Exodus 27:1-8; 38:1-7.
“Christ…an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling savour.” (Eph. 5:2).
The antitype of this altar and its continual sacrifice upon it, is Christ upon the cross. As the fire of that altar never went out (Lev. 6:13) so the memorial and worth of the work of Christ abides perpetually (Heb. 10:12-14).
The Place Of The Altar
The place of the altar of burnt-offering was at the door of the tabernacle (Lev. 1:3). The door and the altar were associated; you could not approach one without approaching the other. To enter the door you must at the same time pass the altar on which the sacrifice was being consumed. The truth of this is everywhere in the Scripture; there is no door for a sinner into blessing, no way for any man to God, but by way of the Cross of Calvary. Christ is not a Way into the Kingdom of God apart from His death. You cannot separate the door from the altar. You cannot have a way in, without passing that place where the blood of the burnt-offering was sprinkled and poured out. This is most important to see and to know. “Without the shedding of blood, [there] is no remission” (Heb. 9:22) and, without the shedding of blood, there is no access into the presence of God. This is the truth that is emphasized by the presence of the altar right at the door of the tabernacle. The door is not Christ in His life, but Christ in His death. The proud religionist who trusts his own works calls this way by Christ’s Cross the “religion of the shambles,” but there is no other way for a sinner into the presence of God but by the death, the Cross, the blood of Christ.
The Form Of The Altar
The altar of burnt-offering was foursquare. The four sides were of equal length. It was five cubits toward the east, five toward the west, five cubits toward the north and five toward the south. The height was three cubits. Thus the numbers five, four and three were in the altar. Four is Christ’s number in manifestation; the four Gospels perfectly told the story of what He was. Five is the number that stands for the manifestation of what I am through my senses and actions. Three is the number of Deity—of the triune God. The altar with four equal sides is five cubits everywhere, thus suggesting that it is adequate to meet my need. The four sides and four horns pointing in every direction of the compass seem to suggest that that altar is sufficient for all. The three cubits of the height remind us that the One who was manifested in the Gospels was God in the fullness of Deity. (See 1 Tim. 3:16; Col. 2:3-9, etc.).
The Material Of The Altar
The altar of burnt-offering is called the brazen altar, for it was all brass or copper on the outside. Under the brass was shittim wood. The brass made the shittim wood able to stand the fire. This shittim wood was the wood of the wilderness; it was probably the only wood available, but it was nevertheless the most suited in every way. There are different varieties of acacia or shittim wood; one tree yields gum, used as a medicine for healing; another yields a medicine good for a tonic; and another seems, when it grows, to have leaves peculiarly sensitive to outward influences. The wood of all these acacia trees was noted for its durability; it typified incorruptibility. This makes the shittim wood a striking symbol of the humanity of our Lord. As a man He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed of the devil (Acts 10:38); He was wonderfully sensitive to all that He passed through (Heb. 4:15); but at the same time He was the only One in Whom was no sin (2 Cor. 5:21).
The brass or copper of the altar speaks of Christ as the one who could endure the fiery judgment of God (Rev. 1:15; Dan. 10:6). He endured the Cross, despising the shame (Heb. 12:1-3). Even the shittim wood of the wilderness stood all the fire of the altar because of the brass that covered it. Our Lord was crucified in weakness, for He felt every pain; He looked for some to take pity; He cried, “I thirst”; but He was mighty throughout. The brass of His intrinsic perfection made the love and faith of His human heart unswervingly strong, even in the hour of abandonment and death. This, then, is the altar upon which the fire was never to go out. From the coals of this altar, the incense was kindled to make such pleasant fragrance, when once a year the high priest went into the holiest of all to make reconciliation for sins (Lev. 16:12). On this altar a sacrifice was placed every morning and another every evening of every day of Israel’s history (Exod. 29:38-42). Probably that in the morning was specially for God, while that in the evening, when man’s work was done, was especially for him. Every sacrifice on that altar was a sweet savour unto the Lord. Burning flesh would not be a sweet savour to a man, but when God considered what that represented, it was a sweet savour of Christ to Him.
The Altar And Christ
“Bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar” (Ps. 118:27). This is what the four horns of the altar of burnt-offering were for. There the sacrifice was bound when it was slain. The bullock strong to labour; or the sheep silent and submissive to suffer; or the goat, noble as a leader; were bound with cords to that altar to die. They did not need to have bound our Lord in Gethsemane, for He went as it was ordained of Him. The cords that bound Him to the Cross were not iron nails, but bands no eye of man could see. Christ was the true Hebrew servant who could say, “I love…I will not go out free” (Exod. 21:5). “Having loved His own which were in the world, He loved them unto the end” (John 13:1). This was the first cord that bound Him to the altar; His love.
Another cord was His obedience. He “became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8). It was to do God’s will that He came from heaven (Ps. 40:7-8). That will was His very meat: “My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me, and to finish His work” (John 4:34). God not only commanded the Lord Jesus to speak His words (John 12:49), and to do His works (John 5:36), but He actually commanded Him to lay down His life (John 10:18).
A third cord that held our Lord to His Cross was His zeal for God. “The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up; and the reproaches of them that reproached Thee are fallen upon me” (Ps. 69:9). This zeal was manifested from the commencement of our Lord’s ministry when He drove the money-changers out of the temple the first time (John 2:17). The great dishonor that was done to God by the sins of men and by their neglect of His honour and glory, fired His heart to take away the reproach brought by others. David felt something of the same, when he said, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the Living God?” (1 Sam. 17:26).
The fourth cord that held the Lord Jesus to Calvary was the joy that was set before Him. “Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). There was the joy of resurrection and ascension into the presence of God (Ps. 16:11). There was the joy of seeing the whole pleasure of the Lord prosper in His hand to the satisfying of His soul (Isa. 53:11). There was the joy before Him of presenting us faultless before the presence of God (Jude 24). There was before Him the joy of His return for His bride (1 Thess. 4:16). The joy expected over Israel’s restoration (Zeph. 3:17, Isa. 62:5), and no doubt many other sources of gladness and joy.
It is remarkable that this command to bind the sacrifice with cords to the altar in Psalm 118 is together with the song of the children when the Lord rode into Jerusalem (Ps. 118:25-26) and our Lord’s own words at the same time about the stone rejected becoming the head stone of the corner (Ps. 118:22). So the fact that the triumphal entry of Jesus our Lord into Jerusalem would end with the cross, rather than with the kingdom, was here in the Old Testament Scriptures.
The Altar And The Sinner
“And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). This happened in the temple as the poor publican had his face toward the floor but also toward the altar of burnt-offering. He did not understand much, but he knew that he was a sinner and needed mercy and he vaguely knew that mercy only came through God’s altar and God’s appointed sacrifice. Our Lord testified that this man went down to his house justified. Mercy reached him, not through the altar in the temple and its smoking offering, but through that coming sacrifice of the cross so plainly shadowed there. Through the altar of Golgotha the guilty can find mercy. The vilest sinner in the world may enter that door by the altar of burnt offering.
The Altar And The Saint
“Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O Lord of hosts, my King, and my God” (Ps. 84:3).
David did not mean that these birds were actually making their nests in God’s altars; that was absolutely impossible. Only the altar of burnt offering was open to the heavens and there was no place in that structure where any bird could make a nest for itself, even if the place were utterly neglected. The meaning of the passage is just this: the sparrow, the most common and the most worthless of birds has found a house, a place that is everything to it; and the swallow, the most restless of birds, has a nest for herself where she may lay her young and to which she loves to come again and again; and so I, David, who am worthless like the sparrow and restless like the swallow, have a place for myself where I love to come and where I love to make my home; even thine altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.
What the sparrow’s house was to that little common bird; and what the swallow’s nest was to that restless bird of wandering wing, just that, thine altars are to me, my God. Each little bird feels that its nest belongs exclusively to itself, and so it does. The trembling heart finds there a resting place. How many times a day a birdie returns to its nest! Its whole life and interest is there. David felt that way about the altars of God. If only we felt so about the. One whom those altars typified, even our blessed Lord Jesus. If our restless days only had Christ for the center of their activity; if only our commonplace little worth found its joy in Him; what a rest and what an honor that would be!
Not Jewish Altars, but Christ
Some time ago a young Jewess was passing the door of a building where the Gospel was preached. She was attracted by the sound of singing and went into the porch to listen. The people were singing these lines:
Not all the blood of beasts,
On Jewish altars slain,
Could give the guilty conscience peace,
Or wash away one stain.
She was surprised to hear mention made of “Jewish altars” in such a place, so waited while the next verse was read and sung,
But Christ the heavenly Lamb,
Took all our sins away;
A sacrifice of nobler name
And richer blood than they.
These words made a very deep impression on her heart; here was hope of deliverance and peace of which she was so much in need, and about which she was burdened. For months she had tried every known or suggested way of relief, only to find there was no salvation in Judaism. She could not tear herself away from the entry of that building, but listened while all the verses were sung.
She returned home. But the truth of the words of that Gospel hymn had found its way into her heart and conscience; she trusted Christ as her own Saviour and was born of God. The light that had entered her soul could not be hidden; she confessed the Man of Calvary as her Saviour and Lord. The persecution and reproach that resulted was too much for her enfeebled health and hastened her end from that dread disease—consumption.
One day she sent a message to a Christian lady who, she thought, would sympathize with her. The lady came; she heard her story, and they talked together of the Lord Jesus. When the lady asked her what gave her soul rest, the dying Jewess replied in the words of the hymn which she had heard that memorable night in the entry of the Gospel building:
My soul looks back to see
The burden He did bear,
When hanging on the accursed tree,
And knows its guilt was there.
They still talked together, but her strength was fast giving way. She made a further effort to repeat another verse:
Believing we rejoice
To see the curse remove;
We bless the Lamb with cheerful voice,
Her voice failed; in a few minutes she breathed her last. She had gone to complete in the presence of the Lord the song she had begun, to
…sing His dying love.