“An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen: in all places where I record my name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee. And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon.” (Exodus 20:24-26)
Much of the second half of Exodus (as well as the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) will focus on the details of the Law of Moses by giving specific instructions for everything from property rights to the observance of feasts and holidays. At times tedious, even a lot of well-intentioned Christians find this portion of Scripture to be dry and uninteresting. We don’t often openly admit this, after all, we who love the Word of God should enjoy reading all of it, right? But when was the last time you listened to a sermon on Exodus Chapter 21? Or have you ever heard a televangelist reference the Book of Deuteronomy in a message? Check out your local Bible bookstore and see how many study guides they have for that portion of Scripture.
The Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) is possibly the most neglected portion of the Bible in the Church today. We who are under the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ so often find it hard to see any relevance that the Law of Moses has for us. Yet these Old Testament books are rich with symbolism, foreshadows, and “types” which all point directly toward the Lord Jesus Christ and our Salvation through Him. If we know what to look for, even Leviticus can be a thrilling and exciting book as we mine one treasure after another from its precious pages.
Let us consider now the three closing verses of Exodus 20 about God’s provisions to the Hebrews for constructing altars. First of all, we should understand that what we are looking at here is the directions concerning temporary altars which the Hebrews would use before the Tabernacle would later be completed. We will see in Chapter 27 the blueprint for the permanent bronze altar of the Tabernacle.
An altar in the Old Testament speaks of atonement for sin and points toward the Atonement of Christ for the sins of mankind. We find in these earthen altars of stone the simplicity and unadorned purity of the Cross of Jesus Christ. The Hebrews were forbidden to lift up any tool upon the stone of the altar, lest they pollute it. And so it is for us whenever we seek to add our own works to the Altar of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Stone is raw and uncut; we may not carve it or sculpt it into something which gratifies our sense of beauty. We cannot conform the Cross into our own image, hewing and slicing away the parts which offend, nor may we cover any part of it with our own decorations and workmanship.
We pollute the Cross of Christ whenever we attempt to add any work of our own hands. We must come to the Altar as it is, as God has made it; taking nothing from it, adding nothing to it. There is a time and a place in our worship of the Lord where craftsmanship and works can bring Him glory — as we shall see later in Exodus when Bezaleel and his workman begin to carry out the calling of God by constructing the furniture of the Tabernacle. But, at the place of Atonement, the hand of man is forbidden to tamper.
“Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon.” (Exodus 20:26)
Finally, as we conclude this chapter, we see two more factors which are excluded from the Altar: steps toward it, and the flesh of man. Again, we see that the Altar is a place of simplicity and straightforwardness. When Christ bids a man to come to Him that he may be forgiven, that man need do nothing else but come. There are no steps which must be taken, no deeds which must be completed. Come. Come, approach the Cross of Christ directly. Yet, even so, the Altar is no place for the flesh of man for nothing born of our fleshly nature can please God or bring glory to Him. Instead, that flesh is crucified at the Cross of Christ and is covered by His blood. Any methods that we prescribe, any steps that we construct between the lost sinner and the Cross do nothing but expose our own nakedness and fleshly works. God is not glorified in this, nor can He work through these things. Come directly to the Altar.
To God goes all glory. In service to Him,