The New, Final Altar
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Hebrews 13:10 (Holman) We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle do not have a right to eat.
The temple altar, at the very heart of Old Testament worship, reminded people of their sins, and pointed to God’s ordained remedy for them. At the altar, sin was dealt with based on substitution and the shedding of innocent blood.
Worship is never acceptable without an altar. When early believers did not have a visible altar, pagans often said they had no God, and labeled them atheists.
Our writer refuted this accusation by claiming, “We have an altar.” What is the Christian altar? Jesus’ death at Calvary. His substitution totally satisfied God. No more blood sacrifices are required. Jesus is the only altar we need.
Hebrews 13:11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy of holies by the high priest as a sin offering are burned outside the camp.
Temple sacrifices were usually offered on the altar daily. The ultimate sin-offering was offered once a year on the Day of Atonement. The blood of a sacrificed animal settled accounts for sins people had committed the previous year.
The bodies of these annually sacrificed animals were not put on the altar, as daily sacrifices were, but were wholly burned “outside the camp” (Leviticus 16:27). They were removed outside the area where Israelites pitched their tents.
Removing the carcasses of these ultimate, once-a-year sacrifices outside the camp, away from the tabernacle, its ritual, and its priests, foretold God’s ultimate once-for-all sacrifice would be offered not at the temple altar, but away from it.
Hebrews 13:12 Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the gate, so that He might sanctify the people by His own blood.
“Gate” in verse 12 corresponds with “camp” in verse 11. After the wilderness wandering, Jerusalem became Israel’s geographic symbol.
As the Old Testament’s ultimate sin offering was offered outside the camp, even so Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem (John 19:20). His being sacrificed away from the temple and its altar is important for at least three reasons.
One, Jesus suffered outside the gate to show the temple altar was no longer needed. Its merit had ended. To keep from defiling the soil of a city, criminal deaths were always performed outside its walls.
God ordained that His Son would be executed as a criminal, thereby assuring He would die outside Jerusalem, away from Judaism’s religious center. In this way the Father moved our thoughts away from the temple altar.
Two, Jesus suffered outside the gate to picture He became a curse to save us from the curse of our sin. “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, because it is written: Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree” (Galatians 3:13).
The Day of Atonement sin-offerings were burned outside the camp to express how fully God accepted the transfer of guilt from sinners to innocent substitutes. In God’s eyes, the sinner became innocent because the substituted victim became totally filled with sin.
The carcasses were, to God, saturated with evil, too full of sin to remain close to His people. The carcasses were so guilt-laden that they had to be carried outside the camp, to the place of rejection, to the region beyond religious respectability. Similarly, Jesus’ death outside the gate pictured His rejection by all.
Jesus died not on a golden candlestick between two priests inside a beautiful sanctuary, but on a cross between two thieves outside the gate. On an ugly cross, between unholy men, outside the holy city, on profane dirt, Jesus became the incarnation of sin itself. God “made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
This explains Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane. He dreaded becoming the vileness He hated, but was willing to endure the curse that we might enjoy the blessing.
Nothing was beyond His love for us ( being spat on, beaten, mocked, taken outside the city, unclothed, numbered with thieves, crucified. Jesus was willing to bear shame to the nth degree in our behalf.
Three, Jesus suffered outside the gate to picture the benefits of His death are not confined to Israel. They extend to the whole world. Jesus used His cross as a stake to claim all the world for Himself.
Jesus was crucified on a crossroads where passersby were so diverse that the inscription above His head had to be written in three languages, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. This multilingual inscription bore eloquent, though unintentional, testimony to the universal appeal of Jesus’ sacrifice.
Inside Jerusalem, Israelites held priority. Outside the gate Jews and Gentiles stood on common ground as sinners. Each equally needed a Savior.
Jesus died where He was needed most, outside the gate, beyond Jerusalem and the temple wall, in the realm of the outcast, where Samaritans, Barbarians, and Gentiles stayed. People who had been treated as second class citizens could now become first class saints.
Jesus came where we were to let us go where He is. His death outside Jerusalem’s gate opened Heaven’s gate to all who repent.