March 4, 2022

Finding Christ in the Altar of Sacrifice


The altar of sacrifice in the Tabernacle of Moses, is one of the more powerful types and shadows of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. The altar was used by the priests for sacrifices and burnt offerings and was the place where Israel could be reconciled with God. Here Israel learned that the remission of sins could only come through the shedding of blood, ultimately pointing to the death of Christ on the cross.

Long before Moses was commanded to build the brazen altar, followers of God built altars where they could pray and come near to the Lord. Prophets such as Adam, Noah, and Abraham all built altars to offer sacrifice. These altars were built of uncut stones, which set them apart from the more permanent, yet portable brazen altar of the Tabernacle.

The altar of sacrifice was the largest of the pieces of furniture of the Tabernacle. It was constructed of shitim or better translated as acacia wood overlaid with bronze. The acacia tree is one of the few trees that grows naturally in the deserts where the Israelites wandered. Because the tree must grow with very little water, its wood is quite dense making it resistant to rot or decay. Overlaying the acacia wood with bronze made the altar able to withstand the fires of the many sacrifices. Bronze in scripture is often a symbol of judgment, as is seen in the story of the brazen serpent that was lifted up in the wilderness. The Israelites who trusted in the Lord’s promise of healing power, and looked to the brazen serpent, were healed from their poisonous bites. Likewise, as we look to the Savior on the cross, who was lifted up on our behalf, we can be healed of our sins and sorrows.

The brazen serpent lifted up by Moses
The altar itself was square in shape, which set it apart from all the other furniture except for the altar of incense which shared many similarities. On the four corners were horns, likewise made of acacia wood overlaid with bronze. In ancient times horns were seen as a symbol of power or strength. The altar horns were also a symbol of refuge, as Israelites who had sinned, could take hold of the horn and be promised safety and refuge until they could have a fair trial (see 1 Kings 1:50). The number four is often a symbol representing the four corners of the earth, perhaps pointing to the infinite sacrifice of Christ, which has power to reach to the four ends of the earth. The altar also had four rings, two each placed on the opposite sides. Two long poles made of acacia wood overlaid with bronze could be inserted into the rings allowing the altar to be carried as the Israelites traveled in the wilderness.

In Leviticus the Lord commanded three separate times that the fire of the altar was to be kept burning at all times (Leviticus 6:9, 12-13). This is likely because the Lord himself lit the fire, (Leviticus 9:24) consuming the first sacrifice offered by Aaron. As followers of Christ we too should always seek to keep the fires of our offering burning. While animal sacrifice was done away with by the death of Christ, we can offer to the Lord sacrifices of thanksgiving (Psalms 107:22), praise (Hebrews 13:15), and service towards others (Romans 12:1). 

Pillar of fire lighting the altar of sacrifice
The Bible also describes the bronze tools used for sacrifice, including basins and shovels for removing the ashes, bowls to hold the blood, meat forks used to place the sacrifice on the altar, and firepans used for taking coals from the altar to be used in burning incense.

In Leviticus 1-5 the Lord prescribed five different types of sacrifices that were to be offered at the altar, the burnt offering, the peace offering, the meat or grain offering, the sin offering, and the trespass offering. Each of these sacrifices varied in what type of animal or offering could be made and how they were ritually offered. Most of these were sacrifices of animals, but there were also offerings of grain as well. While we won’t attempt to cover the complexity of these five types of offerings here, there were common elements to most of these sacrifices.

First, the Israelite or priest would bring the animal through the gate and have the animal inspected to ensure it was without blemish. Next, the person would then lay their hands on the head of the animal which could be seen as symbolically transferring their sins to the sacrifice. The person then slit the throat of the animal, with the priest collecting the blood in a dish. Notice that for an individual sacrifice, it was the person who killed the animal, not the priest. This would vividly convey to the Israelites that it was their sins that caused the death of the animal and that the consequence of sin is death (Romans 6:23).

The collected blood, depending on the type of sacrifice, was then dabbed on the horns, splashed on the sides, or poured out at the base of the altar. The word atonement, or kaphar in Hebrew, actually means to cover or blot out. Blood represented the life of the animal, and thus by covering parts of the altar with blood, the priest was symbolically showing that atonement had been made because of the shedding of blood.

The animal was then cut into pieces, and depending on the type of sacrifice, parts of the meat were burned on the altar and the remainder of the meat was eaten by the priests or the family. Only in the case of the burnt offering was the entire animal completely burned on the altar. The eating of a portion of the sacrifice as part of a meal, is highly significant. Meat was rarely a part of daily meals and was mostly reserved for religious feasts and significant events. Because animals provide wool and hair for clothing, and milk and cheese for food, animals were far more valuable alive than dead! 

In addition, anciently the breaking of bread and eating a meal together often symbolized friendship between two parties. Enemies did not sign peace treaties like today to show they desired unity, but instead broke bread together. It was in the breaking of bread and sharing a meal that covenants were established and friendships renewed. Thus, it is significant that for most sacrifices at the altar, the partaking of a meal was a central part. God partook of His portion of the offering as it was burned on the altar, and then shared the remainder of the meal with the priests or family of the offeror.

Because of our sins, we are all enemies of God. Yet, each Sabbath, the Lord invites us to come to His table, and to partake of a communal meal that demonstrates that He is at peace with us. The tokens of the sacrament or communion, blessed by the priests, teach us that it is only because of Christ’s sacrifice that we can enjoy the friendship and presence of God. 

Bronze altar of sacrifice
The ancient altar of sacrifice taught Israel and all of us that before we can come into the presence of the Lord, we first must be reconciled with God. Death is the requirement for sin, yet God in His infinite mercy provided that another could be killed in our stead, that we might live. Just as Israel symbolically laid their sins on the head of the sacrifice, so too Isaiah taught that “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 52:6). Similarly, as these animals were bled out, so too the Savior bled in Gethsemane and on the cross that we might have our sins blotted out or covered over. Because of God’s mercy, as we come to the altar of the Lord, we can find refuge, protection, and forgiveness because of the atoning blood of Jesus Christ.

(Special thanks to Elder Alex Ducos, Ethan Fullmer, Elder Ryan Sampson, and Brian Olson for their help with creating the 3D model of the Tabernacle.)

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