Blood on the Altar

Designed by God Himself, learn how the sanctuary was not only an awe-inspiring place of worship; it was a teaching center.

Loron Wade, DRE, is a retired professor residing in McAllen, Texas, United States.

Not long after the children of Israel left Egypt, they came to Mount Sinai, where God said to Moses: “ ‘Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them’ ” (Exod. 25:8, NKJV). Consider the context. God had just rescued them from slavery (Exod. 13:3) and saved them at the Red Sea. He had given them water from the rock and manna for food (Exod. 16:14–16; 17:6, 7). He was there “by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light” (Exod. 13:21, NKJV). So how could He possibly be “among them” any more than He already was? The problem, of course, was not on God’s side of the equation but with the children of Israel. In Egypt the local gods seemed real because the Egyptians used visual aids—images, and in some cases, even live animals—to represent them. For people accustomed to such concrete illustrations, YAHWEH, in spite of all these miracles, still seemed like a God of mists and shadows. This was the problem with the “golden calf.” Moses found the people leaping around this calf and screaming, “ ‘This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!’ ” (Exod. 32:8, NKJV). Under these circumstances, the simple stone altars that served as worship centers in the days of the patriarchs were not enough. Thus, God said, “Let them make me a sanctuary so I can dwell among them.” The sanctuary was an experience Designed by God Himself (Exod. 25:40), the sanctuary was an

Consider the context. God had just rescued them from slavery (Exod. 13:3) and saved them at the Red Sea. He had given them water from the rock and manna for food (Exod. 16:14–16; 17:6, 7). He was there “by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light” (Exod. 13:21, NKJV).

So how could He possibly be “among them” any more than He already was?

The problem, of course, was not on God’s side of the equation but with the children of Israel. In Egypt the local gods seemed real because the Egyptians used visual aids—images, and in some cases, even live animals—to represent them. For people accustomed to such concrete illustrations, YAHWEH, in spite of all these miracles, still seemed like a God of mists and shadows.

This was the problem with the “golden calf.” Moses found the people leaping around this calf and screaming, “ ‘This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!’ ” (Exod. 32:8, NKJV).

Under these circumstances, the simple stone altars that served as worship centers in the days of the patriarchs were not enough. Thus, God said, “Let them make me a sanctuary so I can dwell among them.”

The sanctuary was an experience

Designed by God Himself (Exod. 25:40), the sanctuary was an awe-inspiring place of worship; but, more than that, it was a teaching center. The sanctuary was not just a place but an experience. Every part of it and all its activities were designed to affirm and strengthen their faith and to clarify essential truths about God.

The ritual function of the sanctuary, of course, has ended; but its teaching function has not. The rituals—candles, incense, ark, altars, and all the rest— hold profound lessons for us.

Sin and the sanctuary

When someone sins, two opposite errors can make the situation worse. The first—which is by far the most common—is to minimize and excuse the sin. You know: “Everybody does it. Nobody’s perfect; and besides, it was their fault.” The apostle Paul said that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), but most of us do not really believe that the lie we told yesterday could actually have fatal consequences. Our pride, temper, and evil thoughts are not really serious.

The opposite error is to be overwhelmed by a sense of guilt and shame. This usually happens when our sin has resulted in loss and/or public humiliation.

The sanctuary was designed to counter both errors. It opened a door to forgiveness, restoration, and peace of mind but also revealed that sin was no trivial thing.

Let us suppose someone in Israel committed a sin and felt remorse and shame. He1 felt condemned and separated from God. What should he do? He had to choose a lamb or a young goat from his flock and bring it to the sanctuary.2

At the center of the courtyard was a bronze altar where sacrifices for sin were presented to the Lord.3 The sinner would come to this altar. With the priest standing beside him, he would place his hand on the animal’s head. This was a symbolic way of transferring his guilt to the animal.

Next, he had to cut its throat.

When at last its cries and struggles were over, the priest would touch his finger in the blood and place a stain on one of the horns of the altar. The “horn” was a small pointed corner. This was the critical moment, the instant of forgiveness granted by God. The Bible says “In this way the priest will make atonement for them [for his sins], and they will be forgiven”(NIV).4

After that, the sinner could go home with a light step and a peaceful heart because he had been forgiven and his guilt was gone. But he did not go home laughing, feeling he had gotten away with something. He was not tempted to think his sin was insignificant. He had witnessed the agony of the dying animal. He knew that “the wages of sin is death.”

Blood on the altar

The sinner went home free and forgiven, but the stain, the spot of blood on the altar, remained, visible evidence of the blood that had been shed, the life that had been given, and the price that had been paid. The bloodstain was a receipt that read: “Paid in full, but at a terrible cost.”

The bloodstain was also an evidence of faith. It showed that the sinner had placed his trust in the provision and accepted the sacrifice on his behalf.

The apostle Paul says that, at the altar, God justified Himself (Rom. 3:25, 26). He gave evidence that He was just. He was open to an accusation of injustice “because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed” (Rom. 3:25, NKJV).5

When we come to Jesus by faith, He forgives our sins; He wipes our page clean and grants us eternal life. That is our justification. The blood on the altar—Jesus’ blood that was shed for us—is God’s justification. This was proof that He did not look the other way. He did not just say, “Never mind: you don’t owe me anything.” To do that would have destroyed the foundation principle of justice in the universe. It would have meant that obedience was optional and the law of God was dispensable. The result would have been indescribable chaos.

Ritual and reality

The sanctuary rituals were like paper money, which has value only because of what it represents. The death of animals could not really compensate for our sins (Heb. 10:4). The reality that gave value to the ritual was Jesus and His death on the cross. Because Jesus paid the price for sin, God could be at the same time “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26, NKJV). Precisely in this context, the apostle Paul affirms that justification is not accomplished by throwing out the law; on the contrary, justification confirms and validates the law (Rom. 3:31).

Every day and once a year

At the sanctuary, in addition to the sacrifices for sin, people were praying, fulfilling vows, giving thanks, conducting purification rites, dedicating babies, and bringing in their first fruits. The priests were assisting them, offering the morning and evening sacrifices, burning incense, trimming the lamps, celebrating, singing, teach­ing, and assisting the people in their different rituals.

Every one of these rites and ser­vices was building toward a climax. The culmination, the crowning point of the sanctuary services, came in what is now the month of October. It was the Day of Atonement.

Ten days before the Day of Atonement, the priests blew the warn­ing trumpets telling everyone to get ready. For anyone who had sinned and had not brought a sacrifice, had a debt and had not paid it, had hurt someone and had not asked forgiveness—in other words, for anyone who had some­thing pending in the sanctuary, those ten days were a time of preparation.

He takes our place in the judgment

On the ancient Day of Atonement, everyone in Israel passed in judgment before God, but the people did not stand in line and go into the sanctuary one by one to be judged. Instead, they all entered together in the person of a single human being—the high priest. The high priest was their proxy, the stand-in. He went in, not only for the people but as the people. He was their representative in court, but not like a modern lawyer who argues and pleads, trying to convince the judge that his client is innocent. Rather, as their substitute, he took the place of everyone who had brought a sacrifice and was trusting in the merits of the blood shed on their behalf. He had assumed their identity, and with it their guilt.

This is represented in the judgment scene of Daniel 7. The prophet says: “As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; . . . Thousands upon thousands attended him, ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened” (vv. 9, 10, NIV).

When Daniel saw this judgment scene, he certainly must have thought of the Day of Atonement, so he would not have been puzzled by the next part of the vision in which someone like a “Son of Man”—that is, a human-like figure—enters the heavenly courtroom. This, Daniel would have understood, was the high priest. Only on the Day of Atonement did a human being enter the throne room, the Most Holy Place of the sanctuary.

This identification is further confirmed when Daniel sees that this Son of Man does not sit down as a judge. He enters after the court is already seated and after the record books are opened. “He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him” (v. 13, NASB). Rather than sitting down, He stands before the judgment seat.

Why is the Son of Man/High Priest standing before the judgment throne? Because as the people’s substitute, He is counted as a sinner. For their sake, He goes into court as a defendant, as if He Himself were on trial.

The good news is that the Son of Man does not go in empty-handed. He goes in having paid the price for sin. By a blood sacrifice—His death on the cross, because the High Priest, of course, is Jesus—He has obtained a full pardon for every one of the sins He is bearing. And this is what He comes in to present before God.

We talk about justification by faith. The Day of Atonement ceremony stands at the very heart of it. We talk about the gospel. The word gospel means good news, and what news could be better than this, that Jesus Christ, having taken our place on the cross, has earned the right to take our place in the judgment (Heb. 9:11, 12)?

All eyes on the  sanctuary

The sanctuary was part of people’s lives every day of the year, but on the Day of Atonement, all eyes turned toward the sanctuary with a special concentration. All secular activity ceased. Everyone fasted. People who lived too far away would pray fac­ing toward Jerusalem. Those who lived within traveling distance would come in person and gather around the tabernacle.

There they waited in silence because what went on in the taber­nacle demanded their full attention. The Day of Atonement ceremony was like an audit, not to find out whether anyone had sinned (that part was not in doubt) but to show who had taken advantage of the promise of forgiveness—like a tally of the bloodstains to show who had accepted by faith the sacrifice, the blood that was shed on their behalf.

Affliction of soul

The people gathered around the sanctuary and watched the ceremony with intense interest, but they were more than spectators. While the high priest entered into the presence of God for them, they had to “afflict” their souls. This meant an examination of conscience, a review of the year, a reaffirmation of their sincerity and repentance.

The ten days of preparation were for settling accounts, asking forgive­ness, and putting things in order. But  who can remember all their sins? Sin is not just a list of bad things we have done but a condition that perme­ates the soul. The “affliction” was an attitude of contrition, clinging to the mercy of God after having made a sincere and earnest effort to make things right. It was this attitude that took them out of the rebel camp and showed they had accepted the forgive­ness they had been freely granted at such a terrible cost.

Anyone who was not “afflicted” on the Day of Atonement would be “cut off,” no longer part of the chosen people (Lev. 23:27, 29). They would become, in effect, Gentiles, “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12, NKJV).

Who is going to be approved in the heavenly judgment, the great Day of Atonement? It depends on two things. The first is the blood on the altar; that is, justification, accepting the forgive-ness of our sins through the mercy and grace of God. The second is affliction of soul, an enduring attitude of repentance, sincerity, and contrition. This means that we have not come to a comfortable acceptance of evil and that we are not excusing or clinging to cherished sin—an attitude closely related to sanctification.

Fundamental questions

There are some fundamental questions to ask ourselves and our people: 

  • Today, as the warning trumpets are sounding, have I placed my hands on Jesus, my sacrifice, my only hope?
  • Through sincere confession, have I asked forgiveness for my sins and done everything in my power to make things right?
  • Are my heart and soul filled with an enduring attitude of repentance and contrition, or have I come to a state of comfortable acceptance of evil?

Remember the words of the beloved apostle: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 2:1, NIV).

Yes, God dwelt among them then; and, through Jesus, He dwells among us today as well.

1 I am using male pronouns because that is what the Bible uses. It is not clear whether women brought sacrifices or men sacrificed for everyone in their household.

2 This refers to a sin committed by one of the common people. If the whole congregation sinned or if the penitent was a ruler or a priest, the sacrificial animal had to be a bull and its blood was taken into the tabernacle and sprinkled on the curtain before the Lord.

3 The bronze altar was about five feet (150 cm) high and eight and a half feet (260 cm) on each side.

4 This expression appears ten times in Leviticus, chapters 4–6.

5 Paul says that through His sacrifice Jesus became the hilasterion. This was the Greek equivalent of the OT kapporeth, “mercy seat” (KJV, RSV) or “atonement cover” (NIV). It refers to the lid, or covering, of the ark. The prophets saw it as God’s throne where He sat to judge His people (Isa. 6:1; Jer. 17:12). This was the epicenter of forgiveness.


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Loron Wade, DRE, is a retired professor residing in McAllen, Texas, United States.

May 2016

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