Does you church have an altar (or more than one altar) in the sanctuary? Does each service end with an altar call style invitation? What are we being invited to do at the altar if/when we get there? I would like to put aside personal feelings, experiences and what any particular local church does or doesn’t do and look into the Bible as we analyze the purpose of the altar. Ultimately I would like us to answer this question: what is the place of the altar in the New Testament church?
Cain and Abel both offered sacrifices in Genesis 4, but the first mention of an altar occurs when Noah builds one following the great flood and offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving. The altar is a place of sacrifice. Before the tabernacle was built, and later replaced by the Jerusalem temple, any person could build an altar and offer sacrifice to God. After the Law was given through Moses, specifics were given as to who could make such a sacrifice and the very specific manner in which sacrifices were to be made. One of King Saul’s offenses was making a sacrifice after being instructed to wait for the prophet Samuel. But that’s not important right now, instead notice this: every altar in the Old Testament of the Bible was built for the offering of animal sacrifice.
There are numerous references to altars in the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke, but I would point out that those involved the practice of Judaism. The first New Testament message was preached by Peter in Acts chapter 2; on that day 3,000 people put their faith in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The New Testament Church Age began on the Day of Pentecost. The Book of Acts has exactly one mention of the word altar, and that is the one Paul discovered in Athens dedicated to “the unknown God.” The only mention of altar in Romans was in a story about the Old Testament prophet Elijah. There are two mentions of altar in 1 Corinthians, both of which refer to those entitled to eat of the sacrifices made there.
We get three mentions of altar in Hebrews; the first refers to the tribe serving at the altar, so again we’re talking about the men qualified to make sacrifice. The second mention is about the golden altar served by Aaron in the Exodus account, and the third mention is again about who can eat of the altar sacrifice. The one mention of altar in James occurs during a retelling of the Abraham and Isaac story. There word altar is mentioned several times in Revelation, but every one of those describes an altar in heaven before the throne of God.
Which brings us to this: the altar is a place of sacrifice. There is no more animal sacrifice. The Bible never describes the altar as a place of worship. After the construction of the Jerusalem temple, sacrifice only occurred at the temple altar and at the hands of the temple priests. Synagogues were built around the nation of Israel for daily or regularly scheduled worship for those who had to make a pilgrimage to reach the capital at Jerusalem. A rabbi was there to read from the Torah but sacrifices were only made in Jerusalem. So what are we doing at the altar?
There doesn’t seem to be a New Testament directive to kneel at an altar to pray. I’m not going to tell anyone not to do that. We have a history of praying in the altar and if consider yourself making a “sacrifice of praise” or “crucifying self” in a figurative gesture then please continue. I take issue with being told to “come to the altar and do business with God” or worse that “God is at the altar waiting for you.” These statements give the impression that something mystical happens at the altar that cannot take place in your office or in my living room. If a person is under conviction they may be looking to escape the situation, and the mistaken notion that “God is waiting at the altar” may serve to reinforce their idea they can get away from God by leaving church when the service ends. God is always watching waiting for sinners to come home, but he is no more at the altar than he is anywhere else. Do business with God? What kind of business is God in? What the unsaved person needs is to confess and repent which can happen at the front of the sanctuary at 12:05 p.m. but doesn’t have to. What the Christian needs to do is confess sins daily and ask forgiveness and not wait until Sunday to meet with God when he is open for business.
I am not opposed to churches having an altar. On the other hand I disagree with our fundamentalist friends that claim churches with no altar have moved God out of the building. Every altar ever mentioned in the Bible was for making sacrifice and there is no more sacrifice. The all-sufficient sacrifice took place when the Lamb of God was slain which takes away the sin of the world. There is no New Testament mandate to kneel at the altar for pray, worship or anything else and I take offense to the notion that something mystical or magic happens when we bow at the altar.
The word “altar” occurs 22 times in the New Testament of the ESV Bible. Click here to see the full list at Bible Gateway.