The Altar

A series of devotions on some of the items in a church sanctuary.

We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. Hebrews 10:10

I remember being a little shocked and a little disappointed the day I saw behind the altar.

In 1978 my family transferred to Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Lake Villa, Illinois. It was a much smaller church than our previous congregation (it also didn’t have a school). We transferred because we wanted to stay in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and our previous congregation was leaving this synod (but that’s a story for another devotion).

It was a small congregation with a smaller sanctuary. And the altar in that sanctuary was up against the back wall.

in-the-church-8-altarThat isn’t always the case in churches, as you can see in the picture with this devotion.

The day I was a little shocked and a little disappointed was the day we moved the altar at Good Shepherd away from the wall.

The church was getting new carpeting and pews! So, we had to move everything out of the sanctuary.

As we pulled the altar away from the wall, I just had to have a look behind it! (I was a curious twelve-year-old.)

The altar was hollow! It was made of simple wood. And it had a cloth covering folded up inside (I assume it was a covering that originally came with it – the baptismal font had a similar one).

I don’t know why I was a little shocked and a little disappointed, actually. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I guess it was something different. Maybe something more “official” or “sacred” (whatever that could mean).

I suppose I didn’t really understand what an altar in a Christian sanctuary is for. And as I think about it, I think that question may be on a lot of people’s minds.

Think about it. Why do Christian churches have altars? Altars are, by definition, used as the focus for a religious ritual, especially for making sacrifices or offerings to a god.

But Christians don’t do that. We don’t make sacrifices – not like they did in the olden days or in the Old Testament.

Christians don’t slaughter animals on altars. Christians don’t burn things on altars. Protestant Christians don’t offer sacrifices on altars at all.

The reason for that is found in the New Testament book of Hebrews: And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God … (Hebrews 10:11-12).

Since Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for all the sins of all people of all time there is no need for further sacrifice!

The reason that Christian churches keep an altar in the sanctuary is to point all participants in worship to this truth.

The Christian altar is not for sacrifice but to point to the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ!

That doesn’t mean we don’t put things on the altar. There can be a missal stand on the altar – the stand that holds the altar book – out of which the presiding minister reads prayers and other parts of the liturgy.

There can be flowers on the altar – although the usual tradition is to have cut flowers only. This is not a sacrifice but rather a symbol of sanctification in that the flowers are set aside for a specific purpose. They will not grow anymore and cannot really be used for anything else other than adorning God’s house.

There can also be candles on the altar. At the church that I serve there are two candles that are only lit when the Sacrament of the Altar is celebrated. They represent the body and blood of Jesus and are called “Eucharistic Candles.”

Speaking of the Sacrament of the Altar, the elements are also placed on the altar when the sacrament is celebrated. The bread, the wine, along with the dishes used to serve them.

The altar can also have what is called a “fair linen” over it that usually represents the burial clothe of Jesus Christ that is now empty because Christ is risen from the dead!

Finally, the altar can have special pieces of cloth called “paraments” – the color of which change with the church season. For example, the season the Church is in now is Epiphany and the color of this season is green (the reason for this is a subject for another devotion).

The altar in a Christian church is a powerful symbol. It and all the things on it, point to the one who fulfilled all the Old Testament sacrifices – Jesus Christ.

©2017 True Men Ministries

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