I’m a Baptist, so the word “altar” is nothing new for me. Fellow Baptists have altars, prayer-kneeling altars (with pads for added comfort) and altar calls. Most usually, participants of worship services are invited to “come to the altar”. As they do so, they may pray, be prayed for, ask for forgiveness, make some public decision or commit their lives to Jesus Christ.
One explanation of an altar that I remember from my childhood is “it is any place you go to meet God.” It seems that in many churches, the ideal place to “meet God” is at the end of the aisle and on your knees in front of the steps leading to the pulpit. Generally when Baptists speak of an altar, this is what they mean.
The whole concept of an altar intrigues me. I see one thing in Scripture and another thing in average churches. What we generally know as an altar doesn’t match up with what Scripture shows an altar to be. I wonder how many of us have ever stopped to consider, “Is this even biblical?”
Is the altar really a place to which we go? Is it really found on the steps leading up to where the pulpit is placed? Maybe it is a little closer to the Lord’s Supper table that is near those same steps. Where did this notion of an altar in that location come from, anyway?
As far as I can tell, this comes from leftover Catholic practice rather than anything biblical. Catholics have an “altar” because they are re-sacrificing Jesus each time they have mass. The bread literally becomes the body of Christ and the drink becomes his blood. Read what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about it,
“The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross…The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice…And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner”. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1366-7).
Of course Catholics have an altar in their place of worship, then. They believe they are making the sacrifice of the cross present among them. Why wouldn’t they have an altar if they believe this?
The only problem with this is that it is not biblical whatsoever. And when this is the case, it is a big problem.
Having an “altar” in your church building blurs the gospel and the finished work of Christ. Hebrews 7:26-27 says,
For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.
If an altar is a place, it must be Calvary. But it has more to do with a person than a place. It is not steps. Not prayer kneelers. Not tables in the front of a church building. But it is Jesus. Jesus is the way we get to God. He is the one we turn to in our brokenness for remission of sin. Jesus Christ is the the altar and the sacrifice.