TABERNACLE STUDIES PART 8 THE BRAZEN ALTAR
THE INSTRUCTIONS CONCERNING THE BRAZEN ALTAR ARE FOUND IN THE BIBLE, THE CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURES, IN EXODUS CHAPTER 27, VERSES 1 TO 8, AND IN CHAPTER 40 VERSE 29:
27:1 “And thou shalt make an altar of shittim wood, five cubits long, and five cubits broad; the altar shall be foursquare: and the height thereof shall be three cubits.
27:2 And thou shalt make the horns of it upon the four corners thereof: his horns shall be of the same: and thou shalt overlay it with brass.
27:3 And thou shalt make his pans to receive his ashes, and his shovels, and his basins, and his fleshhooks, and his firepans: all the vessels thereof thou shalt make of brass.
27:4 And thou shalt make for it a grate of network of brass; and upon the net shalt thou make four brazen rings in the four corners thereof.
27:5 And thou shalt put it under the compass of the altar beneath, that the net may be even to the midst of the altar.
27:6 And thou shalt make staves for the altar, staves of shittim wood, and overlay them with brass.
27:7 And the staves shall be put into the rings, and the staves shall be upon the two sides of the altar, to bear it.
27:8 Hollow with boards shalt thou make it: as it was showed thee in the mount, so shall they make it”.
40:29 “And he put the altar of burnt offering by the door of the tabernacle of the tent of the congregation, and offered upon it the burnt offering and the meal offering; as the Lord commanded Moses”.
The purpose of the altar We learn from the last verse quoted that the altar was used to make sacrifice. The word altar means “slaughter place”. It is called the altar of burnt offering to emphasise this, for it was especially associated with this offering, although the meal offering and the peace offering were offered on it too, as were some parts of the sin-offering. (The major part of the sin offering was burnt on the ground outside the camp, Leviticus 4:11,12).
Each of the tabernacle vessels supported something. So this altar supported the sacrifice laid upon it. The laver supported the water. The lampstand supported the lamps; the table supported the loaves; the altar of incense supported the censer; the ark supported the mercy-seat. We may see in this the fact that the Person of Christ is the support of His work, of whatever sort. It is His person that gives validity to what re does.
The Jews made the mistake of distinguishing between the value of the altar and the gift laid upon it. They said, “Whosoever shall swear by the altar it is nothing, but whosever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty”, Matthew 23:18. By “it is nothing” they meant, “the promise you made on oath is not binding”. By “is guilty”, they meant, “the promise you made on oath is binding upon you”. But the Lord Jesus taught that in this they were “fools and blind”, not able to see that the gift laid on the alter is sanctified by the altar, for the gift would have no meaning apart from it being offered, and the altar was the place to offer to God. So the altar and the sacrifice on it are of equal importance, both depending upon each other.
So it is in connection with the reality behind the altar and the sacrifice. The person of Christ gives validity to the sacrifice, and the sacrifice would not be meaningful if He were not who He is. So it is that the apostle Paul wrote, “We preach Christ crucified”, 1 Corinthians 1:23, and, “I was determined to know nothing among you, save Jesus Christ and Him crucified”, 2:2. The person and work of Christ go together and must be preached together. It is not enough to preach that Christ is a good man, or a holy man, or a fine teacher, or a worker of miracles. All these things are true, but they are not enough. His death was vitally important. To preach Christ apart from His death is to bring a bloodless offering, as Cain did, and was judged for it.
The position of the altar As soon as the Israelite passed through the gate, he was confronted by a wall of brass, five cubits broad and three cubits high. The Lord promised Jeremiah that He would make him like a brasen wall, and the enemies of the Lord would fight against him, but would not prevail, Jeremiah 1:18,19. Brass, therefore, is symbolic of that which resists that which comes against it. So the Israelite was confronted by a strong barrier, if he sought to approach to God. He must meet the demands of God if he is to draw near. But God had promised to meet the Israelites at the altar, Exodus 29;4, so we find, in the goodness of God, that the same altar that proved a barrier, also proved to be the means to facilitate approach. The altar was not only five cubits broad, but also five cubits long. So the extent of the need is matched by the extent of the provision. The expanse that prevents, is the same as the expanse that provides.
The pattern of the altar The altar was made of shittim wood overlaid with brass. We have thought of the shittim wood already, in connection with the boards for the tabernacle. They remind us of the sinlessness of Christ, and how that His nature was not liable to moral decay from within, (He not having a sin principle within Him), or successful attack from without, (for His will was totally in subjection to that of His Father, who would never direct Him to sin). This fits the Lord Jesus to be the support of the sacrifice. If He is not morally perfect, He cannot undertake to deal with the failings of others. If the wood is incorruptible, then the brass is incombustible. It is able to stand the test of the fire of the altar. The temperature of a fire of oak wood is 900-1200 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature at which brass melts is 1700-1800 degrees Fahrenheit. So the brass was well able to stand the test of the fire without being ruined. So also with the Lord Jesus. He had the capacity, because of His sinless perfection, to stand the test of the fire of Divine holiness when He was offered in sacrifice to God at Calvary. “Our God is a consuming fire”, Hebrews 12:29. So His nature resists sin, (the incorruptible wood), and also resists the fire, (the incombustible brass). This combination is vitally important, and it is unique to Him. He resisted sin so as to be fit for the fire, and He resisted the fire to fit us for heaven.
The brazen altar was perhaps the largest of the vessels, (although we are not told the measurements of either the laver, the lampstand, or the cherubim). It tells of the largeness of the Divine provision for the earnest soul who desires to approach God. It was also foursquare, meaning that it was not only equal on all four sides, but was not diamond-shaped. Because of this, it was not liable to be toppled, but stood firm and steadfast. The gospel is foursquare too, for the apostle tells us four truths on which the gospel is based. First, that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures”. Second, “He was buried”. Third, that “He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures”, and fourth, that “He was seen”, 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. These four truths are all necessary, and provide an unassailable provision. He was buried to prove He had died; He was seen to prove He had risen. Many of the Corinthians had been sunk in sin and depravity before the gospel reached them, as we learn from 1 Corinthians 6:9,10. But they had found ample provision in Christ whereby they could be gloriously saved.
The height of the altar was three cubits. This meant that the top of the altar was at eye-level. And this was where the blood of the burnt offering and the peace offering was sprinkled, “on the altar round about”, Leviticus 1:5; 3:2. The blood of the sin offering for the common people was sprinkled here too, this time on the horns of the altar, 4:30. How reassuring this was for the Israelite as he approached the altar, for he could see before his very eyes the evidence that others had come with their sacrifices, and has been accepted, for the blood-stain was still on the altar. And when his sacrifice had been accepted, there was yet more blood upon the altar; this time, of his sacrifice.
The altar was especially associated with the burnt offering, and is called the altar of burnt offering to signify this, Exodus 40:29. Now the burnt offering was literally an ascending offering, for the sweet savour of the burning of that sacrifice ascended to God. It is interesting to notice that the ascension of the Lord Jesus is mentioned three times in John’s gospel, and each time it is by the Lord Jesus Himself. He was ever aware that He would return to His Father once His work on earth was finished.
Each reference seems to ascend higher. In the first reference the thought is simply of ascending to heaven. In the second, the idea of ascending is coupled with “where He was before”. In the third, the climax is reached, for it is an ascent to the Father. The three mentions are as follows: “And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man which is in heaven,” John 3:13. “What and if ye shall see the Son of Man ascend up where He was before?” John 6:62. “Touch Me not; for I am not yet ascended to My Father,” John 20:17.
In the first reference the Lord says “which is”, in the second “He was”, and in the third “not yet”. Thus He speaks of the then-present, the past and the then-future.
In the expression ”which is in heaven, the Lord Jesus indicates that His proper dwelling place is in heaven, and even whilst found here upon the earth as the Son of Man (a title which connects Him with the earth), heaven is His home. Hence He can tell Nicodemus from direct and present experience, of “heavenly things” John 3:11,12. Cf. John 3:31,32; 5:19; 8:38. There may also be an allusion to the words of Daniel 7:13, where the Son of Man is viewed by the prophet as being in heaven, and receiving universal dominion from the Ancient of Days, as He is brought near before Him. Thus the Lord Jesus, whilst speaking to Nicodemus, is conscious of acceptance in God’s presence in heaven, and is confident that, when the time comes, the heavens will receive Him.
The second reference is found in that chapter which contains Christ’s discourse on the Bread of Life, prompted by the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, with its reminders of God’s provision of the manna when Israel were travelling through the wilderness. Just as the Israelites then, when they came out of their tents on the first morning the manna came, had said “What is it”? so in John 6.42, they said “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know”? thus betraying the fact that they did not really know who He was. And if they had not believed Him when He spoke of having come down from heaven, what would they do if He ascended back to where He came from? They would not believe that either, for these things are spiritually discerned, and man cannot profit from the flesh and its thoughts, John 6.63. During Israel’s wilderness days, a pot of manna was laid up in the presence of God, unseen by the mass of Israel, so the Lord Jesus would be ‘laid up’ in the presence of God, unseen by the majority of men – for only the believing few can say “we see Jesus,” Hebrews 2:9.
The third reference has to do with the then-future, when the Lord Jesus, having risen from the dead, would ascend to His Father and God. “Go to my brethren” said He to Mary, reminding us of the quotation that is found in Hebrews 2.12 “I will declare Thy name unto my brethren”. Reminding us also of His declared intention in John 17.26 of making known the Father‘s name to His own, that they might enter into the good of what that name reveals.
What do Christ’s brethren learn about the character of God ? Firstly, the Lord says, “My Father and your Father”, indicating that the loving relationship which the Lord Jesus enjoyed with His Father whilst here upon the earth, may also be known by those who can call Him Father also. Secondly, “My God and your God,” indicating that the strength and resources which were available to Christ when here below, are guaranteed to those who follow Him in the path of faith and dependence. The words of Christ, foretold in Psalm 22:10 were, “I was cast upon Thee from the womb: Thou art my God from my mother’s belly”. Thus from the very first moment of conscious existence as a man, the Lord Jesus is said to be absolutely dependent upon God, with no suspicion of the independence and self-sufficiency which are the hallmarks of Adam and his race. These three references to ascension, and their meaning, are a great help to those who desire to enter in spirit into the sanctuary where He is gone. In Hebrews 4:14 “Jesus the Son of God” has passed into the heavens, but He did so as our great high priest, and thus we are encouraged and emboldened to draw near also.
The horns of the altar The altar had horns at the four corners. These are said to be “of the same”; that is, they were not fastened on afterwards, (in which case they might not have been secure), but an integral part of the structure of the altar, being made as part of the altar. To further strengthen them, they were overlaid with brass at the same time as the altar was, for verse 2 says, “the horns shall be of the same: and thou shalt overlay it with brass”. They were not fastened to an altar already overlaid with brass, but were overlaid as one with the altar.
The Hebrew word used for these horns is that used normally for animal horns. Moses said about Joseph, “And his horns are as the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth”, Deuteronomy 33:17. Daniel had a vision of conflict between Persia and Greece, the former represented by a ram with two horns, the latter represented by a goat with a notable horn. As they fought, the goat broke the two horns of the ram, and as a consequence, “there was no power in the ram to stand before him”, Daniel 8:3-7. So we learn that the horns of an animal are used to assert its power. An animal with broken horns is powerless. So in Scripture horns speak of power.
We are reminded of the words of the apostle Paul as he begins his treatise on the gospel in the Epistle to the Romans. Said he, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek”, Romans 1:16. So just as there was a horn on all four corners of the altar, so men may come from all corners of the earth to the foot of the Cross, and, believing, find salvation from God and acceptance with God. There is power in the sacrifice of Christ, and that power to save is available to all.
The horns of the altar not only had a symbolic meaning, they also had a practical purpose, alluded to in Psalm 118:27, where we read, “Bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar”. Now Psalm 118 is the last of that group of psalms called “The Great Hallel”. Although Psalm 118 does not finish with “Praise ye the Lord”, or “Hallelujah”, as Psalms 115-117, the other psalms linked with it do, it was still part of the series. These psalms were sung at the Passover Supper. So it is very likely that these words were on the lips of the Lord Jesus as He went forth to His arrest, trial, and execution, for we read, “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives”, Matthew 26:30. His commitment to the work of sacrifice was fittingly expressed by the psalmist. Yet there is that which the psalmist did not express, for the reason an animal needed to be bound to the altar as it awaited its slaughter was that in many cases the animal would sense what was about to happen and try to escape. The horns of the altar, however, had power to restrain it. The Saviour did not need to be “bound to the altar” in this sense, for He was fully committed to the doing of His Father’s will. If He was bound by anything, it was the constraint of the eternal purpose, for He was foreordained to die, 1 Peter 1:20. What a contrast with the eleven disciples, who had said in the upper room that they would all be prepared to die with Him, Matthew 26:35, yet who in a little while all forsook Him and fled, verse 56.
The vessels of the altar Before we are given any more details about the altar, we are given a list of the vessels of the altar. These details are given to us before the rest of the structure is described. They are listed in the following order: Pans for the ashes, then shovels, then basons, then fleshhooks and then firepans. We might think this to be a strange order, but there is a purpose in it. Remember we are on a spiritual journey, from the presence of men to the presence of God.
Now the first thing that confronts us as we approach the altar is a pile of ashes, for the ashes remaining after the sacrifice had been burnt were first of all placed on the east side of the altar, and this is the side that faces the gate of the court, Leviticus 1:16; 6:10. All might look through the gate and see these ashes, but only one coming near to the altar could appreciate them fully. The ashes speak of full acceptance, for God had accepted the offering by reducing it to ashes. But prior to that, the offerer had laid his hands upon the offering, and so the acceptance that the offering would meet with, is credited to the him. The pile of ashes were the sign of this, and the ash pans and their shovels therefore bear testimony to full acceptance. How good it is to be “accepted in the Beloved”, Ephesians 1:6, for God credits to His people all that he finds acceptable about His Beloved Son.
The next thing to confront the one who approached the altar would be the blood sprinkled on it. The animal had lost its life, its blood had been caught in a bason, and the priest had sprinkled that blood at eye level for the assurance of the one who had brought his offering. He may have full confidence that his life is spared, because another’s life has been accepted instead. The basons tell of full assurance.
Next to meet the eye are the parts of the sacrifice as they are arranged on the altar by the priests, using the fleshhooks. By this means the perfection of the animal is exposed to view. The fleshhooks tell us of full perfection, for the sacrifice is a preview of Calvary, and the perfection of Christ was evident there.
Finally, the fire is applied to each of the parts of the sacrifice, and there arises to God a sweet savour, a savour of acceptance. Every part of the animal is affected by the fire, so the firepans, by which the fire was moved around the altar, are a sign of full testing.
The grate of the altar and the staves A square grate of network was made out of brass, so that the parts of the animal may be laid on it, and the ashes may pass through it. This grate rested on a ledge halfway up the side of the altar. In the four corners of the grate were four rings, which must have passed through the altar wall, for they were for the staves to be inserted into, so that the altar could be carried. It is possible that this also helped the airflow to the fire, so that it burned brightly for God.
So it was that the grate was firmly fixed; it could not move downwards, for it rested on a ledge; it could not move upwards for the rings held it secure. By the same token, the sacrifice laid on the grate could not move either, and the only exit for it was as ashes falling through the grate.
How significant all this is, when related to Christ. The staves tell us of His journey through this world. They were securely fastened in the rings, A ring is a symbol of a never-ending eternity, reminding us that the mission of the Lord Jesus was marked out beforehand in eternity. But the rings to facilitate the journey were connected to the grate that facilitated the burning of the sacrifice. As soon as the staves were put in, and the journey was begun, there was only one destination for that journey, and that was Calvary, the place of His sacrifice. Not until He had met all His obligations, and His sacrifice had been accepted, could He be free. But it was accepted, and He is free in resurrection, having met all God’s claims. The burnt sacrifice was reduced to ashes, which fell through the grate, and were then deposited on the east side of the altar, to be lit up by the rays of the rising sun. So it is that the Lord Jesus, His sacrifice over, rested in the tomb, until the rays of the rising sun lit up the garden, and showed the tomb was empty, Mark 16:2. His burnt offering had been accepted, Psalm 20:3, and He had been given length of days for ever and ever, Psalm 21:5. Incidentally, Mark is the only writer that mentions the rising of the sun in connection with the tomb. The psalmist wrote about the rising of the sun in Psalm 104:22, 23. It is the time when the wild beasts lay down in their dens after the night of hunting. It is also the time when man goes forth to his work. How interesting that it is also only Mark who tells us that when the Lord Jesus was tempted, He was “with the wild beasts”, Mark 1:13. They did not touch Him, however, for they knew their Maker. Just because He had taken the form of a servant, (and Mark emphasises His servant character), it does not mean He had lost the form of God. It was otherwise with men, however, for they hunted Him with relentless ferocity. They have gone to their “dens”, however, and now it is time for the Perfect Servant to go forth to serve in fresh ways. To Israel, the day began in the evening, as we see from Genesis chapter 1. But now the day begins in the morning, for john’s resurrection account in chapter 20 of his gospel begins with the morning, and ends with the evening.
The hollowness of the altar The altar was constructed of shittim wood in the form of boards, so it was possible to make a space between the outer and inner walls. In practical terms, this would enable for the circulation of air in some way so that the altar was cooled. The spiritual significance, however, is most interesting. When the Lord Jesus came into the world, He came as one who “made Himself of no reputation”, Philippians 2:7. Now this phrase is a translation of the verb to empty; so literally it reads, “He emptied Himself”. Infidels have highlighted this, and have suggested that this means He emptied Himself of Deity. This is a blasphemous lie, and those who promote it will die in their sins if they do not repent, John 8:24. The fact is, that one who is God cannot renounce Deity, since God is immutable. “I am the Lord, I change not”, Malachi 3:6. Deity cannot be altered or modified, so if Christ was God before He was born, He was God afterwards.
So what does empty Himself mean? The answer is found in the structure and punctuation of the passage. There are seven clearly-marked statements in the section, and this is the second one. “Made Himself of no reputation” is explained by the following two expressions, “took upon Him the form of a servant”, and “was made in the likeness of men”. (See the post titled “THE PERSON OF CHRIST: He humbled Himself” for more detail on Philippians 2). For one who is in the form of God to take the form of a servant and to come into manhood, is to forego the glory and reputation that being in the form of God involves. That is not to say that the Lord Jesus was not given recognition at all. Those who believed in Him exclaimed “my Lord and my God”, John 20:28, but this was not the general reaction to Him. We may illustrate it by what happened in the parable of the vineyard, when the servant came to collect the fruits of the vineyard on behalf of the owner, and he was sent away empty, Mark 12:3. And the word for “empty” is the same as is used in Philippians 2:7. He was deprived of what He should have been given, and instead of being loaded with the fruits of the vineyard to take back to his master, he was forced to return empty-handed. So the Lord Jesus was deprived of what He should have been given by men, seeing that He is God. The difference between Christ and the servant in the parable is that the servant had no control over what happened, whereas the Lord deliberately took a course which resulted in Him not having reputation, for He came to take the lowly place. And there was no more lowly place than Calvary! He who was rich in privilege became poor, deprived of the privileges He should have enjoyed, that we who were poor in privilege, might be rich. And one of the privileges gained at such great cost by Christ, is the freedom to approach into the very presence of God, made fit by what He did at Calvary, the place of His sacrifice.