The Bronze Altar

1 “You shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits broad. The altar shall be square, and its height shall be three cubits. And you shall make horns for it on its four corners; its horns shall be of one piece with it, and you shall overlay it with bronze. You shall make pots for it to receive its ashes, and shovels and basins and forks and fire pans. You shall make all its utensils of bronze. You shall also make for it a grating, a network of bronze, and on the net you shall make four bronze rings at its four corners. And you shall set it under the ledge of the altar so that the net extends halfway down the altar. And you shall make poles for the altar, poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with bronze. And the poles shall be put through the rings, so that the poles are on the two sides of the altar when it is carried. You shall make it hollow, with boards. As it has been shown you on the mountain, so shall it be made.– Exodus 27:1-8 ESV

God had promised to dwell among His people. To do so, He commanded that they create a tent to house His divine presence. But this would be no ordinary tent. This elaborate and intricately detailed structure was to be a visual reminder of God’s holiness and glory. Every aspect of its design and construction was intended to reveal the nature of Yahweh. This God-designed but man-made sanctuary was filled with powerful imagery that served as an illustration of God’s sacredness and man’s sinfulness.

Thickly woven veils separated the inner recesses of the Tabernacle where the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies were located. No Israelite was allowed within these inner chambers. Within the Holy of Holies, the glory of God would dwell above the Mercy Seat, and within this small room, the high priest would enter once a year on the Day of Atonement. And he could only do so after going through an elaborate ceremony of purification on behalf of himself and the people. God would give Moses a stern warning to pass on to his brother, Aaron, whom God had chosen to serve as the high priest of Israel.

Warn your brother, Aaron, not to enter the Most Holy Place behind the inner curtain whenever he chooses; if he does, he will die. For the Ark’s cover—the place of atonement—is there, and I myself am present in the cloud above the atonement cover. – Leviticus 16:2 NLT

Even the high priest was prohibited from entering into God’s presence uninvited or in an impure state, upon penalty of death. God’s holiness was to be respected and feared. Just because God was choosing to dwell among His people did not give them a right to become complacent or cavalier about His holiness. God knew that His close proximity could easily produce an attitude of familiarity and a false sense of security.

So, this house in which the presence of God would dwell was accompanied by an altar. Just outside the doors that led into the Tabernacle, the Israelites commanded to place a specially designed altar on which they would offer sacrifices and offerings to God. It was on this altar that Aaron, on the Day of Atonement, would “present his own bull as a sin offering to purify himself and his family, making them right with the Lord” (Leviticus 16:6 NLT). Before the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, he must ensure that his own sins have been atoned for. His position alone did not afford him the right to enter God’s presence. As a fallen human being, his sin made him unworthy to come before the Lord. And as a representative of the people, he bore their sins as well. So, God demanded that Aaron make atonement for the people as well.

“Then he must take the two male goats and present them to the Lord at the entrance of the Tabernacle. He is to cast sacred lots to determine which goat will be reserved as an offering to the Lord and which will carry the sins of the people to the wilderness of Azazel. Aaron will then present as a sin offering the goat chosen by lot for the Lord. The other goat, the scapegoat chosen by lot to be sent away, will be kept alive, standing before the Lord. When it is sent away to Azazel in the wilderness, the people will be purified and made right with the Lord.” – Leviticus 16:7-10 NLT

The bronze altar, though located outside the walls of the Tabernacle, would prove to be the most essential piece of furniture in the entire complex. Without it, the high priest would never enter into God’s presence. It was on the bronze altar that atonement for sins would be made. Blood must be spilled before access to God could be enjoyed. The path to mercy, found in the presence of God, was through the altar. As the author of Hebrews states, “according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood. For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22 NLT).

On the Day of Atonement, Aaron would take the blood of the sacrificed animals and enter the veil of the temple in the Most Holy Place, where he would sprinkle it on the mercy seat.

“Aaron must slaughter the first goat as a sin offering for the people and carry its blood behind the inner curtain. There he will sprinkle the goat’s blood over the atonement cover and in front of it, just as he did with the bull’s blood. Through this process, he will purify the Most Holy Place, and he will do the same for the entire Tabernacle, because of the defiling sin and rebellion of the Israelites. No one else is allowed inside the Tabernacle when Aaron enters it for the purification ceremony in the Most Holy Place. No one may enter until he comes out again after purifying himself, his family, and all the congregation of Israel, making them right with the Lord.” – Leviticus 16:15-17 NLT

The blood made the mercy of God possible. Forgiveness of sin was only available after atonement had been made. So, the altar served as a kind of doorway into God’s presence. It was the key to unlocking the mercy and forgiveness of Israel’s holy and righteous God.

While no one other than the high priest would ever step inside the Holy of Holies and view the Mercy Seat, every Israelite could see “the altar of burnt offerings” (Exodus 30:28). Roughly seven and a half feet square and four feet high, this large object would be prominently visible in the courtyard of the Tabernacle. And every day, the Israelites would come to the altar and present their mandatory sacrifices.

“These are the sacrifices you are to offer regularly on the altar. Each day, offer two lambs that are a year old, one in the morning and the other in the evening. With one of them, offer two quarts of choice flour mixed with one quart of pure oil of pressed olives; also, offer one quart of wine as a liquid offering. Offer the other lamb in the evening, along with the same offerings of flour and wine as in the morning. It will be a pleasing aroma, a special gift presented to the Lord.” – Exodus 29:38-41 NLT

This daily ritual was to be faithfully observed if the people wanted to continue to enjoy God’s presence and benefit from His blessings. The bronze altar would become a familiar part of their daily lives. For 40 years they would utilize this God-ordained process for offering sacrifices and obtaining atonement. But according to the author of Hebrews, the Tabernacle, the altar, and the Mercy Seat were all temporary symbols of a greater reality to come.

So Christ has now become the High Priest over all the good things that have come. He has entered that greater, more perfect Tabernacle in heaven, which was not made by human hands and is not part of this created world. With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever.

Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. – Hebrews 9:11-14 NLT

The entire Tabernacle complex was intended as a foreshadowing of the atoning work of Jesus.

…the Tabernacle and everything in it, which were copies of things in heaven, had to be purified by the blood of animals. But the real things in heaven had to be purified with far better sacrifices than the blood of animals. – Hebrews 9:23 NLT

This earthly sanctuary, built by human hands, was intended to represent the glory of God’s heavenly home. Access to God’s throne room in heaven is restricted and available only to those who are free from sin. And when Jesus told His disciples, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV), He was declaring Himself to be the doorway into God’s presence. And the author of Hebrews describes just how Jesus made access to the Father possible.

For Christ did not enter into a holy place made with human hands, which was only a copy of the true one in heaven. He entered into heaven itself to appear now before God on our behalf. And he did not enter heaven to offer himself again and again, like the high priest here on earth who enters the Most Holy Place year after year with the blood of an animal. If that had been necessary, Christ would have had to die again and again, ever since the world began. But now, once for all time, he has appeared at the end of the age to remove sin by his own death as a sacrifice. – Hebrews 9:24-26 NLT

With His death on the cross, Jesus satisfied the just demands of a holy and righteous God. In paying the penalty for mankind’s sins, He made atonement possible. He provided access to the Mercy Seat of God where forgiveness is poured out freely and fully. That is why those who place their faith in the atoning work of Jesus are encouraged to “come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most” (Hebrews 4:16 NLT). 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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