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Question and Answer

The Meaning of "Altar"

Question:

I belong to a conservative Presbyterian Church. Although we don't practice "altar calls" (and I understand the reasoning behind that position), I often still hear the front of the church referred to as "the altar."

What is the origin of this terminology in the church? Is the origin fairly recent? How does referring to "an altar" in our churches today relate to Scripture? Does this type of terminology really have any Scriptural warrant, or method, especially in view of Christ's death and resurrection? Thanks.

Answer:

Your question is a discerning one. Typically, the term "altar" is understood to refer to a raised structure on which sacrifices are offered or incense is burned in religious worship.

The word "altar" first appears in Holy Scripture in Genesis 8:20 which says, "Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar" (NASB). In Genesis 12:7 Abram built an altar unto the LORD at Shechem and called upon the name of the LORD; we note that there is no mention of a sacrifice there. But in Genesis 22:7, Abram built an altar in Moriah on which he intended to offer his son Isaac. In Exodus 17:15 before receiving the Law at Mt. Sinai, Moses "built an altar, and named it The LORD is My Banner"; again there is no specific mention of a sacrifice.

The Law given at Mount Sinai included provisions for Moses to build altars unto the LORD (see Ex. 27:1-8 and 30:1-10). These particularly had reference to the offering up of burnt sacrifices of animals and grains on the one, and incense on the other. Those types and shadows of the Old Testament had their fulfillment in Christ, "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).

In that Christ, by his once-for-all sacrifice on the cross, brought to an end the ceremonial sacrificial system of the Old Testament, we might have expected that the altar would have disappeared from the Christian places of worship. Churches, however, throughout the centuries after Christ retained the use of ornate wood and stone "altars" which served as communion tables, although the idea of a re-offering of the sacrifice of Christ was not present.

Over time, however, Roman Catholicism corrupted the Lord's Supper in its conception of the mass. They understood the mass to be a renewed sacrifice of Christ through the breaking of his body and the pouring out of His blood, in accordance with their doctrine known as transubstantiation (that is, the elements are believed to undergo a change of substance from common bread and wine to the actual body and blood of Christ). Thus, the "altar" in Roman Catholicism's understanding returned to the altar's being a place of sacrifice.

This the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century found to be abhorrent and an insult to the finality and completeness of Jesus' death. With that, the Reformation churches in Switzerland, Holland, and Scotland determined to remove the ornate "altars" from the places of worship and introduce plain (even removable) communion tables.

Typically, then, Presbyterians do not refer to the communion table or even the raised platform where the preacher stands as the "altar." Again, this is to emphasize the end of the O.T. sacrificial system and the understanding of the "priesthood of all believers" in the New Testament church.

Worship is offered up by the whole congregation who have been brought near to God through the death of Christ at Calvary. The church members "are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (I Pet. 2:5). Thus, the writer of Hebrews says, "Through him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to his name" (Heb. 13:15). Not on a physical altar but "in Spirit and truth" (John 4:23-24) are we to worship God, presenting ourselves as "a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God" (Rom. 12:1).

Thus, Christians would do well to avoid the use of the term "altar" to refer either to the communion table or to the "front of the church."

Words, however, tend to have a certain flexibility of connotation. Well-meaning Christians have been apt to speak about "the family altar." What they mean is simply the regular practice of offering up family worship and devotion to God through Bible reading and instruction, hymn singing, and prayer. That is, the sacrifices offered at the family altar are spiritual sacrifices.

People who refer to a "family altar" ordinarily do not mean an actual place nor do they think of an altar of sacrifice in the literal Old Testament sense. Rather they are simply thinking in spiritual terms—the act of offering up prayer and praise to God. In fact, a well-known Reformed denomination at one time not very many years ago even named the daily, devotional booklet that it published for private and family use The Family Altar.

One final note is in order. Significantly, we see the book of Revelation (certainly a New Testament book that takes into account the death and resurrection of Christ) referring to a golden altar before God that yet remains in heaven (6:9, 8:3, 9:13, 11:1, 14:18, and 16:7). How shall we understand this? Is there literal, physical altar in heaven that covers the souls of the martyrs? No, for we see something of the symbolism intended here when in Revelation 16:7, the altar speaks! The very presence in heaven of a worshiping congregation (offering spiritual sacrifices) that has overcome the world is a living testimony to God that declares, "Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Thy judgments."

May God bless you in your understanding of His Word and in the offering up of true and faithful worship in Christ. We hope you continue to seek after Him in Spirit and truth.


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