Part 5: The Altar of Burnt Offering

The centrality of sacrifice

Since the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, the ritual of sacrifice has been a mysterious but central part of biblical religion. The covering of animal skins which the LORD provided for Adam and Eve after they had sinned conveyed the message that sin could only be atoned for by a substitutionary sacrifice. Cain and Abel knew to bring offerings to the LORD, but from the beginning the only acceptable sacrifice was a sacrifice in which the lifeblood of a creature was shed. This was later codified in the Law given at Mt. Sinai: “…the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life” (Leviticus17:11). Cain was very angry when the LORD rejected his offering of the fruits of the soil, but the LORD said to him, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:2-7).

When Noah emerged from the Ark after the flood the first thing he did was to build an altar upon which to sacrifice some of the clean animals and birds that he had spent months conserving to the LORD: Noah built an altar to the LORD and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done” (Genesis 8:20-21).

Abraham made an altar before he even pitched his tent in the land of Canaan. The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him (Genesis 12:7). Later the LORD tested Abraham’s faith by telling him to sacrifice his “only son Isaac” as a burnt offering upon the altar (Genesis 22). But before Abraham could kill Isaac the LORD provided a substitute to be sacrificed in his place prefiguring the manner in which the LORD would give his only Son to atone for the sins of the world.

Sacrifices foreshadowed the sacrifice of Christ

The altar and sacrifices were absolutely central to the religion of Israel. Implicit in the sacrificial system is the idea of substitution – the offering of an unblemished animal to atone (provide a covering) for the guilt of the sinner. All the sacrifices pointed to the Messiah who would one day offer himself as the perfect sacrifice to provide atonement for sin. Eight hundred years before the coming of Christ Isaiah prophesied: We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Alfred Edersheim remarked, “If by the universal consent of all who are unprejudiced sacrifices point to substitution, substitution in its turn points to the Person and Work of the Messiah.”

With regard to the altar and the sacrifices Edersheim made the following observation:
“The sacrifices of the Old Covenant were symbolic and typical. An outward observance without any real inward meaning is only a ceremony. But a rite which has a present spiritual meaning is a symbol; and if, besides, it also points to a future reality, conveying at the same time, by anticipation, the blessing that is yet to appear, it is a type. Thus the Old Testament sacrifices were not only symbols, nor yet merely predictions by fact (as prophecy is a prediction by word), but they already conveyed to the believing Israelite the blessing that was to flow from the future reality to which they pointed. ”1

The writer to he Hebrews describes how the sacrifices of the earthly temple mirrored the ultimate sacrifice of Christ by which our sins have been atoned for:

For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him (Hebrews 9:23-28).

It was revealed to Daniel that the Messiah would put an end to sacrifice and offering by making a new covenant (Dan 9:27) 2 . Soon after Jesus announced the new covenant with Israel, which he ratified in his own blood, the earthly temple was destroyed leaving the Jews unable to continue offering the animal sacrifices prescribed by the Law. But this did not happen until the ultimate sacrifice, which every sacrifice prefigured, had been made. The destruction of the temple upon which much of the Law depended signified that God was finished with the types and shadows because the reality had been revealed. By this new covenant the old covenant was made obsolete (Heb.8:13) because the Law of Moses permitted no amendments.

Many Jews rejected the new covenant through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah choosing instead the path of Rabbinical Judaism, a Judaism based on humanistic principles that was remodelled to accommodate the new circumstances. This Judaism without sacrifice, emphasising good deeds (mitzvot), resembles more closely the religion of Cain than the religion of Moses. There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death (Proverbs 14:12). There are many ways that people try to approach God, but it remains that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins (Heb. 9:22). To this day the same indignation that Cain exhibited is revealed when people are told that their worship is unacceptable to God. We are still required to worship God in the manner that is acceptable to Him: The writer to the Hebrews instructs us, Thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:28).

We will look more specifically at the typology of the different offerings prescribed by the Law of Moses in future articles. In this article we will address the symbolism of the altar and of sacrifice more generally.

The only way into God’s presence

The LORD said to Moses: “Build an altar of acacia wood, three cubits high; it is to be square, five cubits long and five cubits wide. Make a horn at each of the four corners, so that the horns and the altar are of one piece, and overlay the altar with bronze. Make all its utensils of bronze–its pots to remove the ashes, and its shovels, sprinkling bowls, meat forks and firepans. Make a grating for it, a bronze network, and make a bronze ring at each of the four corners of the network. Put it under the ledge of the altar so that it is halfway up the altar. Make poles of acacia wood for the altar and overlay them with bronze. The poles are to be inserted into the rings so they will be on two sides of the altar when it is carried. Make the altar hollow, out of boards. It is to be made just as you were shown on the mountain (Exodus 27:1-8).

The altar was the largest of the temple furnishings. Its size and position conveyed the importance and centrality which it occupied in the religion of Israel. Situated prominently in the outer court near the entrance, it confronted all who approached God’s house to worship, impressing upon the worshipper the truth that without sacrifice there was no way into God’s presence. As C. W. Slemming put it, “It stood at the gate of repentance.” 3 The altar and sacrifices foreshadowed the enormity of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Central to the gospel is that Jesus Christ died on behalf of sinners. As the apostle Paul wrote concerning his ministry among the gentiles, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). To treat lightly the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice is to show utter contempt for God’s mercy. The cross of Calvary upon which Jesus was sacrificed for the sins of the world is the reality of all that the altar typified. Just as it was only by way of the altar that the people of Israel could approach the temple courts to worship the LORD, it is only through the vicarious sacrifice of the cross that anyone may draw near to God to worship. The atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross is the only altar upon which any “sacrifice” is made acceptable to the LORD. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

The Hebrew word “mizbeach” which has been translated into English as “altar” literally means “slaughter place.”4  When we come, figuratively speaking, via the altar of burnt offering we come in complete surrender, laying down our own will as a willing sacrifice to God. The horns on the four-corners of the altar symbolised strength. We come to the altar acknowledging our weakness and our inability to save ourselves from sin. We seek refuge in God’s strength and in his power to save us from sin for his power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9).

The call for sinners to receive Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour in response to the preaching of the gospel is sometimes called an “altar call”. Understanding it in the context of the altar of burnt offering – the place of slaughter where the sacrifices were wholly consumed – should impress upon us the gravity of our response to Christ. Jesus held out no false expectations about the cost of following him: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple . . . any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:25-33). People flocked to Jesus to be healed or delivered from demons, but not many of them were willing to give up everything to follow him. Likewise in today’s church many come to Jesus with erroneous expectations of what he will do for them. Figuratively speaking, they bypass the altar. The LORD himself is our very great reward. If we fail to appreciate the spiritual significance of the altar we may “preach Christ” as a moral example for life, but Paul determined to know nothing except Christ and him crucified, because the cross of Jesus Christ demolishes all human pride, confronting us with the stark reality of our sinful condition and our complete inability to change ourselves.

The apostle Paul wrote about the vanity of our own efforts to restrain the sinful nature with all kinds of rules and regulations: “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Colossians 2:20-23).

It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that those who have faith in Christ are enabled to put to death the sinful nature. The sinful nature could not be reformed by the Law. The book of Hebrews makes it clear that God was not pleased with animal sacrifices even though they were instituted by Him. Rather, the sacrifices were a constant reminder of sin, “for it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4) and they pointed ahead to the ultimate sacrifice that would take away our sin. Paul writes: “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man” (Romans 8:3). Sin had to be dealt with before one could even approach the Holy Place of the temple which represented God’s presence among his people. The altar represented the death of the sinful nature and repentance from sin.

No atonement without faith and repentance

There was no intrinsic value in the animal being sacrificed as a burnt offering. In other words there was no price that could be paid by men to purchase their forgiveness. Bringing the sacrifice to the altar, the designated place at the temple, demonstrated a person’s faithfulness and obedience to God’s Law. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their failure to understand this: “Woe to you, blind guides who say . . . ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?” (Matthew 23:16-19).

The LORD said through the prophet Hosea (6:6) “…I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings.” Samuel rebuked King Saul for his disobedience even though Saul thought that the animals he had plundered and preserved could later be used for sacrifices: “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has rejected you as king” (1 Samuel 15:22-23).

Some have used these scriptures to altogether dismiss the need for sacrifice in order to obtain forgiveness of sins. Although sacrifices were required by the Law, the emphasis was always on mercy and acknowledgement of God. There is no point in offering sacrifices and burnt offerings for wilful, defiant disobedience. The sin offering provided atonement for sins committed in ignorance. There was no atonement for wilful deliberate sin. However, it was understood to encompass not only sins committed through ignorance, but also unintentional sins and sins committed through weakness, or where the offender at the time had not realised his guilt 5. Most importantly, however, the sacrifices did not atone for one’s sin unless they were combined with faith and repentance. Faith included the anticipation of the coming Redeemer. There is no genuine faith that denies Jesus Christ: No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also (1 John 2:23). In the same way, to receive the forgiveness through Jesus Christ we must have faith in his sacrifice and show genuine repentance:

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:26-29).

Whoever rejects Jesus Christ rejects the atoning sacrifice, which shows that they do not acknowledge God and that they spurn his mercy – the sin for which they will be eternally condemned. The Pharisees asked Jesus’ disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:10-13).

The sad reality was that by the time Jesus came to be the final sacrifice for sin, the sacrificial system that was intended to impress upon the worshipper the grave consequence of sin had become corrupted by greed. Trading in approved animals for sacrifice became a financially profitable business for the priesthood and the meaning of an atoning sacrifice was disgracefully cheapened until it became a ritual void of true faith. This was no test of the faithfulness that had been demonstrated by Abraham. Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers’” (Matt. 21:12).

Even more inexcusable are those who claim to be Christians, but who treat the sacrifice of Jesus Christ with contempt by turning the grace of God into a license for sin. The grace of God does not simply remove the penalty for sin – it sets us free from the dominion of sin. At the altar we are required to put to death everything of the sinful nature. The shedding of blood atoned for sin because the “life of the flesh” is in the blood. The flesh represents the sinful nature which has to be brought to the altar and put to death. Christ became our substitute to set us free from slavery to sin so that we can become slaves to righteousness. It is impossible to have genuine faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ while continuing to flagrantly indulge the sinful lusts of the flesh.

Taking hold of the Horns of the Altar

It was a custom during the temple period, for anyone who wanted to escape the wrath of their enemy to flee to the temple and to take hold of the horns of the altar: … Adonijah, in fear of Solomon, went and took hold of the horns of the altar. Then Solomon was told, “Adonijah is afraid of King Solomon and is clinging to the horns of the altar. He says, ‘Let King Solomon swear to me today that he will not put his servant to death with the sword’” (1 Kings 1:49-51).

By making his appeal for mercy at the altar, the place of God’s mercy, it brought the adversary under the conviction of their own sin and reminded him that whoever would appeal to God’s mercy must show mercy to others. This anticipated how, under the new covenant, Jesus taught us to pray, “Father, forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us” (Luke 11:4). The apostle James wrote, Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment! (James 2:12-13). The apostle Paul wrote, Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you (Colossians 3:13).

The altar represented the place of being reconciled with God as well as with our brothers. We cannot take hold of the horns of the altar, representing God’s strength, while clinging to our own pride, bitterness or wicked desires. Jesus taught us: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:21-24).

The cost of sacrifice

Inherent in the meaning of sacrifice is the cost that it entails – if we fail to appreciate the cost the meaning of the sacrifice is devalued. David understood this when he bought the threshing floor from Araunah the Jebusite to build an altar to the LORD:

Araunah said, “Why has my lord the king come to his servant?” “To buy your threshing floor,” David answered, “so I can build an altar to the LORD, that the plague on the people may be stopped.” Araunah said to David, “Let my lord the king take whatever pleases him and offer it up. Here are oxen for the burnt offering, and here are threshing sledges and ox yokes for the wood. O king, Araunah gives all this to the king.” Araunah also said to him, “May the LORD your God accept you.” But the king replied to Araunah, “No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” (2 Samuel 24:21-24).

Abraham, too, understood the cost of sacrifice and the meaning of faith. It is for no small reason that he is called the ‘man of faith’. Firstly, when his faith was put to the test, he showed that he had faith in the resurrection by his willingness to offer his only son, Isaac, upon the altar. Secondly, he understood the true meaning of faith in the vicarious sacrifice provided by God’s mercy, for it was by this sacrifice that Isaac was indeed saved and through whom God’s promises to Abraham were destined to be fulfilled.

When we realise the immense cost of the cross we must also realise the personal cost. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25). The cross, like the altar of burnt offering, demands our very lives laid down in willing obedience to our Lord and Saviour. But though we must be prepared to lose everything for the sake of Christ it is nothing in comparison to what we gain. In the words of the apostle Paul, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ–the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Php. 3:8-11).

The sacrifice of God’s only Son was the ultimate sacrifice to pay the ultimate price of our redemption. We were redeemed, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1 Peter 1:19). Paul appeals to us in view of God’s mercy to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:1-2).

To this day the LORD still tests our faithfulness in that we are required to take up our cross to follow Jesus. We do this by figuratively laying down our lives upon the altar as a living sacrifice to serve him. This is the only acceptable worship in response to what God has done through Jesus Christ.


1. The Temple – Its ministry and services ch. 5 & 6 available on E-Sword.
2. For a detailed exegesis of this prophecy see “Jerusalem – peace or desolation? by Peter Cohen, published by Messianic Good News.
3. “Made according to pattern” p. 79, published by Christian Literature Crusade.
4. Ibid.
5. The Temple – Its ministry and services ch.6