The Forgotten Altar - Part 2 - Many times, in all sizes and types of churches, I've asked the congregation what the altar was used for in the Old Testament temple. In unison they respond, "sacrifice." Then I ask, "What was the other altar used for?" They sit in silence.
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Many times, in all sizes and types of churches, I've asked the congregation what the altar was used for in the Old Testament temple. In unison they respond, "sacrifice." Then I ask, "What was the other altar used for?" They sit in silence. Usually, after a few awkward seconds, a Sunday School teacher will have the correct answer.
When most Christians consider the Old Testament temple, the altar of incense is overshadowed by the altar of animal sacrifice. This is understandable, but unfortunate, because the altar of incense is so important to God that it’s replicated in the throne room of Heaven directly in front of the throne.
Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel's hand. Revelation 8:3-4 (NIV)
Looking at the Altar of Incense from God’s point of view, from inside the holy of holies, this golden altar of prayer was actually more central to temple worship than the altar of sacrifice. Located inside the temple directly in front of the veil that separated the holy of holies from the rest of the temple, nothing - other than the Ark of the Covenant - had a more prominent location.
Every morning and evening, just after a perfect one year old lamb was sacrificed on the large altar outside, a priest would come inside the temple and burn incense on this eighteen-inch square, three-foot tall altar. David had this daily ritual in mind when he wrote:
O Lord, I call to you; come quickly to me. Hear my voice when I call to you. May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice. Psalms 141:1-2 (NIV)
The people never had an opportunity to approach this important altar because only the priests could go into the temple, but they knew it was there and what it meant. The smoke from the incense was a symbol of their prayers. As they remained outside, saying their prayers, the smoke from the altar of incense went up before God inside.
The two altars, the altar of sacrifice outside the temple and the altar of incense inside, were directly related. Incense could not be placed on the altar inside until the lamb was sacrificed outside and the only fire that could be used for the altar of incense had to come from the altar of sacrifice.
Do you remember that God killed the two sons of Aaron because they offered 'strange fire' on the altar of incense? (Leveticus10:1) What was the strange fire? Evidently, among other mistakes, they used coals from somebody's campfire rather than the altar of sacrifice.
Do you see their fatal misunderstanding? They thought the authority to go before God resided in themselves as newly ordained priests. They had failed to see the connection between the bloody sacrifices outside the temple and the holiness of the altar of incense (prayer) inside the temple. Everything on the altar of incense had to be holy. God could tolerate no exceptions.
So what have we learned about this forgotten altar?
Most of us have been taught that the purpose of temple worship (which is a picture of God’s salvation plan) was to bring people into a right relationship with Him. That’s not wrong; it just stops short of God’s complete purpose.
Bringing people into right relationship was accomplished by the sacrificial system and ultimately the death of Jesus on the cross, but bringing His children into personal relationship through prayer is His ultimate goal.
In both testaments the temple is referred to by God as a house of prayer. (Isaiah 56:7, Matthew 21:13) *
Do you remember what God did immediately after Christ died? While the body of Jesus was still hanging on the cross, God grabbed the veil that separated the holy of holies and altar of incense, and ripped it in two, top to bottom. Don't you know He had wanted to do that for a long time?
There was no more need for the veil. The veil had represented the power of sin to separate men from God. Now, every person, by faith in Christ, can become a priest, cleansed once and for all by Jesus' sacrifice, and encounter the Heavenly Father personally.
Next month we'll consider Prayer At the Heart of New Testament Worship.
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* In 2 Chronicles 7:12, He also calls the temple a house of sacrifice, but His own application of that statement in verse 15 is that He will be attentive to the prayers prayed there.
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This spring we published this short work intended to clarify a subject that’s confusing to many - How can you know when God is speaking to you? Here’s the promo from the back cover:
Do you pray for God’s guidance, but struggle to hear His response? Like the static that prevents you from hearing a program on the radio; the world produces all kinds of interference that prevents you from Hearing God Speak.
With a radio, the solution is to adjust it for maximum reception and remove the interference. Hearing God Speak uses that analogy to help you adjust your life so that you can best hear God’s instructions.
This simple way of understanding your relationship with God can have a profound effect on your life. Take the journey within these pages. Almighty God wants to guide you on an epic adventure, but first you must learn to hear Him speak.
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