This article looks at the altar in the tabernacle. It shows that the message of the altar was sanctification, support, and salvation.

Source: The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, 2008. 3 pages.

We Have an Altar Exodus 27:1-8; 38:1-8; Matthew 23:17; Hebrews 13:10-12

Jerusha had waited a long time for this moment — her first visit to the Tabernacle with her father, Baruch. She had heard so much about it from her parents and from the friendly priest who visited them every few months to talk and pray with the family. She had seen its distant smoke above the camp during the day and the strange glow in the distance at night. When the wind came from the west, she could even smell some of the burning animals. Now the long-promised day had arrived.

Baruch and little Jerusha quickly covered the few miles from their tent on the camp’s outskirts to the Tabernacle at the center. As they entered the outer court, Jerusha saw a sight she would never ever forget — a big, black, blazing altar. She could feel the heat even from the Tabernacle door. She was so overwhelmed by the sights, the sounds, and the smells that she suddenly forgot all she had been taught by her parents and her priest. Her mind blanked. “Daddy, what ... what ... what’s that?” she stammered.

Baruch had suspected this would happen and was prepared. He had arranged for their priest to meet them at the altar this morning to explain it all to her in a simple way. And there he was, Priest Elnathan, right on cue. “Good morning, Baruch. And my dear Jerusha, welcome to the Tab­ernacle — God’s picture gallery. There is too much to see in one visit; I thought that today we would simply look at one of these pictures of truth — this big brass altar. Do you remember the three S’s I taught you about the altar? No? Don’t worry, that happens to most children on their first visit. Let me remind you. The three S’s are: sanctification, support, and salvation.”


“Sanctification is a big word, isn’t it, Jerusha? What does it mean? Well, it can mean two things. First, it describes how God removes the weeds of sin and waters the seeds of grace in the believer’s soul. But it can also mean ‘set apart’ or ‘consecrated.’ For example, when I became a priest, I was ‘sanctified.’ Now, that does not mean I was made sinless — I wish it did! No, it meant that I was taken away from common and everyday work, and dedicated, or set apart, to God’s service. This is what we mean when we say, ‘Whatsoever toucheth the altar shall be holy’ (Ex. 29:37). Our sacrifices and offerings are sanctified by the altar. They are made acceptable and effective through contact with the altar. Without that contact, they would have had no value whatsoever. You might ask, what gives the altar this power? Is it magic? No. It’s because God simply says it is so. But it might also be related to how it’s made. Underneath the brass is shittim wood from the acacia tree. This is the most beautiful and valuable wood in the world. Some call it incorruptible wood because it does not rot. So, our sacrifices are made beautiful and holy and acceptable when offered on this altar because God says so, and because they come into contact with something beautiful, holy, and incorruptible.

“But, precious Jerusha, remember this altar is only a picture of truth. Like every picture, it should make us want to see what is pictured. And do you know what is pictured here? It is the Messiah. He is the real altar behind this picture altar. We don’t know everything there is to know about Him yet. But what the picture teaches us is that ‘whatsoever toucheth the altar shall be holy.’ Only through Him can our gifts and sacrifices be accepted. Every song, prayer, sermon, and service must be sanctified by contact with His beautiful, valuable, and incorruptible person.


“The second ‘S’ is support. As well as sanctifying the sacrifice, the altar supports it. You will notice, Jerusha, that the altar is covered with brass, a metal which is associated with strength and endurance (Deut. 28:33). In its hollow middle is a brass grate, which sustains and supports the sacrifice while the fire eats it up. Being made of brass, the altar and the grating are strong and firm enough to endure the constant blazing fire and burning heat until the sacrifice is completely burned up.

“Look at the fire, Jerusha. You wouldn’t last long if you fell in there, would you! That fire burns every day and every night, yet the altar is never burned up. Some of our older priests believe that this pictures the amazing strength of the coming Messiah. They say that when He comes, bear the burning wrath of God as He offers Himself, the ultimate sacrifice for sin, and yet He Himself will not be burned up. He will be like this altar — able to support the sacrifice for sin, able to lift it up from earth to heaven, until the sacrifice is consumed. I am inclined more and more to agree with these experienced, old men. They’ve been studying these things and praying over them for longer than I have. Jerusha, wouldn’t you love to be alive when our Messiah comes, when these pictures will come alive? What a great day that will be!


“I see you are getting tired, my dear Jerusha. Let me give you the last ‘S’— salvation. The altar teaches us about the importance of salvation. Do you see how this altar dominates the Tabernacle? It was the first thing you saw when you came in the entrance, wasn’t it? It overshadows everything else. It is about eight feet wide, eight feet long, and five feet high. You can’t get anywhere else in the Tabernacle without passing it. Our national life centers upon it. Daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, and festival sacrifices are made on it. By all these things, God is telling us that salvation from sin is the most impor­tant thing in the world. Our whole lives must center upon it and revolve around it. Jerusha, this is far more important than friends or play or school. The Messiah must be the most important person in your life — even more important than your mother or father.

“The brass altar also teaches us the uniqueness of salvation. How many sacrificial altars has God authorized, Jerusha? Yes, that’s right, only one. You must remember that, especially when you enter Canaan. There you may meet people who say that there are many ways to God. Please remember, Jerusha, that there is only one divinely authorized altar. God has appointed and approved of only one way of salvation. There is no other way to God, except through the Messiah who is pictured in this altar. There is no other name under heaven by which anyone can be saved.

“Lastly, the brass altar teaches us the power of sal­vation. What do you see on the four corners, Jerusha? Horns, that’s right, one on each corner. The animals with the largest horns were usually the strongest. That’s why God often uses horns as symbols of strength. So here God is calling to the four corners of the earth, ‘Come to my powerful altar for a powerful salvation.’ That’s Israel’s role in the world, Jerusha. We are to call the nations to the one true God and the mighty salvation He offers through the coming Savior.

“Anyway, you look very tired. There is an awful lot to take in, isn’t there? You have seen plenty to keep you thinking for many weeks. Talk to your father about the altar, and seek out the fellowship of God’s people. Above all, speak of the altar to God in your prayers, and ask Him to show you the Savior and the way of salvation He has pictured here. And, as He is revealed to you, whether He will suddenly or slowly, put your whole faith and confidence in Him and in Him alone. We will talk again.”


Well, New Testament believer, the Messiah has stepped out of the picture, the altar has been made flesh. In confirmation of the Old Testament, He said, it is “the altar that sanctifieth the gift” (Matt. 23:17). In fulfillment of the Old Testament, He said, “And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth” (John 17:19). In the context of speaking about Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever, the Apostle asserts, “We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle” (Heb. 13:10). He calls all believers to the one altar of the New Testament church, Jesus Christ, and excludes all who still look to the Old Tabernacle altar. And he goes on to argue that as the Tabernacle altar sanctified the people’s sacrifices, so Christ’s blood sanctifies the people (Heb. 13:12). We have an altar!


  1. What are the two meanings of sanctification?
  2. We conclude our prayers by commending them to God, “for Jesus’ sake.” How can we be more con­scious of the need for Jesus to sanctify our songs, our sermons, our witness, our service? What steps can we take to cultivate more of a “for Jesus’ sake” mindset and heartset?
  3. What Scriptures might help you to better understand and worship the almighty endurance of Christ as your altar?
  4. Christ and Christ alone is our priest, our sacrifice, and our altar — all three. Why is it a common error to speak of the cross, or the communion table, or our heart as an altar? Do you need to confess such Christ-diminishing misunderstanding?
  5. Ancient heathen altars tended to be extraordinarily elaborate and beautifully ornate. Israel’s altar was simple and plain. What does this tell us about the Savior and His salvation?
  6. Sacrifices were often tied to the altar with cords (Ps. 118:27). What does this teach us about the willing­ness of the animals to be sacrificed, and how does this contrast with Christ’s sacrifice?
  7. What other Scriptures refer to Christ as the only way of salvation?
  8. How can parents and churches make the importance of salvation as clear as the brass altar made it to Israel?

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