Timothy K. Cain
It must be stressed before I continue that what was acted out in the physical by the ANE Israelites can be and should be experienced in the spiritual today. I recall to our attention Galatians 3:24-25, “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.” It is essential that one understand this concept, especially when relating the ANE biblical experiences to required modern-day experiences. In this context, we move forward to look at the altar as a physical structure throughout the Bible – OT and NT – and today, thus clarifying the necessity of the physical altar as described in Exodus 20 and the necessity for an altar experience in our everyday lives.
To this point, we have shown that the thread of altar use began, according to the Bible, with Noah in Genesis 8:20 and continued from generation to generation into the Sinai wilderness with Moses and the Israelites (Exodus 20). Before we continue further with our biblical perspective, let’s look at the meaning of the word altar and a brief historical perspective from a few other secular sources.
According to The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, the English word altar is used in the OT text 352 times and 22 times in the NT text. In the OT text, all but 4 uses of the word altar are from the Hebrew word mizbeach. The Hebrew word mizbeach as translated from the traditional Hebrew means “an altar, or altar.” This is from the primary root Hebrew word zabach, meaning, to slaughter an animal [usually in sacrifice]; kill, offer, [do] sacrifice, slaw.” In Ezra 7:17, use of the word altar is from the Hebrew word madbach of Chaldean origin, meaning “a sacrificial altar.” Madbach comes from the Hebrew/Chaldean primary root word debach, meaning “to sacrifice [an animal]; offer sacrifice.” The other three distinctive uses of the word altar in the OT are found in Ezekiel 43:15-16. Use of the word altar here is from the Hebrew word arieyl, meaning “the altar of the temple.” Another Hebrew form of arieyl is the word harel, meaning “the altar of burnt offering.” The Encycolpaedia Judaica reports that English word altar in the OT text is translated from the Hebrew word misbeah, derived from the root zbh, meaning “to slaughter [as a sacrifice].” Clearly, use of the word altar throughout the OT, as translated from these Hebrew words, provides a continuity of scriptural meaning and interpretation.
Using the same source of information (Strong’s), the English word altar is translated from the Greek text of the NT and used twenty-two times. With only one exception, use of the word altar is translated from the Greek word thusiasterion, meaning “a place of sacrifice, i.e. an altar.” The one exception is found in Acts 17:23 referring to the altar found on Mars’ Hill “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.” The word altar here is translated from the Greek word bomos, meaning “a stand, i.e. (spec.) an altar,” or “an elevated place.” However, it should be noted that while the word means “altar,” bomos “refers to the heathen altar and thusiaterion refers to the altar of the true God.” It is important to consider the use and the definition(s) of the original words of scriptural text, especially when attempting to make accurate interpretation of Scripture for practical application in our lives.
From the above meanings and definitions, we see that both OT and NT altars were used for sacrifices and offerings unto the Lord (or God). Recognize that during the patriarchal period prior to Exodus 20:24, sacrifices were actually placed on the altar itself. Then the sacrifices were slaughtered on the altar, as we see in the offering of Isaac in Genesis 22. This practice was later discontinued. Thereafter, the animal was brought for sacrifice and slaughtered beside the altar, before being placed on the altar. It should be noted that the slaughter of a proper sacrifice on the altar did not disqualify the sacrifice, and the sacrifice was not removed from the altar. It was also necessary to point out that after Exodus 20:24, the altar was not restricted to animal sacrifices and offerings; it also received grain, wine, and incense offerings. These were sometimes referred to as oblations, libations, and first-fruit offerings.
Especially throughout the OT, the sacrificial rituals that were required to be performed were performed at altars. These altars were built either alone (prior to Exodus 20:24) or were attached to a sanctuary. For the purposes of this discussion, the word sanctuary is referring to the Tabernacle in the wilderness or the Temple (first or second), while sanctuary in NT biblical references might refer to altars built alone or in the Temple or Synagogue.
In Talmudic sources the word “altar,” when unqualified, refers to the outer altar (Yoma 5:5), which stood in the Temple Court in the open (Mid. 5:1). This altar is also called “the altar of bronze” because of its bronze cover (Hag. 3:8) and “the altar of burnt offering,” because daily burnt offerings and other sacrifices were offered upon it (Men. 4:4).
Altars are found throughout the ancient near east in various shapes and dimensions. As previously discussed, early ANE biblical altars, prior to Exodus 20, were probably constructed of one or more stones, set up vertically on the earth (BAR). Looking forward form Exodus 20:24, we find that biblical altars were constructed of three types of material: earth, stone, and metal. It naturally would seem to the casual observer that these materials were chosen by the builder based on performance, cost, and/or availability. While this may partially be true, Exodus 20:24-26 reveals to us God’s original choice of material and the reason why. Since this has great significance for us today, further explanation of this will be given later in this chapter. First, let’s look at the three materials mentioned.
Without question, altars of earth are explicitly commanded in Exodus 20:24. The most obvious reason may be due to availability or lack of other available materials. Altars of earth accommodated for the instantaneous desire to commune or worship God by the builder. It is commonly believed that an altar of earth is what Naaman referred to in II Kings 5:17. Other OT references to earth being used in a “heap” or to support a pillar can be found in Genesis 31:52-54; Joshua 4:2-8, 20; and I Kings 18:31-32. We also find that earth and stone were used as fill in the brazen altar of sacrifice during the construction of the Tabernacle. This was done to fulfill the command of Exodus 20:24. We should not dismiss the use of earth in the construction of ANE biblical altars; it was not by accident or coincidence. Because God gave the command to use earth, there was a divine purpose. Within God’s command, there are three distinct purposes for the use of earth.
First and foremost, God chose something that He had created or provided for Himself. God created the heavens and the earth, Genesis 1:1. God, since Adam, has always had a people and always provided that people with a means to accomplish His will. Second, after the sin of Adam and Eve, God cursed the earth and made man to till His earth and produce from His earth. Therefore, if the earth is cursed, then man must construct or build form the earth and offer back to God that which he has produced. For only God can remove the curse from the earth as in Genesis 8:21. And third, and probably the most important reason, having to kneel or lie down on the ground to honor one’s presence is still considered the unequivocal form of humiliation. There is always something special that occurs when we come to Him in humility and reverence on His terms. The earth is just what it is, an inanimate substance to be used by God for His divine purpose. God does not need mankind to build great structures or edifices, although He will meet us there too. His desire is that we come to Him in selfless humility so that He can communicate with His creation.
Due to the ravages of time and the elements, no altars strictly made of earth have been found in the ANE. There are no earthen altars that we know of used in the OT Bible after Exodus 20:24, with the exception of the above references. While an altar of earth appears to have been God’s preference, verse 25 gave the builder an option of material in the construction of an altar. “And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone.” Archaeologists to date have unearthed numerous earth and stone altars in the ANE. Some of them are believed to be from the Israelites; others are from other cultures of that time. Some of the biblical accounts of stone altars are of natural rock or stone formations as in Judges 13:19-20; I Samuel 6:14; 14:33-35; and I Kings 1:9, while others are of earth and stone. As might be expected, the earth and stone altars of the OT prior to the construction of the Tabernacle were simple and practical at best. Even though there are no specific dimensions for building an earth and stone altar in Exodus 20:24-26, archaeologists have found earth and stone altars in the ANE with the same dimensions of the brazen altar later constructed in the Tabernacle.
One such example of these earth and stone altars is the sacrificial altar found in the outer courtyard of the Arad temple. It is a square structure like the brazen altar of the Tabernacle, measuring four cubits square and constructed of unhewn stones and earth. As discovered, this Arad temple altar is inside of and a part of a sanctuary. Brick altars made of earth are also considered to be the work of Mesopotamian cultures of the time but were not constructed by the Israelites. “Stone altars are not corroded by time and archeological excavations have unearthed abundant pre-Israelite specimens. Their form ranges from unworked, detached rocks, to slightly hollowed surfaces, to hewn natural stone, and to completely man-made structures. Some undisputed examples are at Gezer, Hazor, Megiddo, Nahariyyah, and Arad. At Arad, the Israelite sanctuary contains an altar three cubits square and five cubits high (the exact dimensions of the Tabernacle altar in Exodus 27:1) and is built of earth and small unworked stones (in accordance with Exodus 20:22).”
Once again referring to Talmudic sources which give us additional descriptions of earth and stone altars built in the ANE: “The stones of the altar were smooth (Zev. 54a), taken from the virgin soil of the valley of Beth ha-Kerem (Mid. 3:4). The use of iron was forbidden in its erection.” Another reference is made ot an altar built ten cubits high. “It was a structure of stones joined together with earth (Mekh.SbY. Yitro 20; Eptstein, ed., 156) and consisted of four square layers formed of stones, plaster, and a filling of mortar 9Zev. 54a), the wider stones being placed below and the narrower above.” Thus showing the importance of using unhewn stones so as not to profane the altar and to fulfill the command of Exodus 20:25, “for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.”
Stones of various shapes and sizes were readily available in the ANE. Thus it was not a question of available material, but whether or not God would allow stones to be used on His altar! There have been many interpretations of what Exodus 20:25 means with regard to building an altar of stone. There are those who interpret this verse to be a prohibition of fancy, ornate, or deluxe creations. However, we should keep in mind that the Bible makes a clear distinction and draws a finite line in the OT between what is profane and what is sacred. Again God asked man to use as material for an altar that which He made and provided for Himself. Man is not to change His creation in the construction of an altar. Mankind has the tendency to want to change what God has made and freely given to us to use. How could we ever improve on what He has made? Rabbinic literature of the Mishnah casts further light on this subject, why would the sword (i.e. an iron tool) profane the stones of the altar? The altar was made to lengthen man’s life and the sword to shorten it. Hence it would be wrong to lift up that which is designed to curtail man’s life against that which is designed to prolong it. From the above information, we are able to grasp the seriousness of building an altar unto the Lord through the command of His word to the Israelites.
Prior to the brazen altar of the Tabernacle, Moses constructed and altar unto the Lord in Exodus 24. Moses had been on the mountain in the presence of God, where he received the Ten Commandments and the other instructions (including the command of Exodus 20:24) contained in what we now know as the Book of the Covenant. Moses then came down from the mountain as God had instructed him to do and informed the people of all that God had given to him thus far. Once again, the people answered Moses with one voice, “All the words which the LORD hath said will we do” (verse 3). “Early in the morning, [he] builded an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel” (verse 4). The text goes on to tell us that Moses and some men that he designated “offered burnt offerings, and peace offerings of oxen unto the LORD” (verse 5). Moses then took one part of the blood from the sacrifices and dashed it on the altar. The covenant was then read aloud by Moses to all the people. And the people answered, “All that the LORD hath said will we do, and be obedient” (verse 7). “Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD hath made with you concerning all these words” (verse 8). The altar in this context was used as a preparatory requirement for the sealing of the covenant between God and His people with the blood from the sacrifices. But it was also a preparation for Moses and the elders to enter into the presence of God, and also considered a sanctification and purification process for those entering God’s presence.
After the sealing of the covenant at the altar, Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders from Israel ascend the mountain, “and they saw the God of Israel” (Exodus 24:10). It gives us pause to think what might have happened to Moses and the children of Israel had they not been willing to fulfill the commands of God and accept the terms of the covenant as laid out before them. As best we can tell form the scriptural text, Moses erected an altar according to Exodus 20:24, offered the appropriate sacrifice, and received the blessings of God for it.
Since the Israelites had seen the miraculous wonders that God had just performed in the midst of them and the recent freeing of a nation from the house of bondage (Egypt), it is all but incomprehensible that while waiting for Moses and Joshua to return from the mountain – the presence of God – the children of Israel turned to idol worship. While Moses was in the very presence of the Almighty, receiving the master blueprint for the Tabernacle plan (Exodus 27), the people rose up against Aaron and built the golden calf (Exodus 32), thus violating the first instructions of the Book of the Covenant, Exodus 20:23. Could they not have waited one more day for their leader’s instructions? How quickly do we neglect to take the time to make an appropriate altar in our lives? Must we always find other idols to give our time and sacrifices to? About three thousand Israelites fell that day because of idol worship (Exodus 32:228). Their altar was not in accordance with Exodus 20:24. Not only were the Israelites forbidden to build altars to other gods, but God told them to tear down the altars of other cultures whose land they passed through (Exodus 34:13).
The next type of altar we find being built for worship unto the Lord is the brazen altar of the tabernacle plan (Exodus 38). The tabernacle was the Israelites’ sanctuary in the wilderness. Although there were two altars in the Tabernacle – the brazen altar and the altar of incense – we will only be making reference to the brazen altar of the Tabernacle. The details for the construction of the brazen altar are first found in Exodus 27:1-8. These same detailed materials and dimensions are mentioned again during the actual construction of the Tabernacle in Exodus 38:1-7. The interior framework of the brazen altar was made of acacia or shittim wood. The wooden frame was hollow, which allowed the altar to be more easily transported and when in place allowed for earth and stone to be placed in the center of the frame in conformance with Exodus 20:24. The dimensions of the brazen altar, in cubits, were 5 X 5 X 3. A significant difference from the previous altars were horns, one on each of the four corners of the square structure. Refugees seeking asylum seized the altar horns. These horns (or keranot) were also used in the purifying of the altar when the blood form the “purification offering” (hatta’t) was daubed on the horns (Exodus 29:12; Leviticus 4:25-30). The nae of this altar is form the material used to cover the horns and the exterior of the altar. The predominant theory is that this exterior plating material was copper; others think it was bronze or brass. In the center of the altar just below the top rim was a copper mesh grate which extended to the center of the altar. On the outside of the altar were four copper rings through which plated poles were placed to transport the altar to another location when the sanctuary was moved. This bronze or brazen altar stood inside the sanctuary structure but was uncovered throughout the year. It was, if you will, the first piece of furniture as one entered the sanctuary. It was also where every offering or sacrifice began. The courtyard altar, as it is sometimes called, was for sacrifices. The various sacrifices will be discussed in the next chapter. However, the most frequent sacrifice made on the brazen altar was the olah (the “whole offering”), which was required twice daily (Exodus 29:38-43) and on every festival (Numbers 28-29). Furthermore, the olah offering was the only sacrifice entirely consumed upon the altar. Use of the brazen altar within the Tabernacle became the guideline for other sacrificial altars built later in the temples of ancient Israel.
Some significant points should be reflected upon when pondering the use of the brazen altar of the Tabernacle. First, the center of the altar was filled with earth and stones, thus complying with the command in Exodus 20:24. Additionally, it was built as God commanded Moses in Exodus 27:1-8; 38:1-7. Second, the brazen altar was the only place in the sanctuary where one could bring a sacrifice or offering unto the Lord and the only place in the Tabernacle where a whole offering was brought and consumed. Third, as we will see in the next chapter, the priest(s) could not proceed past the brazen altar to carry out the additional rituals if the proper sacrifice had not been brought or if the proper sacrificial procedures had not been followed when making the offering, thus not rolling the sins of the individual forward to the Day of Atonement. And finally, the brazen altar became the center of worship for the ANE Israelite community on a daily basis and twice per day – morning and evening. Not one individual of the Israelites was exempt from bringing a sacrifice or offering to the altar.
Like the Israelites, none of us are exempt from the altar. No, it is not necessary to go outside and make a crude altar of earth – or earth and stones – in order to worship or enter into the presence of the Lord. Nor is it obligatory for us to reconstruct a brazen altar and begin offering animal and food sacrifices unto the Lord. However, the command of Exodus 20:24 still applies to every human being alive. God still desires to have a daily commitment of communion from His creation! It should also be said of us today that the altar is the center of our worship! Remember, it was the people who brought the materials to Moses for the construction of the Tabernacle in Exodus 39:33, “And they brought the tabernacle unto Moses.” After the dedication of the tabernacle and just prior to Moses’ demonstrating to the people how a sacrifice was to be offered, Moses reminded the people why this was being done, “This is the thing which the LORD commanded that ye should do: and the glory of the LORD shall appear unto you” (Leviticus 9:6).
God had a way of giving signs of His divine will and purpose through obedience or the disobedience of the children of Israel in the wilderness. In Leviticus 9, Moses gathered all of the children of Israel to the entrance of the Tabernacle and instructed Aaron to demonstrate for the people the proper procedure for offering sacrifices to God on the brazen altar. At the completion of the ceremonial preparation, fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the sacrifices on the altar. Immediately the people were in awe and fell on their faces. But Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took a fire pan, put fire in it, placed incense on the fire in the pans, and offered unto the Lord alien fire (Leviticus 10:1-2). In other words, Nadab and Abihu disobeyed the command of God by not following the set procedural guidelines sent to them form God through His servant Moses. God consumed both of Aaron’s sons with fire on the spot, thus showing the seriousness with which the Israelites were to view the use of the brazen altar.
The brazen altar of the Tabernacle was first constructed and used approximately two years after the Israelites had left Egypt, in the first month (Abib) (Exodus 40:17). As is evidenced by the minute details of service outlined in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the Tabernacle form of worship sustained the children of Israel throughout their forty years of wandering in the wilderness (thirty-eight years after being built). From Mount Sinai to Moses’ death at the Jordan River, Joshua was in training as Moses’ personal assistant. It would be up to Joshua to continue the sacrificial worship of the altar at a more permanent location in the Promised Land. After crossing into the Promised Land, Joshua had all of the males circumcised that had not been circumcised in the wanderings in the wilderness. Joshua’s next order of business was to offer a sacrifice. On the fourteenth day of the month, the children of Israel offered the Passover sacrifice (Joshua 5:10-12). Although not specifically mentioned, the brazen altar, we presume, was used for this sacrifice.
Upon destroying the ancient city of Ai, Joshua built an altar of unhewn stones on Mount Ebal, where he offered burnt offerings and sacrifices to the Lord (Joshua 8:30-32). This, of course, was in compliance with the command of Exodus 20:24, which at this point is referred to in the Scripture as a part of the “Book of the Teaching of Moses.” Even before the death of Joshua, as the twelve tribes of Israel were dividing up the land, some of the tribes began to set up altars of their own design that were not in compliance with God’s will. God had warned Moses to be careful of this when coming into contact with other cultures of people upon leaving the wilderness. After the death of Joshua, other Israelites offered burnt offerings and sacrifices made to other gods on altars made for them. These are sometimes referred to in the Scripture text as pillars, idols, or sacred posts.
“There arose another generation after them, which knew not the LORD, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). And the Israelites did what was offensive to the Lord. They worshipped Baalim and other gods, forsaking the Lord (verses 11-12). It would seem that the daily worship of sacrifice at the brazen altar and the presence of God would not return. But God was faithful to His word and to the covenant that He had made with His chosen people. In the midst of increasing pagan worship, God found men who were willing to carry out His divine will. Once again, God provided for Himself a sacrifice and fire on the altar. From Gideon to Eli, to Samuel, to Saul, and then to King David, these men wanted in their hearts to fulfill the will of God by returning to the teachings of Moses. King David desperately wanted to establish a permanent temple to resume the daily altar worship of the past. But David’s reign was fraught with the ravages of war, sin, disobedience, and political upheaval. With the help and spiritual guidance of Nathan the prophet, David was finally able to regain control of the city of Jerusalem. That is why, to this day, Jerusalem is sometimes referred to as the city of David. At the end of his years, David could be found building another altar. In II Samuel 24:24-25, David purchased some wood taken from a threshing floor and oxen. And David built there an altar to the Lord and sacrificed burnt offerings and offerings of well-being. God honored David’s sacrifice and blessed him by stopping the plague against Israel. However, the building of the temple would be left for the next kind, Solomon, David’s son.
“And it came to pass in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel were come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month Zif, which is the second month, that [Solomon] began to build the house of the LORD” (I Kings 6:1). Although chapters 6-7 of I Kings do not specifically mention a sacrificial altar being constructed, other accounts of “the bronze altar” which may describe the sacrificial altar of Solomon’s Temple can be found in I Kings 8:64; I Kings 9:25; II Kings 16:14-15. Some have speculated that Solomon did not have a sacrificial altar built, insisting that he utilized the altar built by his father David mentioned above in II Samuel 24:24-25. Additional clarity can be provided in II Chronicles 4:1 in which an altar was constructed measuring 20 X 20 X 10 cubits in size. Regardless of its specific characteristics, sacrifices of burnt offerings were made in Solomon’s Temple (first Temple), giving the Israelites their first permanent place of altar worship (I Kings 8:62-64).
Following the death of Solomon, the Israelites turned again to pagan or idol worship, even at Bethel and other locations where great spiritual leaders experienced the presence of the Lord. Shrines to other gods were built and imitation festivals were held. Yet there were always men who held to the traditions instituted by Moses. In the oppression of the rulers of that day, the great prophet Elijah arose. Then the will of God through Elijah was carried on through the prophet Elisha (I Kings – II Kings).
It was King Ahaz who built another altar structure in the Temple. King Ahaz did not do what was pleasing in the sight of the Lord. He sacrificed and made offerings at the shrines, on the hills, and under every leafy tree (II Kings 16:1-4). King Ahaz replaced the bronze altar of Solomon’s Temple with another altar (II Kings 16:10-16). This altar was larger than Solomon’s bronze altar and was a replica of the altar in the main temple of Damascus. Referred to as the “great altar” (16:15), it resembled the altar of Hadad-Rimmon (5:18). The altar was not made of bronze and was large it had to be ascended (16:12). It was not upon this sacrificial altar that Hezekiah’s son Manasseh sacrificed to and worshiped all the host of heaven (21:1-7) against the will of God.
It was Josiah who stepped on the scene and revived the sacrificial altar worship of Moses (II Kings 22-23). Josiah read the entire text of the covenant scroll to the people and ordered the removal and destruction of all the idols made for worship in the Temple. He had the idols burned in the fields of Kidron and their ashes removed to Bethel. It was Josiah and the priest Hilkiah who conducted the first Passover sacrifice offered in many years in the Temple to the Lord (23:23). “He [performed] the words of the law, Like unto him there was no king before him, that turned to the LORD with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses” (verses 24-25).
The first Temple (Solomon’s) was destroyed after the death of Josiah during the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon around 586 B.C. Even the contents of the Temple were removed and taken to Babylon (II Kings 24-25). Although a remnant of the children of Israel were exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon, God gave the people of Israel prophets who would eventually lead the people back to Jerusalem. Some of these prophets were among those exiled to Babylon. Others arose later while in exile and afterwards. Each of the prophets gave an account of their desire for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple as a central place of worship for the Jews. However, it is the vision of Ezekiel that gives us the description of the sacrificial altar of the second Temple (Ezekiel 40).
Details of the sacrificial altar in the second Temple are found in Ezekiel 43:13-17. The altar consisted of four tiers, each tier one cubit less per side than the tier below. The total height of the altar was twelve cubits – including the horns on the corners. Because the long cubit is used here, the altar was about twenty and one-half feet tall. This, of course, is higher than the bronze sacrificial altar of Solomon’s Temple. It was necessary to ascend to the altar by a flight of steps on the eastern side. “The edges of two of its tiers were apparently shaped into troughs for collecting the sacrificial blood.” This was for the purpose of using the collected blood for daubing (43:20). “It has been suggested that Ezekiel’s altar corresponded to the one he remembered from the First Temple, in which case it would be an exact description of Ahaz’s altar.” The altar’s uppermost tier is called “ariel or harel; the latter means “God’s mountain” and may be related to the Akkadian arallu. Perhaps Isaiah’s symbolic name for Jerusalem, Ariel, has its origin in this altar (Isaiah 29:1-2; 7). God not only gave the prophet Ezekiel detailed instructions for how the Temple was to be reconstructed, but God also revived the passion of altar worship in Ezekiel.
The picture that is created from Ezekiel’s vision of a sacrificial altar represents the last type of sacrificial structure of the OT. More than the structure itself, Ezekiel’s vision represents a burning desire by God’s chosen people to return to the presence of the Lord God Almighty! This inherent passion is revealed to use in Ezekiel 43:2, “And, behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the east: and his voice was like a noise of many waters: and the earth shined with his glory.” This desire guided a small remnant of God’s people from the days of exile in the OT to the destruction once more of Jerusalem about A.D. 70.
Although scholars generally believe there is about a four-hundred-year span between the writings of the OT and the beginning of the NT, some of the last words of the OT were the first actions fulfilled by Mary and Joseph after the birth of Jesus. God told Malachi, “Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments” (4:4). The writer Luke described for us the following act of obedience by Mary and Joseph. “And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb. And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord; (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) and to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord” (Luke 2:21-24). Jesus was born a Jew. It was also necessary that He follow the law. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount reminds us, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17).
Furthermore, obedience to the law and the commandments is reinforced by Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount. It was Jesus who made the first NT reference to the altar in His sermon (Matthew 5:23-24). While there is no description of an altar structure in these verses of text, Jesus is obviously aware of the need- under the law- to bring sacrificial offerings to the altar. With the exception of Luke 1:11, references to the physical altar in the NT Gospels were made by Jesus. He was trying to impart the seriousness of the altar to those who were listening to Him. Jesus followed the practices of that day by going to the Temple daily. It was Christ Himself who was found in the temples and synagogues of that day ministering to the scribes. What most of the people- even the Jews- failed to realize in Jesus’ day was that His death on the cross would be the final blood sacrifice required to be offered on an altar of earth!
Jesus, “who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth” (I Peter 2:22), was the only man ever pure enough to be offered as the supreme sacrifice for the sins of the world. He became a curse for us so that we could have our sins forever removed through the shedding of His blood (Galatians 3:13). It was therefore necessary for Jesus- the perfect sacrifice- to die on the cross in accordance with the law of Moses in Deuteronomy 21:22-23. As in the past with Abraham and Isaac, God provided Himself the perfect sacrifice. Jesus Chris, the highest and purest form of human life, was crucified on the highest form of plant life. The cross on which He was hanged was anchored by the earth and unhewn stone; thus in death even the Savior of the world complied with the command of God in Exodus 20:24. It was an altar of earth and unhewn stones that received the blood gushing forth from His side, the final sacrifice. Once again as in Moses’ day, the blood of the sacrifice returned to the earth that He had cursed, making the earth below the cross “most holy.”
The physical death of Jesus on the cross was a representation of the new temple and a new covenant to be established with His people, His body the epitome of an “earthly Temple”! That is why the Jews of that day could not understand Jesus’ references to the Temple. When the Jews asked for a sign, Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days? But he spake of the temple of his boy” (John 2:19-21). The Jews were looking for a temple building they could walk into and continue their traditions; Jesus, on the other hand, was offering them a better way. It was in the final moment of Jesus’ death that the physical structure of the temple was changed to that of our bodies. “Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent.” (Matthew 27:50-51).
Upon discovering an altar built “To The Unknown God” (Acts 17:23) on Mars’ Hill in Athens, the apostle Paul warned the people of ignorantly worshipping an idol god. Paul then made this statement, “God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands” (verse 24). Paul exhorted the Corinthian church in I Corinthians 3:16 by asking them, “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” Then Paul followed the question with this statement, “If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are” (verse 17). And again the apostle Paul admonished the church, “What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.” (6:19-20). The above Scripture references clearly establish that after the death of Jesus on the cross, man no longer is required to bring a blood sacrifice and offer it on an altar for our sin. Our bodies are now the spiritual temple of the Lord when we die out to sin and receive His Holy Spirit into our lives. However, a daily dying out to the flesh and a renewing of the Holy Spirit are required. The apostle Paul acknowledged this in his writings to the Romans, “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1).
The English word altar (or altars), as translated from the Greek text of the NT, makes references to the altar(s) of the OT Tabernacle or Temple, with the exception of the prophetic accounts of the New Jerusalem mentioned in Revelation 6:9, 8:3, 8:5, 9:13, 11:1; 14:18; 16:7. Throughout the OT and the NT, until the death of Jesus on the cross, the altar structures of the OT were recognized as a necessity of daily worship. That is, until the destruction of the third Temple by the Romans in approximately A.D. 70. After the cross, “We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle” (Hebrews 13:10). What altar is Paul talking about? The temple which is housed in our bodies, the temple of the Holy Ghost! We are no longer commanded to offer a blood sacrifice on an altar; rather, we are to give our lives over to the will of God as a sacrifice, a lifelong process that begins at an altar and an altar experience. However, we are not exempt from making an altar unto the Lord as in Exodus 20:24. It is still a command of God!
In order for us to maintain a holy temple unto the Lord, we MUST find a place every day to make an altar. A special place needs to be set aside for our daily worship and the renewing of our minds. Books are being published about how to build an altar to the gods in our homes. Travel agencies advertise trip throughout the world where one can obtain spiritual renewal by visiting earthly sacred sites. Videos are being made to demonstrate how build an altar. Inside and outside gardens are being built for meditation and spiritual renewal. And there are now custom home-builders constructing homes with rooms being built to house altars for meditation and spiritual renewal. Having this type of information surrounding us on a daily basis places us in the same situation as the Israelites crossing over the Jordan River and into the Promised Land. The children of Israel were entering a land of many cultures that worshiped a variety of “other gods.” We need to be very careful that when we make an altar, we make it unto the Lord and not to gods that we do not know or to unfamiliar spirits! Furthermore, when the altar itself is worshiped more than God, that altar becomes a shrine. I recently heard a rabbi of a local Jewish congregation say that he has no desire to go back to Israel’s Wailing Wall or other such notable sites. He said they have become shrines; the site is worshiped more than the God who made them. God may choose to utterly destroy a shrine that is being worshiped instead of Him, but His presence will come and surround an altar where a proper sacrifice is being made.
Corporate worship for the child of God today is as important as it was for the Israelites over four thousand years ago. The writer of Hebrews reminded us, “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (10:25). We need to encourage more corporate worship, not less! Even so, there is an even greater ne3ed for the people of God today to begin to gather some stones and make an altar unto the Lord in our individual lives.
Not much is required to make an altar like the one mentioned in Exodus 20:24.In fact, God has already provided us with everything we need, earth or unhewn stones. Today our bodies are the temple; we just need to get alone with Him. Only Noah’s family was around when he built an altar and worshiped. Abraham took Isaac up unto the mountain alone to worship. Moses worshiped at the altar just inside the sanctuary, and just an animal skin separated him from the people. OT Temple worship at the sacrificial altar was done in the open court. But Jesus gave the example that we should use today, “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly” (Matthew 6:5-6). Before His crucifixion, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. Once there, He went away from the disciples to pray alone.
If we are to invoke the presence of Almighty God in our individual lives, we must first start by getting alone and making an altar. Sincere altar worship enables man to reach heaven through the spirit. Therefore, the altar can be seen as “the earthly terminus of a Divine funnel for man’s communion with God.” After the altar was consecrated with the “oil of anointment,” it was the only object outside the tent to be categorized as most sacred (Exodus 29:37). Moses was required to worship and offer sacrifices – at a minimum- once in the morning and once in the evening. Yet Moses could not offer the sacrifice without first building an altar. Where does that leave us?
Where is your altar?
The above article, “The Physical Altar,” is written by Timothy K. Cain. The article was excerpted from the fourth chapter of Cain’s book Building an Altar Unto Him.
The material is most likely copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.