, do it more often; this will give you confidence and surety in His love, and it will fill your life with joy and hope. The psalmist exclaims: “Then will I go unto the altar of God, unto God my exceeding joy: yea, upon the harp will I praise Thee, O God my God. Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? hope in God: for I shall yet praise Him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.” Psalm 43: 4, 5. Jesus invites us to come nigh unto Him because He wants us to receive peace and joy in our lives: “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” Matthew 11:28,29.