In the Old Testament, the object erected time and time again to communicate the presence and power of God was an altar. The altar could be a single rock or a loosely organized arrangement of large stones, so people were never far from an altar or could build one in a few moments. Nothing was more prominent as a biblical image for worship and allegiance to God than the altar. It is no exaggeration to say that the most visible sign of one’s devotion to the true God in the worship of the old covenant was the building of altars or traveling to them for acts of sacrifice or offering.
Usually constructed with stones that had not been fashioned with tools, the altar was a raised platform on which a fire was kindled. Its form suggested a table or brazier. Altars would be placed beneath the open sky where their smoke could ascend to the heavens. Later, when the altars were constructed for tabernacle worship in the wilderness and for the temple in Jerusalem, they were cast or covered in metal, and the four corners rose, forming points called horns.
ALTARS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Noah was the first man in the Bible to build an altar, and he did so as an expression of thanksgiving for God’s protection during the flood. Abraham, the next altar builder, constructed several as he wandered through the desert. His altar at Shechem was a symbol of his entrance into the Promised Land (Gen 12:7). He also sacrificed animals and called on the name of the Land at altars he had built at Bethel, Ai, and Hebron (Gen 12:8; 13:18). Isaac and Jacob followed his example and built altars in connection with the renewal and expansion of God’s covenant.
The tabernacle had two prominent altars: the altar of burnt offering (Exod 27:1-8) and the altar of incense (Exod 30:1-10). The altar of burnt offering was located near the front entrance of the tabernacle and was used for the daily burnt offering and meal offering. It symbolized the need for daily cleansing from sin and the necessity of having sin atoned for before one could enter the presence of God. The altar of incense was in front of the veil that separated the most holy place from the rest of the tabernacle. Priests burned incense here, offering up an aroma that God. In later years the temple had these same basic altars, albeit in a more permanent form.
Altars were sometimes built in Bible times as a commemoration of an event. In Joshua 22 Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh built an altar east of the Jordan River with no intention to use it for sacrifices but as a symbol of solidarity with the rest of Israel.
FROM DAILY SACRIFICE TO ONCE-FOR-ALL ATONEMENT
An altar was a place of slaughter. In fact, the Hebrew word for altar comes from the word that is often translated “slaughter.” The altar would be stained with blood, for its central purpose was blood sacrifice. Helpless live animals came squealing to the altar, and their necks were placed on the unhewn stones and sliced open. The blood would flow as the animal was placed on the open flame. The stench was strong, the sight grotesque, and the sounds horrifying. The fire-a symbol of God’s presence-would consume the animals. As the sacrifice was made on the altar, God appeared to his people and a holy interchange occurred.
The blood from the animal was either sprinkled against the altar or smeared on its horns, and it was the blood that atoned for the sins of the people (Heb 9:22). God declared, “Blood contains life. I have given this blood to you to make peace with me on the altar. Blood is needed to make peace with me” (Lev 17:11). The sacrifice symbolized our need for a savior. The sacrificial animal stands in our place; the animal dies instead of us.
When we reach the New Testament, the blood running down the sides of the altar reminds us of God’s atoning work. Where animal sacrifices permeate the Old Testament, the New Testament is filled with references to Jesus as the ultimate atoning sacrifice. Jesus died on the cross as the Lamb of God, shedding his blood for the sins of humankind. And throughout the Christian era continuing to the present day, when the church gathers at the communion table to celebrate the Eucharist, Christians drink from a cup that symbolizes the blood of Jesus. In the end, the altar reminds us of Jesus’ sacrifice and God’s provision. Because of the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, we no longer use altars in worship. Sometimes the front of a church is called an altar, but the symbol that has replaced the altar in the worship of Jesus is the table where we meet Christ and share in communion.