“We Have an Altar”

“We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle.” —Hebrews 13:10

THE FIRST use of the word altar in the Bible is found in Genesis 8:20. Here we are told that Noah built an altar and that he offered thereon burnt offerings unto the Lord. Genesis 12:7 informs us that when God promised the land of Canaan to Abram, this faithful patriarch built an altar unto the Lord, presumably that he might offer thereon a sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise.

Later, and in obedience to the expressed will of God, Abraham built another altar. On this one he was to offer his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. God intervened, and a ram was provided as a substitute. Isaac also built an altar to God when the promise was confirmed to him. (Gen. 26:25) Subsequently God commanded Jacob to build an altar at Bethel.—Gen. 35:1

It is in the scriptural accounts of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, that altars are brought to our attention more than in any other part of the Bible. There were two altars in connection with the Tabernacle and its service. One of these was the golden altar, or altar of incense, which was located in the first Holy of the Tabernacle, close up to the veil which separated the Holy from the Most Holy. The other was the brazen, or copper, altar, located in the Court which surrounded the Tabernacle proper, and immediately in front of the door of the Tabernacle.—Exod. 40:6,29

The use of the golden altar in the Holy was very restricted, the burning of incense being the only sacrifice offered thereon. (Exod. 30:7) With the brazen altar in the Court, however, it was different. Here various kinds of sacrifices were offered.

Some of the sacrifices on the brazen altar were burnt offerings. These were usually made in conjunction with other sacrifices. They denoted God’s acceptance of the sacrifice, especially when supernatural fire consumed the offering. Thank offerings brought to the priests by the people were placed on the brazen altar, as were also their peace and trespass offerings. Individual sin offerings brought to the priest by the people subsequent to the general Day of Atonement were also offered on the brazen altar.

The nature of each offering on the brazen altar determined the manner in which it was to be made and the final disposition of the various parts of the animal which was sacrificed. In some instances the entire carcass was to be burned on the altar; but in the case of other sacrifices, the priests ate certain portions.—Lev. 8:21; 6:21; Exod. 29:32; Deut. 18:1

The New Testament informs us that all those various services and sacrifices were typical, pointing forward to better sacrifices to be offered later. The priesthood of Israel was also typical of a priesthood which later was to be established, of which Jesus was to be the head. But much is lost in the typical lesson of the priesthood if we overlook the scriptural fact that the body members of Christ are also priests, and authorized by God to offer sacrifice.—I Pet. 2:5; Heb. 3:1

No truth of the divine plan is made more emphatic in the New Testament than the one which pertains to the Christian’s privilege of sacrifice. Paul wrote, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice.” (Rom. 12:1) Here both the thought and the language is from the tabernacle types. The typical priests offered animals as sacrifices. Sometimes those animals represented themselves, and sometimes they stood for the individuals who brought them to the priests to be offered. But in this age we do not offer animals; that arrangement was merely typical. We are the sacrifices offered instead of the bodies of animals—and this is done with the assurance that through Christ our sacrifice will be holy and acceptable to God.

Sacrifice, then Glory

This precious gem of truth concerning sacrifice has been overlooked almost entirely by nominal church believers. They are prone to think of the Christian life largely from the standpoint of how they benefit from it, and not as meaning a privilege of sacrifice. Sacrifice does not appeal to the flesh, and probably this explains why so few have been able to see and appreciate the Christian’s present position in the plan of God; namely, that this is primarily the age of sacrifice.

We can see a somewhat similar situation in the case of the disciples of Jesus at the time of his crucifixion. The Old Testament had foretold that Christ must suffer and die before entering into his glory. But, being natural men at that time, they saw only the promises of kingdom glory, hence were stumbled when Jesus was taken from them and crucified. Later the Master explained the matter to them, pointing out from Moses and all the prophets that it was necessary for Christ to suffer, and that the glory must follow, not precede, the suffering. How glad they were to have this great truth revealed to them. “Did not our hearts burn within us,” they reported later, “while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the Scriptures.”—Luke 24:32

Since the death of the apostles, the professed Christian world has failed to understand that the foretold sufferings of Christ were not completed on Calvary. They, like those early disciples, have looked for the glory of the kingdom, and whatever advantages that glory might vouchsafe to them. Indeed, many of them have tried to create the glory by establishing a false kingdom of Christ on earth. They have not seen that being a Christian in this age means sacrifice, suffering, and death.

The Hebrew Christians to whom Paul wrote his epistle were evidently somewhat discouraged over their lot as Christians. As former Israelites to whom the messianic promises had been given, it would be natural, in accepting Jesus as their Messiah, to expect that great things would be done for them and for their nation. While they knew that God’s people had never been popular among the nations, the promise was that through the Messiah the rebuke of his people would be taken away throughout all the earth.

But the Hebrews were being rebuked, as the epistle clearly indicates. To begin with, they endured this. Indeed, they took the spoiling of their goods joyfully. They had been made a gazingstock, and had been reproached. (Heb. 10:32-34) But now they were becoming weary and faint in their minds, and Paul urged them to recall the former days with the thought of their getting back to the viewpoint they entertained then, a viewpoint which enabled them to rejoice in the suffering that came on account of their acceptance of Jesus as the Christ.

Knowledge Gives Strength

Through one of the prophets, God explains that his people “are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” (Hos. 4:6) There are indications that this was partly the difficulty with the Hebrew Christians. Their faith was wavering and they were letting these things slip, perhaps because they did not understand clearly the necessity of Christian suffering. Among the other great truths of the epistle, this is one on which the apostle dwells particularly.

These Hebrew Christians knew that Jesus had suffered and died. They had accepted this and probably understood the reason. But did they know that they were invited to follow in his steps? They knew that Jesus had been glorified; but did they know that their hope of sharing in his glory depended upon their faithful suffering; that it was God’s plan that not one Son only was to be brought to glory through suffering, but “many sons”?—Heb. 2:10

They doubtless knew that Jesus was an antitypical priest, but did they know that as brethren of Jesus they were also a part of the antitypical priesthood and therefore appointed by God to offer sacrifice; not the sacrifice of bulls and goats, but the sacrifice of their own bodies? While they probably knew that Jesus was the “author and finisher” of their faith, did they know that in looking unto him their first vision was to be one of sacrifice, not of glory, and that they were called to follow in that path of sacrifice?

Perhaps they did understand these great truths in a vague sort of way, but their faith had wavered. They endured for a while, but Paul reminds them that this was not enough. The divine arrangement for the sacrificers of this age is that they be faithful even unto death. So the apostle reminded them that they had not followed Jesus all the way into death. “Ye have not yet resisted unto blood,” he wrote. (Heb. 12:4) Jesus, our exemplar, did resist unto blood, striving against sin; that is, he shed his blood—symbolic of life poured out—that it might be sprinkled upon the antitypical mercy seat as an offering for sin.

Incidentally, Paul also explains to these wavering Hebrew Christians that some of their suffering might well be on account of the chastening of the Lord. If so, then this was but further proof of the Father’s love. He agreed that no chastening at the time is joyous, but grievous. We all know how true that is, but afterward it yields the peaceable fruits of righteousness if we are rightly exercised thereby.—Heb. 12:11

These inspired explanations of why the Hebrew Christians were suffering doubtless helped them to continue on in the way of sacrifice. This knowledge would strengthen them to renew their determination to endure a further spoiling of their goods if need be, and to resist even unto blood—to be faithful unto death—knowing that if they were thus faithful they would receive the crown of life.

Now they could see more plainly that the joys of the Christian life were the joys of faith more than of present reality, even as it was in the case of Christ himself, of whom Paul wrote that the joy set before the Master enabled him to endure the cross and despise the shame. Now that the Hebrews had a clearer view of their present relationship to Christ, they also could endure more patiently; and they, too, could despise the shame that is heaped upon all true followers of the Master.

Our Privilege of Sacrifice

It is in further explanation of why Christians suffer that Paul gives us the revealing truths contained in the thirteenth chapter of Hebrews, from which our text is taken. “We have an altar,” he writes. As an altar was a place on which sacrifice was offered, Paul’s thought here is that we have a privilege of sacrifice, that our place in the divine arrangement for this age is the place of sacrifice, our sacrifice being acceptable through the merit of Christ. He has already made it plain to the Hebrews that they were priests, and now he is reminding them that the work of the priest was that of sacrifice.

An altar in the type was not a feeding place, but a place of sacrifice. True, in the case of some sacrifices offered on the brazen altar, the priests were bidden to eat certain portions thereof. But the altar itself represented sacrifice, for it was built and used for that purpose. As we have seen, there were various sacrifices offered on the brazen altar. Some of them pointed forward to the offerings which will be made by the people in the next age, in recognition of the great sacrifice that was offered for them, the sacrifice that atoned for their sins, and made it possible for them to live.

Because of these many and varied sacrifices of the type, Paul is particular to identify for the Hebrews just where their privilege of sacrifice fits into the typical lessons of the past, so he writes, “We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the [typical] Tabernacle.” (Heb. 13:10) Paul is not saying that we can eat of an altar of which they that serve the Tabernacle could not eat. He is not discussing the matter of eating, but our privilege of sacrifice, and is identifying the particular sacrifice in the tabernacle services which typifies the privilege which now is ours through Christ.

And what sacrifice was that? It was the one, Paul explains, that the typical priests were not permitted to eat. In the case of this sacrifice, he continues, the bodies of the animals were not eaten, but burned without the camp. It is in keeping with this, he points out, that we have the privilege of going to Christ without the camp and bearing his reproach. We do not go without the camp to eat the sacrifice—our eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus is not shown in this type—but as fellow-sacrificers with Jesus, to share in the antitypical burning of the bodies—in this case, first the body of Jesus, and now our own bodies, which we have presented to be sacrificed.

Yes, “We have an altar,” and it is the altar of which the typical priests were not permitted to eat. Concerning this altar, or sacrifice, we read, “No sin offering, whereof any of the blood is brought into the Tabernacle of the Congregation to reconcile withal in the Holy, shall be eaten: it shall be burnt in the fire.” (Lev. 6:30) This was the law of the typical sin offering, and Paul understood and explained to the Hebrew Christians that they were suffering because, antitypically, they were having a part in this very sacrifice.

Their privilege of sacrifice, he explains, was represented in the sin offering type, the altar from which the priests of Israel were not permitted to eat. Antitypically, our sacrifice on this altar is acceptable to God through Christ, and because we are crucified together with him. As this was the altar of the Hebrew Christians—the sin offering altar on which antitypically Christ was first offered in sacrifice—they were not to think of their Christian privileges from the standpoint of what they were getting out of them, but rather to consider that this is the time to suffer and to die—to go to Christ without the camp, where, antitypically, there is not a feeding ground, but ignominy, and suffering, and finally, death.

The Bullock and the Goat

The particular service to which the apostle is referring is that of the typical Atonement Day. It was in connection with the sacrificial work of this day that all the details to which he alludes were carried out. On that typical Atonement Day the blood of two of the animals sacrificed was carried into the Most Holy and sprinkled on the Mercy Seat for sin. These were the bullock and the goat. The bullock was slain first and its body was taken outside of the camp and burned. Meanwhile, the priest took a censer of burning coals from the brazen altar, together with incense, and entered into the Holy. There, on the golden altar, he crumbled the incense on the burning coals. When the sweet odor of this sacrifice penetrated into the Most Holy, the priest went in there and sprinkled the blood of the bullock upon the Mercy Seat which covered the Ark of the Covenant. With these details complete with respect to the sacrifice of the bullock, the same procedure was followed in connection with the goat. The fat of both sacrifices was burned on the brazen altar, and the bodies of both were burned outside the camp.—Lev. 16:25

The fact that the sacrifice of the Lord’s goat followed that of the bullock, and Paul’s explanation that we have a part in this sacrifice—that we “go to him” without the camp—proves without a doubt that the sacrifice of the bullock on the typical Atonement Day pointed forward to the sacrifice of Jesus, and that the sacrifice of the goat on the same day illustrates our privilege of filling up that which is behind of the sufferings of Christ; our privilege of suffering and dying with him. This, then, was the important lesson the apostle was making plain to the Hebrews in order that they might be encouraged to continue on in the way of sacrifice and suffering. He wanted them to know that there was a divine purpose back of all they were being called upon to endure.

The Sacrifice of Praise

That the apostle is associating the Hebrew Christians, and all the true followers of Jesus, with the antitypical Day of Atonement sacrifices is made irrefutably certain by the fact that in continuing his explanation he refers also to the sacrifice that the high priest offered on the golden or incense altar in the Holy. “By him [that is, Christ] therefore, let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually,” he writes, “that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name.”—Heb. 13:15

Here the apostle draws our minds away from the burning carcasses outside of the camp, and away from the burning fat, etc., upon the brazen altar, and takes us into the Holy where the priest is sprinkling the incense upon the fire which he has placed upon the golden altar. This is the typical “sacrifice of praise to God,” the odor of sweet incense to him, the evidence of a work being well done out in the Court, and that the flesh is being burned outside the camp.

In these typical Atonement Day sacrifices, three fires were burning—one outside the camp; one on the brazen altar in the Court, and one in the Holy; and Paul refers to what all three of them represent. So there can be no question as to what he means. He understood with great clarity that the church shares with Jesus in the better sacrifices of this age, the antitypical sin offering. It was his certain knowledge of this that enabled him to write concerning Jesus and the church: “For in that he died, he died unto sin once. … Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin.”—Rom. 6:10,11

Reckoned Perfection

We are glad Paul reminds us that our dying as a sin offering is a reckoned matter, because actually we are imperfect just like the remainder of mankind, and could not offer an acceptable sacrifice to God. But at the same time we have God’s authority for reckoning it in this way, hence we know that he likewise so reckons it, and that in this manner our sacrifice is “holy, acceptable.”—Rom. 12:1

It is a wonderful privilege and a high honor to which we are invited, and only as we have faith to believe that the blood of Christ makes our sacrifice acceptable are we able to accept the reality of this blessed part we have in the divine program of reconciliation. Ah yes, we can “reckon” as true that which is not actually possible. We can believe as Paul did that “our sufficiency is of God.” (II Cor. 3:5) We can accept the assurance that our imperfect bodies, covered by the robe of Christ’s righteousness, are acceptable to God as one complete sacrifice as members in the one body of the Christ.

And now again, in Hebrews 13:15, we are encouraged to claim the provision of the blood, and on this basis consider ourselves in the antitypical Holy of the Tabernacle, offering incense of praise to God, even the fruit of our lips. “By him,” not by or through our own merit, is this possible. But “by him” it is. By or through Christ our sacrifice will be accepted by God. Of this we can be fully assured.

“To Do Good”

Turning from the typical and symbolic to the practical, everyday manner in which our sacrifice is made, the apostle writes, “To do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” (Heb. 13:16) Ah yes, here is the divine objective of all sacrifice—to do good. It was for this purpose that Jesus, the antitypical bullock, sacrificed his humanity. The whole human race stood in dire need of the good that would thereby be accomplished. God was well pleased with that sacrifice, as was typically foreshown by the Day of Atonement burnt offerings. We are partners with Jesus in sacrifice, being planted together in the likeness of his death. This death baptism, like Jesus’ death baptism, is on behalf of the dead world, and in the great economy of God’s plan, will do good to the world.—I Cor. 15:29

This should be the spirit and motive of all that we do as Christians. Paul writes, “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men especially unto them who are of the household of faith.”—Gal. 6:10

The greatest good we can do for all men and for the household of faith is to communicate the truth to them, to tell them about God and about his wonderful plan for the church and for the world. It is in doing this that we sacrifice our lives, and such sacrifice is well pleasing to God, for this is a sacrifice of praise to him, even the “fruit of our lips.”

There is nothing we can do that will praise God more effectively than to communicate his plan, and thus to magnify the glorious attributes of his character in the minds of others—granted, of course, that our own lives have been purified by the truth. The burning of the fat of the typical sacrifice on the brazen altar was a picture of our lives being consumed by the “zeal of God’s House.”—Ps. 69:9

As we have seen, from this altar the priest carried fire into the Holy, and there upon the golden altar sprinkled the incense, the smoke from which was a sweet savor to God. Thus was shown in type what the apostle states in plain terms; namely, that with such sacrifices God is well pleased. Because God is well pleased, we know that our sacrifice is holy and acceptable, and by faith we accept the astounding fact that God reckons it as a part of the sin offering which makes possible the restoration of a condemned and dying race.

“Without the Camp”

As already noted, while the fire of sacrifice burned furiously upon the brazen altar—on the Day of Atonement, the sin offering altar—and the incense of praise was, as a result, giving off its sweet perfume which penetrated into the Most Holy as a pleasing evidence to God of faithfulness and zeal, another fire burned without the camp. There the bodies of the Day of Atonement sin offering animals were burned. This, the apostle indicates, pictured the reproaches of the world which are heaped upon the true followers of the Master.

The picture is a very realistic one, and quite in contrast to what was occurring within the Tabernacle. Here the smoke of sacrifice was pleasant, a sweet odor, but from the burning carcasses outside there arose a veritable stench that caused all to turn away in disdain. And how true that is of the Christian’s position in the world!

We have no other thought than to do good to all men, but when we try to do good in God’s way, that is, by letting our light shine, the darkness hateth the light and those who sit in darkness set themselves in opposition to the light-bearers. Jesus said, “In the world ye shall have tribulation.” (John 16:33) Jesus was persecuted because the light which emanated from him was a reproof to those who loved darkness. Finally, they put him to death outside the camp. We have a similar place in the divine arrangement, so let us go to him without the camp and bear the same reproach. We can do this with certain knowledge that God is well pleased.

So it is that in this thirteenth chapter of Hebrews Paul again explains to the Hebrew Christians that there was a purpose back of their suffering—God’s purpose. If they had wondered why the messianic promises of glory had not been fulfilled in them; why, after Jesus had suffered and died for them and for the world, they still had to suffer, here was a further explanation, for the apostle makes it plain that they were sharing in the great antitypical sin offering.

And if they grasped the import of this precious doctrine, we can imagine that, like the disciples to whom Jesus talked on the way to Emmaus, their hearts, too, must have burned within them with joy and reassurance; for just as the divine plan called for the sacrificial death of Jesus, now they could see that the prophecies and types included his footstep followers in the privilege of sacrifice. Now they could look unto Jesus and recognize more clearly than before that in his suffering and death there was a pattern to guide them, a pattern that would not be completed in their experience until they, like Jesus, had “resisted unto blood.”—Heb. 12:4

They had borne the reproaches of Christ. Paul compliments them for this. They had endured a “great fight of afflictions, partly,” Paul writes, “whilst ye were made a gazing stock, both by reproaches and afflictions; and partly, whilst ye became the companions of them that were so used.” (Heb. 10:32,33) But this was in the former days. They had run well for a time, but their zeal had cooled—they had lost a measure of their confidence.

But now, with a clearer concept of why they had been reproached, and with the assurance that their sacrifice was well pleasing to God and that he was accepting it as a part of the antitypical sin offering, they could take courage and bind their sacrifice more securely to the altar and keep it there until it was wholly consumed.

But Paul did not want them to lose sight of the promised glory. Oh, no! While they were not to expect to obtain that glory while still this side the veil, they should remember that they were approaching unto it, and this knowledge, as with Jesus, was to be as a joy set before them, as an encouragement and stimulus to faithfulness in sacrifice. Joint-heirship with Jesus in Mount Zion was their hope. Participation in the city of the living God was to be their goal. To be present at the general assembly of the church of the firstborn was to be a further incentive for faithfulness.—Heb. 12:22,23

All the promises of glory could now mean more to the Hebrew Christians, and can mean more to us, by virtue of a clear understanding of the Christian’s present privilege of sacrifice—that we are partakers of the sufferings of Christ. Upon this basis, we have a genuine “hope of glory.” (Col. 1:27) If there was any doubt in the minds of the Hebrew Christians as to their relationship to the divine program of sacrifice for sin, that doubt must certainly have vanished when they read those enlightening words, “We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the Tabernacle.”

And it should settle the matter for us, too, for it shows that our privilege of sacrifice is that typified by the sin offering on Israel’s Day of Atonement. As this is our altar of sacrifice, and the bodies offered thereon are burned, not eaten, let us go to Jesus without the camp where our bodies are being consumed, that we may share in his reproach, participate in his suffering, die with him; and then, in due time live and reign with him.

Dawn Bible Students Association
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