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Bible Study Discussions with Gary Panell

Question: What does the Altar represent?

Answer: This is a great question, and I can remember as a child wondering about what the pastor meant when he said we should have a family altar. There is really more than one answer to this question because there were two altars in the tabernacle or temple. There was an altar as you first came into the tabernacle, and this is probably the one most people think of when you say ‘altar.’ It was where the sacrifice was made for sin so in that sense it is a picture of the cross of Christ. The other altar inside the tabernacle or temple was the ‘altar of incense’ or ‘altar of gold’ which really represents the praise of saints given to God, and the prayers of the saints.

Two wonderful books on this subject are: The Tabernacle—God’s Portrait of Christ by J. Vernon McGee, and another one is Portraits of Christ in the Tabernacle by Theodore H. Epp. These books will not only give you information about the altar, but also all the other parts of the Tabernacle as well.

Here is just a little taste of what J. Vernon McGee, whom I admire greatly, had to say about the Altar. "This altar was sometimes called the table of the Lord, and the altar of burnt-offering. The altar stood at the very entrance of the Tabernacle. ‘And he put the altar of burnt offering by the door of the tabernacle of the tent of the congregation, and offered upon it the burnt-offering and the meat-offering; as God commanded Moses." (Exodus 40:29 KJV)

"It was the first object that confronted the sinner at the entrance of the Tabernacle. It was on this altar that every sacrifice was made in Israel. There were five offerings in the Levitical ritual, and all of these were made on this altar…

"Every lamb that was sacrificed as a substitute for a sinner Israelite or sinning Israel, during the interval of the Tabernacle, was offered on the brazen altar. It was the unique place of sacrifice. The blood of bulls and goats was shed in profusion about this altar. It was the place of substitution for Israel, for the brazen altar was a figure of the cross of Christ. Leviticus 1:9 and Ephesians 5:2, when compared, have this analogy: the offering of the burnt-offering on the brazen altar and the offering of Christ of Himself in His glorious Person on the cross are both called a ‘sweet savour [aroma]’ unto God.

"The brazen altar finds a perfect fulfillment in the work of Christ upon the cross; a further analogy is found in the materials of construction and in the purpose of the brazen altar as compared with the accomplishment of Christ on the cross…" (The Tabernacle—God’s Portrait of Christ by J. Vernon McGee)

This section is quoted from Theodore H. Epp’s book Portraits of Christ in the Tabernacle:

"In considering the furniture in the tabernacle, we now turn our attention to the brazen altar. The altar was the place of sacrifice, and it foreshadowed the cross on which the Lord Jesus Christ shed His blood for the sins of the world.

"Concerning the altar, God instructed Moses: ‘Thou shalt make an altar of shittim wood, five cubits long [a cubit is about 18 inches], and five cubits long, and five cubits broad; the altar shall be foursquare; and the height thereof shall be three cubits. And thou shalt make the horns of it upon the four corners thereof: his horns shall be of the same: and thou shalt overlay it with brass.’ (Exodus 27:1, 2 KJV)

"The altar was the first piece of furniture the sinner encountered as he passed through the gate on his way to fellowship with, and the worship of, God. The altar was the meeting place for the holy God and the sinner. God came down to meet the sinner where He accepted a substitute for his sin. If man endeavored to approach God without a substitute, it meant certain death. The New Testament emphasizes, ‘The wages of sin is death’ (Roman 6:23 KJV). This has always been so and will always be so. The only way a person can meet God and live is to come by way of a substitute for his sin.

"So the altar was actually a type of Christ, who became the substitute for man’s sin and thus allowed the holy God and sinful man to meet. Even the word ‘altar’ refers to that which is elevated or lifted up. Perhaps this is what Jesus had in mind when He said, ‘And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me’ (John 12:32). As an offering had to be lifted up and placed on the altar, so Christ was lifted up and placed on the cross to die for the world.

"The altar was the place of substitutionary sacrifices—the place of death. There the blood was poured out, and the body was consumed by fire, which speaks of judgment. The altar in the tabernacle stood between the gate of entrance and the door to fellowship with God. It barred the way so that no approach to God was possible except by the altar.

"So too, the cross of Christ bars the way to God for every sinner. Those who bypass the cross will never have eternal life and fellowship with God; rather, they will remain in their condemnation.

"That all must come to God by only one means is clearly evident from what Christ said to Nicodemus: ‘Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’ (John 3:3). Because Nicodemus did not understand what He was saying to him, Jesus explained the necessity of spiritual birth. He said, ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (v. 6). [We have a tract on this subject.]

"The cross is the only way of salvation because it was there that Jesus shed His blood for the sin of the world. Hebrews 9:22 clearly states, ‘Without shedding of blood is no remission [forgiveness].’ Receiving Jesus Christ as Savior produces the only true foundation in a person’s life. Paul said, ‘For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ’ (I Corinthians 3:11)…"

Have you come to the altar of salvation? In other words, have you come to the cross and asked Jesus to save you from your sins, so you can know you are going to heaven?

Thanks for the question,

Gary T. Panell

For more information email me.

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Gary Tomás Panell
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Keywords: saved, salvation, altar, symbol, sacrifice, blood, remission, sin, sins