Vol.XVI No.X Pg.5
December 1979

"We Have An Altar"

Robert F. Turner

"We have an altar whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle." The preceding verse, Heb. 13:9, warns against "strange doctrines" and says "the heart be established with grace, not with meats" so it would be contrary to the argument of the context t o have this (v.10) advocate some sort of ceremonial eating at some Christian (?) altar. We have no man-built sanctuary (Heb. 8:1-6) and our "altar" is in heaven (9:24). (Compare Rom. 14:17-18) Hebrews 13:9-f. is not discussing the Lord's Supper though it is sometimes so used. But to what does it refer?

Verse 11 reminds us that although the flesh of other sacrifices offered under the Old Covenant was eaten by the priests and Levites, only the blood had significance in the atonement, being brought unto the Holy of Holies by the High Priest once a year. The body of the offering was "burned without the camp." (Cf. Lev. 4:11-12; 6:30) Expositor's comment: "The burning of the victim was not intended to sublimate (elevate, make sublime, rt) but to get rid of it. The body plays no part in the atoning act, and has in fact no significance after the blood has been drained from it."

Reflection upon these matters will protect us from two common errors: 1) that redemption, atonement and justification are directly related to Christ's faith or impeccable life before death, imputed to us; 2) that we are cleansed from sins in partaking of the Lord's Supper. The peculiarity of our Christian sacrifice is that it is not eaten — literally. We partake of bread and fruit of the vine as a memorial — "in memory" of Him. But we feed on Christ in "believing" on Him (Jn. 6:41; 47-48; 58-69) — in feeding on the truth He has brought us.

The Hebrew text we are studying (13:9-f) makes another point. The body of the typical atonement was burned "without the camp", and the Hebrew writer selects this to remind us that Christ's body was slain upon the cross "without the gate" of literal Jerusalem. If Christians have a literal altar in any sense of the word, it would have to be the cross — and this was erected outside the wall of that which represented the first covenant (Gal. 4:21-f). The significance of the cross takes us outside of Judaism. "We have an altar" apart from and wholly superior to that, so the Hebrew writer urges his brethren to be faithful to Christ, and avoid drifting back into their old ways.

Alford comments: "Let us then not tarry in the Jewish tabernacle, serving their rites, offering their sacrifices; but offer our now only possible sacrifice, that of praise, the fruit of a good confession, acceptable to God through Him." By this he relates our text to that which follows in verse 15.

"We have an altar" really says, "a different concept" of altar, atonement and worship. The ritualistic and ceremonial idea of service to God has fulfilled its role of introducing man to his Creator. Now, we must grow up. Mere ritual and ceremony is no more valid in Christianity than in Judaism. Our study and worship must come from hearts that hunger for righteousness.