Altering perspective of an altar

Phil Nelson - Contributing columnist

Have you ever wondered why most churches have a place designated at the front of the church that they refer to as an “altar”?

If you were raised attending church, you probably have an experience or two of watching people go down to the altar to pray or take communion.

When I was a young boy, if the pastor made an invitation for people to come forward for prayer, I would quickly slip out of the pew I was sitting in and prance my way down to the altar to pray. I often went to the altar because everyone else was doing it, and I often felt so much better after the fact.

The altar was also a place where I asked Jesus to come into my heart and save me when I was 7 years old.

Now that I have grown in age as well as spiritually, my perspective of the meaning and purpose of an altar has altered quite a bit.

Most Christians, when asked, “What is an altar?”, usually respond with something like, “It is a place by the stage where the pastor teaches and is available for people who want to pray, would like someone to pray for them, or for people who want to receive Salvation through Jesus Christ.”

All of these answers are absolutely true! However, for a proclaiming Christian, I’d like to raise the point that an altar is so much more than going forward to the edge of a stage or something built that is placed down front by the pulpit.

In the Old Testament, after the sinful fall in the garden of Eden, the first structure of worship and sacrifice, where God would meet with His people was called a tabernacle. God gave Moses very detailed instructions in how to build it.

In order to enter into the outer courts of the tabernacle — which is where one would make sacrifices and worship God — they would need to enter the gate.

One incredibly important thing not to miss is that when entering the gate to the tabernacle a person would never approach God empty-handed. A sacrifice was “always” required and such an essential piece in worship is a sacrifice acceptable to God.

Once through the gate, they would head toward the brazen altar that was constantly burning and reeked of the fumes of charred flesh. The purpose of this altar was to present your animal sacrifice that had to be without flaw or blemish as an offering for the forgiveness of your sins.

The reason for this is found in Hebrews 9:22 ESV: “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”

We also are told in scripture that the Old Testament sacrificial system was ordained by God only for temporary purposes. This is where it becomes very exciting to read the Old Testament traditions given by God. All of these worship rituals and sacrificial practices were to point to the Messiah, the sacrificial lamb who will take away the sins of the world (John 1:29).

The most incredible act of unconditional love is found in Jesus Christ becoming a sacrifice for our sin. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV).

Now that Jesus became that sacrifice which was paid for all our sin once and for all, why do people have to ever go to an altar? Good question — the answer to which is found in Romans 12:1, “And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice — the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him.”

Worship, simply put, means to respond to the greatness of the Creator God.

No longer do we need to make a blood sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins. However, one thing is required in approaching God, that we become a “living sacrifice,” humbling ourselves and yielding our lives to God for Him and Him alone. This is the sacrifice King David refers to when he says, “You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one. You do not want a burnt offering. The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God (Psalm 51:16-17 NLT).

So now, the next time you are given the opportunity to approach the altar, whether in a church, outside in nature, or maybe during some alone time in prayer, remember, the sacrifice that God now requires from you is simply your heart.

A heart that is broken and poured out for His glory alone.

Has your view of a church altar been altered?

Phil Nelson is Lead Pastor at Elevation Community Church in Blanchester.

This weekly column is provided to the News Journal by members of the Wilmington Area Ministerial Association.

Phil Nelson

Contributing columnist