The word altar gets a bad rap. The word itself is one of those uniquely “religious” words that has trouble getting along with other, more secular words in the sentence, and cannot seem to escape the undertones of its brutal past. If you were to look up the word altar in, say, a thesaurus, you would find synonyms like: stage, platform, table, counter, or bench. HOWEVER, try replacing any of the bolded words in the following sentences with the word ALTAR and you create some particularly disturbing imagery.
“The family gathered around the TABLE for dinner.”
“She only needed a few things from the meat COUNTER.”
“Few things are more exhilarating than the potential of an empty STAGE.”
“It’s tough to keep Clayton Kershaw on the BENCH.”
See what I mean?
Traditionally an altar was a place of (forgive me for saying this) specialized brutality. Altars are not the exclusive property of the People of GOD. Most major religious movements have an altar of some kind. The unifying factor among them all, however, was they were always the place of sacrifice. For the Old Testament Jews, the altar (post Moses) was the place where those seeking forgiveness would bring an animal as an offering with the expectation that through the death of this animal their sins would be forgiven. The priests, handpicked Levite men who tended to the temple, were the only ones who had the power to forgive the sins of the penitent. The person who brought the sacrifice could leave the temple, content that they were “washed anew”. That is until they rounded the corner, stubbed their toe, said some very unproductive sentence modifiers, and had to seek forgiveness again. Thus was the cycle of the Old Testament church—sacrifice, atonement, sin, sacrifice, atonement, sin, and on and on. Jewish law was clear about the methods and actions of the priest in this cycle and spelled out for the commoner what variety of prospective sacrifices and corresponding animals or goods would atone for a sin. Pigeons for one kind of offering, lambs and calves for another, even bread, money, and fruits all had the capacity to atone when being placed on the altar. To get some key insights into the preparations of the altar—as well as the temple process—read Hebrews 9. This inspired chapter gives an Old Testament rundown of the temple through New Testament eyes. But again, even Hebrews 9 discusses the altar in terms of the laws of Moses and architecture of Solomon.
Consider that even before Solomon built the temple, Scripture tells us there were altars all over the place. The first time the word altar (mizbeach in Hebrew) appears is after the flood (Gen 8:20), when Noah builds an altar on the enriched dry land in gratitude to GOD, who delivered Noah and his family from the flood. Years later Abraham builds an altar after the LORD appears to him in Moreh (Gen. 12:7) Throughout much of Genesis we see Abraham building altars each time the LORD appears to him. Moses built altars in the wilderness, as did the Judges, David and other kings. Even after Jerusalem (and the temple) are destroyed, the pilgrims who return to rebuild the city made their first task to build an altar (Ezra 3:2). Why? Because first and foremost, the altar was a platform, a table, a bench, a stage of remembrance, a physical symbol that in whatever place it was created there had been a life-altering encounter with GOD. It was after the establishment of the temple that the symbolism of the place was lost, putting more emphasis on the ritual and the importance of our offering.
The modern church sets aside the ancient rituals (fortunately for us and all the Holsteins in Bakersfield) yet still stresses that the altar is a place of self-sacrifice. As one theologian puts it : “Building an altar means that we offer everything we are and have to God. We need to place all that we are and all that we have on the altar+”. But even in our modern theology we forget the value of the actual structure, the place, the purpose of the space where that sacrifice occurs.
The altar is where we encounter.
The altar is where we surrender.
The altar is where we reflect.
The altar is where we find atonement.
The altar is where we find our name written in blood, not by our own hands.
We believe that through grace we have been saved, but in our hearts, we still struggle with the idea that perhaps…just maybe…there needs to be more spiritual blood-letting. But there doesn’t. That’s been done and all that is left is the altar. Let me explain it this way.
There is a $25 theological word that you may hear bandied about in churches (or you may not if your pastor was born after the Nixon administration). The word is “propitiation”. When I looked up this word online, I was met with the following definitions: “the act of propitiating” or “something that propitiates”. And we wonder why SAT scores are falling.
Let me see if I can help the internet.
In essence this word means a person or thing that steps between two hostile forces and does something to bring the two sides together—to overcome the hostility and distrust. Propitiation also means to make compatible. Propitiation is the nullifying influence in the polarity that separates two opposing forces. In terms of faith, Christ is often referred to as OUR PROPITIATION. Through his atoning sacrifice, Christ sealed the schism between sin and holiness, forever allowing those who believe in his name to overcome the burden and weight of their sin and become holy and blameless in the eyes of God the Father…forever. No more sacrifices…no more placing innocents on the altar to die for our screw-ups.
Christ’s sacrifice, on an altar of two wooden beams, where his blood was spilled for our sins—where he propitiated the power of death into grace and the terminus of sin into eternal life—remains the most powerful, controversial, pivotal moment in history (followed immediately by his resurrection which redefined both living and dying). This wooden altar, to this day, remains the only altar of real transformation. It is the only places where ashes are molded into beauty, where crimson is made white as snow, where the simple dust of the earth become priceless jars of clay. This metamorphosis of the old toward the new is at the heart of the lyrics in “Come to the Altar”:
“Leave behind your regrets and mistakes
Come today there’s no reason to wait
Jesus is calling.
Bring your sorrows and trade them for joy.
From the ashes a new life is born”.
This altar that calls us is the altar where we remember what He has done for us. It is the altar where He meets us, reminding us that the stains that reside there were willingly put there by Him as a means to bring us into the good graces of the Father. If there are things that we place next to that blood-stained wood as a way of saying thank you, that Jesus does NOT despise, but He also doesn’t require. Consider the words of David (Psalm 51) who understood centuries before Jesus walked the earth, what it meant to approach the altar with little else than a grateful heart:
“Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. O Lord open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise”. (14-17, esv)
The altar is a place of intimate interaction. For Noah, Moses, Abraham, and David their act of building the altar was so that they could have a physical representation of their encounter. And in that act of building they were also able to dwell, for however long it took, and relate to and interact with the spirit of the LORD. They considered what He had done for them and each stone, each pebble, was their means of saying “thank you”. At the altar they were able to reflect on the life and see beyond themselves into the plans of God. No sacrifice would replace the fellowship of that moment. No sacrifice would fill their heart in the same way as the conversation with the Almighty. For these patriarchs, as for us, the altar is where we realize we have come to the end of ourselves only to find Jesus.
COME TO THE ALTAR. SING. Jesus is waiting.
+Quote from “Living Stream Ministries”
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