An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
The Christian’s Altar
There is a saying that "a man usually finds what he is looking for," and there is a sense in which that principle holds good of not a little consulting of the Scriptures. Various kinds of people approach the Scriptures with the object of finding something in them which will countenance their ideas, and no matter how foolish and far-fetched those ideas may be, they generally succeed in locating that which with some degree of plausibility supports them—that is why the scoffer will often counter a quotation from God’s Word with, "O you can prove anything from the Bible." It matters not to those who are determined to procure "proof" for their vagaries, that they "wrest the Scriptures" (2 Pet. 3:16) either by detaching a sentence from its context and giving it a meaning quite contrary to its setting, or by interpreting literally that which is figurative, or giving a figurative meaning to that which is literal.
Not only does practically every professedly Christian sect make a show of producing Scriptural warrant for its peculiar beliefs and practices, so that Universalists, Annihilationalists, Seventh-day Adventists, quote a list of texts in proof of their errors, but others who do not claim to be "Christian" appeal to the Bible in support of their delusions. It would probably surprise some of our readers did they know how artfully (but wickedly) Spiritists juggle with Holy Writ, appearing to adduce not a little in favor of clairvoyance, clairaudience, trance-speaking, etc., while Theosophists have the affrontery to say that reincarnation is plainly taught in the Bible; all of which goes to show how fearfully fallen man may abuse God’s mercies and profane that which is most sacred.
Nor are Romanists any exception. It is commonly supposed that they have very little concern for Scripture, buttressing their superstitions by an appeal to tradition and ancient customs. It is true that the rank and the of the Papists are deprived of the Scriptures, and are satisfied with "the authority of the church," as sufficient justification for all they believe and do, but it is a big mistake to suppose that her officers are incapable of making a Scriptural defense of their positions. The writer of this article discovered that more than a quarter of a century ago, in his first pastorate. Situated in a mining-camp in Colorado, the only other "minister" in the country was a Romish priest, with whom we got acquainted. He volunteered to give us Scripture for every Popish dogma and practice, and when we put him to the test (as we did, again and again), we were amazed and awed by the subtle manner in which he mis-"appropriated" the Word. It was then we learned the uselessness of "arguing" about Divine things.
The above thoughts have been suggested by the opening words of our present passage: "We have an altar." Most fearfully has this clause been perverted by those who have given it a meaning and put it to a use wholly foreign to the design of the Spirit in the passage from which it is taken. Deceived by the mere sound of words, the affirmation has been boldly made that not only did the Israelites in O.T. times have a literal and material altar, but that "we," Christians, also "have," by Divine appointment, "an altar," that is, a material one of wood and stone, and hence the "altar" and "high altar" in many "protestant churches." But an altar calls for a sacrifice, and hence the invention of "the mass" or "un-bloody sacrifice of the flesh and blood of Christ" offered by the priests. Many who do not go thus far, insist that the table used for the celebration of the Lord’s supper should be designated "an altar," and suppose that our text authorizes them therein.
That such a conception as the one we have just mentioned is utterly groundless and erroneous may quickly be demonstrated. In the first place, whatever be signified by the "altar" in our passage, it is manifestly opposed to, set in contrast from, the visible and material altar of Judaism, so much so that they who officiated at the latter were debarred from feasting on the former. In the second place, the Jewish altar, like everything else in the tabernacle, was a shadow or type, and surely it would be placing a severe strain upon the imagination to conclude that the brazen altar of old was but a figure of a table now used in our "churches"! Third, sufficient has been advanced by the apostle in the preceding chapters to make it unmistakably plain that Christ Himself—in His person, office, and sacrificial work—is the antitype and substance of all the tabernacle types! Finally, the Spirit Himself has made it quite clear that our "altar" is a spiritual one, and that the "sacrifice" we are to offer thereon is a spiritual one: see verse 15.
"We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle" (verse 10). In seeking to ascertain the meaning of this verse, which has needlessly perplexed and been made the occasion of much profitless controversy, it will greatly simplify the expositor’s task if he bears in mind that the primary aim of the Spirit throughout this epistle is to set forth the transcendent excellency of Christ over all persons through whom God had, in times past, spoken unto men, and in the vast superiority of His office and work over all the institutions which had foreshadowed them under the old covenant. As the incarnate Son, He is infinitely above all prophets and angels (chapters 1 and 2). Moses, "the servant in the house of God" retires before the presence of Christ "the Son over His own house" (chapter 3). So in regard to all the Mosaic institutions: Christ fulfills everything which they prefigured.
This is quite an elementary truth, yet is it one of basic importance, for error at this point produces most pernicious and fatal consequences. The entire system of worship that Jehovah appointed for Israel was of a typical character, and the reality and substance of it is now found in Christ. He is "the great High Priest" of whom the priests under the law, Aaron himself not excepted, were but faint adumbrations. His very body is "the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands" (9:11). His was the sacrifice which fully and forever accomplished that which all the Levitical offerings proclaimed as necessary to redemption, but the repetition of which clearly testified they had never effected. In like manner, Christ is the grand Antitype of all the sacred vessels of the tabernacle: He is the true Brazen-altar, Laver, Golden-altar of incense, Candlestick, Table of shrewbread, Mercyseat, and Ark of the Covenant.
That the Lord Jesus is Himself the antitype of "the altar of burnt offering" appears by comparing two of His own declarations: "Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?" (Matthew 23:19); "And for their sakes I sanctify Myself" (John 17:19). Both "the altar that sanctifieth the gift" and "the gift" itself meet in Him—just as both the officiating priest and the sacrifice which he offered find their fulfillment in Him. It seems strange that some able writers have quite missed the point of Matthew 23:19 when dealing with its fulfillment and realization in the Lord Jesus. They have made "the altar" to be the wooden cross to which the Savior was nailed, and that mistake has laid the foundation for a more serious error. No, "the altar" on which "the gift" was laid pointed to the Divine dignity of Christ’s glorious person, and it was that which gave infinite worth to His sacrifice. It was for this reason the Spirit dwelt at such length upon the unique glory of Christ’s person in the earlier chapters of this epistle, before He opened to us His sacrificial work.
What has just been pointed out above supplies the key to many a lovely O.T. type. For instance, we are told that "Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar" (Gen. 8:20). Very blessed is that. The first act of Noah as he came forth from the ark on to the purified earth was not to build a house for himself, but to erect that which spoke of the person of Christ—for in all things He must have the pre-eminence. On that altar Noah expressed his thanksgiving by presenting his burnt offerings, teaching us that it is only by Christ we can acceptably present to God our sacrifice of praise (Heb. 13:15). And we are told that Noah’s offering was "a sweet savor unto the Lord," and then we read "and God blessed Noah and his sons" (Gen. 9:1), for all blessing comes to us through Christ.
"And the Lord appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land: and there builded he an altar unto the Lord, who appeared unto him" (Gen. 12:7). That was equally blessed. This was the first act of Abraham after he had left Chaldea, and then Haran where his progress had been delayed for a season, and had now actually entered Canaan. The Lord appeared to him here, as He had first done in Ur, and made promise of the land unto him and his seed; and his response was to set up an altar. And again we read "and he removed from thence unto a mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent between Bethel on the west, and Hai on the east; and there he builded an altar unto the Lord"
(Gen. 12:8). How significant! Bethel means "the house of God," while Hai signifies "a heap of ruins." It was between them that Abram pitched his tent—emblematic of the pilgrim character of the saint while in this world, and erected his altar—symbol of his dependence upon and worship of God. It was to this same altar he returned after his failure in going down into Egypt: Genesis 13:3, 4.
Of Isaac we read, "And he builded an altar there, and called upon the name of the Lord" (Gen. 26:25). How beautifully that brings out another aspect of our type: here the "altar" is the place of prayer, for it is only in the name of Christ—the antitype of the altar—that we can present our petitions acceptably to God. Of Jacob we read, "And he erected there an altar, and called it God, the God of Israel" (Gen. 33:20). That was immediately after his Divine deliverance from Esau and his four hundred men—inti-mating that it is in and by Christ the believer is eternally secure. Of Moses we read, that he "built an altar, and called the name of it the Lord my Banner" (Ex. 17:15). That was after Israel’s victory over the Amalekites—denoting that it is only by Christ that believers can overcome their spiritual enemies. "And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord, and rose up early in the morning, and builded an altar under the hill" (Ex. 24:4)—only by Christ is the Law magnified and honored.
But it is more especially upon the brazen altar in the tabernacle that our attention needs to be concentrated. A description of it is supplied in Exodus 27:1-8, though other passages should be carefully compared. This altar occupied a place of first importance among the seven pieces of the furniture in the tabernacle, for it was not only the largest of them all—being almost big enough to hold the others—but it was placed "before the door" (Ex. 40:6), just inside the outer court (Ex. 40:33), and would thus be the first object to meet the eye of the worshipper as he entered the sacred precincts. It was made of wood, but overlaid with brass, so that it could withstand the action of fire, which was burning continually upon it (Lev. 6:13). To it the sinner came with his Divinely-appointed sacrifice, wherein the innocent was slain in the place of the guilty. At this altar the high priest officiated on the great day of atonement (Lev. 16).
The brazen altar was the way of approach to God, for it was there that the Lord promised to meet His people: "There I will meet with the children of Israel" (Ex. 29:43): how that reminds us of the Savior’s declaration "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me" (John 14:6)! This altar was really the basis of the whole Levitical system, for on it the burnt offering, meal offering, peace offering, and sin offering were presented to God. Blood was put upon its horns, sprinkled upon it, round about it, and poured out at its base. It was the chief connecting-link between the people and Jehovah, they being so identified with it that certain parts of the offerings there presented to Him were eaten by them, and hence we read "Behold Israel after the flesh: are not they which eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar?" (1 Cor. 10:18).
This was an altar for all Israel—and for none else!—and their jealousy was promptly stirred if anything seemed to interfere with it. A striking illustration of this is found in Joshua 22. There we read that the two and a half tribe’s whose inheritance lay on the far side of Jordan erected an altar—"a great altar to see to" (verse 10). When the other tribes heard of this, they were greatly alarmed and severely censured them, for it appeared to deny the unity of the Nation and to be a rival unto the altar for all the people. They were only satisfied when the Reubenites assured them that they had not built this altar by the Jordan to offer sacrifices thereon, but for a witness (verse 27), declaring, "God forbid that we should rebel against the Lord, and turn this day from following the Lord, to build an altar for burnt offerings, for meat offerings, or for sacrifices, besides the altar of the Lord our God that is before His tabernacle’’ (verse 29).
We may see again the prominent place which was given to the altar by Israel in the days of Ezra, for when they returned from the captivity, it was the first thing they set up—thus signifying they could not approach God or be connected with Him on any other ground. "Then stood up Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and his brethren the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and his brethren, and builded the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings thereon, as it is written in the law of Moses the man of God" (Ezra 3:2).
In view of its significance, its importance, its hallowed associations, one can readily imagine what it meant to a converted Jew to abandon the altar of Judaism. Unto his unbelieving brethren he would necessarily appear as a renegade of his fathers, an apostate from God, and a fool to himself. Their taunt would be, In turning your back upon Judaism you have lost everything: you have no altar! Why, you are worse off than the wretched Samaritans, for they do have a place and system of worship on mount Gerizim: whereas vou Christians have nothing! But here the apostle turns the tables upon them: he affirms that not only do we "have an altar," but it was one which those who still identified themselves with the temple and its services had no right to. In turning from Judaism to Christ the believing Hebrew had left the shadow for the substance, the figure for the reality; whereas those who despised and rejected Christ merely had that which was become "weak and beggarly elements" (Gal. 4:9).
The sad failure of the great mass of the Jews, under the Gospel-preaching of the apostles, to turn their affections unto things above, where Christ had passed within the veil, and their stubbornness in clinging to the tangible system at Jerusalem, was something more than a peculiarity of that nation—it exemplified the universal fondness of man for that which is material in religion, and his disrelish of that which is strictly spiritual. In Judaism there was much that was addressed to the sense, herein too lies the power and secret of Rome’s success: the strength of its appeal to the natural man lies in its sensuous show. Though Christians have no visible manifestation of the Divine glory on earth to which they may draw near when they worship, they do have access to the Throne of Grace in Heaven; but it is only the truly regenerate who prefer the substance to the shadow.
"We have an altar." Our altar, unlike that of Judaism, is inside the veil: "whither the Forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus" (Heb. 6:20), after that He had appeared here upon earth to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. To the Christian comes the blessed exhortation, "Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which He hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, His flesh; and having a High Priest, over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith" (Heb. 10:19-22). What a marvel of mercy, what a wonder of grace that poor fallen sinners, through faith in Christ’s blood, may come into the presence of God without a fear! On the ground of Christ’s infinite merits, such are welcome there. The presence of Christ on High is the proof that our sins have been put away, and in the joyous consciousness thereof we may approach God as worshippers.
But the special aspect in which our text sets forth Christ as "the altar" of His people, is to present Him as the One who furnishes them with that spiritual meat which is needed for nourishment and sustenance in their worship and service. The apostle had just said, "Be not carried about with divers and strange doctrines: for it is a good thing that the heart be established with grace; not with meats, which have not profited them that have been occupied therein" (verse 9), and when he now adds "we have an altar," his obvious meaning is: we have in Christ the true altar, which supplies us with "grace," that better food which really establishes the heart before God. In other words, the Holy Spirit here explains and declares the fulfillment of those words of Christ "My flesh is meat indeed, and My blood is drink indeed: he that eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, dwelleth in Me, and I in him" (John 6:55, 56).
Let us now consider our verse a little closer in the light of its immediate context: that there is an intimate connection between them is obvious, for in verse 9 the apostle had spoken of "meats" and here he still refers to "eating"! Of the one he had affirmed they "profited not," concerning the latter he mentions those who have "no right" thereto. Over against the "meats which profited not" he had set that "grace" which establishes the heart, and now he contrasts "the altar" from the defunct figures of Judaism. As we have shown in the preceding article, to have the heart "established with grace" signifies two things: first, to be weaned from self-righteousness and creature dependence as to clearly apprehend that salvation from start to finish is of the unmerited and unconditional favor of God; second, to have the Spirit so shine upon His work within that as we diligently examine the same and carefully compare it with the experience of saints as described in the Scriptures, we may be definitely assured that we are born of God.
Having affirmed the vast superiority of the heart being established with grace over being occupied with "meats"—which expression referred directly to the Mosaical distinctions between clean and unclean articles of diet, but in its wider signification was a part put for the whole ceremonial system—the apostle now declares that the Christian is provided with far more excellent food for the soul. The striking force of this is only apparent by a careful study of the Levitical types and by closely following the apostle’s argument in the verses which immediately succeed our text. The Jewish altar had not only typed out Christ offering Himself as a sacrifice to God for the sins of His people, but it had also foreshadowed Him as the life-sustenance of the true worshippers of God. How remarkably full were the O.T. types, and how much we lose by ignoring the same and confining our reading to the N.T.—no wonder so much in Hebrews seems to be obscure and of little interest to the Gentile.
Of many of the offerings which were laid on the tabernacle altar only parts of them were consumed by the fire, the remaining portions being reserved as food for the priests, or for the offerer and his friends—this food being regarded as particularly sacred, and the eating of it as a great religious privilege. For instance, we read, "This is the law of the meal offering: the sons of Aaron shall offer it before the Lord, before the altar. And he shall take of it his handful, of the flour of the meal offering, and of the oil thereof, and all the frankincense which is upon the meal offering, and shall burn it upon the altar for a sweet savor, the memorial of it, unto the Lord. And the remainder thereof shall Aaron and his sons eat: with unleavened bread shall it be eaten in the holy place" (Lev. 6:14-16). "This is the law of the trespass offering: it is most holy . . . Every male among the priests shall eat thereof . . . And the flesh of the sacrifice of his peace offerings for thanksgiving shall be eaten the same day that it is offered" (Lev. 7:1,6,15) "And the Lord said unto Aaron, Behold, I also have given thee the charge of Mine heave offerings... In the most holy place shalt thou eat it: every male shall eat it; it shall be holy unto thee" (Num. 18:8-10).
But the Christian has spiritual food far more holy and precious than any Israelite ever had, or even Aaron the high priest was permitted to taste. Christ is our food, the "Bread of life" to our souls. He is not only our sacrifice but our sustenance; He has not only propitiated God, but He is the nourishment of His people. It is true that we should by faith, feed upon Him when remembering His death in the way appointed, yet there is no reference in our text to "the Lord’s supper," nor is "the Lord’s table" ever called an "altar" in Scripture. Moreover it is our blessed privilege to feed upon Christ not only at "Communion seasons," but constantly. And herein appears again the immeasurable superiority of Christianity over Judaism. Israel according to the flesh partook only of the symbols, whereas we have the Reality. They had only certain parts of the offerings—as it were the crumbs from God’s table; whereas we feed with Him on the fatted calf itself. They ate of the sacrifices only occasionally, whereas Christ is our daily food.
"We have an altar," namely, Christ, and He is the only altar which God owns, and the only one which must be recognized by us. For almost nineteen centuries—since God employed the Romans to destroy Jerusalem—the Jews have been without an altar, and are so to this day. For Romanists to invent an altar, and make it both the foundation and center of their entire idolatrous system, is the height of presumption, and a fearful insult to Christ and the sufficiency of His sacrifice. If those "which serve the tabernacle"—they who continued officiating at Jerusalem in the days when the apostle wrote this epistle—had "no right" to "eat" of the Christian’s altar, that is, enjoy and derive benefit from the person and sacrifice of Christ, then, how much less have the pope and his satellites any title to the benefits of Christ while they so wickedly usurp His place and prerogative. That the Lord Jesus Himself is our "altar" as well as interceding High Priest also appears from, "Another angel (Christ as ‘the Angel of the Covenant’) came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto Him much incense, that He should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne" (Rev. 8:3)!