An altar is a structure upon which offerings such as sacrifices are made for religious purposes. The altar was a raised platform with a flat surface. In the Scriptures, there are over 400 references to altars. The word altar is first used in Genesis 8:20 when Noah built an altar after leaving the Ark. The idea of an altar is present in Genesis 4:3-4, where Cain and Abel brought their sacrifices to the Lord, which was done most likely on some type of altar.
Examples of Altars in the Bible
An altar also represents a place of consecration to the Lord. Before the time of Moses, when the Lord gave the Law to Moses, men made altars out of available materials. Such an altar was built to commemorate an encounter with the Lord and to signify the event between the Lord and man at that time. Examples of this include the following:
- Abram (Genesis 12:7)
- Isaac (Genesis 26:24-25)
- Jacob (Genesis 35:5)
- David (1 Chronicles 21:26)
- Gideon (Judges 6:24)
All these men built altars and worshiped the Lord at them. An altar represents a genuine desire of the person to give themselves wholly to the Lord because of His work in them to memorialize that work.
During the time of Israel’s rebellion and idolatry, altars began to fall into disrepair. Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel and “repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down” (1 Kings 18:30). Elijah’s restoration of the altar is critical because of the paganism of his day. Additionally, Elijah symbolized the unity of God’s people in the construction of altars (1 Kings 18:31-32). It was here, on this rebuilt altar, that the Lord rained down fire and put the Baal worshipers to shame (1 Kings 18:38-39).
The Lord sometimes commanded altars to be built after He had amazingly delivered someone (Exodus 30:1; Deuteronomy 27:4-7). The significance of this altar helped future generations remember the Lord. Since atonement is the work of God, the Law specified that an altar made of stones must be made with natural uncut stones, as Exodus 20:5 says.
Within the instructions given by the Lord at the tabernacle, He gave further instruction for the type of altar the courtyard should contain (Exodus 27:1-8). On this altar, the people of God made sacrifices that the Lord God accepted as an atonement for sin. The altar was to have four horn-like projections with one at each corner and to be large enough to hold bulls, sheep, and goats to be used for sacrifices. When Solomon built the altar, it was made of pure gold (1 Kings 7:48).
An altar, in the broadest sense of the term, is a designed place where someone consecrates themselves to someone or something. Churches have altars for prayer, communion, weddings, and other purposes. Some Christians use their “altars” for personal worship as a reminder of Romans 12:1.
The Day of Atonement and the Altar
From the earliest days of the Christian church, Christians have had to face those who wanted to impose requirements of the Law on Christianity. Paul had to deal with this problem in Galatia with Judaizers, who wanted to impose circumcision on Gentile converts. The main problem with this idea is that legalistic demands add nothing to the gospel of the Lord Jesus, but take away the freedom Christ has won in His death and resurrection. By adding to the gospel, the Judaizers denied the gospel (Galatians 1:8).
On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would offer sacrifices for the sins of people. Even so, the animal sacrifices offered on the Day of Atonement could not affect the cleansing of the conscience, for there were times when the meat could not be enjoyed even though it did not benefit those who ate it (Hebrews 13:9). When Christians feed at the altar of Jesus Christ, they are supplied with grace and strength to persevere in the Christian life.
When we feed at the altar of Christ, we are supplied with the grace and strength that we need to persevere in the race of faith. By His Word and presence, He guarantees and completes our salvation.
The Function of Altars in the Bible
Daily life in the ancient world was dangerous and far from the clean civilization we have today. During this time, people lived close to animals, and the smells of living close to them could not be escaped. In such a culture, incenses were burned in the king’s presence to mask the odors of the livestock and to pay tribute to his position. Incense was also burned before the Lord in the tabernacle in Israel, which was His earthly throne room under the Old Covenant. Exodus 30:1-10 describes this altar of incense as one that was placed alongside the table of showbread in the Holy Place outside the Most Holy Place (Exodus 40:1-8).
The table of showbread and the lampstand were, along with the altar of incense, made with gold and acacia wood (Exodus 40:1-3). This area of the Temple was outfitted with poles that could be transported like the table (Exodus 40:4-5). While the lampstand and the table illustrate God’s work to provide His people light, bread, and other necessities, the incense altar represented the work the Israelites offered the Lord through the work of prayer.
Incense and Prayers
The Scripture often likens incense to the prayers of the people of God (Psalm 141:2; Revelation 5:8). Such an explanation makes sense when we consider what happens on the altar of incense and how fine spices were mixed together and left to smolder on the altar day and night (Exodus 30:7-8; 34-38). The smoke from the incense symbolized what was offered up to the Lord just as our prayers go up to the Lord. By being outside the veil, the High Priest would see the smoke penetrate the curtain of the Holy of Holies though he couldn’t pass the curtain (Exodus 30:6).
The incense altar reminded the people of Israel to pray and assured them that their prayers were a sweet offering to the Lord. With that said, the prayers themselves did not have intrinsic sweetness because they were neither greater or lesser than other prayers. Atonement had to be offered at the altar once a year, and only when the atonement was offered were prayers acceptable (Exodus 30:10). The altar of incense was the place purified by the sprinkling of blood, so the people’s prayers might be accepted through sacrifices. Today, the death of Jesus, in place of sacrifices by a High Priest for our sins, ensures us that the Lord hears our prayers (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:14-16).
The Seriousness of Worship
The crucial details surrounding the altar of incense and the proper worship of the Lord in the temple shows how serious He takes worship. All this shows us that the Lord rejects worship and those prayers that do not approach Him in faith in Christ. Worship that is pleasing to the Lord is centered on the preached Word of God that points people to Jesus. As Christians, we are to zealously protect the purity of worship and prayer and offer pleasing worship only according to the Word as He commands.
©iStock/Getty Images Plus/DmitriMaruta
Dave Jenkins is happily married to Sarah Jenkins. He is a writer, editor, and speaker living in beautiful Southern Oregon.