Imagine being an Israelite, walking toward the courtyard of the sanctuary in the wilderness. The unscalable linen wall is before you with just one entrance on the East side. This entrance is beautiful to behold with blue, scarlet, purple and white intermixed, pierced four times above by silver hooks. As you pass through the gate, between the four pillars, your feet kick ashes up from the ground and the aroma of burning flesh greets you. There before you in a square brazen altar is the fire that burns continually day and night. The ground and the four horns of bronze are soaked in blood. Then you see, right at eye level, the fire consuming a sacrifice.
Visually, what does the bronze altar of the Sanctuary service lead you to think of?
The altar of the courtyard was the most prominent article in this section of the Sanctuary. On it were burned the sacrifices that symbolized Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice for our sins. With that in mind, consider Psalm 73:12-17.
Psalm 73:12-17 – …Behold, these are the ungodly, who are always at ease; they increase in riches. Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocence. For all day long I have been plagued, and chastened every morning. If I had said, “I will speak thus,” behold, I would have been untrue to the generation of Your children. When I thought how to understand this, it was too painful for me—until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood their end…
In Psalm 73, Asaph, a Levite and trusted teacher in Israel, ponders the apparent success of the wicked in this world. He wonders what use there is in living a holy life if the wicked continue to succeed, that is until he entered the sanctuary. Of this he says, “…then I understood their end.” He saw in the Sanctuary of God the end of the wicked! This is not usually the first thought one has when thinking about the Sanctuary. Most look at it as entirely about redemption. What did Asaph see there that pointed to the destruction of the wicked, the judgement?
To explore this further, let us examine a few Bible stories.
The reign of King David was marked with victory and triumph over the enemies of Israel. But the nation became proud and self-sufficient believing in their might rather than the power of God. Having bought into this national sin, David numbered Israel for war and the result was the judgment of God. David was given a decision between three options and he chose a plague as the most merciful punishment. As the angel of death came toward Jerusalem, God eventually brings this powerful being to a halt. An altar was built on the location where the angel stopped. It was on Mount Moriah where Abraham had offered Isaac, and the location marked the exact spot where the bronze altar of the Sanctuary built by Solomon would be placed (2 Chronicles 3:1; Genesis 22:2).
But there was more to the location where the angel stopped. It was the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (2 Samuel 24:16-18). What is significant about a threshing floor? In the Bible narratives we see threshing floors as the location of Gideon’s fleece test or the proposal by Ruth to Boaz. But the majority of Bible references show that a threshing floor is used figuratively as a location of executive judgment. It is used in conjunction with the declarations against Babylon and Ephraim (Jeremiah 51:33; Hosea 13:1-3). The destruction of nations in the image of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream is compared to the chaff of a threshing floor (Daniel 2:35). John the Baptist uses threshing floor language as a warning to the leaders of Israel in relation to what the Messiah’s mission would accomplish (Matthew 3:8-10).
Matthew 3:12 – His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
A closer look at these stories can lead to an understanding of why the altar of the Sanctuary courtyard was to be built on a threshing floor. While it has been commonly proposed that the altar represents Calvary, considering this proposition in the light of these Bible stories begs the question: Does the altar really represent just the cross or is it pointing to something else also?
Let us examine the story of the rebellion of Korah and his compatriots. They stood defiant against the order established by God and were consequently swallowed into a pit in the earth. After this, the remaining rebels held censers before the tabernacle and the judgment they received was to be consumed by fire directly from God. Pay attention to what happens next. The censers of these men who were consumed by fire were directed to be beaten into plates as a memorial of this executive judgment. Where were these plates put? They were made into a covering for the altar of the courtyard (Numbers 16:35-39).
Let us look at another passage that deals with executive judgment and see if we find any clues to the sanctuary service. Ezekiel saw in vision the destruction of those who did not sigh and cry over the evil done in Jerusalem. Do you know what article of the sanctuary is highlighted in connection with this story? It is the altar.
Ezekiel 9:2 – And suddenly six men came from the direction of the upper gate, which faces north, each with his battle-ax in his hand. One man among them was clothed with linen and had a writer’s inkhorn at his side. They went in and stood beside the bronze altar.
This is not the only passage that highlights the altar alongside executive judgement. Amos chapter 9 does so as well. This chapter begins by describing God standing next to the altar and then declaring the execution of the wicked.
Amos 9:1-2 – I saw the Lord standing by the altar, and He said: “Strike the doorposts, that the thresholds may shake, and break them on the heads of them all. I will slay the last of them with the sword. He who flees from them shall not get away, and he who escapes from them shall not be delivered. Though they dig into hell, from there My hand shall take them; though they climb up to heaven, from there I will bring them down…
We commonly know that the sacrifice on the altar represents Christ, the Lamb of God, but the passages we just studied show an additional role of the altar not commonly spoken of: executive judgement. The altar actually addresses a duality of the ministry of Christ as both the sacrificial Lamb and righteous Judge. Repeatedly these two roles are set before us. Passover, for example, is most importantly about the families saved by the blood of the lamb. But for those who do not apply the blood, there is the angel of death. Christ as the Rock says of Himself, “And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder” (Matthew 21:44).
John 3:36 – He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.
The altar, first and foremost is about salvation by the substitutionary death of the Son of God. But, for those that reject God’s offer of mercy, the altar alternatively represents death by fire from God. This duality is demonstrated in Zechariah 9:9-15. Verses 9-12 are powerful messianic verses of the peaceful first coming of Christ. They speak of Jesus riding a donkey and the invitation of peace to the nations and setting prisoners free. But by verse 14, the passage transitions to God defending His people from their enemies and draws upon the imagery of the altar.
Zechariah 9:14-15 – Then the Lord will be seen over them, and His arrow will go forth like lightning. The Lord God will blow the trumpet, and go with whirlwinds from the south. The Lord of hosts will defend them; they shall devour and subdue with slingstones. They shall drink and roar as if with wine; they shall be filled with blood like basins, like the corners of the altar.
What are the implications of seeing the altar as inclusive of executive judgment?
Consider Revelation 6 where the altar is depicted in the fifth seal. The souls under the altar ask, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” If you only view the altar as redemption, it may be difficult to understand its use in this passage. Whereas, from the perspective of executive judgment it is clear that the altar is symbolically calling for a response from God on the wicked for the unjust martyrdom of the faithful.
The ministry of Christ as Judge should not be lost on us. The nature of the ministry of Christ was misunderstood by Israel when He came into Jerusalem riding on a donkey. Israel at that time expected a conquering king. There is a very real concern that those looking for Christ today, while focused on the Lamb only, don’t realize that He is coming the second time wielding a rod of iron (Revelation 19:15). The sacrificial death on Calvary is a ministry Christ bore on His shoulders alone, and the act of final executive judgment is also one He will bear alone.
Isaiah 63:2-3 – Why is Your apparel red, and Your garments like one who treads in the winepress? “I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with Me. For I have trodden them in My anger, and trampled them in My fury; their blood is sprinkled upon My garments, and I have stained all My robes.”
The altar service is meant to show that the offering brought to be burned represented Christ who took the penalty for our sin. We deserve to be judged and condemned by fire, but Christ is our substitute and bore that penalty for us. By accepting Jesus as our personal Savior, we do not receive the executive judgement of God. This awesome truth of love and mercy is our commission to warn the world. The everlasting gospel is the solution to the injustice and suffering seen in this world. When each of us meets the Lord of Creation at the altar may it be as Ruth did with Boaz at the threshing floor. Let it be a meeting for eternal union, to be covered by His mantle, His character, for salvation.
For additional study on this aspect of the altar, the following ideas are presented for consideration.
Consider the third angel’s message of Revelation 14. Verse 11 speaks in the executive judgment language of the smoke of their torment ascending forever. This is a reference from Isaiah 34.
Isaiah 34:6-10 – The sword of the Lord is filled with blood, it is made overflowing with fatness, with the blood of lambs and goats, with the fat of the kidneys of rams. For the Lord has a sacrifice in Bozrah, and a great slaughter in the land of Edom. The wild oxen shall come down with them, and the young bulls with the mighty bulls; their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust saturated with fatness.” For it is the day of the Lord’s vengeance, the year of recompense for the cause of Zion. Its streams shall be turned into pitch, and its dust into brimstone; its land shall become burning pitch. It shall not be quenched night or day; its smoke shall ascend forever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; no one shall pass through it forever and ever.
In the above passage there is sacrificial language preceding the reference of smoke ascending forever. Traditionally the mention of fat and kidneys draws the mind to the sacrifices that are the shadow of the death of Christ on the cross (Leviticus 3; Exodus 29:13, 22). But there are other times, as in Isaiah 34, where the language of sacrifice alternatively may be the language of execution against the wicked (Zephaniah 1:7-8; Jeremiah 46:10).
The connection between Korah’s judgment and the altar has been made in the article above. Consider also that the judgment of Korah has allusions to the final judgment. Lucifer is chained to the bottomless pit for the duration of the millennium, similar to the pit of the earth in the story of Korah. After the millennium, the wicked are consumed by fire from God, similar to the fire from God destroying the remaining rebels with Korah (Revelation 20).
Finally, consider how the altar was inaugurated by God. Each instance is essentially the same, whether it was the altar in the wilderness, the altar of the Sanctuary at Jerusalem or the altar built by Elijah on Mount Carmel. Repeatedly the signature is fire from God, usually out of Heaven (Leviticus 9:22-24; 1 Chronicles 21:26; 2 Chronicles 7:1-3; 1 Kings 18:38-39). Interestingly however, the first and last time in the Bible that fire is described as coming from God out of Heaven pertains not to the altar, but rather the destruction of Sodom and the final end of the wicked (Genesis 19:24; Revelation 20:9). This is no coincidence.