The Altar—What Place in Worship?
DO YOU consider the altar to be a fundamental part of your worship? For many who attend churches of Christendom, the altar may be the center of attention. Have you ever considered what the Bible reveals about the use of altars in worship?
The first altar mentioned in the Bible is the one built by Noah to offer animal sacrifices when he left the ark of preservation after the Deluge.a—Genesis 8:20.
Following the confusion of the languages at Babel, mankind spread over all the surface of the earth. (Genesis 11:1-9) With their innate sense of the divine, humans sought to draw close to God, with whom they were less and less familiar, ‘groping’ for him blindly. (Acts 17:27; Romans 2:14, 15) Since Noah’s day many peoples have built altars to their deities. Religions and peoples have used altars in false worship. Being alienated from the true God, some have used altars for horrible rites involving human victims, even children. When they left Jehovah, some kings of Israel erected altars to pagan gods, like Baal. (1 Kings 16:29-32) But what about the use of altars in true worship?
Altars and True Worship in Israel
After Noah, other faithful men built altars to use in their worship of the true God, Jehovah. Abraham built altars at Shechem, at a point near Bethel, at Hebron, and on Mount Moriah, where he sacrificed a ram provided by God in place of Isaac. Later, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses spontaneously built altars for use in their worship of God.—Genesis 12:6-8; 13:3, 18; 22:9-13; 26:23-25; 33:18-20; 35:1, 3, 7; Exodus 17:15, 16; 24:4-8.
When God gave the people of Israel his Law, he commanded that they erect the tabernacle, a portable tent, also called “the tent of meeting,” as the central feature of the arrangement for approach to him. (Exodus 39:32, 40) The tabernacle, or tent, had two altars. The one for burnt offerings, made of acacia wood and covered with copper, was placed before the entrance and was used to offer up animal sacrifices. (Exodus 27:1-8; 39:39; 40:6, 29) The incense altar, also of acacia wood but covered with gold, was put inside the tabernacle, before the curtain of the Most Holy. (Exodus 30:1-6; 39:38; 40:5, 26, 27) Special incense was burned upon it twice a day, in the morning and in the evening. (Exodus 30:7-9) The permanent temple built by King Solomon followed the design of the tabernacle, having two altars.
“The True Tent” and the Symbolic Altar
When Jehovah gave Israel the Law, he provided much more than rules to regulate his people’s lives and their approach to him in sacrifice and prayer. Many of its arrangements constituted what the apostle Paul called “a typical representation,” “an illustration,” or “a shadow of the heavenly things.” (Hebrews 8:3-5; 9:9; 10:1; Colossians 2:17) In other words, many aspects of the Law not only guided the Israelites until the coming of the Christ but also constituted a foregleam of God’s purposes to be fulfilled through Jesus Christ. (Galatians 3:24) Yes, aspects of the Law had prophetic value. For instance, the Passover lamb, the blood of which was used as a sign of salvation for the Israelites, prefigured Jesus Christ. He is “the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world,” whose blood was poured out to free us from sin.—John 1:29; Ephesians 1:7.
Many things relating to tabernacle and temple service pictured spiritual realities. (Hebrews 8:5; 9:23) In fact, Paul writes of “the true tent, which Jehovah put up, and not man.” He continues: “Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come to pass, through the greater and more perfect tent not made with hands, that is, not of this creation.” (Hebrews 8:2; 9:11) “The greater and more perfect tent” was Jehovah’s great spiritual temple arrangement. The language of the Scriptures indicates that the great spiritual temple is the arrangement by which humans can approach Jehovah on the basis of Jesus Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice.—Hebrews 9:2-10, 23-28.
Learning from God’s Word that some of the Law’s provisions and norms picture greater, more meaningful, spiritual realities surely builds faith in the Bible’s inspiration. It also heightens appreciation for the divine wisdom uniquely manifest in the Scriptures.—Romans 11:33; 2 Timothy 3:16.
The altar of burnt offering also has prophetic value. It seems to represent God’s “will,” or his willingness to accept Jesus’ perfect human sacrifice.—Hebrews 10:1-10.
Later in the book of Hebrews, Paul makes this interesting comment: “We have an altar from which those who do sacred service at the tent have no authority to eat.” (Hebrews 13:10) To which altar was he referring?
Many Catholic interpreters claim that the altar mentioned at Hebrews 13:10 is that used for the Eucharist, the “sacrament” by which Christ’s sacrifice is said to be renewed during the Mass. But you can see from the context that the altar Paul was discussing is symbolic. Several scholars attribute a figurative sense to the term “altar” in this text. For Giuseppe Bonsirven, a Jesuit, “this accords perfectly with all the symbolism of the epistle [to the Hebrews].” He notes: “In Christian language, the word ‘altar’ is initially used in a spiritual sense and only after Irenaeus, and particularly after Tertullian and St. Cyprian, is it applied to the eucharist and most specifically to the eucharistic table.”
As stated by a Catholic magazine, use of the altar spread in the “Constantinian era” with the “construction of basilicas.” Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana (Christian Archaeology Review) noted: “It is certain that for the first two centuries, one cannot speak of a fixed place of worship but of liturgical gatherings held in rooms in private homes . . . , rooms that at the end of the ceremony, immediately reverted to their original function.”
Christendom’s Use of the Altar
“The altar,” says the Catholic journal La Civiltà Cattolica “is the center point not only of the church building but also of the living Church.” Yet, Jesus Christ did not institute even one religious ceremony that was to be performed at an altar; nor did he command his disciples to perform ceremonies using one. Jesus’ mention of the altar at Matthew 5:23, 24 and elsewhere refers to religious practices prevailing among the Jews, but he does not indicate that his followers were to worship God using an altar.
American historian George Foot Moore (1851-1931), wrote: “The main features of Christian worship were always the same, but in time the simple rites described by Justin in the middle of the second century were elaborated into a stately cultus.” Catholic rites and public religious ceremonies are so numerous and complex as to constitute a subject of study—liturgy—in Catholic seminaries. Moore continued: “This tendency, inherent in all ritual, was greatly furthered by the influence of the Old Testament when the Christian clergy came to be regarded as succeeding to the place of the priesthood of the former dispensation. The gorgeous raiment of the high priest, the ceremonial vestments of the other priests, the solemn processions, the choirs of Levitical singers intoning psalms, the clouds of incense from swinging censers—all seemed a divine model of religious worship, which warranted the church in rivalling the pomp of the ancient cults.”
You might be amazed to learn that many rites, ceremonies, vestments, and other items used in worship by various churches follow, not the Christian teachings of the Gospels, but the customs and rites of Jews and pagans. The Enciclopedia Cattolica states that Catholicism “has inherited the use of the altar from Judaism and in part from paganism.” Minucius Felix, an apologist of the third century C.E., wrote that Christians had ‘neither temples nor altars.’ The encyclopedic dictionary Religioni e Miti (Religions and Myths) similarly states: “The early Christians rejected the use of the altar to differentiate themselves from Jewish and pagan worship.”
Because Christianity above all rested on principles that are to be accepted and applied in everyday life and in every land, there was no longer any need for a holy city on earth, or for a material temple with altars, or for human priests of special rank dressed in distinguished vestments. “The hour is coming,” said Jesus, “when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you people worship the Father. . . . The true worshipers will worship the Father with spirit and truth.” (John 4:21, 23) The complexity of rites and the use of altars on the part of many churches ignore what Jesus said about the way the true God is to be worshiped.
a Earlier, Cain and Abel may have made their offerings to Jehovah using altars.—Genesis 4:3, 4.