Believers still have an altar?

Last time we saw the staggering truth that believers are told to have absolute confidence in – that Almighty God is their Helper! This time we will see another surprising but remarkable and rich truth – that although Christ did away with all the Old Covenant sin offerings, New Covenant believers still have an altar from which they, and only they, may eat.

LOOKING BACK (July 10, 2022 – Hebrews 13:1-6)

We meditated on three imperatives that the author gives his readers as he begins to conclude his letter. In all three, he continues the idea of worshiping God from the close of chapter 12 but is showing what this will look like in practice.:

  1. Keep persevering in Love (Hebrews 6:1-3).  Love, as a fruit of the Spirit in the lives of believers, will be seen, and will continue to be seen. God’s children will show love to one another (that is how it will be clear that they are children of God and are related to each other in God’s household). It will also be shown to the fallen world in acts of hospitality. The Greek word translated hospitality is all about love shown to strangers. Finally, it will be shown as believers identify with and minister to those who are suffering for their faith.
  2. Keep persevering in Holiness (Hebrews 6:4-5). The world inevitably has a distorted and incorrect view of marriage. All members of the church, though, need to share God’s view and highly prize this institution because of all that it stands for and all that it is intended to show. In this day and age, particularly, the church needs to be really careful not to take on the views of the world by osmosis but to stand up for the sanctity and holiness of marriage. In particular, this will mean insisting that the marriage relationship is the only place where intimate sexual relations should occur between a man and a woman.
  3. Keep persevering in Faith (Hebrews 6:6). Our society is obsessed with material possessions and we are always told that we should aim for more, indeed, that we deserve to have more. This is the basis of most if not all advertisements on the television and elsewhere. But believers have God, the Creator, committed to being their Helper and can be confident that He will never leave them nor forsake them! We need to learn to rest in Him and in the very precious promises He has given us!

In the light of these things, we were all exhorted to persevere in these qualities, offering our lives in reverent worship to God.

LOOKING FORWARD (Hebrews 13:7-14)

The writer has presented Jesus to us in this letter as the Better Sacrifice, Who offered Himself once for all on the cross, doing what all the Old Covenant animal sacrifices could never do by cleansing the consciences of those who draw near to God through faith in Him, and so putting an end for all time to sacrifice for sin – wonderful news!

But then in verse 10, the author tells his readers something that may seem to contradict this idea. Quite categorically, he says that as believers, we do still have an altar – and an altar is a place for offering sacrifices. So what kind of altar do we have, and what kind of sacrifices do we make? Let’s see what this passage says.

Under the Old Covenant, the priests could eat certain portions of some of the animal sacrifices that were offered, but they were not to eat the flesh of the sin offerings, whose blood was taken into the holy place in the tabernacle and sprinkled seven times before the Lord in front of the veil of the sanctuary. The bodies of these animals had to be burned outside the camp (verse 11 – see Leviticus 4).

In a similar manner, Jesus suffered outside the gate of the city, and in verse 12, the writer links this fact to the sin offerings of the Old Covenant. In other words, he is saying that those sacrifices were types, pointing forward to THE sin offering who would come – Jesus.

But now we return to verse 10 and we see more clearly what is being said. First, the Old Covenant priests have no right to eat from our altar. It belongs to a New and better Covenant than theirs. They couldn’t even eat the flesh of the sin offerings under their own covenant, so they certainly have no right to eat from our New Covenant altar. But the writer is saying more than this, isn’t He? He is saying that as New Covenant priests we do have a right to eat from THE Sin Offering that was made on our altar!

This is amazing! We know that as believers in Christ, our souls are nourished in Him. In a spiritual sense, we eat His flesh and we drink His blood. This is what Jesus was referring to in John 6:53-58. This is not a physical eating and drinking, but rather a spiritual participation in and union with our Sin Offering. Neither is it the Lord’s Supper, although that meal does show our participation in Christ symbolically.

So if Christ is the Sin Offering that was made upon our New Covenant altar, from which we have a right to eat as priests, then what is the altar that we have? Clearly we have no physical altar – rather, it is spiritual. And if the altar under the Old Covenant was the means by which the people were made outwardly acceptable to God under that economy, our New Covenant Altar must be the One by Whom we are made completely clean in conscience and fully acceptable. In other words, Jesus is our Altar, and He is also our Sin Offering!

In verse 9, The writer is warning his readers against trying to be strengthened by physical foods – possibly used in some physical religious ceremony – when it is grace they need. So he lays out before them the far greater spiritual food that we have in Christ, through which we obtain grace that strengthens us. “Why turn away from the precious and wholesome spiritual feast that we have a right to eat from as believers, in order to go chasing after stuff that is useless and obsolete?” he asks.

Once again, he turns the gaze of his readers away from the difficulties they were facing in the here and now in order to show them the surpassing greatness of what they possess in Christ. How could it make any sense to turn away from Jesus, back to the Old Covenant where even as a priest you couldn’t eat from the sin offerings, and where all you have is types and shadows intended to point us to Christ as the fulfillment and the reality?

He ends the section above urging the readers to follow Christ’s example – to join Him outside the camp and bear the reproach He bore (rather than trying to avoid it). After all, we have no lasting city here but are looking forward to the city that is to come. And as we do so, he encourages us to continue offering the sacrifices that are made by Christ’s Royal Priesthood – praise and thanksgiving, doing good and sharing.

So think of the privilege we have in Christ – the right to eat from this Altar! And think of the future that is before us. We can do both of these at any time, but perhaps especially when we take the Lord’s Supper together.  Let’s look to Him for grace to strengthen us, and keep offering praise and thanksgiving to Him, doing good and sharing with our neighbor!