About Jesus  -  Steve Sweetman

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Erecting Altars


In response to a request, I will answer the following two-part question.  What does the Bible say about altars, and, do altars have any relevance to a New Testament Christian? 


There are two types of altars seen in the Old Testament.  Genesis 8:20 pictures one type of altar.  It's an altar where burnt offerings were sacrificed unto the LORD.


"Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it."


Genesis 35:3 portrays an altar erected as a memorial.


"Then come, let us go up to Bethel , where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone."


In Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the words "altar" and "altars" refer to Old Testament altars or the altar in the Jewish Temple.  In Acts 17:23, 1 Corinthians 9:13 and 10:18 we read about pagan altars.  James 2:21 refers to an altar that Abraham built.  All other references to an altar are seen in Hebrews 7:13, 9:4, 13:10, Revelation 6:9, 8:3, 8:5, 9:13, 11:1, 14:18, and 16:7, all of which refer to the heavenly altar, except for Hebrews 9:4 that refers to the Old Testament altar.  In defence of this heavenly altar, Hebrews 13:10 reads:


"We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat."


Passages like Hebrews 13:10 are important to the New Testament Christian because they show the one and only, all-important, contemporary altar in heaven.  Why, then, has the church placed such an emphasis on earthly altars over the centuries when the real altar is in heaven?  The answer is two-fold.


New Testament Christians consistently misunderstand how they are to relate to the Old Testament and the Law of Moses.  This leads to misapplying the regulations of the Law, regulations that do not apply to Christians.  Christians submit to Jesus, not to the Law of Moses.  In fact Jesus has replaced the Law, including its altars, as stated in verses like Romans 10:4, which reads: 


"Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes."


The other reason why altars have been significant throughout church history stems from the paganization of the church in the fourth century AD.  In order to accommodate pagans and make them feel comfortable in the church, the church adopted many pagan rituals.  For example, church buildings, including steeples, were constructed to look like pagan buildings of worship.  This pagan influence led to the dark age of Catholic Christianity, with its altars and relics that memorialized sacred events and so-called sacred people they called saints.    


The Christian Reformation of the fifteen hundreds brought some changes to that which was called church, but in many respects, the old pagan influences remained.  That included altars.  The Evangelical Movement of the seventeen hundreds led in part by John Wesley and the Methodists used the altar as a place where people could be saved, and thus the term "altar call."  In the 1970's newly constructed church buildings often replaced the altar with steps leading to the platform and pulpit.   


I agree that many people have come to Jesus at an altar of prayer in Evangelical church buildings, but this fact remains.  There is only one altar that counts, and that is in heaven, situated by the throne where Jesus now offers us salvation.  We know very little about this altar, but this we know.  It has replaced all earthly altars.


You might well have been saved as you knelt by an altar in a building we call church, but let it be known, your salvation came directly from the throne of God, not the altar you knelt beside.  Let it also be known that there is no need to erect an altar in remembrance of some sacred event in your life.  You, in one real sense of the word, are a living altar, a real remembrance of the true altar beside the throne of God where salvation is now being offered.  You are that living altar that points all who crosses your path to the altar situated by the throne of grace.  




The following is an additional comment from my good friend Robert Bailey .


In Catholic churches one function of the "modern-day' altar is in offering the "sacrifice" of communion. It is exactly parallel to the Old Testament sacrifices,

and it is one reason why in the Catholic churches the "altar" is still absolutely vital, as is the role of the Priest who is the only one able to offer the sacrifice. In the Catholic church Jesus is "received" and you are "saved" though communion.  That is why excommunication is so horrifying

to a Roman Catholic.  If you can't take communion you are going to hell.  A Catholic can't take communion if there is not altar or no priest.



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